A phenomenon I’ve noticed increasingly of late is the tendency of individuals to opine on particularly weighty religious matters despite their rather extreme ignorance regarding these very same matters. I’ve seen this regularly on Facebook, but even on more formal occasions – such as commencement addresses.
Indeed, the phenomenon extends to (and, in fact, is commonly manifested by) statements made by non-Christians regarding questions of Christian belief and practice.
As I would not opine seriously on the best procedures to follow with respect to open-heart surgery (as I have absolutely no medical training), why are so many others who have never had anything to do with religion so quick to comment on serious matters of religion?
Perhaps this very question reveals a particularly Catholic mindset on my part – but I don’t think so. I’m not suggesting that one must be an ordained priest to acquire expertise in matters of religion – or even undergo years of formal education. (Although I hasten to point out that individuals who spend years acquiring a Ph.D., and then advert to that credential in substantiating their opinions on matters relating to the subject of the Ph.D., will spend fewer than 10 minutes over the course of their entire lifetime studying religion or any particular faith before resolutely and authoritatively rejecting it as rubbish. But I digress….)
Any serious religious individual, of practically any faith, is likely to have spent a significant amount of time learning, studying, and meditating about the tenets of their faith. At the risk of appearing sacriligious, religion could be analogized to a hobby. (It’s a poor analogy, I know, but useful and fair for present purposes.) Whether the hobby is baseball card collecting, astronomy, or home-brewing, the hobbyist certainly acquires quite a bit of expertise – expertise that any non-hobbyist would quickly admit that he or she is lacking. But little such humility appears to present itself in discussions of religion and faith. Why is this so?
I think it may stem from the utter lack of rationality that many non-religious individuals ascribe to religion. To many people today, religion is little more than sentimentality and mindless tradition. As such, it can be readily critiqued by anyone with a high school diploma – no special training is necessary.
This also explains why religion should have no bearing upon public policy, or anything of common concern (according to many). It is a wholly private matter, devoid of logic, unable to make any meritorious contribution to public discourse.
And all this reminds me of G.K. Chesterton’s objection to the very categorization of Christianity as “religion.” Some “religions” are indeed utter nonsense – even intentionally so perhaps (see, for example, the “Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster“). Some are predicated upon the grossest examples of “blind faith.” And even some modern manifestations of Christianity appear to be little more than cults of personality – congregations sustained by the charisma of a particular pasor, lacking any serious depth or coherence.
Traditional Christianity, however, makes very specific, concrete historical claims – many of which can be verified. Its doctrine unfolded over the course of centuries, after debate and deliberation not entirely unlike the growth of the common law. Whether true or false, even its fair-minded critics have praised the beauty of its teachings and admitted the rationality of its assertions.
In short, perhaps “religion” gives authentic Christianity (and certainly other faiths as well) an undeservedly bad name.
2 thoughts on “When it comes to religion, everybody’s an expert”
Thanks for this–one of the most important things in my field, in fact. There’s actually an interesting series of papers to be written (maybe books) about what expertise in understanding religions means. One part of that is the extent to which self-proclaimed serious believers get to say what their religions mean. And I say this as both a serious believer AND a scholar of religions, one who has seen all sorts of people say “I’m a serious believer and my faith cannot mean what you say it means, or meant”–when the scholars have the evidence, historical or sociological or textual or theological, that that faith has meant, and perhaps does mean, just that. Religion scholars qua experts who talk “about” traditions get in trouble with believers all the time, and sometimes (only sometimes) they are right and the believers are wrong. So yes, a discussion of expertise and its many pitfalls–for all involved–is a pressing issue.
What a quaint idea…that someone ought to actually KNOW something about a topic before running their mouth about that topic.
John Lofton, JLof@aol.com
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