Religion as Action & Belief

Over at the NYT, Stanford anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann has posted a curious op-ed piece arguing that action rather than belief constitutes the larger part of being “religious.” It is curious because there doesn’t seem to be a large public audience for an argument that begins with a synopsis of Durkheim:

The role of belief in religion is greatly overstated, as anthropologists have long known. In 1912, Émile Durkheim, one of the founders of modern social science, argued that religion arose as a way for social groups to experience themselves as groups. He thought that when people experienced themselves in social groups they felt bigger than themselves, better, more alive — and that they identified that aliveness as something supernatural. Religious ideas arose to make sense of this experience of being part of something greater. Durkheim thought that belief was more like a flag than a philosophical position: You don’t go to church because you believe in God; rather, you believe in God because you go to church.

My only quibble with this is that Durkheim was not an anthropologist; in fact, he wrote Elementary Forms of Religious Life in opposition to the then-dominant anthropological model of “religion” as something that arose as a result of cognitive processes or propositional thinking. With Elementary Forms, Durkheim was determined to establish sociology as a distinct discipline that would displace anthropology as the leading science of humanity.

Luhrmann has done several years of fieldwork among American evangelicals, among whom I also did “fieldwork” of sorts having been raised by an evangelical parent. Our respective experiences of American evangelicals were obviously different and lead to different assessments. While I can’t agree with Lurhmann’s assertion that evangelical worldviews are filled with joy, I can agree that actions are just as important as beliefs:

To be clear, I am not arguing that belief is not important to Christians. It is obviously important. But secular Americans often think that the most important thing to understand about religion is why people believe in God, because we think that belief precedes action and explains choice. That’s part of our folk model of the mind: that belief comes first.

And that was not really what I saw after my years spending time in evangelical churches. I saw that people went to church to experience joy and to learn how to have more of it. These days I find that it is more helpful to think about faith as the questions people choose to focus on, rather than the propositions observers think they must hold.

If you can sidestep the problem of belief — and the related politics, which can be so distracting — it is easier to see that the evangelical view of the world is full of joy. God is good. The world is good. Things will be good, even if they don’t seem good now. That’s what draws people to church. It is understandably hard for secular observers to sidestep the problem of belief. But it is worth appreciating that in belief is the reach for joy, and the reason many people go to church in the first place.

Though she doesn’t quite say it, one implication of Luhrmann’s view is that purely mental or propositional analyses of religion will always fall at least half short of the mark. Evolutionary scholars who argue that “religion” is a cognitive byproduct tend to overlook this important aspect of the phenomena.

All this aside, it is important to note that the evangelicals I was around for over 15 years were enthralled and motivated by joy’s opposite: fear. In fact, it often seemed that the joy was predicated on fear and that both were required for the “fullness” of the evangelical experience.


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5 thoughts on “Religion as Action & Belief

  1. Sabio Lantz

    When I read this, I thought:

    (1) The word “action” can be deceptive too because it has a flavor of rituals or positive ethical acts. But if “action” includes social signaling with such thing as perfunctory verbal ascensions and season decoration and greetings and such, then “action” can be opposed to “belief” or “cognitive stances”. But even the cognitive stances are weak — rarely does the believer care about consistency or systematic approaches. The beliefs are just weaker supports (also signaling) for some of the other functions of their religion.

    (2) I agree with you that viewing Evangelicals as seeking a joy soaked world seems limited. I see fear, desire to belong, desire to heal, desire to succeed …

    One of my posts today re-iterates this notion that belief is far more than doctrines and beliefs. “Actions” seems to play into the progressive Christian’s emphasis on Praxis — but it has the problems I mentioned earlier — it ignores the signaling and pragmatic reasons believers belong (reasons they’d like to think themselves above, but they aren’t).

  2. Juggernaut Nihilism

    Quibbles or no, this message needs to be pushed out there. In one stroke it ends the debate with new atheists types by pointing out that their idea of what constitutes religion is based on false assumptions. When you believe that religion is simply a hypothesis about the universe, and that behaviors merely issue as a sort of epiphenomenon from this hypothesis, the crucial task of the new atheist is to show that the beliefs are not facts, and that therefore the behaviors of religious people are based on ignorance and lies. When the formula is reversed, and we see religious beliefs arise as post facto rationalizations for religious behaviors, it becomes clear that arguing over the factual efficacy of the beliefs is a total waste of time.

  3. Sabio Lantz

    Actually Cris, this article inspired me to draw a diagram of how I see religion works — a diagram I can use to point out to other folks the complexity I don’t think they are accounting for in their model. See here if you are interested — I know, it must be weird to see lay folks draw their intuitive models based on almost no data — but there ya are.

  4. Cris Post author

    It’s not weird at all; we all have different ways of conceptualizing. I like the diagram.

  5. Cris Post author

    Christine Legare at the University of Texas is doing some really nice work showing that people can simultaneously hold conflicting beliefs, and that cognitive consistency (or internal coherence) is almost never required for anyone. Thus, actions need not reflect beliefs, and beliefs don’t have to be consistent with actions. The signaling issues are interesting because it is socially embedded: signals are meant for others.

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