A couple years ago some good friends were visiting, and in the middle of a conversation about health, the wife injected her religious beliefs about medical procedures into the conversation ... and the conversation stopped. Nobody knew what to say. As a scientific-type guy, I knew her assertion was simply wrong, and had been proved wrong by scientific experiments. But as a polite host, I couldn't exactly say, "No, your religion is mistaken about that, your beliefs are false."
When religion comes up in social situations, it's as though you're in a boxing ring, and just before the first round, the ref tells you, "Oh, by the way, you can't hit your opponent, you might hurt him!" And just as you are replying that a good honest boxing match is pretty much why you're here, the bell rings and the fight starts...
That's the position many agnostics and atheists face any time they try to have an open, fair and honest debate with theists. For some reason, it's considered a huge faux pas to challenge them outright, to tell someone that you believe their religion is simply wrong. It's like being in a boxing match where you're prohibited from landing a punch.
Why is this? Why is it OK to tell someone their political beliefs are misguided, or that their sports team is a bunch of losers, or that your town is better than their town, but you're not allowed to say anything bad about their religion?
Most of our beliefs are fair game for a good argument. Intelligent people like to debate, and among friends it's not considered bad manners to challenge one another, even sometimes vigorously. It's part of what makes modern democracies work so well, and of what makes life interesting.
But not religions. They're off limits. You'd have no problem telling a good friend, "Your Republican President started a cruel war," or, "Your Democratic President was immoral!" But tell a Christian, "Your God started a cruel war," or "You Catholics have immoral priests," and suddenly you are the pariah. Not God, or the Catholic priests, but you.
It's really an unfortunate and inappropriate "get out of jail free" card for religions. Legally, they can hide behind "separation of church and state." (See my recent blogs about scientology and Catholic priests.) Financially, they're non-profit corporations, but they're trying to change the law that bans non-profits from politics. And socially, they have this "special protection" that holds them to a different standard of criticism than any other topic.
We shouldn't fall for this. Your religious beliefs and mine should be just as valid a topic for dinnertime debate as the next election or the Superbowl.