I spend a good bit of time in my courses trying to disrupt religious essentialism: the idea that all practitioners in a religious tradition share some essence, that such an essence determines their behavior, or that their beliefs are the essence that directly informs their behavior. Since I teach at school with a predominantly Catholic, homogeneous student body, I can use the following pedagogical exercise to interrupt religious essentialism.
I start by asking the students, “What does it say to do with idolaters in the Qur’an?” They may or may not know the answer; if they don’t, I tell them: “Kill them.”
Then I ask them, “How many of you identify as Christian or know someone who identifies as Christian? Raise your hand if you or those Christians you know believe in the Bible or hold it to be a sacred book.” Usually I get a lot of raised hands.
Then I go on: “What does it say to do with idolaters in the Bible?” They never know the answer to this one, so I have to tell them: “Kill them.” “So all of you who raised your hands want to kill idolaters, right? Or the Christians you know are lining up to kill idolaters?” They giggle.
I go on to point out that the relationship between stated “beliefs” and practitioners’ “behavior” is always complex. The “beliefs –> behavior” formula is absurd upon reflection. Just because someone says ze “believes” in the Qur’an doesn’t mean ze wants to kill idolaters, any more than my own students who “believe” in the Bible want to kill idolaters.
The idea that beliefs drive action is a popular theory of religion, but it’s a bad one. Something much more complicated is going on with talk about “beliefs,” and we would be wise not to take belief-talk at face value.