Religion: Something you believe or something you practice?

Is religion something you believe, or something you do? Is religion about what you think happens after death, or about how you cook your food? Scholars of religion have long tied themselves into knots trying to define “religion,” but most make a distinction between “traditional” religions and “modern” religions. Namely, traditional religions privilege ritual and action while modern religions privilege belief.

In traditional religions, how you cook your food, how you sleep, and how you dress is often more important than what you believe. Religion is about a way of life, it is the heartbeat of a community, rather than about what you believe happens after death.

Modern religions, in contrast, tend to glorify the life of the mind over all else, so that how you cook your food or how you sleep or how you dress matters not one whit. What matters, in contrast, is what you believe. Religion can still hold a community together, but it requires intellectual assent, not mere common practice or shared tradition.

A couple caveats. First, I realized that using the words “traditional” and “modern” in this context is fraught with peril. It risks minimizing the first and portraying it as backward while glorifying the second and portraying it as the wave of the future. My goal here is not to get caught up in semantics but rather to offer a simple shorthand for a fairly widely accepted concept.

Second, the line is often more blurry than my simple dichotomy might indicate. In this global world there is spillover and bleed between different religions and traditions. Modern religion is influencing traditional religion, and at the same time modern religion is not always completely devoid of the traditional. Perhaps instead of a dichotomy we should think of it as two religious impulses: one that emphasizes common practice and one that emphasizes common belief.

Where is all this coming from? Well, I’ve been mulling over this all quite a bit since reading the following comment on one of my recent posts about Catholicism:

Finally, having married into a large Polish Catholic family, I have learned that the cultural ties to the church are very powerful. My husband’s family as a whole, him included, are deeply tied to the rhythm of the church calendar, the rituals of the church to mark the milestones of life, and the connection that the church provides to their ancestry. In many places, parishes very much reflect the cultural/ethnic ancestry of the community and the ties to that are very deep. People don’t easily walk away from those ties.

You see, Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Judaism have all retained some aspects of traditional religion, in varying degrees. The “varying degrees” point is, I think, important. The original Catholic immigrants to arrive in this country practiced a very traditional religion. For them, religion was about common festivals, feasts, saints’ days, etc. It was the heartbeat of their ethnic communities and the rhythm of their lives. Today, though, many Catholics have been heavily Protestantized and no longer follow their religion in such a traditional manner. Nevertheless, the Catholic ritual calendar still allows for American Catholics to practice a very traditional religion, a religion highly moved from the fundamentalist evangelicalism of my youth.

I watched My Big Fat Greek Wedding some years back. The story goes like this: The daughter is getting married and the parents are concerned because the fiance is neither Greek or Orthodox. The fiance agrees to be baptized into the Orthodox Church and to have an Orthodox wedding, and the family is completely satisfied and opens him with open arms. No debates over theology or who believes what: just, follow our practice and we’re happy. Now I realize this is just a movie, but still, it made an impression on me, because when I brought home an objectionable boyfriend my parents cared only about belief, not ritual or tradition.

I think sometimes that growing up in a traditional religion where life is rhythmic and religion is equated with family tradition would make it easier to stay even without belief. After all, you don’t have to believe in Yahweh to light the menorah and remember your ancestors battles with the Romans. You don’t have to believe in Jesus’ death to observe Lent, with its weekly fasts and focus on introspection. I don’t know if I would stay and continue to practice the traditions if I had grown up in a situation like this, I’m simply saying that I can understand why people would be drawn to do so, especially in religions that focus on tradition and practice rather than belief and mental assent.

I grew up in a religion devoid of tradition or ritual. We didn’t celebrate Advent or Pentecost. We didn’t celebrate feast days. We didn’t light candles. The sum total of what we did was this: Weekly church, weekly Bible study, weekly Bible club, daily Bible reading, prayer before meals and prayer before bed. Church consisted of singing songs, announcements, one last song during which the offering was taken, and then a sermon. Every few months we took communion, which was a close as you could come to a ritual, but even that was simply accompanied by a reading of the Gospel passage where communion was instituted.

When I first investigated Catholicism I was astounded by the difference, by the ritual and the practice. I LOVED the ritual calendar: Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, and a peppering of Saints’ days in between. I loved how the church decorations changed with the season and how everything meant something, something ancient and deep. Growing up, I had none of that. Growing up, what mattered was what you believed. In fact, ritual was denigrated and seen as something empty and pointless. All we kept was the Bible and prayer, and all that mattered was correct belief.

If you grow up in a religion where all that matters is correct belief, and then you cease to hold those beliefs, you don’t have the option of staying for the tradition or the community. It’s believe or leave. In contrast, if you grow up in a traditional religion, what matters is if you continue to practice the traditions and rituals. If you do, you’re good; if you don’t, well, I guess it’s participate or leave.

It’s easy to see, then, why I had to leave the fundamentalist evangelicalism of my youth. Why, though, did I leave my newly adopted Catholicism? Partly I think I left because the privileging of belief had been so bred into me as a child that I could never entirely set that apart, even as a Catholic. Partly I think I left because I moved away and no longer had the Catholic support system I had had before. But partly I think I haven’t left entirely. I no longer believe, but I still love the idea of life centered around a ritual calendar.

I’ve been thinking lately about the holidays. I’m going to write a series about how I approach the holidays as an atheist, though to be honest I’m still figuring that out. But honestly, I think it helps that the religion I grew up in was of the mind rather than of tradition. It means that I honestly didn’t grow up with many religious holiday traditions at all. Really. Sure, we kids knew that Christmas was about Jesus’ birth, we had a manger scene, we (usually) went to a Christmas eve service, but that was about it. For us, Christmas was always more about family and festivity, cookies and Christmas music, the feel of the season and the wrapping of presents, than about anything religious. I honestly think this was a consequence of religion being centered on belief rather than practice, and I know that will make shaping our own holidays easier.

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