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.

On Indiana
Nine-Year-Old Sluts and Masturbating Dinner Guests
A Matter of Patriarchy
On Orgies, Bisexuality, James Dobson, and Evangelicals
About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • grikmeer

    Speaking as an atheist who was raised without religion Christmas has always been a funny thing. (my parents deliberately abstained from making comments either way, while my grandparents would say prayers over us when they babysat, and school in England has a great deal of Christianity wrapped around it – I still came to the conclusion that God probably wasn't real at about 8) I was never really told about the Jesus thing, we got loads of that at school, it was about the family gathering (we'd usually go round to my auntie's house to meet all the cousins on Boxing Day or the day after), the advent calendar (which didn't have chocolate in) and the presents. I stopped believing in father christmas (Santa) at around 4 and I don't remember being particularly tormented by this discoveryThe only time I can recall the nativity being mentioned in my family was when my dad explained about how a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn could have been mistaken for a new star in the sky…

  • Melissa@ Permission to Live

    You describe my upbringing when it comes to belief over tradition, except for many years we didn't attend church at all, so we were down to daily bible readind and memorization. And every school book we had was religious etc. I got married feeling that the most important thing was to be "like-minded", that you had to believe and have a personal relationship with Christ in order to be a christian, it bothered me that there were so many people who called themselves christians merely because they went to church, I knew that christianity meant more than that. Then we misscarried, and I had so many questions about the loss of babies who were too young to have ever believed. And then I read in a magazine a letter from a mother asking if her disabled son could be baptized and counted as christian, the authoritative response was that unless her son had the mental capacity to believe and confess faith, he could not be baptized which meant he would never technically be a christian, but we can all hope that god would be merciful. I was disgusted, and that magazine was part of what made me excited about the catholic church. The catholic church seemed to be less of a mind game, the rituals and sacraments were what they were, and you could participate regardless of your mental abilities. However, as time has gone on I've found that the mental gymnastics are still there. I now see relegion as a cultural practice, and if I chose to be actively involved in the future, it would be from a "something you practice/live" aspect, not something you believe.

  • kisekileia

    If you're an atheist who loves ritual, have you considered a Unitarian church? I believe some pagan practices are more about ritual than about belief, too.

  • Anonymous

    In my evangelical youth groups in high school and college, belief and practice were equally important. The logic went like this: "All you need to do is believe in Jesus and accept Him as your Lord and Savior. However, if you do not turn from your sins, you are not really saved and will go to Hell." "Turn from your sins" meant anything from practicing chastity to tithing. There was a whole unwritten list of practices you had to do in order to be considered "saved," and even then, we had to constantly examine ourselves to make sure we were really saved. The end result was me walking down the aisle to get saved 21 times by age 18.

  • Mommy McD

    I found myself relating to your post a lot. My childhood church was very bland and dry, little to no ritual fanfare or ceremony involved. I am now a pagan and I have to admit it is largely for the ritual aspect and the celebrations of life and the seasons. I was starving for that and I found it. paganism is open enough for interpretation of deity and spirituality and it is the coming together in ritual that I really really enjoy. I can definitely understand the appeal of Catholicism for that aspect (though yes the harsh stance on sexuality and abortion and the cover ups of abuse kept me away).

  • Stephanie

    Do you really feel that religion is either one (belief) or the other (ritual)? Catholicism isn't about just following ritual at all. Sure, the non-catechised culture which sees the beliefs of Catholicism as something you can pick and choose would say it's all about rules and not what you believe… but Catholicism is very, very much about orthodox belief as well. The early Church fought hard against the heresies that threatened to devour it. If an individual does not believe in Christ, how can they worship Him? If they do not know who He is, how can they call upon Him? Empty ritual does nothing for the soul. Ritual – outward worship and manifestation of an inward faith – paired with belief is what Catholicism is all about.

  • Glen

    @Stephanie: Consider modern Judaism. If I have my understanding correct, a lot of Jews today consider their religion conducive to living a good life and maintaining an ethnic identity. It's not about an individual's personal philosophy. Some forms of Christianity are basically the same.

  • Anonymous

    Even if Catholicism is way more about ritual than, for example, the Christian Patriarchal you were brought up in; it doesn't mean that belief isn't really important for Catholics too. Actually in Spain right tere are many people who consider themselves catholics because they believe in God and Jesus Christ and everything but they don't go to Mass (non practicant catholics) and the religious parties are celbrrated more like parties than religious (and obviously no fasting… in fact here you would have to be clergy or very nutsy to fast even if you are devoted). Those non practicant catholic who barely set foot on chrches except on weddings (or when a tragedy occurs) and such are getting to be the norm instead of the exception especially between young people (not so young anymore). Many of my friends consider themselves catholics just because they believe in God and most of them also believe in infallibility of the Pope in religious matters but you won't see them ever in church on a Sunday.Curiouslt my family in the North of Spain is more devoted and tey go to mass on Sundays but as soon as my cosuins get older and could decide they stopped going and it seems they've all have ended up atheists as me XP Going to Mass every Sunday doesn't keep you catholic very much XPPS: An article I saw today:

  • Rosanna

    I'm someone drifting away from Christianity who finds ritual and tradition important.I sometimes say that if I wasn't a feminist I'd be a Catholic.This may be a strange viewpoint but I find that folk dancing has many similarities with religion without the intolerance There is community and music and tradition and ritual and making a fool of yourself in public. My local morris dancing group will dance at Christmas events and the local gay pride parade and dance at sunrise on May day.Ritual can be meaningful without belief; it gives you a connection to something people have been doing for hundreds of years.

  • Jessie

    Hey there, I left you a comment on another entry but would like to say I have spent the last couple of hours going through your blog and I -LOVE- it! I was raised in a religious Catholic family but was always told to get an education, have a career and a mind of my own. All women in my family have degrees and have always worked. They also have children.I feel bad for those girls who grow up thinking they are nothing more than a man's slave and a walking womb! Sadly I read someone's blog both on here and another website called Open Diary and she subscribes to the same beliefs you family seemed to have. I feel bad because she has 4 kids, 2 boys and 2 daughters and it pregnant with her 3rd girl. She thinks women's only purpose is to be moms. It drives me nuts!PS: I am a mom; I have a daughter….and I am going to teach her to be her own person and go after her dreams…and never feel like she was put on this earth to be someone else's servant!

  • shadowspring

    Anon 8:29 Nov 27,I have been studying Iran and Shi'a Islam and it sounds very much the same: young believe in God and the basics of the Muslim faith, but they don't go to mosque and they want life to be a celebrations of good instead of an avoidance of bad.I find myself in a similar place. I love my faith, but I don't really much want to go to church anymore. My kids believe but as young adults don't really want to attend. So we would say religion is a belief or philosophy that serves as your spiritual compass.People who attend church regularly (or mosque or temple, for that matter) would answer the question very differently, no doubt. People with my internal commitment but lacking the social commitment are probably considered not really believers. So the answer depends very much on who is doing the answering, I suppose. =D

  • Brawne Lamia

    I think you have a good point about the ritual being such a huge part of culture. My family is a solid mix of Catholic and Episcopalians, most of whom converted from Catholicism because of a separation of beliefs, but a desire to maintain the rituals and calender. One of the major things that my fiance and I initially agreed upon while planning our wedding as badly practicing (we go, sometimes… rarely….) is the importance of a very traditional service, because it's what we grew up with, even if the belief behind it is less important. I don't think religion is either belief or ritual, and I think they overlap, but it is so nice to have that common ground, even if the beliefs change.

  • looloolooweez

    I grew up Methodist, which is kind of a Protestant version of Catholicism — in other words, we went through a lot of the same rituals/practices, but followed Protestant philosophy. Even though I no longer subscribe to those beliefs, some of the rituals are still important to me because their part of the traditions of my family. For example, I still practice selective abstinence from a "sin" of choice during Lent.I'm really looking forward to your series on holiday practices. You always bring some really well-thought-out insights to the table.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you thank you thank you, I'm finally beginning to understand the difference between my evangelical upbringing and my boyfriend who was raised catholic (we get along cause he doesn't practice and I'm agnostic). I could never understand the difference and I'm also realizing what stereo types I developed at my mother's knee, 'lazy catholics they aren't real christians'. Christianity and their God has troubled me for a long time, I walked away when I couldn't make sense of it. I've been trying to wrap my head around it ever since and your blog is helping me to build an understanding. Hopefully that understanding will help me relate with family better, we don't get one another.

  • Jerusha

    Looking forward to more posts about holiday celebrations sans belief. :) Honestly, this is the first Christmas that I haven't accepted Mary's virgin pregnancy. So everything feels different and I find myself floundering for the familiar. For now, I am concentrating on the "tradition" side–which for us includes Advent rituals as part of the Christmas countdown. Is it hypocritical to retain Christian holiday practices, or will it make my kids immune to zealots who want to teach them "the real meaning of Christmas"? Time will tell, I suppose.

  • Tom Armistead

    “The essence of religion is to TESTIFY unto that which the Lord hath revealed, and FOLLOW that which He hath ordained in His mighty Book.” (emphasis added to the original)

    “The essence of faith is fewness of words and abundance of deeds; he whose words exceed his deeds, know verily his death is better than his life.”
    Both quotes from Bahá’u’lláh, Words of Wisdom