It is not a useful word, and for most of the time it does the opposite of what we want the word to do — that is, it obscures our attempts to understand, rather than adding any clarity or precision.
My former colleague, Mary Keller argued back in 2002 that:
‘If I say that I am not religious but that my sister is, one is likely to get the sense that my sister has a bubble in her brain where she cultivates her belief … Religiousness is construed as a mental activity’ (Keller 2002: 6).
This is what I will be exploring today, not so much the content of belief in religions, but how we come to talk about this ‘bubble in the brain’ that we call belief.
In this episode, my aim is to encourage you to stop using the word ‘belief’ when you think about (and talk about) religion. It is not a useful word, and for most of the time it does the opposite of what we want the word to do — that is, it obscures our attempts to understand, rather than adding any clarity or precision.
If you are going to continue to use the word belief, then I recommend some caution with it. Treat it as though it is radioactive, or contaminated with some highly polluting substance, so you need special protective materials (gloves, body suit, mask, etc) in order to be able to use it.
Just be careful how you use it. And when you do use it, think about what you are saying when you say it. In this episode, I will go through some of the main critiques of the term belief in the study of religion, focusing in particular on
1) the issue of belief as something with very particular historical baggage, emerging out of Protestant Christians traditions of western Europe and north America
2) the use of the term belief to label and categorise cultures that are different from such European and American culture (particularly within colonial and postcolonial contexts)
3) the term as a means of bracketing out different types of thought and speech, into opposites such as belief versus commonsense or knowledge, or more broadly religion versus science, and lastly
4) that there are better terms to use, which help us think through the issues with a bit more clarity. What we refer to as ‘beliefs’ in the study of religion are in fact systems of discourse, that exist within particular contexts and frames of reference, and which are always embedded within certain structures of power.
This is what we are studying when we look at beliefs. Or at least, rather than simply trying to learn their beliefs, we should be looking at these much larger issues of the discourses that shape and contextualise peoples’ worlds and experiences.
About the Religion Bites Podcast
Religion Bites is a podcast by Malory Nye, an academic and writer based in Perth, Scotland.
The Religion Bites podcast gives you quick and simple intros to the study of religion, to help you think a bit further about the issues of religion and culture in the contemporary world. If we want to understand today’s world, we need to ‘get’ why people are religious – why they ‘do religion’ in the many ways that religion is done. This is not a podcast about being religious, it is about understanding religion and the role that religion has in the contemporary world.