How Not to Learn About a Religion

Periodically, I find myself wanting to learn more about other religions.  It might be a major world religion such as Hinduism, Buddhism, or Islam, or something more obscure, such as what Mormons hold or Seventh Day Adventists.  I am not usually interested in a “deep dive” into the nuts and bolts, just a nodding acquaintance.  But I also want something that does justice to their beliefs so I can gain a better understanding of why they believe what they believe.

I occasionally turn to books on “comparative” or “world religions” since these books are usually written by “experts in the field.” I read about Hinduism or Confucianism for a while. But then my eyes glaze over, and I wonder why people believe all this weird, boring stuff.

But then, I go to the section on Christianity. I don’t start there because I don’t go to such books to learn about Christianity; I go to the Bible and the great texts of the Christian tradition: Genesis and Exodus, the Gospel of John, and the writings of Basil, Gregory, Augustine, and Aquinas.

When I open my “world religions” textbook and read the section on Christianity, soon my eyes glaze over and I would wonder why people believe all this weird, boring stuff if I weren’t already Christian.  What I actually say is: “What’s this?  This is what these people think Christianity is?  Anyone reading this would have only the strangest, most distant notion of what Christians believe or of what animates their lives.”

Reading their descriptions of Christianity is like looking at a shadow puppet of a dog.  You can say it “looks like a dog” – if you know what a dog actually looks like.  But if you start by looking at the shadow puppet and then search around for something that “looks” like that, thinking “I know what a dog is,” you would be more wrong than right. And you would certainly never understand why people love their dogs.

I have had conversations with friends from other religious traditions who report having had the same experience. They read the description of their religion, and their reaction is: “We believe that?  Well, sort of.  But not exactly.”  It’s like hearing someone who speaks another language use an English colloquialism who doesn’t get it quite right.  “I am going to do the kicking of the butt” is not really the same as “I’m gonna kick your butt!”  I once heard a Frenchman say to his Belgian friend: “Are you in the picture on this?”  That’s like something we say, but not quite.

Reading these descriptions is also a bit like the experience a Latina friend had going to a class on “Hispanic Culture and Spirituality.”  The professor kept telling the mostly white college kids what “Hispanics” believe and what Hispanic culture was like.  She, an actual Hispanic, kept wondering why none of this resembled anything she had experienced in her large extended family or extensive Hispanic community.  Granted, there are different ways of being “Hispanic,” but when you go to a class about your own people, it shouldn’t be like hearing about a strange race from another planet.  And this is often what reading these books on Christianity is like.


So if all of us from every religion say, “That’s not my religion; that description has not captured the heart of what we believe or why it animates our lives,” then what are such books teaching?

Actually, I don’t know.  But I fear that the effect may be a lack of real respect for all religions. The message is: Here are about a dozen different ways people could think about religion, but there is no good reason to actually accept any one of them, other than your own autonomous choice.  In the marketplace of religions, which do you choose?  Or would you prefer to take little from column A, some from column B, and perhaps a smattering from column C?

What people who read such books should understand is that very few of the adherents of the religions they are reading about (perhaps none of the authentic believers) “chose” their religion in this way.  Rather, it chose them.  They saw themselves as “called” by a truth larger than themselves. And accepting this truth led them to a more authentic life, a life of meaning and goodness. It wasn’t a smorgasbord from which they selected what looked tasty.

People who have dabbled in a lot of religions probably understand very little about any of them – not the way you know something you love, something deeply moving and meaningful.  It is fine to “get acquainted” with a religion.  Just don’t say you “know” a religion if you hold yourself aloof from it and examine it as you would examine a car you are thinking about buying.  “I like this one, but with different tires and in yellow.”  To treat a religion this way is to misunderstand what “faith” is for those who have it and have dedicated their lives to it.

If you want to understand a religious tradition and take it seriously, first, get it from those who have dedicated their lives to it.  And second, examine it as a series of responses to the “fundamental questions” that St. John Paul II mentions in the first paragraphs of his encyclical Fides et Ratio:  Who am I?  Where am I from?  Where am I going?  What about suffering, death, and the afterlife?  What is the nature of the human person and human flourishing?   These are questions we should ask of any religious or philosophical tradition – including our own.

But we should treat other traditions with the respect with which we would wish them to treat ours.  The problem with modern secular treatments of religion is that, although they purport to provide a greater respect for each religion, they often breed a sort of dilettantish disrespect – for all of them.


*Image: Sheet 3 of figures for Chinese shadow puppets by an unknown Spanish artist (possibly Juan Llorens), ca. 1850–70 [THE MET, New York]

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.