A Brief Re-Examination of the Concept of Belief in the Study of Religion


Belief […] can be used as a concept to bridge […] frameworks, to allow scholars to understand and appreciate the framework within which religious actors presume to act without using it themselves (or necessarily having to adopt it).

A Brief Re-Examination of the Concept of Belief in the Study of Religion

By Liam T. Sutherland

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 15 May 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Martin Stringer on Situational Belief (13 May 2013)

The work of Professor Martin Stringer is a breath of fresh air for all those who reject both the simplistic belief-centred approach to religion and its attendant backlash. It makes belief an important part of the way that religions are researched and analysed, but not in a fashion recognisable to many.

The traditional belief-centred approach drags with it a raft of assumptions that have proved consistently absent in the field, most notably that religious communities are centred on a coherent body of beliefs which mediates membership and divides them sharply from outsiders. Religious beliefs are often described in ways so philosophical and abstract that they would appear to in no way relate to the everyday lives of practitioners, who may have never encountered such supposedly integral doctrines. This approach has been overturned by examinations of ritual, visual religion, ethnicity, kinship, power etc.  Other assumptions have been overturned, such as the notion that adherents engage exclusively in practices sanctioned by their tradition. Stringer found in his own fieldwork in the North of England that professing Christians would seek the advice of astrologers and claim to believe in reincarnation.

The inaccuracy of such assumptions has led to a rejection of ‘belief’ as a problematic concept. However, many of these assumptions cannot be countered without re-examining the concept of belief. Arguably this is because they reflect a misrepresentation of the workings of belief, not the applicability of the concept itself.  The rejection of belief is based on equally untenable assumptions, usually simple, negative or inverted versions of those mentioned above. ‘Belief’ is often described by its critics in the words of Clifford Geertz, as though it always entailed some kind of ‘abstract Baconian deduction’, always hermetically sealed, intellectual, elite systems which are removed from everyday life. Attempting to remove belief from accounts of religion is a hollow, unsatisfying and deliberately blinkered means of avoiding its pitfalls –  as Geertz added it is like staging Hamlet without the prince.

Stringer has shown that people use belief in extra-empirical beings as coping mechanisms and to anticipate and deal with problems. People may seek the structure, resources and cultural resonance of a Christian church, the ability to predict and respond to future problems offered by an astrologer, and the comfort of being able to chat with dead relatives who can listen and respond. All of these examples depend on a variety of factors, one of which is surely that they are considered to reflect belief in powerful, efficacious and therefore useful realities.

This approach to belief highlights the fact that while religion may have ritual, visual and ideological functions, it is never devoid of interpretations of the cosmos. The fact that some religions are orthopraxic, emphasising the necessity of correct practice not correct belief, does not mean that such religions are devoid of belief. As Segal has argued, religion could not perform any kind of ideological or psychological function if it was not a somewhat independent factor: that is, if many did not believe in the claims being made. A deity may need to be ritually appealed to or appeased but may not be concerned with the mental state of practitioners. This fact does not mean that no one considers the deity to be a real being that requires appeasement. While there may be evidence for other motivations for the performance – cultural heritage, to legitimate the traditional power structure etc. – a practitioner’s statement is surely the best evidence we have. As Horton pointed out, it would be incredibly patronising and unsound for scholars to assume that they have the ‘correct’ interpretation of believers’ statements.

Another crucial contribution that Stringer has made in the rehabilitation of the concept of belief is his notion of ‘situational beliefs’, which serves to explain the apparent ‘contradictory’ nature of many popular religious practices in the modern west. The fact that people may appear to practice many traditions simultaneously, or engage in practices prohibited by their (orthodox) tradition, cannot necessarily be taken as clear evidence that they do not believe in the belief statements they are making. Stringer contends that beliefs are most powerful and consciously thought about in specific situations in which they are relevant, such as a ritual-communal setting like a Church service or in the context of problems or obstacles in the person’s life. While the cognitive dimensions and interpretation which attend religious practices should not be downplayed, not all believers will insist on indivisible, coherent bodies of doctrines, but rather adopt piecemeal and patchwork systems. This may be derided by its critics as a ‘pick and mix’ approach but Stringer’s evidence contributes to the evidence that it is the norm not the exception throughout the world.

However, the concept of belief itself must be examined more closely if it is to be of any value as a scholarly tool. Beliefs must be differentiable in some way from thoughts, and could generally be defined as thoughts which are considered to respond to reality with varying degrees of conviction and held over a notable length of time. The thorny question of where the division lies between belief and knowledge was broached by the interviewer, David Robertson. Stringer places the divide along the lines of how much a statement could possibly be verified, i.e. if I put my cup down it is on the table (knowledge), or whether all leopards are Christian (belief).

According to traditional epistemology, however, all knowledge contains belief. One can claim knowledge if one believes a proposition, has sound reasons to justify this, and the proposition happens to in fact be true[1] Belief is thus a constituent part of the process of gaining knowledge, all knowledge contains belief but not all beliefs count as knowledge. Beliefs themselves can be sub-divided according to how they are justified, whether the belief is empirical and rational and thus accessible to all, or based on experiential or cultural justifications.

One of the interesting questions to come out of Stringer’s research is: how incoherent are the beliefs of the practitioners under study? It is certainly the case that they may not match the traditional expected forms of practice, but while Stringer’s model of situational belief is highly useful, it does not necessarily mean that human beings do not retain a drive for coherence[2]. Stewart Guthrie argued that the worldwide tendency of anthropomorphism, which lies at the heart of many religions, is based on a tendency to seek coherent patterns.

Are the forms of religion in evidence here not so different from the traditional orthodoxies, which no longer have the power or legitimacy to maintain their hegemony, that we find it difficult to recognise them? Practitioners don’t feel a need to accept traditions as whole packages, as Stringer mentioned, and may not even be aware of doctrines that they are contradicting. Furthermore, their God may no longer be a jealous one. That is not to argue that Stringer did not find very palpable evidence of contradictions and a loose attitude to creating a unitary, coherent worldview, even for the individual.

Another traditional view of belief challenged by Stringer is the idea that religious beliefs are always deeply held, of ‘ultimate concern’ to use Paul Tillich’s phrase. This arguably reflects Stringer’s link to the Tylorian tradition, which describes religious belief as a pragmatic means of interpreting the cosmos and indeed to coping with it. This means that believers may not develop an intense ‘faith’ in or sacred aura around these beliefs but, instead, may be willing to adopt new beliefs and abandon old ones, according to how well they appear to offer a valid interpretive mechanism.  As Fitzgerald has astutely pointed out, belief in deities or spirits may be considerably less important or sacred than values such as hierarchy, purity or democracy.

One of the main concepts employed by scholars in place of ‘belief’ is ‘experience.’ Experience is an extremely useful focus but it can be used problematically much like belief and does not perform the same role.  It would certainly be implausible to deny that religious practitioners have real experiences: social, psychological and sensory but the problem is of course that experiences can never be separated out of their frameworks of interpretation. Religious believers frequently claim to have experiences of the love of God and the power of crystals, not just the warmth of their congregation or the pageantry of a festival.

By using the notion of ‘experience’ scholars can conveniently ignore the inherent tension between the naturalistic-cultural and theological frameworks of interpretation. Scholars should not ignore this tension but face it head on: religious people claim to know or experience metaphysical realities because they have interpreted experiences found among specific groups and inculcated by rituals etc. in a particular way. Scholars of religion study only these human beings and do not interpret these experiences in the same way, but cannot simply dismiss them because they lie outside the scientific framework. Belief here can be used as a concept to bridge these frameworks, to allow scholars to understand and appreciate the framework within which religious actors presume to act without using it themselves (or necessarily having to adopt it). Many would not claim to believe in metaphysical realities, but to know them or experience them, but that does not mean that it is useful for scholars to adopt these turns of phrase. They must ‘re-describe’ religious claims in a manner which does not endorse their position.

Experience here takes on the same character as the concept of ‘faith’ that Stringer critiqued, which is used to keep scholars at arm’s length. Adding the concept of belief to the analysis makes it more precise and rich by clarifying  how subjects understand and interpret their experiences, how they separate perceived reality from perceived illusion and modelling the cognitive framework within which actors presume to act. Certainly if social networks can inculcate common behaviour and even common experiences, they can inculcate frameworks of interpretation which are genuinely held to correspond to reality.  The point is that religious believers claim to believe in more than the emotive content of rituals, to believe in ontological realities. Social scientists may be methodologically agnostic to the existence of such phenomena, but they should not leave belief in them out of analysis, because concern with human beings means concern with the cognitive worlds they inhabit.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author:

481753_10151274231722302_1786021171_nLiam Sutherland is a native of Edinburgh who has studied Religious Studies twice at Edinburgh University and is about to go back for third time in September of this year. His undergraduate work focused on Indigenous Religions, taking contemporary Indigenous Australian spirituality as his dissertation topic. His Masters by research concerned the legacy and influence of Sir E.B. Tylor on contemporary theoretical debates in the study of religion and his upcoming PhD will focus on religion and Scottish National identity. He has previously written An Evaluation of Harvey’s Approach to Animism and the Tylorian Legacy,and The Spirit of the Matter: a Neo-Tylorian Response to Timothy Fitzgerald for the Religious Studies project, and participated in roundtable recordings on What is the Future of Religious Studies? and Should Religious Studies be Multidisciplinary?


  • Fitzgerald, T. The Ideology of Religious Studies (2000) Oxford University Press
  • Geertz, C.  “Religion as a Cultural System” in Geertz, C. The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays by Clifford Geertz (1973) Basic Books
  • Guthrie, S.E. Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion (1993) Oxford University Press
  • Horton, R. Patterns of Thought in Africa and the West: Essays on Magic, Religion and Science(1993) Cambridge University Press
  • Lévy-Bruhl, L. Primitive Mentality (1966) Clare, A.L. (trans.) Beacon Press
  • McCutcheon, R.T. Critics Not Caretakers: Redescribing the Public Study of Religion (2001) State University of New York Press
  • Segal, R. “Theories of Religion” in Hinnels, J. R. (ed.) Routledge Companion to the Study of Religion (2005) Routledge
  • Stringer, M.D. Contemporary Western Ethnography and the Definition of Religion (2008) Continuum
  • Tylor, E.B Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Art and Custom Volumes 1 & 2 (1871) John Murray

[1] This approach may well be criticised by many but mostly due to the seemingly arbitrary third factor: that a proposition happens to be true!

[2] I would not argue that Stringer is attempting to revive the position of the early anthropologist Lucien Lévy-Bruhl who argued that many cultures could not recognise contradictions because they thought only in a ‘mystical’ and ‘pre-logical’ framework. Stringer’s account of religion is far too embedded in ordinary life for that. It is possible to speculate that religious people much like non-religious people do not think about the totality of their cognitive cosmos at any one time, rather the aspects that concern them at any one time.

16 replies
  1. Avatar
    JDF Tuckett says:

    I do not understand why Sutherland feels the need to make the division between beliefs that are empirical and rational and beliefs that are experiential and cultural. Such a division is not only erroneous to my mind but also perpetuates a Western hegemony over knowledge and belief. Despite his attempts to be fair to “them”, the very division clearly elevates “us” to a superior position.

    Closer inspection reveals the distinctions to be false thereby revealing this stealthy maneouvre. What is an empirical belief? It is a belief in the objects of the world that has been verified and such verification is always by means of the senses. Yet aren’t the senses the means by which we experience also? Indeed, it is through the senses that we experience and therefore any belief that is empirical is necessarily experiential in the first place or else it could not be verified. If I do not experience that empirical thing I cannot verify my knowledge in it. Van der Leeuw rightly recognised this when he pointed out that “their” beliefs are always empirical. But perhaps they are not “rational”? A question that begs another: What are the determinates of rationality? Clearly to be rational entails one’s ability to reason in an acceptable fashion. I.e. to justify one’s belief. And how does one determine a belief is justified? We are taught how to appropriately justify ourselves by our education systems. But an education system is a cultural edifice and so our ability to reason is inherently cultural. Rationality is taught and nuanced in many ways. Take for example university level discussion. What is considered a justified argument in History differs in subtle ways from what is considered a justified argument in Religious Studies. What is “rational” is determined by the individual culture (or subculture) doing the defining. Evans-Pritchard recognised this in his study of the Azande when he saw that their justification of running their lives by appeal to Witchcraft was a perfectly rational means of conducting their affairs even though it was very different from his own.

    To maintain a distinction between empirical and experiential, rational and cultural beliefs is to maintain that there is a “correct” way to believe. It is our purpose to understand the ways in which different people understand their beliefs to be rational and empirical, not to decide whether such ways are “correct”. Such a division not only distorts our understanding of those we study but is itself a “theological” claim (to borrow Wiebe’s favoured derision). And if they are “theological” claims are we not then in McCutcheon’s position of wondering if we should be studying our colleague down the hall?

  2. Avatar
    Russell McCutcheon says:

    Is not the problem our failure to understand belief as a term that operates as part of a folk psychology? Like so many other methodological and theoretical issues in our field, the problem is treating a local folk concept–local to the world in which the vast majority of scholars of religion have themselves been raised and educated–as if it was cross-culturally useful and ontologically solid: just because you and I walk around thinking we have beliefs, intentions, meanings, identity, experiences, faith, feelings, sentiments, etc. etc., and that they are real and cause other things to happen (pollsters are constantly asking how our beliefs shape our actions), doesn’t mean we actually do, when those claims (aside: as rightly identified by Liam–we’re talking about claims, which are social, historical, public, etc.) are themselves examined.

    • Avatar
      JDF Tuckett says:

      Could you clarify a couple of things for me just so I don’t misread you and say something stupid:

      Are you denying that we have beliefs, intentions, meanings, etc.? Or, are you denying that beliefs, intentions, meanings, etc. cause other things to happen?

      How are you using intentions and meanings? I have taken you to be using “intentions” in the sense of motives rather than the phenomenological sense of consciousness being “conscious of”. And I have read your use “meaning” in the existential sense of X having significance to the person rather than as a synonym for definition.

  3. Avatar
    Russell McCutcheon says:

    Of course I have beliefs. And intentions. And meanings in my intentions. And desires encoded in meanings encoded in intentions… But the question is: In saying what I’ve just said, am I talking as a scholar/scientist or am I talking folk psychology that circulates as commonsense in my in-group? And if the latter, then what’s at stake in elevating that language to ontological status (“Are you denying that we have beliefs…?”), to a cross-cultural universal? If the latter–since we, as scholars, have to use language of course and we have to work with the one that is at hand usually–then does it need tweaking, theorizing, redescription if we, again as scholars, are going to start talking about beliefs, and meanings, and intentions, and experiences, and faith, and….? After all, “mana” was once a commonsense folk category of an ethnographically specific group (as we are ourselves, of course) but I assume we’d think it silly to ontologize it and universalize it, no? So what of “belief”?

    • Avatar
      JDF Tuckett says:

      When I speak as the scientist this entails that I use the language appropriate to the province of meaning that we call Social Science. Following Alfred Schutz in this regard it must be admitted that this province is somewhat derivative of the natural attitude, in that most of the language we have is, as you say, drawn from the commonsense language at hand. However, the scientist uses these words in ways that are specific to this province of meaning. In this respect he must be absolutely clear in how he is using the term so that if he is using it in a different sense as it is used in commonsense discourse it is not confused with that usage.

      Take “meaning” for example. How I use meaning as a phenomenologist may be called the existential interpretation. To say that something has meaning is to say that the thing in question either draws or repels the person. In Scheler’s parlance this is to say that something is meaningful if it affects my experience. Insofar as you were speaking as a scholar before, i.e. speaking within the Social Science province of meaning, you were incorrect to say “desires encoded in meaning” which suggests that desire is logically prior to meaning. In fact the converse is the case, something must have meaning before I can have a desire toward it. It is logically impossible to desire a thing that has no meaning. However, draw and desire are not synonymous in this regard. If x repels me (has negative meaning) I may nevertheless desire x insofar as I wish to turn it into something alluring. More specifically I desire x2 but as I am present with x1 I must act upon it to change it.

      As for “belief”, by it is meant (here used in the definitional sense) that the person has the content “x is the case” or “x is not the case”. Schutz called the totality of these contents the person’s stock of knowledge and it is the means by which the person can carry out their affairs. Quite simply without beliefs a person would not be able to conduct their lives for it would lack points of orientation. However, within “folk” discourse “belief” can be used in ways that implies more than this simple definition. Yet to know this requires that we pay attention to the context in which someone says “I believe…”. Having secured a basic definition of “belief” we as social scientists must ask when someone says “I believe in God” are they saying that “God is the case” or do they mean more than this? How the person uses “belief”, what they add to this basic definition in this context may of course be specific to that in-group in the same way that “mana” was specific to a single group. Now it must be considered that it may upon investigation be the case that in reality no one uses “belief” in the way the social scientist has defined it but it always carries with it the same meaning (definitional) as it carries in “I believe in God”. As such it may be specific to that one group. In which case in order to avoid confusion with the way belief is used in “folk” situations we may take up a new term to designate the person’s content “x is the case”.

    • Avatar
      JDF Tuckett says:

      Also, even though I retained your use of “folk category” I must say that I am not entirely satisfied with the usage. To say that mana is a “folk category” of a particular group has a demeaning effect to my mind. If we are going to speak in terms of the categories possessed by groups why is mana a folk category and not a category? If the use of “folk” is meant to differentiate between the categories of a group and the categories of the social scientist then this implicitly elevates the scientist’s categories to a higher level: “Our” categories have been formally worked out whereas “Their’s” have not. I would deny such a stance, the social scientist’s categories are not higher than the categories of another group, they are simply the categories of a different province of meaning.

  4. Avatar
    Russell McCutcheon says:

    “Insofar as you were speaking as a scholar before,…” No, I was trying (apparently rather unsuccessfully) to suggest the common sense world in which I live, listing off meaning, desire, intention, etc., all terms of common parlance in the world I inhabit in my day-to-day life, but hardly technical terms in my books (technical = driven by explicit theories, cross-culturally applicable, aimed to find general principles applicable in other situations, etc.). Case in point, when you write “something is meaningful if it affects my experience” you’re trying to develop what you see as a technical definition of “meaning” (whether I agree with it or not is besides the point), on the one hand, but then, on the other, that common sense term “experience” squeaks in there (i.e., my hunch is that you were not using “experience” as part of a technical theory of the self–or were you? Easy to think back now, in hindsight, that you were, but my guess is that in the moment of producing text you just slipped back into a folk discourse in which we all seem to presume that we have inner [pre-linguistic?–“I can’t quite put it into words…”] sentiments called experiences). Also, “subatomic particle” is a folk category too, right?, used by an ethnographically-specific group, called physicists. So I think you over-worry the notion of “folk” (how did I suggest “higher” and thereby imply better? You read that into my writing, no?); but I think there is something useful in distinguishing how the people I study talk about themselves (and in most cases they don’t, of course–i.e., they just live their lives without thinking about it or defending it or interpreting it and translating it for a non-participant, much as you’re reading this right now and likely not reflecting on the socio-economic implications of the internet or the politics of grammar) and the vocabulary I use, and the theories I use, and the scholarly traditions in which I plot myself, etc. Call it participant discourse as opposed to scholarly discourse. Call it folk as opposed to technical, call it first and second order, whayever…, and then turn the tables and study me and my technical discourse and call it my folk discourse. Great.

    • Avatar
      JDF Tuckett says:

      Perhaps I should have been more clear in my use of experience. You are right to highlight that because I was using it in a technical sense. By “experience” I mean anything which consciousness is “conscious of”. I.e. anything that is experienced is anything that my consciousness is directed toward. This of course potentially differs from the “folk” use of experience, or how it occurs in everyday talk. Usually when we speak of experience in this arena we mean by it a particular experience selected out from all other experiences that, for whatever reason, is of particular significance to us and worthy of mention. For example, “You never guess what happened to me on the way to work today” identifies only one experience out of the entire flux of experiences (as I have defined it) that actually occured on the way to work.

      I think you response to my concern over “folk” actually clarifies the issue I have with it. The word is redundant. When you say “folk categories” or “folk discourse” this instantly implies that is a difference between these as “categories” and “discourse”. Yet precisely because of the way you have discribed, it especially when you pointed out that our scientific discourse can also be called “folk”, there is no real difference between “folk categories” and “categories”. That is, what I call provinces of meaning and you have called zones of significance and social formations contain categories and the addition of “folk” does nothing to alter our understanding of those categories. At best I think the appalation of “folk” in your usage indicates that the category in question belongs to a different zone of significance to the one we are currently utilising. Unless, of course I have misread you and what you are really saying is that within each zone of significance there belongs folk categories and categories and that there is a technical difference between the two.

  5. Avatar
    Liam says:

    Firstly thank you both for your comments, I am exited that such a lively discussion has unfolded but I doubt I’ll be able to answer all of your points! Jonathan, I can understand why my distinction between empirical-rational justifications and experiential and cultural justifications put you immediately in mind of the west vs the rest dichotomy but I would point out that Stringer is almost entirely concerned with western popular religion and I largely followed this. I had traditional and not so traditional Christianity as well as ‘New Age’ and other ‘alternative’ beliefs in mind when I wrote.

    I think perhaps the way that I outlined the distinction between empirical-rational justifications on the one hand and experiential and cultural justifications on the other was regrettable. This is primarily because it reads like a rigid dichotomy and a specific model when in I largely intended to emphasise that people use different types of justification and some are more convincing than others. However I might add that while a medical practitioner might find the claims of a homeopath unconvincing based on the justifications used, especially those which are not based on empiricism, a Social Scientist would surely find them interesting partially because different types of justifications may be used such as personal experiences.

    I’ll admit that I hadn’t really thought about sense data in terms of experience while writing this piece but I acknowledge your point. That said I don’t think the evidence provided to us by the senses can be rejected so readily because it is measurable and repeatable. I think perhaps I shouldn’t have used the term ‘experiential’ because what I really meant was the fact that some religious people (and indeed non-religious people) will use highly personal non-observable experiences as justifications. They may assert that they feel the power of the Holy Spirit or have encountered spiritual beings or had vivid memories of past lives. I highlight this type of justification largely to highlight its importance for many religious believers and that this should be more widely appreciated.

    Also I didn’t have the space to discuss a lot of the background, but its based largely on Clifford Geertz’s model which distinguishes between religious, naive empirical and critical empirical types of worldview, which according to Geertz are found in all cultures. I adapted this into my own model which I wrote about in my article for Paranthropology and also in my response to Fitzgerald, arguing that human beings share a basic cognitive common ground (and even that is quite varied) but that their cognitive worlds are far bigger and not shared. Religions of course have hidden beings, forces and realms but scientists have added their own, highly counter-intuitive hidden forces and realms such as bacteria, subatomic particles and multiple dimensions but these are justified through rigorous empiricism, advanced mathematics etc.

    You could certainly argue that the modern scientific worldview is largely of western origin (although I wouldn’t call it western) and is obviously modern. Certainly as Jan Platvoet has argued the concepts of nature and natural and thus ‘supernatural’ (or whatever the preferred replacement term is) that we use are deeply rooted in that and are far from universal. However I don’t think this has to be a problem as long as this is recognised, because after all that is where we are intellectually and culturally situated. Recognising that we are situated allows us to negotiate radically different worldviews because the scholar should not delude themselves into thinking that they are devoid of such things and we do need some kind of framework.

    In terms of the rationality of religious believers, I am in complete agreement. It is a very important part of the Tylorian approach that religious and indeed non-religious beliefs and behaviours are basically viewed as rational and coherent. Indeed that is why I was very keen to distance Stringer’s approach from that of Lucien Levy-Bruhl, who sharply distinguished western from non-western thought. When I mentioned reason with empiricism, I was referring to scientific reasoning such as mathematics, formal logic etc. For me, one of the most vital parts of understanding different worldviews is the attempt to understand the reasoning within a worldview: the key premises, the conclusions and how these cohere and how all of these statements and behaviors are justified.

    Also I don’t think E.E Pritchard argued that the Zande reason in a radically different way from any other culture and indeed that is why the rationale within their belief system could be understood and articulated. Pritchard was very keen to emphasise that the Zande completely understood the physical explanations for misfortune – the how, but that witchcraft explained the why. This is a model which could be applied not only to almost all religions but to almost any comprehensive worldview. I hope I have gone some way to answering your points.

    Thanks, Liam

    • Avatar
      JDF Tuckett says:

      Liam, I will focus on two points from your response:

      You say people (whether religious or not) have “highly personal non-observable experiences”. In the first instance are you suggesting that people can have nonpersonal experiences? How does one have such an experience? Surely, an experience as something which happens to the person must be personal precisely because it happens to them. By calling it “personal” are you not really smuggling in the notion that certain experiences are “special” and to be treated in a certain way? The imposition is that “special experiences” could be concieved as ontologically different to normal experiences.

      This I think is unintentional on your part and I think the real focus is on the “non-observable” aspect of this experience. But in what sense are you using “non-observable”? Do you mean by it that it is an experience that cannot be seen, i.e. the eyes are the wrong organ for dealing with this experience, or are you suggesting that it is unverifiable? And also to whom is the experience “non-observable”, the person having the experience or the scientist? Take your example of “feeling the Holy Spirit”. In the first instance we might say that it is an non-observable experience for the person having the experience because they do not say anything as such. But this does not make the experience unverifiable for it could just as easily be experienced through any of the other senses. Yet for the scientist the experience is quite obviously observable in the visual sense because I can see a change in the person having the experience. (Of course the scientist may not know what the cause (i.e. the Holy Spirit) of the experience is as he observes it happening). As for verification are we asking whether the scientist can verify that the person had an experience, in which case the answer is likely yes, or are we asking if we can verify the source of that experience as being the Holy Spirit? This latter question, certainly if we call the Holy Spirit non-observable in this sense, then becomes a theological question inappropriate to Social Science.

      In reference to your comments on Geertz. Why can’t a religious worldview be naive empirical and critical empirical? Or vice versa? Is Geertz setting up an either/or distinction? The simple division of “religious” and “empirical” sets up an errant dichotomy that may have no basis in the people we study. If they make no such distinction, but we then divide their worldview according to these categories are we not then making a value judgement as to what should be classified as empirical or religious? And how do we differentiate between “naive” and “critical”? On what grounds are we justified in saying that one empirical view is critical and another not? Surely this is to make a value judgement about them. Is it then the purpose of the social scientist to make such judgements regarding worldviews?

  6. Avatar
    Liam says:

    Dr McCutcheon,

    Thanks very much for your comments. Certainly I acknowledge that ‘belief’ is a folk category local to the west, with specific connotations and baggage, that many cultures don’t have a word for it etc (sounds familiar eh!) or if they do it is wider or narrower than the concept used in European languages. Rodney Needham explored this quite fully in “Belief, Language and Experience” but I don’t think he proves his point that belief is useless as an anthropological tool. Surely all categories are folk categories at least in origin, they are merely adapted for specialised usage – a scalpel is just a sharpened knife. If I understand the argument you made against Benson Saler in “Critics not Caretakers” correctly, it is easier to adapt the terms of the language we are using because we are aware of the connotations and baggage they carry with them and can adapt them as necessary.

    However in terms of the universality of concepts I think the problem is acknowledging that while as Needham points out abstract psychological and social concepts or categories are not like the concepts of tables or hammers, they do have referents. The concepts that we use however package the world in highly specific ways and have specific historical baggage but as Whorf argued (I’m relying on Needham here) it is possible that there are covert concepts which are not covered by a specific word. This argument could be abused of course but I think it is interesting. In any case when it comes to the basic core of the concept of belief – that people have thoughts and claims about reality which they consider to correspond to reality, I would need a very robust argument to convince me that this is absent among any group of human beings, and I don’t think human beings can be studied without some reference to this.

    In terms of the extent to which beliefs can determine action etc, I am with Robert Segal on this one! Basically once adequately defined; religions, worldviews, beliefs and values can be treated as independent factors but strictly within the historical and naturalistic framework. That is not to argue that they are radically independent in some transcendent or ahistorical way, they are dependent variables but really no more dependent than anything else. Certainly I think that beliefs really can determine action because it determines the framework within which actors presume to act. This does not mean that we must view practitioners as ‘pious’ because worldviews can pattern the ways in which actors pursue their interests.

    Anyway I’ll try and get on to some of your other points later.

    Thanks a lot, Liam

  7. Avatar
    Russell McCutcheon says:

    JDF: what do you mean by difference? That’s the key. You seem to assume difference refers to some ontological distinction whereas for me difference simply presupposes provisional, stipulated distinction, not difference in kind. There are all kinds of differences between talking this way and talking that way but yes, they’re both talking. See my point? Have you ever read J Z Smith on genealogical comparison as opposed to analogical (if not, see the opening chapters to his Drudgery Divine.)

    • Avatar
      JDF Tuckett says:

      I don’t necessarily mean a difference in ontolological kind. If I meant that I would have said folk-discourse instead of folk discourse. The difference I refer to is in the detail of the definition. I shall use phenomenology as an analogy because I’ve done this before.

      To “phenomenology” there belongs a particular definition (I know they are contested but for the moment I leave this aside) which designates what it does. Phenomenology does X. If, however, I speak of “phenomenology of religion” I add to this definition. Phenomenology of religion does X + A. The “of religion” provides this new element A. Similarly the phenomenology of sport does X + B.These can be distinguished (ontologically) from pheomenology-of-religion that does Y. (The “phenomenology” that you and most other scholars in Religious Studies criticise is the phenomenology-of-religion kind, by the way).

      So when we say “category” we define it as doing X and when we say “folk category” we should define it as doing X + A. But from the way I read your usage above both “category” and “folk category” are defined as doing X. I’m failing to identify the A that “folk” is supposed to add.

  8. Avatar
    Liam says:

    Okay Jonathan,

    I clearly haven’t thought enough about the usage of the term ‘experience’ but that is partially because I far prefer to use the concept of belief! In any case I certainly can’t deny that any kind of experience is personal and when I said non-observable I wasn’t specifically referring to sight, terms like non-verifiable or non-falsifiable will do fine. I think the kind of claims people make rely lie at the heart of the matter, people claim to experience the power of the holy spirit and this for me rests entirely on beliefs a framework of interpretation in which feelings of serenity or altered states of consciousness which could be experienced independently are inserted.

    Here is Geertz’s definition of religion, I should stress that I don’t actually use his definition merely his model but I think I should outline his thought process:

    “(1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions in such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic”

    This is his vision of a religious perspective against which the other types are set against. The common sense or naive realist worldview is defined as a simple acceptance of the world and its objects and processes. While he acknowledges everyday life is a cultural patterned thing but that all cultures have people who are not motivated or concerned by the wider cosmic framework into which everyday life fits. He contrasts this view with the scientific view because of its attempt to doubt everything, while commonsense realism simply accepts everything as a given. The point is that in all cultures some people will not be convinced by non-verifiable claims, Geertz argued that while it is possible for some people to be non-religious and non-scientific, it is not possible to do without some kind of ‘everyday’ or ‘commonsense’ worldview.

    For me religious beliefs involve non-empirical or extra-natural claims which is why even the most everyday forms of religion often rely on ritual and or altered states of consciousness (I am aware you have some problems with this term, I would happily substitute it for something else). Religious beliefs however became very much a part of everyday life but find ways of working the extraordinary into the everyday.

    • Avatar
      JDF Tuckett says:

      Leaving aside the gratuitously vacuous phrase “altered states of consciousness”…

      On what basis have you determined that the contents of religious belief or “religious experience” are non-observable (i.e. non-verifiable), non-empirical and extra-natural? How have you decided what is observable, empirical and natural? Your “scientific” language is shot through with value judgements of a metaphysical/theological sort. Admittedly observability in your sense can present itself as a methodological issue. But the decision as to what is empirical/non-empirical and natural/extra-natural is not something we as social scientists qua social scientists are qualified to decide upon. It is our job to study how other people understand these concepts and why, or to study why they don’t have such distinctions. If, however, you are a social scientist qua natural scientist by all means go ahead and decide what is empirical/non-empirical and natural/non-natural. But if you do so, you declare yourself to be a “theologian” and therefore the subject of study for social scientist qua social scientists.

  9. Avatar
    Liam says:


    Apologies that it has taken me so long to answer your last point and I will certainly try and make this my last comment. I only wish to make my desired aims and the interpretations which lie behind my approach clear, whether they prove valid in the long run or not. Firstly I do not use terms like ‘extra-natural’ or ‘non-observable’ as value judgements on the beliefs in question. They are second order, classificatory and comparative terms which as I have pointed out before are frequently not used by believers rather like the concept of religion, it can be useful if used thoughtfully but it is far from universal as a descriptive label.

    As I have argued above I do not think it is possible for religious scholars to be un-situated and that as long as we recognise that our approach is derived from contemporary science we can move forward. Religious studies is a (very minor, very junior) part of the scientific community. It certainly is derived from the scientific worldview and is historically linked to the enlightenment etc.

    It is thus from the perspective of contemporary science that we can identify social systems which are based on or integrated with beliefs in ‘extra-natural’ phenomena. I think that this perspective is perfectly in line with the arguments made by Donald Wiebe and others that religious studies should be a science distinct from insider discourses and the truth claims of religious believers, if I remember correctly he also argued in favour of restricting our interpretations to the socio-naturalistic framework. I believe in attempting to be as unbiased as possible and that we should not be concerned with the truth or value of religious beliefs but I do not think it is possible to approach the topic outside of any worldview. I just don’t accept the idea that you can study anything ‘in and of itself’, unmediated.

    This approach is for me perfectly compatible with the notion of methodological agnosticism. We need to be agnostic about something after all and for me it is not the existence of the external world or the reality of the unseen worlds revealed by scientific research about which we claim to be agnostic. Terms like ‘extra-natural’ are used to determine an area of study, the fact that many groups of human beings claim to believe in, experience or know about beings, forces, worlds etc. which lie outside the roughly common core of human experience, the phenomenal world to use Kant’s phrase and outside ‘nature’ as revealed by science. The crucial thing about extra-natural beliefs is the fact that many people would not accept their reality and it is this difficult terrain that religious studies has to negotiate using methodological agnosticism to pursue other questions that are sidelined in the usual debates about ‘religion’.

    I use these terms simply as a general category to reinforce the point that any study of religious people should not avoid the fact that they claim to believe in, know or experience phenomena such as gods,spirits, magic, karma, samsara, the soul, spiritworlds, heavens, hells, purgatories, pure lands, the Dao etc. These are ontological and cosmological claims which many people consider to be absolutely real but yet are not part of the everyday world revealed to the senses, this is fascinating. I think terms like extra-natural simply allow the scholar to negotiate radically different worldviews while also accepting that human beings do have much epistemic and cognitive common ground.


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply to JDF Tuckett Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *