Beyond “Belief”

Picture 5There was a time when I preferred to say “beliefs, behaviors, and institutions” as my way of complicating the philosophically idealist presumptions that drive our use of the word “belief” in the study of religion — a word we often use to make sense of what people, like those pictured above, are doing.

But I try not to say that anymore.

For some years this longstanding idealist bent has been seen as a problem, of course — aptly captured by Don Lopez’s chapter on this very word in Mark Taylor’s Critical Terms volume; for example, see p. 33:

Picture 6Use of the word, Lopez argues, is a sign of a social contest — i.e., it indicates the presence (i.e., challenge?) of those who would not give assent to this or that set of propositions that purport to say something about the world. Or, to rephrase, I’m not sure people would report having beliefs if they all just agreed and followed an authorized pattern. For then people would just get on with doing whatever it is that they do and never have to compare their doings to others and thereby reflect on the gaps, or feel a need justify, defend, and explain anything to anyone; and so, in a scenario like that, we’d never hear someone take a breath and say:

“Well, I believe…”

But now I find that the fine tuning that comes with “beliefs, behaviors, and institutions” isn’t adequate. Sure, it shifted exclusive attention from that space inside our heads, where our beliefs presumably live, to what bodies were also doing as well as what collections of bodies were up to; but I’m dissatisfied with this apparent shift because it suggests that studies of belief just needs to be augmented by other sorts of observations, producing additional information, giving us a bigger and thus better picture.

The problem is that no matter how much we add to the study of belief we continue to overlook that verb that I used a few sentences back: report — as in “people report having beliefs….” That’s why I think we ought to drop the word “belief” entirely from our vocabulary — from our analytic, redescriptive vocabulary, that is. Sure, we need to retain it at the descriptive level, since many of the people we talk to (like those people in that picture — or at least the adults) use the word (and it is a word, after all) when talking about their worlds (and talk is a form of behavior, right?), such as when trying to make sense of their actions to themselves or others — when, in a commonsense sort of way, they posit some inner disposition of deep significance, whose drive and momentum irresistibly pushes outward into the light of day (expressing itself, as we say).

It’s Gilbert Ryle’s old ghost in the machine model.

And it’s what The Police sang about in an album by that same name.

But while it may reflect a commonsense theory of mind, overlooking that behavioral word “report” and, instead, presuming that whenever we hear the word “belief” it’s in some mysterious one-to-one step with an invisible inner sentiment that causes other things to happen, strikes me as pretty sloppy scholarship and a rather rudimentary theory of language — an approach that’s doing little more than confirming and thereby authorizing a particular (and, yes, popular) folk view of the world (so popular, in fact, that I believe it’s also the one that we, as researchers, employ in our own day-to-day lives).

But instead of uncritically engaging in that folk behavior, as I just did, I’d argue that we ought to be studying it.

So that’s why I’m replacing “beliefs” — better put, historicizing and theorizing it, or what we might just call redescribing it — by the word “claims” (as in Bayart’s proposal that we stop studying identity, as if it exists of its own accord, and, instead, study how it’s made and remade, i.e., by means of situated claims of identification). I think that this shift puts right up front that what we call beliefs are always understood, on the redescriptive level, either as reports of belief, made directly by our research subjects, or inferences of belief, made by ourselves (e.g., when we’re watching people do things, looking over the leftovers of their past actions, such as reading a text).

But either way, it’s always a claim that’s advanced by a social actor in a situation, which is an instance of human behavior — an observable action that takes place within historical and social conditions. Infer the existence of an inner domain if you like, but that inference itself likely ought to be your object of study instead of an undisclosed step in positing an ethereal disposition than animates an otherwise inanimate world.

3 thoughts on “Beyond “Belief”

  1. Gnosis = the knowing. I feel the very real presence of the Creator, it is not belief. I know the Creator moves in my life. An atheist or sceptic can refuse to believe God exists because he cannot sense God’s presence, just as a blind person can refuse to believe the sun exists because he cannot see it. I find so much of this research is trying to justify the fact the researcher does not want to see God.

    • Beth–thanks for the comment. I assume you know that, given that UA is a public university, the academic study of religion is carried out here (as elsewhere) rather differently than it might at a private or denomination/theological college. So the thing I’d reply is that your very post, in which you saw fit to assert or propose an alternate position premised on an internal disposition, is a fitting example of the position advanced in my post. For the feeling you cite, though presumably in reference to some internal disposition, is nonetheless something you make mention of in public in order to advance a position in contest with what you read in the blog. So there are those who would see your comment as an example of precisely what Lopez was discussing in the above mentioned article.

  2. I assume you know that, given that UA is a public university, the academic study of religion is carried out here (as elsewhere) rather differently than it might at a private or denomination/theological college

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