I knew very little about the world of religion when I became the full-time religion-beat reporter at the Los Angeles Daily News back in 1985. I knew next to nothing about how religious organizations functioned and not much more about the myriad ways that religious beliefs play out in people's lives.
That included Judaism, the faith into which I was born but to which I was barely culturally connected at the time. I also possessed what I soon realized was a superficial understanding of the Eastern meditative traditions to which I had become attracted.
But Pope John Paul II was scheduled to visit LA in 1987 and I'd had enough of seeing bad movies at odd hours in small screening rooms and talking to self-important studio public relations hacks on the Hollywood film and TV beat. My way forward came when I realized that the paper would need someone to lead what would surely be saturation papal visit coverage, and that that someone (meaning me) would need a long lead time to get prepared.
My one great advantage was that my editors knew even less than I did about covering religion. That, and I volunteered for the beat before anyone else. And so began my on-the-job training.
I made many rookie mistakes, including mistaking titles for actual names (don't ask). Despite that, I quickly realized that I needed to rid myself of my stereotypical thinking about religion and religious believers.
An early lesson came at the 1985 Southern Baptist Convention in Dallas. It was there that I came to understand that not all Southern Baptists -- and by extension, not all evangelicals -- were alike in their theology and practice.
It was also in Dallas that I realized just how politically brutal religious organizations can behave. (As I said, I was pretty ignorant.) The ongoing display of blatantly political decisions by ostensibly values-oriented religious leaders and followers in the current presidential race -- particularly the machinations of some self-professed tradition-leaning Christians and Orthodox Jews who still back Donald Trump -- has only served to bolster my Dallas realization.
Here are three other stereotypes I've shed over my years on the religion beat, but which I still witness in the work of others also mining the beat (in no particular order):
All Orthodox Jews are political conservatives
A certain high-profile spokesperson for a leading American Jewish Orthodox organization can best be described as a political moderate, even liberal on some issues, which is saying a lot in his community.
I also know many Israeli Jews who live Orthodox lives who are political liberals, some of them quite well known in the media. They may be religiously observant, but they have little affection for their government led by Benyamin Netanyahu and its continued settlement policies.
Consider this a corollary to my understanding that not all evangelical Christians are politically conservative. Some, for example lean left on economic issues and to the right on moral and social issues.
All Buddhists meditate
Sorry, but there's much more to Buddhist practice than simply sitting quietly.
Few ethnic Buddhists, whether from Thailand or Tibet, actually meditate, at least not as most Americans understand the term, generally limited to sitting silently and observing one's thoughts.
Instead, these Buddhists seek to gain merit toward gaining a higher reincarnation or blessings in this lifetime through such practices as studying scripture, repetitive chanting (in truth, just a noisier meditative practice), or making charitable contributions to monks and temples.
Muslims are simply Sunni or Shi'a
C'mon, nothing's simple in the world of religion. Both Sunni and Shi'a have many offshoots, some of which have evolved to be standalone movements in the mode of Protestant Christianity.
By now most Western journalists are familiar with the Alawites, the Shi'a subgroup to which the Syrian presidential butcher Bashar al-Assad belongs. And perhaps even Sufism, Islam's mystical branch (think whirling dervishes).
But how about the Ahmadiyyah, a group both mainstream Sunnis and Shi'ites consider heterodox but which considers itself fully Islamic (akin to how some more traditionalist Christians relate to Mormonism)?
Did you know that Ahmadiyyah missionaries have proselytized in the United States since the early 20th Century, a practice adopted from Protestant missionaries who sought to convert them? Or that until the 1950s Ahmadiyyah Islam was the dominant form of the faith practiced in the African-American community?
Then there's the Isma'eli branches, which the "Concise Encyclopedia of Islam" compares to Christian Gnosticism. The main Isma'eli group's current leader, who's title is the Aga Khan, is a Harvard University grad who lives near Paris, rather than the Middle East or South Asia, as you might suspect.
Many Isma'elis are quite Westernized, enough so that a son of the previous Aga Khan (a title that I'm loosely translating here as "ruling brother") was married to the actress Rita Hayworth. Ali Khan, as the son was called, served with the U.S. Army in World War II and was awarded the Bronze Star.
Do my examples seems absurdly obvious to you? Absurd as in, how can anyone on the beat not know this? Sorry, but this is my list. Not your's.
I didn't know what I didn't know. Unfortunately, I still don't know what I still don't know.
But there's nothing unique about joining the beat loaded down with stereotypes -- which is a polite way of saying harboring ignorance that can lead to overt biases and prejudices showing up in print, pixel and on tape.
A less polite way of putting it: our ignorance can lead us down the dark alley of religious and other forms of group and individual stereotyping -- which is to say, to thinking in overtly bigoted ways.
My conclusion: just because you think something is a certain way doesn't mean it actually is. That's a biggie for reporters who wish to be both fair and accurate. Stay open to being surprised.
Now how about telling me in the comments section below some stereotypes you brought to the beat?