Among normal people (folks who aren’t motivated by violent intentions), most thoughts and acts of religious prejudice arise from ignorance. Some people don’t even realize they are saying something demeaning to another person when they say what they think they know about that person’s religion, or if they talk with an air of superiority about the benefits of their own religion to someone who practices a different one.
Obviously, anyone who has benefited from their religious practice wants to share it with others, especially if we see that those others are suffering in a way we used to suffer. This shows that we have good intentions for our friends or visitors who have expressed any curiosity about our religious practice.
Whether a person is inquiring about your religion because they want to get to know you better or because they want to try it out, you still have to be very careful how you talk to such people. You have to show them that you respect them not only as individuals, but that you respect where they are coming from.
This doesn’t mean you have to crash-course yourself in world religions in anticipation of meeting people of those faiths. What it does mean is that you accept the value of their experience for them, and invite them to share a bit about it with you, so you understand why they have come to ask you questions.
Ask them what they actually want to know. They may have more interest in the religion’s social teachings or the status of women or the religion’s commitment to unity in diversity, than they do about the history of the religion, the founder and central figure, or the specific rituals of daily practice. There will be plenty of time and opportunities to discuss these aspects later if they really are seriously considering if this religion feels right for them.
If they don’t have specific questions for starters, give them a brief description of the practice that speaks to what (if anything) they told you about their religious frame of reference. For example, “You said your Zen practice focuses on silent meditation to cultivate self-discipline. In Nichiren Buddhism, our practice is more action-oriented: We chant Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo with the intention of improving not only our own lives, but supporting others in their personal development.”
If you are a Baha’i talking to a Christian, you can say something like, “Baha’is see the world religions as a continuum, which we call progressive revelation. Jesus was an important part of that continuum. Baha’is believe that Baha’u’llah is the Messenger of God for this age.”
These two examples show respect for the other person’s beliefs, without agreeing with them or putting them down. Since you’re neither agreeing nor disagreeing, you don’t compromise your own representation of yourself or of your religion in any way; it’s not a “sell-out” to respect another person’s viewpoint that is different from yours.
It’s also important to bear in mind that if someone comes to your church, temple, mosque, shul, or community center, that does not automatically mean they are ready to discard whatever religious tradition or customized spiritual practice they have done up until the day they come to your door. If they have been Christian their entire life, for example, even if they are currently considering Buddhism or the Baha’i Faith or a New Age spiritual path, they probably won’t take kindly to condescending comments about the religion that shaped who they are today, and which obviously played a valuable role in their life for them to have practiced it for so long.
Please, please, please don’t tell them they are “wrong.” Few people are going to respond positively and want to keep conversing with you if you tell them their silent sitting meditation or their worshiping the Holy Trinity is a bunch of hogwash and your religious practice is where it’s really at. If you do that, you’ll more likely reverse-advertise for your faith—Painting you and your people as arrogant and lacking tact and wisdom.
Always remember the importance of first impressions.