Last week, Randy Cohen, “The Ethicist” at the New York Times, asked that very question:
Etiquette holds that religion, especially another person’s religion, should be treated with deference or, better still, silence by nonbelievers. Hence the familiar dinner-party injunction: don’t discuss religion or politics. Even at a table full of co-religionists, feelings can run high, and there is a reluctance to combine digestion with discord (particularly where knives are nearby). To the observant, a nonbeliever’s comments on church doctrine can feel less like a discussion of theology than a personal attack.
Yet despite the risk of provoking the ire of believers, we should discuss the actions of religious institutions as we would those of all others—courteously and vigorously. This is a mark of respect, an indication that we take such ideas seriously. To slip on the kid gloves is condescending, akin to the way you would treat children or the frail or cats.
If only Cohen would follow his own advice. Instead of discussing the actions of religious institutions “courteously and vigorously” and taking “such ideas seriously,” however, Cohen suggests something altogether discourteous and unserious: that the Vatican’s recent decision to grant Anglicans a personal ordinariate within the Catholic Church was tantamount to “bigotry.” Later, Cohen complains that more news sources did not “castigate the Vatican’s invitation to misogyny and homophobia.”
But does childishly and dismissively admonishing the Vatican for its supposed appeal to misogynic and homophobic Anglicans really amount to “talking about religion”? I can’t see how it does. I’m supportive of much of what Cohen has to say here. The media do shy away from stories on religion for fear of appearing ignorant. And our society would benefit from more vigorous and substantive discussion of the religious tenets and traditions on which this country was founded.
But it seems to me that instead of wanting to “talk about religion”—instead of investigating and writing about the historical and theological causes and implications of the latest religious headline—what Cohen really wants is the freedom to unfairly and reflexively beat religious institutions he doesn’t agree with or doesn’t understand with the stick closest at hand.
So, yes, let’s talk about religion. But let’s do it in a way that is reflective and thoughtful and doesn’t simply repeat hackneyed and unhelpful stereotypes.