How to Broach Religion Without Starting a Brawl

Photo by: Beatrice Murch (Flickr)

The thing about the brilliant rapper Nas is that, well, sometimes he can be an idiot.

Now I don't exempt anyone from occasional idiocy. We're all ignorant or stupid about something. But if you're famous, and in Nas's case, one of the rap game's GOATs (Greatest of All Time), any imbecilic moment you have is probably gonna get blown up. Doubtless it's unfair, but such is life.

As an aficionado frozen in hip-hop's Golden Age, I kiss the ground that guys like Nas walk on. Nas especially. I have all his albums. I can recite 85 percent of his lyrics in my sleep. In high school I made a painting whose negative space spelled out N-A-S. 99 percent sure I'm the only guy in the whole world to put Street's Disciple on pre-order. Basically, I worship the guy.

Having said all that, Nas is still human. He's prone to making human mistakes, fucking up every now and then, losing an offensive amount of money, saying shit in his songs that make you want to retire rap as a genre:

"…The galaxy is so enchantin' beyond Galileo's understandin'/ Past the Milky Way and all the planets/ There's something out there greater, but only God knows/ Scientists claim we came from apes but they lies though…"


This is a man with a thousand nicknames. Nasty Nas, Nas Escobar, Esco, Nastradamus, God's Son, Street's Disciple, the Don, etc. etc. Let’s go ahead and add another to that list: the Creationist.

How it Went for Me

I bring up Nas because the other day I’m at a party with some friends discussing hip-hop's GOATs. When Nas's name comes up, the above lines pop into my head. I want to say, as legendary, dope and influential as Nas might be, sometimes the man can just be straight stupid.

But I have to be careful. In referencing the "Scientists claim we came from apes but they lies though" line, I'm presupposing the inextricable marriage of Genesis literalism with rational retardation. I'm at a place where other human beings have convened; there are bound to be religious folks present. How do I say my piece while keeping the peace? I don't want to be the guy who bashes religion at a social gathering and single-handedly massacres the mood. What to do, what to do.

It's an ongoing problem atheists encounter: how to make religious people see that they're idiots and we're brilliant and always right.

I'm kidding. No, the real problem we're faced with is how we can criticize religion like we'd criticize a bad movie. Nobody tries to beat you if you say, "The Blindside sucked, and here's why…" But bring up your God, his God, her God, etc. and who the fuck knows what's gonna happen.

All this is going through my head at the party. I really have no idea how best to crowbar in my two cents. Fuck it. I take the small risk. I preface my imminent Creationism-equals-stupidity implication with "I'm not trying to bash religion or offend anyone, but…" and then I go for it.

I say that Nas is dope and one of my all-time favorites, but some of the shit he says is insane. I drop the above line—he's saying evolution is bullshit—for proof. Then I wait for the response.

It turns out every single guy and girl in the room has Twitter and is following the Pope to shave time off purgatory. Oops! They all proceed to beat the shit out of me with their hands and legs and various household appliances. I stand here today a broken man, literally; I've got a lame leg, left-side-of-the-body paralysis and I breathe exclusively through my mouth now.

Another joke. No, it turned out nobody involved in the GOAT discussion was that religious. One girl even flat out declared she was an atheist. We went on to state our different viewpoints on religion, everyone mostly agreeing that it's some combination of nonsense and brainwash, and people are idiots and don't know how or don't want to think for themselves. Eventually the conversation veered into something else and by the end of the night, it was actually a very pleasant experience.

The next day I'm thinking to myself, “Wow, that went well. Surprisingly well. I brought up evolution versus Creationism and nobody got stabbed.” But I can't help but wonder, what if the alternative had played out? What if the party was chockablock with Muslim fundamentalists wielding AKs and strap-ons (bombs, people, not the other thing), just waiting for someone to blaspheme the one true religion of peace?

All right, that's probably a little extreme. But the idea's there. Because we've all been in that position. We've all wanted to broach the topic of religion at one point or another, but maybe chickened out for fear of offending, being crucified, setting the mood ablaze, blighting any chance we might've had to get laid, etc. Earlier this year I went out with two girls who turned out to be hardcore Catholics. I broached, they pushed, I kicked and before you know it, we were throwing knives, aiming for the throat with our every word. By the time the check came there was so much animosity in the air it's a wonder nobody choked on somebody else's hatred.

Walking on Eggshells

Maybe the same has happened to you. I know in my case I've got a little too much of that Larry David/George Costanza influence directing me. Yes, Elaine thanked Julie for the big salad even though George paid for it. Sure, George could let it go. How hard is it not to broach? Don't broach. Why broach? Who needs to broach? I don't see any point in the broach. But my man George Costanza, this remarkable, amazing god of a specimen, cannot not broach. He has to broach. After all, he paid for the big salad. And thus, thanks and gratitude should find their way to him, the buyer, not Julie, the mere handover-er. He's considered crazy, and the episode hilarious, because most people wouldn't try to correct such an innocent mistake. Most people. But George is the CEO of that third of a percent comprising the other side. Sure he's in that slivered minority, but does that mean he shouldn't say how he feels? Just because his sentiments aren't shared by everyone else, he's got to hold back and keep mum on the very important issue of who rightly deserves thanks for a big salad?

This parallel rings true for atheists. It's not right that we shouldn't have our own say in public settings, no matter what the unwritten rules of propriety dictate. Censoring ourselves to appease someone else's sensitive nature is ridiculous. We're supposed to treat beliefs, especially of the religious and spiritual kind, with a certain sanctified respect; it's clear they're the eggshells of topical conversation we're supposed to tiptoe around. Well, I say fuck it. Crush them all against your foot if you have to. They're just flimsy, little shells.

BUT, and this is a big "but," the intention shouldn't be to piss people off just for the sake of it. That's immature and childish and there's a very nice place for that on the YouTube comments scroll. It's still important to exercise tact and etiquette should the opportunity for broaching at a social gathering present itself. Don't kill the party's proverbial boner with that "You're all fucking idiots! Every last one of you!" speech. It's not cool and I promise, your friend stock will bottom out overnight.

So here's what I've done: to prevent the above from happening I've composed a step-by-step list of what I believe to be the best way to go about broaching in a public setting. Like I said, we've all been in that situation in which we wanted to criticize religion, but maybe censored ourselves completely, or at least bowdlerized to the point of self-deprecation for having compromised such fervent beliefs so titanically. It's time to get over that hump, people, in such a way that you don't come off like a total prick, but at the same time you get your whole point across without sacrificing any integrity.

How to Broach the Topic of Religion at a Social Gathering without Starting a Brawl:

  1. Assess your present company's god barometer. Who's in the room? Are you dealing with like-minded atheists, or Jews that have to employ the buddy system when using the toilet? How religious are the religious? Who's a cherry picker and who's the Managing Editor for Jehovah Witness Weekly? Try to find out the basics. That way you know who's a friend, who's in the opposition, and who's gonna want your balls on a platter once you start shitting on his/her beliefs.

  2. Evaluate the relationship value of the people most likely to be offended. Is it a hopeful lover? Your Uncle Joe? A friend of a friend of a friend whom you're never gonna see again, who's already rubbed you the wrong way in the 30 minutes since you've met? The more you care about these people, the more tactful you're gonna have to be when telling them their beliefs should be institutionalized.

  3. Hone your objective. Remember, you're not planning to opine about why you still think Jeremy Lin is more valuable than Carmelo Anthony; you can't just blurt out the first thing that enters your mind. This is religion we're talking about. You must ask yourself what exactly it is you want to say, and why. Are you bringing religion up out of the blue or did someone at the gathering do something to warrant a broach? If it's because the girl next to you prayed before eating, it's probably not worth it. But if that same girl told everyone to hold hands and recite the Lord's Prayer before digging into his/her salmon rolls, then you've got a real motive.

  4. Write a strong preface. Clearly state that is not your intention to offend or create any discord, "but having said that…" and then proceed to step 5.

  5. Start out light. Feel your way around the topic. When you're with a woman you don't just dive right into her goddess pool. You kiss first. You touch. You caress. It's important to warm up to the Big Exchange. The same should apply at a social gathering. Don't just say, "You Jews have the cuntiest beliefs." No. Definitely not. Instead, say something like, "Beliefs can be strange sometimes, huh? Like the no-eating-pork thing." Direct, but light. And just as importantly, it creates the space for critical thinking. Hmm, 'beliefs can be strange sometimes.' Which beliefs? How do I feel about that? You've wedged in your opinion without going in for the straight up onslaught.

  6. Wait for the feedback. Listen from a place of "Is this person actually thinking critically about what I just said, or is he/she in defense-mechanism mode?"

  7. Respond strongly, purposefully, while respecting the people opposing you. This doesn't mean you need to respect their beliefs. As Daniel Dennet said, "There is no polite way to suggest to someone that they have devoted their life to a folly." And he's absolutely right. But be conscious of the difference. Remember, the goal is to shit on their beliefs, not on them.

    This is where you're gonna throw the touchdown pass. You've set everything up beautifully until now. All the pieces are in place. Here's where you do it big. Articulate your stance. Be passionate, be charismatic—but don't get emotional. That last part is so important I'll say it again: don't get emotional. DON'T GET EMOTIONAL. Nothing kills a party vibe faster than intense negative emotion. Be passionate, be charismatic, be in control.

  8. Learn how to segue. Understand when the conversation is on its last limb, then apply a seamless transition into another topic (preferably something that's lighter and more fun). No doubt this is easier said than done. I suggest trying to find content in the conversation you can direct elsewhere.

    For example, when I brought up the Nas evolution-is-bullshit line at the party last week, we ended up getting into deep water about religious and spiritual beliefs. This lasted a while, and when I was ready to switch topics I brought the conversation back to Nas and said, "Speaking of rap…" This was my segue. We spent the next few minutes discussing music and never returned to religion.

    It's important that you are the one to steer the conversation elsewhere; in that way you get to be both “broacher” and closer. Socially speaking, that's a very powerful position to be in, since you're the one dictating the flow of each conversation, the overall mood of the atmosphere. Essentially this is assurance against the outbreak of any potential riot or brawl.

  9. Go seek. Once again the social gathering is at equilibrium. Now's the time to find all the people who got heated during the religion talk and speak to them individually. Say whatever you need to say to diffuse any bad feelings they may be holding onto. You can say anything from "It was nothing personal," to "I still respect you as a person," to "Why don't we go back to my place and make love to counter all this hate," etc.

  10. Tell yourself you're the shit, and enjoy the rest of your party. There's a reason we're supposed to avoid topics like religion and politics at social gatherings. It's almost impossible to go through the tunnel and come out the other end with your emotion, your dignity, your ligaments still intact. As an atheist you're in the overwhelming minority; you're hated and feared and despised almost everywhere you go, and still you've just defied all the rules and succeeded in broaching the topic of religion without starting a brawl.

That, my friend, deserves a toast. (But not literally. Please don’t actually toast to yourself at the party.)

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