What to avoid when talking about your religion

The January/February, 2012, issue of The Humanist contains an article by Jennifer Hancock titled “Seven Things To Avoid When Talking to Strangers about Humanism” (pp. 39, 41). Here’s her list:

“1. Don’t expect a negative reaction….
“2. Don’t begin a debate….
“3. Keep your definition of humanism simple….
“4. Don’t talk about God….
“5. Don’t make it about them….
“6. Don’t denigrate religion — any religion….
“7. Don’t forget to talk about morality….”

While Unitarian Universalism is not equivalent to humanism, despite a few assertions to the contrary, nevertheless these little suggestions work reasonably well for us Unitarian Universalists as well. Here are seven things to avoid talking about when talking about Unitarian Universalism.

“Don’t expect a negative reaction.” — I might word this a little differently: “Assume the other person is merely curious.” Maybe for some Unitarian Universalists, the default reaction to a discussion of religion would be negative, but in our increasingly secular society more and more people have no default reaction, positive or negative, towards religion. They’re just curious.

“Don’t begin a debate.” — This could be stated less politely as: “Don’t be so damned defensive.” Turning innocent questions about religion into debates is just going to alienate others.

“Keep your definition of Unitarian Universalism simple.” Lots of us have been practicing our “elevator speeches” describing Unitarian Universalism in a ten-second sound bite. Elevator speeches actually do work; if you don’t have one yet, maybe now’s the time to develop one.

“Don’t talk about God.” It turns out that most people aren’t that interested in having theological discussions about whether or not God exists, and if God does exist what is the nature of God. When we asked our Mormon friend about her church, she told us about the people and programs, not about theology. When someone asks me about my Unitarian Universalist congregation, I tell them about the amazing Sunday services, the great people who are part of the congregation, the fun that the kids have in Sunday school, the social justice work that we do; there’s never time to even get to God.

“Don’t make it about them.” If someone wants to ask us about Unitarian Universalism, they don’t really want us to tell them how much their religion (or lack of religion) sucks. After we’re done talking about your religion, if they want to talk about their religious affiliation (or lack thereof), we can politely listen. But if they ask us about Unitarian Universalism, it is wise to take their question quite literally, assume they actually want us to tell them about Unitarian Universalism, and then simply tell them.

“Don’t denigrate religion — any religion.” Denigrating religion either makes us look like schmucks, or it makes us look weird, or possibly both. Denigrating someone else’s religion? — that makes me look like the kind of schmuck who can’t tell you about the positive aspects of their religion so their only option is to badmouth all other religions. And if I claim to be Unitarian Universalist, which means I’m by definition religious, but I’m denigrating religion? — that’s just plain weird.

“Don’t forget to talk about ethics and morality.” In my experience, most people who ask about my religion are really quite interested in what sort of ethics and morality goes along with my religion. When I tell people that Unitarian Universalists aren’t particularly worried about what you believe, but we are concerned with what you do with your life, that we are always trying to make this world a better place, particularly for those who are poor or powerless — this kind of thing is of great interest to people.

So there you have it, modified from Jennifer Hancock’s original article: seven things to avoid when talking about Unitarian Universalism.

3 thoughts on “What to avoid when talking about your religion”

  1. Your advice is very good. My UU humanist friends are very sincere, but they spend an inordinate amount of time discussing what is wrong with religion. Their negative attitude does antagonize others. I will recommend that they read your blog.

  2. Thanks for this great post! I would also suggest these tips as a guide for UUs communicating online (mostly bloggers and Twitter ‘evangelists’). Folks should stop being so defensive, but especially, stop being so darn negative! “Denigrating religion either makes us look like schmucks, or it makes us look weird, or possibly both.” Well said.

  3. Very good and helpful. Inquiries about the UU are usually followed by the more specific next question. Do UU believe in ??? God, Jesus,the bible, prayer, and how. The problem with so many UUs is they have no theological, spiritual nor academic positions on these question. Negative answers do not help young UU people who are in school, business or social settings where they need peer group belonging. Liberal theological academics more than just an elevator speech are needed for youth to secure their place in a social settings. How many of us other than the leaders have this?

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