Civil Conversations About Faith: A Sociolinguist’s View

By Dr. Linda Sauer Bredvik

To paraphrase Nietzsche—is religion dead, and have we killed it? Contrary to predictions by sociologists and political scientists in the mid 1900s, “postmodernity has not led to the end of religion; rather, the globalizing world has provided new ways of doing religion and being religious” (Mooney 2010: 337).  In an increasingly pluralized and media-saturated America, one way of doing religion has come to mean strident and acrimonious speech, often linking religious differences with American political differences, which is then amplified by social media, pernicious news commentators, and divisive politicians.

Increasingly, though, other voices have begun calling for a return to civil religious discourse at the national, political level as well as at a grassroots level. And this raises the question of how to create a civil and productive discussion about religion in very practical, everyday terms and places—between people of different faiths and even different languages in neighborhoods, in the public square, and, particularly, on social media platforms where virulent religious discourse has run rampant. How do we talk effectively about what we believe with someone who believes differently?

At a national political level, much of the recent discussion has focused on the very different approaches to religion by the former and current presidents. Many pundits have asked how Joe Biden’s approach to his faith (in contrast to Donald Trump) might help rebuild a civil discourse. David Gibson notes there is a public acceptance and even sympathy for Biden’s form of Catholicism which “may also signal a hunger among Americans for a genuine civil religion, one that unites rather than divides.1

Pope Francis, in a 2015 address to Congress, made a plea that functions well at both the national and grassroots level; he called for an end to “the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and the sinners.” One faith group, or even one denomination within a faith group, does not have the monopoly on truth or goodness.

A vital second step is to cease to see everyone else as the problem and realize that “ultimately, everyone bears a responsibility for the religious divides and polarization in America.” John C. Danforth, a Republican Episcopal priest, and Matt Malone, a Democratic Catholic priest, note in a commentary for the Wall Street Journal that: “As long as the cause of the problem is someone else, then nothing can be done. But those who acknowledge how they contribute to the problem can begin to imagine how they can create a better culture.”

They go on to suggest how a Christian tradition—exchanging of the peace before the solemn Eucharistic liturgy—can serve as a practical model for overcoming polarization. In church, congregants turn to one another and say “The peace of the Lord be always with you.” This wish for peace for a fellow human being is shared, in some form, by most faiths. Muslims, when greeting one another, say: “As-salamu alaykum” (Allah’s peace be upon you). At the end of a Sabbath service and particularly during the kiddush, the semi-social gathering after a service, Jews shake hands and wish one another “Shabbat Shalom.” In a secular setting, it can simply be: “I wish you well” or “I greet you as a friend.” Danforth and Malone point out that this could transform the tone of religion in political discussions. “By showing we are disposed to listen as well as to speak, it would make possible real dialogue” in the age of social media where we typically talk at rather than with one another.

In very concrete terms, what does this willingness to listen, and dialogue, look like? I conducted ethnographic fieldwork and recorded multiple hours of multilingual interreligious dialogues across several settings to gain a sociolinguistic perspective of people’s linguistic behavior in these conversations. What the analysis showed is that a willingness to listen is conveyed first and foremost by how and where a speaker pauses (or is silent). Silence is not a functional opposite of speech but, rather, performs equally varied communicative functions. Initial fieldwork showed that, contrary to my expectations, complete sentences with longer pauses (greater than one second) at the end of a sentence tended to shut down an existing dialogue and create a rather unproductive monologue. Further detailed analysis of multiple conversations showed that dialogues were most effective when speakers used short pauses (less than one second) between phrases within a sentence, rather than at the end of a statement or question. One Jewish rabbi noted that: “if you give a whole sentence, it sounds a bit like a prepared position whereas, if you are pausing … it may give the impression this is something that is open, unclear and together we are exploring” (Sauer Bredvik 2020: 80).

Photo by Nicole Baster.

Communicatively effective dialogues 2 also rarely contained sentences worthy of a TED Talk; they were instead filled with frequent “ums” and “uhs,” repeated words and half-finished sentences. This disfluency (a linguistic term for any disruption in the flow of spoken language caused by the speaker) is typically seen as a performance error; secondary school teachers and public speaking classes tell us to avoid the use of “uh” and “um” at all costs. And yet, the most effective interreligious conversations are marked by frequent uses of “uh” and “um,” nestled amongst false starts and repeated words. One non-native English speaker laughed when hearing my findings and said: “Here I just thought my English was bad. But I’m actually creating an effective dialogue.” Disfluency, like particular uses of silence and pauses, shows the speaker is more interested in an exchange of ideas or hearing someone else’s perspective than articulately and succinctly presenting only their own point of view.

To put this into practice does require making the effort to get to know someone who believes differently than we do. This may be as “simple” as getting to know someone from a different aspect of your own faith practice—a Pentecostal Christian becoming friends with a Catholic or Orthodox Christian, for example—or as challenging as getting to know someone of a very different faith practice—such as a Hindu becoming friends with a Muslim. What is important to any effectual meeting of people across different faith practices, however, is that each person is allowed to hold onto their own beliefs. People must “respect the fact that different religions have exclusivist beliefs about spiritual realities” and that multifaith conversations cannot be about trying to get anyone to give up their faith convictions. The goal is simply to get to know one another and gain a better understanding of their beliefs and worldviews.

And yet, while the goal may be an understanding of another faith, interviews with multiple participants in the dialogues I investigated showed that people felt participation in these conversations made them better practitioners of their own faith traditions. One British Muslim said: “It makes your own faith more complete” while a French Christian noted: “For me, somehow, interreligious dialogues have something to do with keeping my own faith alive” (Sauer Bredvik 2020: 78).

These interviews and the accompanying data also demonstrated that the linguistic behavior of participants in these dialogues was intended, consciously or subconsciously, to demonstrate hospitality. People were striving to show their willingness to hear about other faiths on the speaker’s terms. Research within the hospitality industry shows that language plays a role in making “hospitality hospitable;” people value and respond when you are able to speak to them in their home language. In the multilingual dialogues I studied, people used any and all languages they “knew” (some at a very fundamental level) to try to share their own faith practices while seeking to understand others’ differing faiths. This sometimes meant clarifying a word or phrase with a colleague who spoke the same language before translating it into the language of the dialogue (usually English or German). At other times, it meant explaining an “untranslatable” word or practice from a language associated with a specific faith practice (Arabic, Hebrew, Sanskrit). Even in dialogues where a single language is more common, it creates a sense of hospitality if you are able to talk authentically about another’s faith practice in connection with your own. One Palestinian Christian participant talked with a Syrian Muslim about how certain verses from the Qur’an informed his own faith practices. One of my dearest Muslim friends talked about how surprised she was to experience an exchange of peace—to her a very Muslim practice—the first time she went to a Catholic service.

(Photo by Randy Labourne)

Current research of online interreligious interactions shows less hospitable behaviors, however. Linguist Stephen Pihlaja has spent years investigating religious conversations, primarily on social media. “Religious Talk Online” (2018) examines a series of videos by three public religious figures (an evangelical Christian, a Muslim, and an atheist) and shows that these encounters tend to be debates or arguments, rather than exchanges of information to build relationships and broaden horizons. Each user plays to their audience to generate support among viewers with whom they are affiliated. “Arguments are by-and-large not nuanced or critical because they are vehicles for establishing and reestablishing existing storylines” (Pihlaja 2018: 156).

His most recent volume, Talk About Faith (2021), continues to look at religious discourse online, as well as in a public debate forum. His findings again show that people tend to position themselves or their faith vis-à-vis other practices within their own faith tradition or other traditions to express their version of truth. However, these public debates, podcasts, and YouTube videos also have market value as entertainment and “conflict, simply speaking, sells” (2021: 187). Two figures in a debate “fight” rhetorically, allowing each side to “subsequently say that the other side has been ‘destroyed’” (ibid.) even when the debate was ostentatiously about understanding and collegiality. Moreover, the market for conflict and drama means that topics for these interactions are frequently chosen for entertainment value with a focus on creating interest; discussions on the deity of Jesus Christ, for example, will generate strong interest between Christians and Muslim but not necessarily mutual understanding (ibid.).

What none of this seems to do, however, is to enable listeners or participants to gain a nuanced appreciation of other faiths (and none) and the people who practice them. Instead, the intent of each is to change the other’s mind regarding the truth of the speaker’s faith practice and the falsity or illogicality of their own, while market forces and online structures favor content that creates, rather than reduces, drama (Pihlaja 2021: 188). Ultimately, Pihlaja (2018: 162) concludes that both a diversity of religious beliefs and the presence of technology are here to stay and “the Internet … simply foregrounds how faiths can no longer be isolated.”

I concur but will conclude by drawing on my most recent research of existing dialogues that have moved to online platforms (Zoom, MS Teams) since the start of the pandemic. Rather than using the Internet to build a personal following, these are groups of people who have already established rapport in face-to-face settings and are now adapting their meeting places. What I observe in these conversations is a continuing deference to others displayed through disfluency and a hospitable use of silence. What is changing is the composition of participants’ silent pauses, which have been modified to adapt to the time lag inherent in online meetings but in ways that still demonstrate a willingness to listen and learn. What one can see from this is that the challenge for civil and hospitable conversations about religion isn’t so much about online platforms but about how and why we use them. Is the goal to “destroy” the opponent or to listen to our opponent as a friend?


Footnotes

1. Civil religion (Rousseau 1762) is one that recognizes the existence of a “mighty, intelligent and beneficent Divinity” but does not recognize an “exclusive national religion.”

2. This research was informed by Interactional Sociolinguistics which seeks, as much as possible, to gain the participants’ understanding of their linguistic behaviors. Semi-structured interviews with participants showed that they view a communicatively effective dialogue as: marked by non-contentious understanding, albeit not necessarily agreement; marked by a lack of desire to change the Other; and one in which all participants are heard and understood on their own terms.


References

Mooney, Annabelle. 2020. “Has God Gone Global? Religion, Language, and Globalization.” In The Handbook of Language and Globalization, edited by Nikolas Coupland, 323-246. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Pihlaja, Stephen. 2021. Talk About Faith. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pihlaja, Stephen. 2018. Religious Talk Online: The Evangelical Discourse of Muslims, Christians, and Atheists. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. 2005 [1762]. The Social Contract: Book IV, Chapter VIII. SparkNotes.com. 2005. Accessed March 2021.

Sauer Bredvik, Linda. 2020. Discussing the Faith: Multilingual and Metalinguistic Conversations About Religion. Berlin: De Gruyter.

Images:

“Together”, photo by Nicole Baster on Unsplash.

“We care”, photo by Randy Laybourne on Unsplash.


About the Author

Dr. Linda Sauer Bredvik is a sociolinguist who researches at the intersection of language and interreligious dialogues. Her ongoing research focuses on multilingual and multifaith conversations between culturally diverse participants, both off- and online, to discover how they negotiate meaning in the face of their multiple diversities. She can be found as PhDcowgirl on Twitter or LinkedIn.


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