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One writer has said that “over the long haul, religious faith has proven itself the most powerful and enduring force in human history.” If this is true — and we believe it is — recent findings from the Pew Research Center about how rarely people today talk about faith are puzzling if not troubling.
A new Pew survey on religion in everyday life says U.S. adults seldom (33%) or never (16%) talk about religion with people outside their family. Furthermore, four in ten say they seldom (26%) or never (13%) discuss religion even with members of their immediate family.
Although Pew doesn’t tell us why people aren’t talking about faith, it’s easy to speculate. We generally avoid controversial topics (such as politics, money or religion) at the dinner table. But this can be problematic because if believers aren’t talking faith with family and friends — especially with those who aren’t religious — we leave the door of misunderstanding wide open.
Mormon apostle David A. Bednar has encouraged Latter-day Saints to “sweep the earth with messages filled with righteousness and truth — messages that are authentic, edifying and praiseworthy.” More reasonable and civil messages and conversations about faith could mean more awareness of the tremendous contribution religions make to society — for both individual empowerment and community strength.
At the individual level, CNN’s David Gregory, a Jew, and US Vice President Joe Biden, a Catholic, have both commented movingly in public about how their faith influences them — especially as a guiding, calming force in time of loss.
“It has been faith that steadied me,” Gregory wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed after losing a coveted job on a prominent television program. “The humbling loss turned out to be a gift, because I have seen how many fresh opportunities for growth and happiness await — even if it hasn’t gone according to my plan. Most plainly, I understand: In joy, pain and even in personal failure, God is close.”
And Vice President Biden, who lost his first wife and a daughter in 1972 to a car accident and a son in 2015 to brain cancer, has said his religion brings “an enormous sense of solace. … All the good things that have happened, have happened around the culture of my religion and theology of my religion. I don’t know how to explain it more than that. It’s just the place you can go.”
At the community level, studies show religion is the strongest predictor of generosity, altruism, trust and civic involvement among Americans. At the 2016 National Prayer Breakfast, President Barack Obama asked those present to “think about the extraordinary work of the congregations and faith communities represented here today. Whether fighting global poverty or working to end the scourge of human trafficking, you are the leaders of what Pope Francis calls ‘this march of living hope.'”
These comments suggest both how to talk about faith and the core values religion fosters in individuals and society — including fortitude, compassion and love.
When many people are talking less of God, these are a few prominent and recent examples worth noting. Part of preserving and strengthening religion’s critical role in society is to cultivate an atmosphere where reasonable and civil religious discussion is commonplace.