What we miss when we don’t talk about religion

One of the best panels I was on at Sirens — and one that attracted the most commentary — was the Great Big Interfaith Panel, featuring Gillian Chisom, Kate Elliott, Shveta Thakrar, and myself, with Amy Tenbrink moderating. The panel came about as the result of a conversation with Shveta in the wake of the UNC Chapel Hill shootings, when we discussed the religious schisms in the United States and how faith is the elephant that everyone tiptoes around, but fears to look at directly. The United States is a deeply Christian nation, and it’s also a deeply polarised one. Even as big-A atheists trash people of faith and people attack Sikhs, erroneously believing they’re Muslims, Christians insist that they’re a persecuted minority and Hindus watch their faith appropriated by people who think that bindis are neat. Religion is a hot mess in this country.

We proposed the panel in the context of a conference on women in fantasy, because we both observed that faith plays a nominal role in fantasy. When it appears, it’s usually Christianity Light (no calories!), even though religious faith is the cornerstone of a civilisation. No matter what faith people observe and how they feel about it personally, it’s a guiding feature of culture and society — look at the Christian values that dominate the mores of the United States for an example that may be close to home for many. Or look further afield, to the role that Islam plays in many Middle Eastern governments, or Hinduism in India.

Faith is part of who we are, and it should be part of worldbuilding, we argued on a lively panel during which at times the panelists even managed to (civilly) disagree with each other — I recommended Laini Taylor’s books as an interesting discussion of faith, for example, while Elliott discussed her discomfort with some of the appropriative themes in the text. We talked about His Dark Materials and The Sparrow, about invented faiths and very real ones. We talked about real-world religion and how it plays out in fiction.

And throughout the weekend, people approached me telling me how engaging and interesting they found the panel, how much they wished conversations like this would happen elsewhere, how much they missed a conversation that they hadn’t even known they were missing until they sat down in a conference room full of people with similar interests. Talking with my fellow panelists about it later, I remarked, as I often do, that I don’t feel safe or comfortable discussing faith in public, because discussions about religion often turn vicious and acrimonious — it may surprise some readers to learn that I actually talk about faith all the time on the internet, but only in locked social media accounts with other people on their locked social media accounts, because we’ve seen conversations turn horrible all too quickly too many times in the past.

I am, as many of you know, an atheist. I do not believe in higher powers, I do not believe that we’re here for some greater purpose, and while I do have a strict code of ethics, it’s not rooted in religious values. However, I am not ignorant to the fact that I was raised in the context of a Christian society, and it’s had a profound influence on my school of thought. I also see no reason to trash people of faith, nor do I feel that my personal beliefs — I do not personally believe in g-d — conflict with their own, nor do I feel the need to be an asshole to people who are religious. Shveta is Hindu, but that doesn’t have a bearing on my life directly, any more than Kate’s Judaism does. Live and let live — so long as Gillian doesn’t try to convert me, why should I try to convert her?

I like talking about faith. I like having conversations about religious practice, about the huge spectrum of beliefs across different populations, about culture and how faith influences it. These are conversations that cannot functionally take place in public, which is unbearably frustrating, because they’re conversations that need to happen. When Shveta and I talked in the aftermath of a shooting that very transparently targeted a Muslim family as a consequence of Islamophobic attitudes, we both discussed how hatred and fear of Islam cultivated the situation, made it easy to dehumanise people. When we don’t talk about things, they remain hidden, and they turn into objects of shame instead of simple characteristics about people.

I honestly don’t know how we can safely bring conversations about faith into the light. As I pointed out at the panel, those of us in dominant social positions (Christians, and to some extent atheists) have an obligation and a social role to play when it comes to these conversations — to make sure that they happen, to protect the parties involved, to listen, to avoid throwing our weight around, to speak up when our fellows are behaving in hateful ways. Atheism, I joked, has a ‘Bernie Sanders problem,’ one in which avid followers are vicious about religious faith, thus making the legitimate conversation about atheism almost a moot point because no one really wants to listen to people who are treating them like garbage, just like many people of colour were turned off by a campaign characterised by aggressive followers shouting down racial issues.

We are all in this together, and the way we think about faith has a profound influence on how we interact with each other. If we can’t acknowledge and address that, we’re going to be trapped in spirals of damaging social systems that are impossible to pull out of. On that one day in October, people of varying cultural backgrounds sat down and had a respectful, moderated discussion — we’re all friends, though, which definitely made things more straightforward — but we also modeled the fact that it’s possible to have such conversations, which is something I often doubt when I look at the public world around me.

Image: Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Andrew Moore, Flickr