Has a Religious Person Ever Surprised You?

If there’s anything I've learned from this blog so far, it’s that no two nonbelievers are exactly the same. Each of us brings to the table so many different experiences, philosophies and opinions. Trying to generalize us is simply not possible. Yet we nonreligious types have a tendency to generalize, too. I would love to do one of those free-association tests on atheists. I'd say "religious people," and they'd say the first words that came to mind. What do you think the words would be? It seems more likely, doesn't it, that atheist brains would produce words like "illogical" and "indoctrination" before words like "faith" and "dedicated?"

Unfortunately, tapping a well of negative connotations every time we hear the word "religious" isn't just close-minded; it harms our ability to teach our kids tolerance.

The truth is, there are so many different kinds of beliefs and believers out there. They vary not just in the kind of God or prophet or world view they follow, but also in how they express, use, mold and justify their beliefs. What's more, people may subscribe to certain religions for a host of different reasons, and prefer a pick-and-choose system of belief over a dogmatic one.

I know a Catholic who doesn't believe in the virgin birth, and another Catholic who believes all good people — Christians and non-Christians alike — go to heaven. These are not exactly traditional Catholic ideas. In fact, they run directly counter to traditional Catholic ideas. Yet both these individuals are dedicated to their faith. They attend mass regularly; they have relationships with their priests. Both of these believers are true Catholics. It's just that they also happen to be able to think for themselves.

My grandmother always said there are three things you shouldn't discuss in polite company: sex, politics and religion. These days, it seems, people feel more comfortable discussing sex and politics at dinner parties. But religion? Not so much. When was the last time you questioned someone about their beliefs? Not out of anger or a desire to argue, but out of friendly curiosity and a desire to learn? I don't think many people could answer affirmatively; as a result, we're all left with far more assumptions than knowledge.

Through the last year, I've arrived at the theory that no two people on the planet believe exactly the same things in exactly the same way. That each person's religion, like each fingerprint, is a one-of-a-kind.

I wonder if you've observed this, too. Has a religious person has surprised you? Why? What did he or she do or say to break the image you had formed in your head? Was the new information positive in nature or negative? Did it improve or damage the image?

And to encourage you [lazy bastards!] to answer: On Thursday, I'll randomly pick a name from among the commenters and send the lucky winner a copy of The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies — How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths by Michael Shermer (either hardcover or Kindle edition — whichever you prefer.)

Now go!


Update: Seen your answers here!