The idea that “belief” is at the center of those institutions and cultural practices we typically identify as “religious” is highly problematic. It’s an ongoing struggle to disrupt this common (Protestant) assumption in the classroom.
To illustrate the gap between so-called “belief” and behavior, I taught J.Z. Smith’s essay “The Bare Facts of Ritual” this semester (see Imagining Religion, University of Chicago Press 1982). The essay is about paleo-Siberian bear hunters who claim to “believe” that the “animal freely offers itself to the hunter’s weapon” (59), that the bears throw themselves upon the hunters’ spears and knives.
Smith asks, are we as scholars to believe this? One can guess that hunters who sat around waiting on a bear to impale itself on their spears might have to wait a long time. In fact, such hunters more likely would be killed by any bears they come across. ”[N]ot only ought we not to believe many of the elements in the description of the hunt as usually presented,” Smith writes, “but we ought not to believe that the hunters, from whom these descriptions were collected, believe it either” (61).
Smith argues that they might report the hunts this way because that is how the hunt ought to be performed. However—if they are to eat—they have to know that the animal actually has to be hunted out and killed against its will. Thus, the ritual reporting “provides the means for demonstrating we know what ought to have been done, what ought to have taken place” (63).
My students, of course, objected: if they don’t really believe it why would they say it?! My co-teacher came up with the perfect modern point of comparison: high school athletes ritually shake hands with the members of the opposite team at the end of a game, in an “expression” of mutual respect, while saying things like “good game.” And, they perform this ritual even when they have no respect for the other team and even when it was not, in fact, a good game.
Why? Because, as Smith points out, in some cases ritual “provides the means for demonstrating we know what ought to have been done, what ought to have taken place.” The ritual need not be an “expression” of an interior “belief.” And, in fact, the idea that the ritual expresses an inner belief might be wrong or even, in the case of the hunters, dead wrong.