Debate Magazine

Religion as Action & Belief

By Cris

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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