Dear Donagh,

Thanks for your website ….My husband never stops arguing about religion.  He argues about it even with people who have no interest in it.  He’s obsessed with it.  Mostly he’s arguing against it but sometimes he’s for it.  He just takes the opposite view every time.  I'm able to deal with it okay, I just walk away or start doing some job around the house.  Luckily he doesn’t talk about it at night, he’s a sound sleeper.  But I'm often embarrassed in front of my friends by him.  I've asked him endlessly to cut it out, but it’s like he’s addicted.  Other people’s husbands get like that about football or golf, but it’s religion with my one.  Can you suggest anything?  Mairéad. 

Dear Mairéad,

I know a few people who seem very like him.  I think it’s better not to engage with such arguments; they only pull you into the same bog hole that he is in.  Your practice of just walking away seems good, provisionally.  If everybody walked away when he argued like that he would have to begin arguing with himself about it.  Then he might come to some conclusion – or at least closure.  His intense interest is bound to lead him somewhere.  Even while refusing to listen to a rant, don’t let him feel isolated.  The real opposite of religion is total lack of interest.  He is interested enough to struggle with it.  He may be coming to something. 

I saw a piece of video on YouTube where two small children were arguing with each other.  One was shouting Yes and the other was shouting No.  Then at some point the lines got crossed and they were both yelling No (the favourite word of small children).  When they realised it, one of them yelled, “I said No first!”  And the other one yelled back, “No, I did!”  A lot of arguments amount to little more than that. 

It doesn’t do religion justice to argue about it.  It is not an argument; it is a whole cluster of things: insight, intuition, faith, hope, love – and more than all of them.  Many times in the course of history people have thought that they had buried religion, but instead it keeps burying its undertakers.  Despite all the social and intellectual revolutions and all the advances in technology – IT particularly - it just doesn’t go away.  This must be very annoying for people who want to get rid of it.  Nor does the opposition to it divide along predictable lines, as if only ignorant people were for it and all intelligent people were against.  Very annoying. 

This is not to deny that there are some very dark and destructive forms of religion.  All decent people around the world are shocked at what Islamic terrorists, for example, are doing in the name of religion.  Violence always does more to destroy religion than to promote it.  But these atrocities make one thing clear: the difference between religion, and ideology wearing the trappings of religion.    

Just as we have to dissociate religion from violence (and historically Christians haven't always done this), we also have to dissociate it from rationalistic systems (and Christians haven't always done this either).  Arguing rationalistically about religion (for or against) is a bit similar to violence, in the sense that it is trying to force religion into a predetermined frame. 

The core of religion is spirituality; it is the life of the spirit.  In other words it engages a different part of the mind.  I mean mind in a broad sense.  Rationalistic people tend to cut the mind down to the rational function alone.  That's what the word ‘rationalism’ means.  If that function by itself could bring us to the truth, there would be no need for poets or prophets, for sages or mystics.  Religion could be fully described in the language of propositional logic.

So, Mairéad, how are you going to referee your husband’s fight with religion?  For a start, you could insist on a few ground rules that referees in boxing insist on: “No holding, No low blows, Step back when I tell you.”  Just as referees insist that the fight should not descend into a brawl, you can insist on a certain standard: you can insist that you are never going to stand there and listen to a one-sided rant.  Explain to him that he is free to believe that all the clergy are a pack of bowsies, but religion is not about them; it is about God and the human spirit.  People don’t give up on politics, for example, just because no politician satisfies them; people don’t even give up on football just because they are disappointed by every team.  Religion isn't a spectator sport. Challenge him to read a few books on the heart of the matter, which is spirituality, rather than repeating the angry things he hears said in the media about the clergy. Suggest that he read Thomas Merton, for example – a man who always wrote directly from experience, not from theoretical positions.  

Whatever happens don’t close off the subject of religion; referees don’t flee the ring.  By struggling with it, your husband may be finding his way towards it. 

Good luck, Mairéad! 

This is our Question and Answer desk. 
We respond to one question each month. 
If you would like to ask a question, please send it to