Efforts to acquire an empathetic understanding of actual expressions of any one of the different ways of being religious often have to wrestle with stereotypes and caricatures of them. These biased preconceptions are often prevalent in the subculture where we find ourselves. They are views we naturally tend to take for granted. They may even express our personal prejudices, which we may not be aware of as prejudices. For example, in our own largely Christian but dominantly Protestant North American culture, the Roman Catholic tradition is often thought to be dominated by clericalism (the power and prestige of priests, bishops, and Pope) and filled with largely meaningless rituals and symbols suggestive of idolatry and standing in the way of a personal relation to God. Many view the kind of serious theological study found among Roman Catholics and some mainstream Protestants (especially Lutherans and Presbyterians) as religious intellectualizing and liable to interfere with a vital religious faith. Others tend to think of Evangelical Protestants as dominated by a kind of emotional piety that has no intellectual coherence or theological depth. Pentecostal and Charismatic Christians are frequently castigated as having opted out of rationality and proper order of worship altogether and regressed to primitive superstition. Social-activist Christians are branded as preoccupied with other people's lives, as trying to earn their own salvation by doing good works, and as having lost any sense of personal religion. And Christians into contemplative spirituality (especially monks and nuns) are tarred as navel-gazers who cannot face the real world. Another widely held but less specific caricature is a dichotomy between "personal religion" and "institutional religion," as if the two were inherently opposed to one another. "Personal religion" is usually portrayed as better-for example, more genuine, fresh, spontaneous, individual, and experiential-while "institutional religion," is portrayed as worsefor example, conforming, stale (secondhand religion), legalistic, socially homogeneous, and formal.1 There are, of course, many other such caricatures of the same traditions and of others; this is meant only as a brief sampling.
These preconceptions may be held quite innocently and unconsciously, but they are no less misconceptions for being so held. As a result, they are that much more difficult to identify, effectively criticize, and overcome. Implicit in them is usually a value judgment, a negative value judgment, that the religious practice in question is unworthy of respect. The problem is not that value judgments are being made where we should not be making them, but that the value judgments in question, being based on misleading preconceptions, are premature, insufficiently discriminating, and of a sweeping nature. They fail to do justice. Some expressions of a given way of being religious are worthy of respect and some are not. The solution is not to cease making value judgments but to develop a capacity to discriminate between the sort of thing that is worthy of respect and the sort of thing that is not within each way, based on a fuller understanding of what is involved in each way and the range of variations in practice possible within each way. That requires getting past the preconception to see what it fails to represent.
It is interesting to observe how, when confronted with exceptions to a preconception they happen to hold of a certain way of being religious, persons often are unready to recognize the exceptions as contradicting their preconception. The unreadiness indicates that they have a greater psychological investment in maintaining the preconception than they may suppose. In that case the preconception reveals more about themselves than it does about the way of being religious it purports to represent. The investment may be due to a host of different factors, from the weight of indoctrinated attitudes to the pain of victimization (whether these persons' own or their sympathy with others' pain). Sometimes it is rooted in a genuine disappointment of a person's existential motivations: somehow her own religious needs (or those of persons with whom she sympathizes) on some occasion were not met, and were deemed unlikely ever to be met, by a certain religious practice, a particular religious group, or a particular religious leader. In defensive rationalization, the object of the disappointment is caricatured in an unattractive or repulsive fashion and generalized to represent all instances of that form of religious practice, all expressions of that way of being religious: for example, "Religious ritual is empty, meaningless show, and priests only want to control your lives." Persons drawn primarily to one way of being religious, especially upon finding that other ways fail to address their concerns with any effectiveness, often develop an antipathy toward other ways. They are usually the carriers of the most negative, sweeping misconceptions one can find of other ways of being religious.
Suppose a person has come to recognize that she holds stereotypical preconceptions of certain ways of being religious herself; what then?
First, it is important to recognize the partial truth of such stereotypes. They are distortions, but they also have enough of a grain of truth in them to make them credible to persons who would like an excuse to differentiate themselves from, if not stand against, the practice or tradition being caricatured. That is to say, one can usually find more than one actual expression of the tradition or practice in question that comes pretty close to matching the stereotype. For example, religious ritual occasionally happens to be an empty, meaningless show and priests are sometimes preoccupied with manipulating others to their own egoistical ends. The problem is that these expressions are not generally representative-except in one sense. They may represent fairly well the worst cases of the specific practice or tradition in question; such are usually cases that even knowledgeable insiders (in their best and least defensive frame of mind) would not hesitate to refer to as degenerate, or at least seriously deficient. Second, in order to understand and appreciate the tradition in a less distorted way, such insiders would say, look instead at other, more representative expressions; indeed, look first at cases of the tradition at its best (i.e., cases that reflective and dispassionate insiders of that specific tradition or subtradition would regard as among its best expressions), and then the deficient and degenerate cases can be fairly seen and understood and criticized for what they are.
For any one way of being religious within a given religion, these best expressions may unproblematically be regarded as embodying virtue of a certain sort: the virtue or virtues for that way of being religious in that religious tradition, at least in the judgment of reflective and dispassionate insiders. Those identifiable as its worst expressions can unproblematically be regarded as embodying a kind of vice: the vice or vices for that way in that tradition. Within each way of being religious in a tradition where it is found, then, there is a spectrum of possible variations in quality of practice. It is not a case of either/or, either virtue or vice. There is a whole range of possibilities in between, as anyone well acquainted with the tradition can attest. Any tradition or practice has its better expressions, its worse expressions, and its middling expressions. To be responsible, empathetic outsiders, no less than insiders, need to learn how to discriminate one from the other, what constitutes virtue and what constitutes vice, what constitutes better expressions and what constitutes worse expressions, for any given way. To this end, negative stereotypes are sometimes a useful starting place for identifying what are more than likely characteristic vices. In any case, the point is to realize that any given way in any tradition can be taken up and practiced in qualitatively more excellent, more virtuous ways, in qualitatively degenerate, virtueless ways, and everything in between.