Occasionally when I am in a social situation where someone learns I am an atheist I will get strange looks as if the person meeting me was just realized I was a space alien. Fair enough, since I typically have exactly the same reaction when I realize someone is a genuine, whole hearted believer.
Anyway, the thing is that most religious people I meet are, in general, not very interested in knowing much about religion. Oh, they tend to know a lot about their particular little corner in religion land, but they often don’t know and usually aren’t interested in understanding how their own particular religion has been instantiated and practiced over time, much less other religions.
I suspect this is a defense mechanism because once you start looking at religion from a sociological or historical perspective, you start to run into a lot of Weird Shit(TM). Consider a folk religious practice adopted by some Christians in the UK called sin-eating, which believe it or not, was taken quite literally by its practitioners. According to Wikipedia,
This ritual is said to have been practised in parts of England and Scotland, and allegedly survived until the late 19th or early 20th century in Wales and the adjoining Welsh Marches of Shropshire andHerefordshire, as well as certain portions of Appalachia in America (documented in the Foxfire cultural history series). Traditionally, it was performed by a beggar, and certain villages maintained their own sin-eaters. They would be brought to the dying person’s bedside, where a relative would place a crust of bread on the breast of the dying and pass a bowl of ale to him over the corpse. After praying or reciting the ritual, he would then drink and remove the bread from the breast and eat it, the act of which would remove the sin from the dying person and take it into himself.
In his 1926 book Funeral Customs, Bertram Puckle wrote the following about sin-eating,
A less known but even more remarkable functionary, whose professional services were once considered necessary to the dead, is the sin-eater. Savage tribes have been known to slaughter an animal on the grave, in the belief that it would take upon itself the sins of the dead. In the same manner, it was the province of the human scapegoat to take upon himself the moral trespasses of his client–and whatever the consequences might be in the after life–in return for a miserable fee and a scanty meal. That such a creature should be unearthed from a remote period of pagan history would be surprising enough, but to find reliable evidence of his existence in the British Isles a hundred years ago is surely very much more remarkable.
Professor Evans of the Presbyterian College, Carmarthen, actually saw a sin-eater about the year 1825, who was then living near Llanwenog, Cardiganshire. Abhorred by the superstitious villagers as a thing unclean, the sin-eater cut himself off from all social intercourse with his fellow creatures by reason of the life he had chosen; he lived as a rule in a remote place by himself, and those who chanced to meet him avoided him as they would a leper. This unfortunate was held to be the associate of evil spirits, and given to witchcraft, incantations and unholy practices; only when a death took place did they seek him out, and when his purpose was accomplished they burned the wooden bowl and platter from which he had eaten the food handed across, or placed on the corpse for his consumption.
Howlett mentions sin-eating as an old custom in Hereford, and thus describes the practice: “The corpse being taken out of the house, and laid on a bier, a loaf of bread was given to the sin-eater over the corpse, also a maga-bowl of maple, full of beer. These consumed, a fee of sixpence was given him for the consideration of his taking upon himself the sins of the deceased, who, thus freed, would not walk after death.” He suggests the connection between the sin-eater and the Jewish scapegoat of the old Testament.
On the one hand….ewwwww.
On the other hand, this is hardly any stranger than the Eucharist and the belief in transubstantiation. When you are at a point where you do not rely on a rigorous method of investigation, such as the scientific method, to try to understand the world, then anything goes.