No One Misunderstands Their Own Religion

The claim that “this person/group does not understand their own religion” should be eliminated from academic prose. If we think someone misunderstands their religion, it’s we who misunderstand.

Of course it’s clear that many Christians don’t know the history of Christianity, and many Muslims don’t know the history of Islam, just as many Americans don’t know much about the history of the US.

However, imagine someone saying that the 2nd amendment protects the right to bear arms, including semi-automatic assault rifles. While that’s clearly not what the 2nd amendment meant for the framers of the constitution, it would be stupid of us to say that this individual doesn’t understand their own politics. They understand their politics quite well.

When we say that someone misunderstands their own tradition, what we’re doing is constructing an authentic history and placing this person outside of it.

I often hear my students accuse their nominally Catholic peers of not understanding Catholicism. By contrast, I’d say most Catholics are nominally Catholic, and that they therefore represent the majority or the center (at least on the northeast United States). And my nominally Catholic students understand nominal Catholicism expertly. 

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About Craig Martin

I am an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at St. Thomas Aquinas College.
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4 Responses to No One Misunderstands Their Own Religion

  1. John Meunier says:

    This is true if religion is a personal possession. If it is something external to us that we join or even submit to, then it is possible to misunderstand. The post makes the analogy with personal political beliefs. What if the analogy is more like a job. We do not have qualms about saying someone misunderstands their job.

    • Craig Martin says:

      I’m definitely not an individualist when it comes to religion. I think a better analogy than “job” in general would be the fact that people do jobs differently. Just because you do your job differently doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong, or even that you misunderstand what you’re doing when you do it differently.

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