What’s belief got to do with it?

By Kelly Baker

“They don’t really believe that, do they?” is a refrain that I find familiar, expected and, frankly, tiring. As someone who researches white supremacists and doomsday prophets, I should be used to it. The query confronts me in the classroom, at conferences, at the dinner table, and most often conspiratorially in the hallways.  It is often a hushed question in which the interrogator asks me beseechingly to say what s/he already wants (needs?) to hear.  Simply put, the interrogator wants me to say “no, of course, they don’t believe” that the world will end catastrophically, that reptoids inhabit caves under New Mexico, that Atlantis might rise, or that race war is the only way to redeem America. If I, the person who studies “weird” or “exotic” religion, will assure them that these people don’t believe, then maybe they can rest easy. I cannot assure them. And, if I am being truly honest, I really don’t want to. Instead, I emphasize that this “belief” is materialized in every prophetic utterance, billboard proclaiming the date of the end, online discussion of reptoid encounters, and each weapon purchased for the possibility of race war.

As Craig Martin notes in a previous post, belief is a problematic starting point for the study of religious people. It is an impoverished concept that ignores how people embody, enact, imagine, practice, participate, discuss, envision, hope, desire, want, and construct their religions. Religion is not simply belief, but is enmeshed in lives, materially and metaphysically. In a recent meditation on “belief,” Robert Orsi discusses the materiality of belief and the practice of religious life. Belief doesn’t quite explain what religious people do or even why they do what they do. It cannot encapsulate the messy richness of religious practice.

All of this is to say that I was excited to see Tanya Luhrmann’s contribution to Frequencies, the online genealogy of spirituality, and her new book, When God Talks Back(Here’s her interview with NPR). In her Frequencies article, “Magic,” Luhrmann discusses her research on Druids and their religious training to create worlds that were separate from the modern world and contained magic. She writes:

They practiced the exercises and read the books and participated in the rituals and then, out of the blue, they had seen something. They saw the Goddess, or a flash of light, or a shining vision of another world. They saw these as things in the world, not phantoms in the mind, although because the image vanished almost immediately, they knew that what they had seen was not ordinary. They said that their mental imagery had become sharper. They thought that their inner sense had become more alive.

The Druids trained. I guess we could say they “believed,” but why would we want to?

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5 Responses to What’s belief got to do with it?

  1. Graham Harvey says:

    I still think no-one’s improved on T.P. Tawhai’s statement that “the purpose of religious activity … is doing violence with impunity” (as long as you read the rest of what he says about “Maori Religion”). But we (scholars interested in religion) will never escape the tyranny of “belief” obsessions until we too engage ourselves in the material, performative and relational world instead of imagining ourselves (in the image of the Christian deity) as transcending the phenomena that we objectify. Until then, rant about theologians as much as they like, some of our most “critical” scholars are still dwelling in a theological imaginary. At least, this is what I’m arguing in “Food, Sex and Strangers: Redefining Religion” currently in preparation for publication by Equinox…

  2. Miriam Levering says:

    Excellent piece, Kelly. So beautifully put, so brilliantly illustrated. Bravo!

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  4. Kelly, Great piece. Thanks. On the “belief” terminology, I wonder if it (whatever “it” is) has more to do with constructing worldviews and habitual social interactions than with dogmas, doctrines, or set rites. When I read your comments about the “end time”/apocalyptic groups, I immediately thought of the cosmic warfare theme traced in Mark Juergensmeyer’s now classic _Terror in the Mind of God_. That is, do people “shape” their worlds in polysynthetic ways (my term, if it makes sense; I hate the term syncretism) in order to generate a set of recurring interactive moments with other people within a socially constructed “normative” reality or narrative script? Certainly this is part of what constitutes “belief” – as well as rituals, sacred texts, collective memories/histories, dress, food, etc.

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