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How to talk about religion and politics (and why you absolutely should) - Part 1 - Why bother?

This five part series ‘How to talk about religion and politics (and why you absolutely should)’ explores the importance of having difficult conversations about the most controversial and divisive topics. How can we turn the most difficult of interactions into an opportunity to change minds, learn from others and gain a deeper understanding from those who see the world differently from us?

In part 1 we answer “Why would we even bother to do such a silly thing in the first place?!”

If you happened to be in Scotland in 2014 you would be well aware that the rule of etiquette; “Never talk about religion or politics” was temporarily abandoned by most as aimless conversation and chit-chat were replaced with heated talks of currency, oil reserves, and self-determination. The Scottish Independence debate turned every pub, living room, and dinner table into a greek amphitheater, democratic debates surging passionately as Coronation Street played in the background. Politics was present in the lives of the everyday Scot in a way it hadn’t been in two decades. The consequence of which, for many, was the discovery that those we love the most disagree with us vehemently about some of our most core beliefs. Newspaper editorials marking this cultural phenomenon were in abundance, announcing that the referendum debate had divided the nations families:

Scottish referendum: As a nation and a family, we are now a house divided

(Kevin McKenna, The Observer, 19/07/14)

PTSD style nightmares of Vienetta ice cream being launched across dining room tables and screaming Grandparents remain fresh in the mind of many and with the deja vu of the Brexit debate, relationships may only now be starting to mend. It would be no surprise if many anti-union “Yes” voters were secretly pleased when the Supreme Court denied Scotland’s right to call another referendum without Westminster’s approval, if only to avoid another year of tumultuous family dinners.

For some, a moratorium on discussing politics with extended family was enacted after the dust settled on the Independence referendum, and ironically many voters on both sides of the debate adopted a very British sense of stoicism and went back to being well behaved. The conversation returned to the weather, exam results and Britain's Got Talent. Politics was off the table.

We aren’t good at talking about politics. We aren’t good at talking about politics, religion, race, money, sex, conflict and a litany of other controversial topics. And why would we? The downsides are endless, the deeply personal nature of these talking points ensures discussing them is fraught with risk. We could learn something terrible about those we love. We could reveal something terrible about ourselves. Relationships could be shattered. Employment could be risked. We could discover, heaven forbid, that we are wrong about something…

As I see it, there are four reasons why we would be silly enough to place ourselves in such a  risky position:

  1. Beliefs matter

  2. Beliefs inform actions

  3. Actions have consequences

  4. Beliefs can be changed

Let’s consider beliefs about the climate crisis, that is to say that human behaviour has and is leading to unnatural changes in the Earth’s atmosphere, threatening our ability to exist in the way we are accustomed to on the planet. If you believe this, as is the scientific consensus, you are more likely to take action to repair this harm. Conversely if you don’t believe this you are surely less likely to modify your behaviour to benefit the efforts being made by others to do so. Let us consider a third option. You believe that the climate crisis is real, but you are also an Evangelical Christian who believes that the ‘end times’ are coming and therefore we don’t need to do anything about it, because the believers will have been raptured to heaven by this time anyway. That’s 11% of American citizens according to the ‘Yale programme on climate change communication’. Belief’s matter; and they matter because they inform actions. Famous creative, Steve Jobs, the late former head of Apple, died of cancer in 2011, specifically a neuroendocrine tumour. This is a treatable cancer through surgery and chemotherapy with a 60% to 75% survival rate according to Cancer Research UK. Steve Jobs did not survive, sadly. Steve Jobs believed that alternative therapies including juicing and acupuncture would be suitable alternative treatments. They were not. I do however feel the need to put the following quote in from Cancer Research UK which highlights that of course we do not know whether he would have survived had he accepted medical intervention:

By the time Steve finally agreed to surgery, his cancer had spread and was untreatable. There is no way of knowing if delaying conventional treatment made a difference to his utimate outcome, but it’s a decision he reportedly regretted.

(Emma Smith, Alternative Therapies: What’s the harm?, Cancer Research UK, 27/04/15)

Beliefs inform actions and actions have consequences. Yet, beliefs can be changed. Probably not by screaming at each other over trifle at the family dinner table. Or by calling each other Nazis or facists for voting ‘Leave’ in the Brexit referendum over immigration concerns. But beliefs can be changed. You can contribute to the change of other people’s deeply held beliefs, and if you remain open to it, your beliefs may evolve too. Surely we all know that beliefs can be changed, isn’t that why we scream at our parents for voting the way they do? What we don’t all know, is how to do it! Screaming at them lets them know we want them to change, but it’s hardly persuasive. On the contrary it can anchor people into their position through a stubborn refusal to reward your unpleasant behaviour. This behaviour, lecturing someone on a controversial topic becomes competitive. "I’m right, you’re wrong, I’m going to change you." Conversation on the other hand isn’t competitive, it’s collaborative:

Conversation is inherently collaborative, and it creates an opportunity for people to reconsider what they believe and thus potentially change how they act and vote. In-fact, conversation offers you the opportunity to reconsider what you believe and reassess how you should act and vote.

(Boghossian & Lindsay, How to have impossible conversations, p.5)

So let’s start having those conversations. Let’s not give up and mark the most important conversions as untouchable. Instead, let’s learn how to talk together more effectively, with the aim to collaborate on shared understanding, rather than competing for air-time, or attacking deeply rooted beliefs without empathy. Let me start by opening up a truly divisive topic, and I promise to listen with empathy and understanding - Does pineapple belong on Pizza? (No).

In part 2 we ask - Have you already decided you are right and they are wrong?


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