The Problem with Belief

core beliefs

by Sean McCloud

* This post originally appeared on the Practicum: Critical Theory, Religion and Pedagogy blog.

“When that sick old mythology claimed you as its prize, you pulled the arrow out yourself but the poison’s still inside.” Mares of Thrace, “… And the Bird Surgeon”

My religion courses are full of belief. By this I mean that, for most students (and many other people, for that matter), “belief” is the primary default concept when it comes to religion. Many of us are socially habituated to assume that religion is first and foremost about belief and—even more—that what one believes is the basis for an individual’s action. And when those actions don’t follow the dictates laid out in institutional dogma and canonical text, some students are ready to make moral judgments. In my American religions course, we look at examples of Protestants who hold to ideas about reincarnation, the existence of ghosts, and that the power of positive thinking can change the physical world through mental will alone. This mixing of practices and ideas from a variety of cultural sources is not unusual, but rather something people do all the time. But it is not unusual for students to scoff, viewing descriptions of such blending as not merely ethnographic observations, but rather as evidence for the inauthenticity of the practitioners’ Protestantism. What could be a scholarly examination of religious practice becomes instead a theological act of calling out heresies and upholding orthodoxy—not about what people think and do, but about what some think people should think and do.

Given this, one of the things I work on in our undergraduate majors theory and methods class, Orientation to the Study of Religion, is to get students to question their assumption that whatever we call “religion” must always be primarily about belief. The initial way I approach this is through discussing definitions of religion. On one of the first days we spend the whole period (nearly three hours with a 15 minute break in the middle) discussing what might be meant by the term “religion.” We look at some abbreviated scholarly definitions of religion, including excerpts by Durkheim, James, Wallace, Albanese, and Geertz. I always include this sentence by Talal Asad as one of the passages to consider: “My argument is that there cannot be a universal definition of religion, not only because its constituent elements and relationships are historically specific, but because that definition is itself the historical product of discursive processes.” After we look at and try some initial unpacking of the definitions, I put the students into small groups and give them a short period of time to come up with their own definition (or non-definition) of religion. I also give them this list of “red flag” words that they are not allowed to use in their definition:

  1. spiritual/spirituality
  2. belief
  3. experience
  4. “the sacred,” “the holy,” or “the transcendent”
  5. faith
  6. mystical

By the end of the class period, my goal is to have students starting to think about what kinds of work defining religion in particular ways does. In the following weeks we look at terms such as “belief” and “spiritual” and ask similar questions. Why, I ask, do many of us prefer “belief” to “practice” in our everyday conversations about religion? By the end of the semester, when we revisit the topic of religion definitions (to see if our conversation has changed), belief is still the default concept to which some return. Like the arrow’s poison in the Mares of Thrace song above, the concept remains embedded. Habits are hard to break, and belief is hard to shake.

Sean McCloud is an Associate Professor of Religious Studies (and American Studies and Communication Studies Faculty Affiliate) at The University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He teaches, publishes, and researches in the fields of American religions and religion and culture. His publications include Making the American Religious Fringe: Exotics, Subversives, and Journalists, 1955-1993 (2004), Divine Hierarchies: Class in American Religion and Religious Studies (2007), and he is co-editor of Religion and Class in America: Culture, History, and Politics (2009). His next book, American Possessions: Fighting Demons in the Contemporary United States, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press in spring 2015.

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