I think many of us religious types, especially those raised in very religious homes, don’t understand that most people don’t do religion at all. And that cuts across all communities, even those outwardly perceived to be very religious.
This seems to be particularly true of the expert who has dedicated their life to the study of one particular faith community. They cannot view community except through the prism of the religious realm, and its cultural practices, prohibitions and rituals. For them, all people even nominally associated with a religious tradition are the same, their lives strictly governed by those practices and principles.
All of which is, of course, complete nonsense. In reality, for most people, religion is irrelevant to their lives. Cultural practices can be extremely strong and pervasive, but many have no idea what the beliefs of the traditions with which they are associated are, other than the very basics.
The expert on religion, devoted to the idea of the innate goodness of the tradition and its adherents will struggle with realities on the ground. How will they deal with the fact that the majority of the community they have devoted their life’s work to studying do not adhere to its tenets in any meaningful way? In my experience: simply by denying those trends.
Heaping glowing praise on their chosen community of faith, we will not learn anything at all about the negative aspects of religious practice and culture. The expert, mindful of condemnation of drinking within the faith tradition cannot conceive widespread alcoholism and drug addiction to be a problem.
While discussing lovely statements about the equality of women and their high status in religious texts, they dare not speak of lived realities: of domestic violence, threats, intimidation, murder, suicide, harassment and abuse. Through the lens of their understanding of religion, all of these are inimical to genuine practice. But they miss the point.
The expert is capable of dismissing an individual’s actual lived experiences. With a flick of their wrist, they can say: “Not realistic. Not accurate. A stereotype.” And the one with lived experience must retreat back into themselves, the declarations of a superficial observer taking precedent over reality itself.
It is easy to feel cowed by the expert, so insistent that they know better than anyone, capable of speaking on behalf of everyone in their chosen community of the faithful. They cannot conceive the diversity of practice and belief, and political sentiment, and personal outlook. They cannot countenance how the society in which they live and their own experiences may have shaped them. They cannot see the individual at all.
Thus does the expert declare all accounts which fall outside their narrative of their chosen realm faulty. The timid will naturally defer to their wisdom, retreating and withdrawing. But the rest: for them, their declarations are irrelevant. They do not represent them or their experiences, and so they simply continue as normal, living those ordinary lives, far away from the gaze of the professional researcher, and their limited field of vision.