What is the best way to learn about other beliefs?

I have been told that it’s better to learn about another belief system by using a 'balanced approach."

I’m not quite certain what that means, exactly.

Let’s examine 'The church of X".

Now is it better to get the doctrine and beliefs from members of the Church of X…and confirm what you learn there with people who do not believe, or who have left, and believe the critics?

Is it better to get your information about the Church of X from people of your own faith, and not worry about what members of the Church of X have to say…because they’d just lie to you anyway?

Is it better to get your information from other sources and confirm that information with members of the Church of X?

Is it better to talk to members of the Church of X and not worry about what their critics have to say (as far as getting the facts, that is…)?

What is the best approach, and why?

I think the best way is to ask the believers and the critics, favoring the believers. I would favor the believers because I doubt they would have a motive to misrepresent their own beliefs. The only reason they would misrepresent their beliefs might be because they don’t actually know what their religion believes. I for one was a Christian in name for a long time before realizing that mainstream Christianity teaches that Jesus is God incarnate.

Because of the risk of believers’ ignorance, you need an authoritative source espousing the beliefs of said religion if possible (e.g., the Catechism of the Catholic Church for Catholicism instead of some random Catholic person).

Also, I would take a look at what critics have to say only inasmuch as they are attempting to show why this or that belief is false. Don’t turn to them first, but only after you have determined what said religion actually believes. Then, when you examine what the critics say, you can find arguments against what the religion actually believes rather than have to sort through all this misrepresentation of that religion from biased critics.

Examples of biased critics:

Catholics who say Protestants teach you can sin all you want and go to heaven as long as you have faith.

Protestants who say Catholicism upholds works-based salvation.

Generally, better to get it from members than from others. But even then, people can be too quick to assume that the individual is representative – how many times have we heard “I heard Blank on CAF, so Blank must be the Catholic position.” (or words to that effect)?

So maybe I should change my vote to F. There’s no easy way. :cool:

I say hear it from both, but give the believer the benefit of the doubt. Believers are generally more knowledgeable about their faith than someone who isn’t a part of their faith. This isn’t necessarily the case though, so deliberately avoiding other sources doesn’t ensure that what you’re being told by the believers of a particular religion is correct.

NB: This is my position in regards to the matter of fact beliefs of a group. “Religious Group X believe Y.” carries a heck of a lot more weight coming from a member of Religious Group X than not-X. Discussion about anything else relating to those beliefs is fair game for anyone to discuss, and there’s absolutely no reason the opinions of members of said group should carry more weight than those outside the group. Whether “Belief Y” is a good/bad/true/false/wise/foolish belief isn’t a discussion reserved strictly to members of Religious Group X.

I notice that the options in the poll are limited to a dichotomy of “believers” and “critics”. Why no category for those who are “neutral”?

First read the doctrine of the faith

then speak to people who are actively practicing the faith, as well as some who have left.

Include leaders of both categories as well.

I think it is unwise to not go to the written doctrine as well.

Hello Dianaiad,

      You sure are a busy woman.  How many forums are you on?  
       I didn't vote.  I think the most important thing is to determine if the source of your information has an agenda.  If they do then then there more likely to withhold pertinent information which is in conflict with that agenda.

     Superwimp, otherwise known as sleepyhead.

I vote: NONE of the above.

I would find out about another faith using scholarly, unbiased research–reading books and articles on it.


If you really want to learn about other beliefs you need to cultivate the practise of listening to them and be willing to suspend your own beliefs for the time being… Later raise up these ideas that have been presented and weigh them carefully in your heart…

Seems to me it only matters in cases where the Church of X is not forthcoming and transparent in what they actually believe and practice; where true beliefs are somehow in question.

The Catholic Church has formally and officially published everything that it believes in the compendium called the Catechism of the Catholic Church. That is everything we believe and very precise and certain terms. If one really wants to know what the Catholic Church teaches, that is where they should go.

I would say first that it’s extremely important to thoroughly know and understand your own beliefs. Some people just float between belief systems all their lives without ever really having a thorough knowledge and understanding of what it is they profess. If you understand your belief system well, you will be better equipped to assess its truth-claims against those of rival belief systems.

So true, asking is one part, listening is the other. Some people ask, but then don’t listen.

I am sure many of us here have had the experience where someone asks us about our faith, and just as we begin to speak they proceed to tell us what “we believe”…actually what they think or have heard we believe.

I’ve heard all sorts of interesting things about what believe and practice from people who don’t even know me! Wow, I never imagined I was believing all those things, How nice of them to inform me! Apparently I had no understanding at all of what my faith teaches until they came along, an outsider, and interpreted it for me.

I’ve also been accused of misrepresenting my faith…why would I want to do that?

That’s a good question. The answer is pretty simple:

There is no such thing as a neutral position on any specific religious belief, I honestly don’t think. It’s not exactly a binary set, of course; the spectrum goes from complete and total belief on one end to absolute antipathy on the other, but there is no section on that continuum that holds ‘neutral.’ Even agnostics, who sometimes claim that they believe in god but don’t know what religion to believe in or what He is like, have made their decisions regarding the religions they’ve come across.

Now, this only applies to the sources, not the investigator; the seeker can be neutral, not having made up his or her mind one way or the other, but any source to which he turns for information about a belief is not neutral; if they feel able to answer questions about a belief system, they’ve made their decision about it. Positive or negative to one extent or another, but not neutral.

A bunch. I type fast.

I think that it is pretty much a given that any source that sets itself up AS a source of accurate information about any belief system has an agenda. The trick is to figure out what it is. At least with the believers, the agenda is obvious. :wink:

Well, hello…I’ll see you on that ‘other’ forum. :wink:

Y’know, I’d love to be able to do that. The trick is to find some.

In my experience, that’s like looking for leprechauns in China. They simply do not exist.

I’ve been reading articles about MY religion, written by a whole bunch of people, for close on to half a century now, and I have never come across a non-member source that got my beliefs completely RIGHT, never mind with an unbiased POV. Any opinion regarding religion is, of necessity, biased.

…and something tells me that if the anti-s don’t get mine right, they have no reason to get anybody else’s right, either.

The problem with your paradigm is that you lump outside scholars in the “critics” category together with people who have a polemical agenda.

“Insiders” (i.e., believers in the given religious position) have one kind of insight.
Scholars have another.
Scholars who are insiders but also have a degree of critical detachment due to their scholarly training may be the ideal observers.
Scholars who are outsiders but have empathy for the tradition in question are also excellent.
Scholars with a bias against the religion in question still have much of value to contribute.

So if I want to learn about a given religion I want two different kinds of sources: scholars (whether believers or unbelievers) for critical analysis, a comprehensive perspective, and historical information, and people with actual experience of the religion for a sense of what it is like to believe that particular religion. Of these, people who still practice the religion are by far to be preferred. Former members of the religion are to be regarded with great suspicion as sources, but they can be invaluable, since one of the things you need to understand to understand a religion is what about it hurts people or makes them angry.

The one group of people who are pretty much worthless as sources are people with no scholarly interest or knowledge and no personal experience, who read a book or two or listen to some media reports and form opinions about the religion in question:mad:


Perfectly unbiased scholarship doesn’t exist. But quality, well-trained scholarship does exist.

I’ve been reading articles about MY religion, written by a whole bunch of people, for close on to half a century now, and I have never come across a non-member source that got my beliefs completely RIGHT, never mind with an unbiased POV. Any opinion regarding religion is, of necessity, biased.

…and something tells me that if the anti-s don’t get mine right, they have no reason to get anybody else’s right, either.

I don’t think that last statement is true at all. Relatively few scholarly outsiders study the LDS compared to mainstream Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, etc. So indeed most outsider sources are bitter and polemical, or contemptuous and dismissive.

However, scholars of American religion are pretty interested in your tradition and from my perspective generally seem quite fair and sympathetic to it (of course, I’m not an adherent and your perspective might well be very different).

The one non-Mormon scholar I know of who specializes in Mormonism is Jan Shipps. However, many other scholars deal with it as part of more general work on American religious history. Nathan Hatch, for instance, has a chapter on Mormonism in his excellent book The Democratization of American Christianity. This made a great impression on me when I read the book in college, because it was the first time I’d seen someone treat Mormonism as part of the story of American Christianity instead of in a purely polemical fashion. In fact, I made one student very angry in my last year of teaching at an evangelical college because I took that approach instead of denouncing Mormonism as a “cult.” My wife’s advisor, Grant Wacker, with whom I also took one class and for whom I worked as a teaching assistant, took the same approach.

I wonder if you have been looking at this kind of outside scholarship or have just been reading polemical attacks on Mormonism? Perhaps you are familiar with Shipps’ work (I know it only by reputation, myself) and find it inadequate.


Well first the church in question has to layout and publish their doctrine in some form. After all members do not define doctrine, and they are not always the most accurate source for the actual teachings of their church.

None of the above.

Comes from believers and critics, favoring the facts. Learning how believers approach the facts is important to me, as it helps to understand the approach to faith and reason.

Personally, I choose to learn about other beliefs from practitioners of the faith and their primary sources.

There is a lot of discussion about doctrine on this site, but you know when it comes to down to it I don’t think that most of the people who are church shopping are all that concerned about it. Overall I think a majority of people are more concerned with the life lived in the church and this is where former members come into play. It’s not a matter of talking with the Chevy dealer as opposed to the Ford dealers, it’s a matter of talking with satisfied and dissatisfied Chevy owners. If you are looking to join a church based on what it is like to be a member, then yes former members are someone you are going to listen to.

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit www.catholic.com.