'Belief' lies at the core of E.B. Tylor's canonical definition of religion as belief in 'spiritual beings'. However, in the last decades of the twentieth century the concept became unfashionable in the social sciences, with scholars from all parts of the world denouncing its centrality as a Western, Protestant bias which has limited application to other religions. Ariela Keysar disagrees...

About this episode

‘Belief’ lies at the core of E.B. Tylor’s canonical definition of religion as belief in ‘spiritual beings’. However, in the last decades of the twentieth century the concept became unfashionable in the social sciences, with scholars from all parts of the world denouncing its centrality as a Western, Protestant bias which has limited application to other religions. In recent years, however, there has been something of a resurgence of interest in ‘belief’ and Chris recently attended an international symposium entitled “What does it mean to believe?” at the University of Kent, Canterbury, UK, organised by Dr Abby Day, and the British Council. At this symposium, Professor Ariela Keysar presented a paper entitled “What does ‘belief’ mean to Americans?”, and later on discussed the content of this paper with Chris for this podcast. You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us.

In his keynote address, right at the very start of the symposium, Gordon Lynch raised what he dubbed the erroneous assumption prevalent throughout much of social science that belief is universal, consistent and articulate-able. As Keysar’s data from a number of large-scale, quantitative studies shows, belief changes over time; it is situational, practical, functional, generational; it varies geographically; it varies across and within religious traditions; it has meaning outwith religion, and may be meaningless within; beliefs about the meaning of life may play very little role in daily life.

Listeners may be interested in the following excellent resources mentioned in the podcast which are freely available online:

Dr. Ariela Keysar, a demographer, is Associate Research Professor of Public Policy and Law and the Associate Director of the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture (ISSSC) at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. She was a principal investigator of the American Religious Identification Survey 2008, the largest survey of religion in the U.S., covering over 50,000 respondents. She was also a principal investigator of the ISSSC web survey of Indian scientists, which is the first in a series of studies of worldviews and opinions of scientists around the world. Ariela Keysar was the study director of the American Jewish Identity Survey 2001 and the associate director of the Longitudinal Study of Young Adults Raised in Conservative Synagogues 1995-2003. Dr. Keysar is the co-editor of most recently: Secularism, Women & The State: The Mediterranean World in the 21st Century; also Secularism and Science in the 21st Century and Secularism & Secularity: Contemporary International Perspectives as well as co-author of Religion in a Free Market and The Next Generation: Jewish Children and Adolescents. Listeners may also be interested in our interview with Callum Brown, who is also looking at large-scale surveys, and our roundtable discussion on the issue of using such surveys for research purposes.

This episode has not been transcribed yet. 

Consider a donation to pay for the cost of editing a transcript?

Related Resources

Geographies of Religion and the Secular in Ireland

Podcast

In this broad-ranging interview, O’Mahony eruditely demonstrates what geography can bring to the academic study of ‘religion’ and presents Ireland as a fascinating context within which to examine processes of boundary-making between the contested constructs of ‘religion’ and the ‘secular’.
Communism and Catholicism: Religion and Religious Studies in Lithuania

Podcast

What is the religious field like in a country where religion was banned for half of the 20th century? And how do you set up a Religious Studies department there? Under Communism, religion was suppressed in the formerly Catholic Eastern European country of Lithuania until the 1990s.
Nature alive: Amazonian religion in Peru

Podcast

In this podcast, Dr Jaime Regan Mainville, a leading researcher in the anthropology of religion and linguistics, discusses his ethnographic research among some of the indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin. The Amazon rainforest has always been a land filled with mystery since its 'discovery'.

Responses to this episode

The Faith-Spangled Banner: Changes in American attitudes and belief in all directions

In contemplating a response to Prof Ariela Keysar’s interview with the Religious Studies Project over her work as Associate Director of ISSSC and its most famous endeavour, ARIS, I was struck by the dilemma faced when introducing myself to people here in the UK and telling them where I am from. The replies range from everywhere and between,

Other EPISODES YOU MIGHT ENJOY

Academic Publishing Roundtable

Podcast

Publish, or be damned! But the world of publishing can be esoteric, especially the cloistered world of academic publishing. In this special roundtable discussion, recorded during the 2012 Australian Association for the Study of Religion annual conference, Zoe Alderton leads a group of academics with experience of all levels of academic publishing in a discussion which aims to demystify the process.
John Wolffe and Ronald Hutton on Historical Approaches

Podcast

"History can be of tremendous value for a society that is looking for roots... and can sometimes be a bit uncritical in its search for roots. People want an identity and may be clutching at something that can be a bit confrontational, for example, Muslims looking for an identity rooted in current conflicts in the Middle East, rather than reflecting on what is quite a long-standing presence in British society and culture."
Getting to Know the North American Association for the Study of Religion

Podcast

In this interview, Russell McCutcheon and Aaron Hughes discuss the North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR), an international organization dedicated to historical, critical, and social scientific approaches to the study of religion. In this interview, Russell McCutcheon and Aaron Hughes discuss the North American ...
Magic and Modernity

Podcast

This conversation between Richard Irvine, Theodoros Kyriakides and David G. Robertson concerns magical thinking in the modern world. We may think that such ideas are confined to the fringes in the secular, post-Enlightenment world, but this is not necessarily the case. We talk about Weber's rationalisation and James Frazer's evolutionary model of modernity, and how they relate to ideas of belief, and magic.
Negotiating Gender in Contemporary Occultism

Podcast

In this interview conducted at the 2018 EASR conference in Bern, Sammy Bishop speaks to Manon Hedenborg White about the development of Western esotericism, charting the influence of the infamous Aleister Crowley and his philosophy of Thelema. They explore Crowley's somewhat ambiguous view of gender, before bringing the research into the present day, on how gender roles in contemporary Thelema can be contested and negotiated. Finally, Hedenborg White delves into the important but often overlooked role of women in the development of contemporary Occultism.
Decolonizing Religious Studies and Its Layers of Complicity

Podcast

What layers of complicity in colonialism are still embedded in the field of religious studies? How can we learn from decades of decolonial work in Native American and Indigenous Studies? Dr. Natalie Avalos speaks with RSP co-host David McConeghy about the urgency of decolonial scholarship to start the RSP's 10th season.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

The views expressed in podcasts, features and responses are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Religious Studies Project or our sponsors. The Religious Studies Project is produced by the Religious Studies Project Association (SCIO), a Scottish Charitable Incorporated Organisation (charity number SC047750).