Speaking about Religion

Speaking about Religion January 10, 2015

I am teaching a class this semester which focuses on speaking about religion. It will focus on integrating (1) effective communication, (2) the skills that pertain to finding accurate information about religion, and (3) navigating the controversies about religion in the present day. The “readings” for the course will all be recordings of people speaking. And I also want to start the course off on the first day with some short examples of people talking about religion in different ways, to address the fact that speaking persuasively does not always mean that you are being accurate. I’m tempted to offer this famous individual as an example:


Speaking is something interesting to experience independently not only of content but of linguistic comprehension. When I was in San Diego in November, the taxi driver that took me from the airport was listening to something. Another person who was also in the taxi with me suggested it might be a sermon from a mosque. I could tell it wasn’t Arabic, but wasn’t sure what it was, and so I looked at the radio display, and saw that it said it was the Epistle to the Hebrews in Amharic, the language spoken in Ethiopa. And so the taxi driver was a Christian, not a Muslim. Christianity and Islam sound different to many Americans, because they associate the former with English and the latter with Arabic. But put the two in a language you don’t know – especially one that has similarities with Arabic – and you won’t necessarily hear any difference between them at all. (Have a listen to the Amharic Bible here to get a sense of what we heard). It is also interesting that the “letter” to the Hebrews in a Semitic language sounds like a sermon.

At the end of this post, you’ll find some examples of people speaking about religion. I’m thinking of using at least some of the videos as starting points for discussion. The substantive focus will be around topics of religious controversy: violence, freedom of expression, evolution, abortion, the existence of God, the impact of religion on society, gender and sexuality, and so on.

But I also want to get at these sorts of questions as well: Which of these individuals are persuasive and effective communicators, and as a result sound convincing? Which are actually offering accurate information? To what extent do those two categories overlap?

I would appreciate suggestions from blog readers of other individuals to include, whether in short clips or as longer assigned viewing, in order to provide a basis for evaluating good speaking, coupled with good and bad content, and poor speaking, coupled with good and bad content, providing examples for students to emulate and to avoid. Who are some of the most persuasive scholars, clergy, politicians, and others that you’ve heard speak about religion? And whom have you heard speak important things about religion in a thoroughly unengaging and unpersuasive manner?

Please note that a couple of the videos contain offensive language including swear words. You may be able to guess which ones just by looking at who the speaker is.


John Green:


Diana Eck:


Billy Graham:



Katherine Jefferts Schori:


William Lane Craig


Paul Knitter:


Joel Osteen:



Desmond Tutu:


Bill Maher:


Westboro Baptist Church:


N. T. Wright:


Genie Scott and Bill Dembski:


Sam Harris and David Wolpe:


Mahmoud Ahmadinejad:


And of course, let’s not forget Bart Ehrman on the Colbert Report.

"Carrier: My argument completely depends on Paul thinking God somehow got sperm from David and ..."

Response to Raphael Lataster
"There are way more linguistic problems with Carrier's silly "cosmic sperm bank" argument than that. ..."

Response to Raphael Lataster
"Thank you for the reply Dr McGrath, I am very much aware, and have read ..."

Response to Raphael Lataster
"Ehrman is an atheist, as was Casey. Both are convinced that mythicism is bunk and ..."

Response to Raphael Lataster

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  • When looking at rhetoric and impact of natural language processing in some Psych classes i have used a similar video of Adolf Hitler, and then this video of a man ‘preaching’ a kids book: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eRqBNTGPa4c

    There are a few interesting cog psych studies done on the relative universalism of linguistic delivery and emotional response, mainly looking at brain activation using EEGs. Quite similar to your observation in the SD taxi.

    I would be interested to hear how your students interpret similarities in rhetoric, and especially how the latter 3 formal categories impact on the first two.

  • Gary

    Ok, curve ball to my untrained ears. Amharic staccato sounds like Japanese to me. Weird.

  • These examples illustrate quite well that the ugliest content can be made to smell like roses with a bit of smooth rhetoric.

    There is much to like and dislike in all of these speakers (it’s always haunting to watch Hitler’s effect on a crowd), but I also found my stomach turning to hear N.T. Wright, in his soft, seemingly reasonable voice, associating the use of the word “marriage” for gay couples to the use of words by nazis and soviets to raise their own status and dehumanize others.

    Wright makes bigotry sound so pleasant and British.