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.

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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?


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  • 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.