Miss Manners: Honest conversation about religion requires a step back

June 2, 2013

DEAR MISS MANNERS: I have a genuine fascination with cultures and religions that are not my own. I know it is incredibly rude to pester people about this, so I usually find answers to my questions online or in books.

However, a somewhat close friend of mine shared a mutual curiosity about religion, and we had an interesting conversation about our (very different) faiths. Curious about the concept of Hell, I asked her, “If I was a good person all my life, a kind, giving, completely unselfish person, yet someone who believes differently, would I go to Hell?”

She told me in no uncertain terms that I would. Was this rude of her? Logically, I know I asked for it. But it felt as though she was telling me I was going to Hell for having a different religion.

Should I be offended? Must I avoid the topic of religion at all times in the future? I know that it is a largely personal and inflammatory topic, but I am eager to have open and honest conversations about it. Is this impossible?

GENTLE READER: You should not expect salvation from Miss Manners.

You committed a social sin by pulling a conversational bait-and-switch on your friend. Having proposed a theological discussion, you appeared to be using yourself merely as stand-in for anyone of your views. Then you turned around and took her answer personally.

What was she supposed to say? “Well, yes, most people of your faith will go to Hell, but you’re so good that I’m sure God will make an exception for you”?

So yes, open and honest conversations are impossible if you expect to weigh information to make sure that it is flattering.

DEAR MISS MANNERS: Our family attended a wedding reception where each table had a centerpiece and an envelope asking the wedding guests to contribute toward the young couple’s life together by purchasing the centerpiece. A price tag was attached.

I’m not sure I can take it anymore. We have paid to dance with the bride and groom, waited hours for the wedding party to arrive after a 4:30 p.m. ceremony, only to be served nothing but cheese cubes and chicken wings when they finally showed up, but this one just takes the cake.

I truly wish all of these young people well, and I assume now that our children are older, we will start being invited to more weddings. Is there any way to stop this madness, or should I just send them a card with an appropriate monetary gift and make myself a nice supper instead of attending?

GENTLE READER: For decades now, Miss Manners has been trying to make the point that using weddings as fundraisers is monstrously vulgar. Your experience shows how uphill a fight that is.

You should certainly send your best wishes to anyone who invites you to a wedding. But if you suspect fundraising activity — wish lists are a pretty good indication — you should respond as you would to any charitable event: Go or not as you wish, with no contribution required if you decline.

Visit Miss Manners at her Web site, www.missmanners.com, where you can send her your questions.

, by Judith Martin

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