Belief vs. Action

Karen Armstrong, one of the most prominent liberal monotheists, once said that “belief is a red herring.” This fits with her idea that religion is more about practice than doctrine. I get the impression that Armstrong is a bit of a mystic. She seems to believe that religious practice – prayer, ritual, communal services – will lead the practitioner to a greater understanding of the mystery that she calls God as well as make one a better person.

From a more academic take on then issue, there’s Kelly Baker at Religion Bulletin:

“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.

[..] 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.

Sometime after the Protestant Reformation, belief became seen as the core of western religion. Churches formed, split and made war over differences in doctrine. But now[*] we’re seeing the argument that faith is actually a verb; it’s not really in the creed you recite, it’s in the rituals you perform, the way that you live and in the community you associate with.

I think it’s just a recognition of something that John Dewey suggested, that belief and action are linked. We’ve a very practical species, we believe things in order to do things and doing things reinforces our beliefs. You can’t really separate the two.

Anyway, I’m still wrapping my head around the arguement, but I think it does help me with one problem. I’ve always been dissatisfied with the agnostic/atheist debate. It’s fine to say that you’re undecided about the existence of the supernatural, but at some point you are going to have to decide how to live. Being fully agnostic is probably impossible, since at some point you’re going to have to either go to church and sing the hymns or stay home.


[*] for a very academic value of “now,” by which I mean that it’s long been understood this way by many scholars of religion – but not many others – and it’s just now trickling out to people like me.

  • ctcss

    I think a person can (with intellectual honesty) think that it may not be possible to know where truth lies. However, that does not excuse someone from not trying to arrive at a thoughtful, compassionate, reasoned stance from which action can be taken (either from a believing or non-believing standpoint) until a clearer understanding of things is gained.

    An honest and thoughtful post.

  • vasaroti

    “faith is actually a verb; it’s not really in the creed you recite, it’s in the rituals you perform..etc.”
    That would mean that those clergy who no longer believe, but continue to earn a living by reciting, performing rituals, and supporting their church community are actually faithful. Think I’ll stick to the dictionary definition, thanks.

  • Ryan

    As a Hindu, I agree completely with the idea that a religion is primarily to be done and experienced and only secondarily believed. If someone doesn’t consider the experience itself valuable, it means the religion is not for them, or perhaps is not for them at this point in time, if we allow for the changability of people.
    Incidentally, I am one of those people who thinks it is not entirely possible to know where the truth lies. I believe a number of things that you obviously don’t agree with(existence of the divine, etc.), but I don’t honestly care if you agree with me, and I would never say I know these things to be true. Not knowing doesn’t change the actions, though, because I think the experience is a good one even if those particular beliefs are not true.

  • joeclark77

    I think the key thing is how you respond to God, not how certain you are in your belief. A person with serious doubts can nevertheless submit in humility (recognizing that they don’t know it all) and choose a life of faith — Mother Theresa would seem to be an excellent example. On the other hand, there are many people who claim to believe in God but live as if they don’t believe or don’t care — we call them functional atheists. I believe that God knows we don’t all have access to the same knowledge about God, however, he can judge us according to how we have responded to what we are given, such as the moral law written on our consciences.

    I can’t make any sense of what the hippie womanpriest you quoted is trying to say, so I don’t know if this is the point she’s making.

    • Mogg

      Given that Kelly Baker is saying pretty much the same as you, i.e. that people who live and act in accordance with a particular belief can legitimately be called believers, no matter how kooky and possibly damaging their beliefs are to others, maybe you should practice your reading comprehension.

      Then again, you say “woman” like it’s a bad thing… so do you automatically dismiss anything written by someone with a name that might be female? If you looked her up, you would easily have found that she is, yes, female even though she has a gender-ambiguous name, and neither a hippy nor a priest but an academic historian.

      • joeclark77

        I meant the first quote, from Karen Armstrong. I think you’re wrong… I think she’s saying that “faith” is all about the candles and incense. But that’s only a suspicion, because the paragraph is ambiguous.

        • Mogg

          Karen Armstrong? Seeing as she is a communicator on the beliefs of all three of the Abrahamic religions and has also done work on Buddhism and Hinduism, not just the Catholic church, I doubt that her idea of religious practice is only about candles and incense, although as Vorjack says she seems to be a bit of a mystic. Maybe candles and incense work for her, but she certainly doesn’t assume that for everyone. She is also not a priest or a hippy, she’s a writer and documentary maker.

    • blotonthelandscape

      Mother Theresa is a terrible example of anything in any context.
      “How you respond to God” is irrelevant, because God offers nothing which prompts a response. The only prompts available are offered by religious authority, which is entirely human, and the response should be as though responding to humans, which implies skepticism, not faith. Submitting to a life of faith is not humility, it’s intellectual cowardice.
      People who claim to believe but live contrary to your expectations of people who believe as you, are either claiming to believe as you do and are lying, or believe similarly (i.e. in the broad context of christianity/spiritualism etc.), but come to different conclusions about the actions those beliefs imply. But to call them functional atheists is quite frankly missing the point of atheism, which entails it’s own set of actions and beliefs which is not necessarily mutually exclusive of the actions you expect of christians, and indeed may exclude the actions you attribute to ‘functional atheists’.
      We all have the same access to knowledge about God, i.e. none, some of us just admit it. Any claim to knowledge about ‘God’ is spurious, and all claims about such access are contradicted by other knowledge claims, whether it’s the trinity or transubstantiation, hell or reincarnation.
      If God is omnipotent (I know you haven’t said this, but for the sake of argument) then the burden for our acceptance of Him rests on His shoulders, and as a result his “judging” us is irrational; he should only judge himself. If we haven’t responded in the way He expects, it’s because he did the wrong thing to get our attention.

      Your last line paints you as a closed-minded bigot. But yes, the gist of what she’s saying is “people who believe certain things can be expected to act in certain ways”.

      • JohnMWhite

        “People who believe certain things can be expected to act in certain ways” sums it up nicely, and I am happy to see this hippie womanpriest is actually willing to call a spade a spade and accept that yes, people do believe some crazy stuff and act accordingly. I think even a lot of believers themselves try to dodge the ramifications of their own beliefs when they bring them into conflict with polite society. So many Muslims claim Islam is not at all a misogynistic faith, but they will have a fit if they see Muslim women not dressed appropriately (though ‘appropriately’ varies vastly depending on the geographical region and particular flavour of Islam) and they certainly wouldn’t take religious instruction from one. Mormons and Scientologists believe in things that even South Park can’t lampoon (so they just told the stories directly) but they expect the rest of us to take them seriously as rational human beings. A Mormon thinks a man who believes the story about golden plates that nobody ever saw is a reasonable choice to give the nuclear football. And of course, Christians the world over insist they are not bigots when espousing blatantly bigoted beliefs rooted in a book that tells them to be bigots against all sorts of people, especially homosexuals.

        In short I think this idea cuts both ways – people who claim to believe something believe it, particularly if they act like it, no matter how uncomfortable it may make us feel to think there are people believing these things. But people who act like they believe something probably believe it too, even if they protest that they don’t. You can’t say you don’t believe homosexuals are as bad as the bible claims if you cite the bible as the reason you want to stop them getting married. Well, you can say it, but we’re not going to believe you.

      • joeclark77

        For an example of the “functional atheist”, I refer you to the entire Kennedy family, Barack Obama, and all of the Nuns on the Bus. People who profess to believe, in some cases go out of their way to tell us how strongly they believe, but live life as if God did not matter and are not ashamed to do so. None of us can know if they truly believe or are just faking it, of course.

        • Troutbane

          “I refer you to the entire Kennedy family, Barack Obama, and all of the Nuns on the Bus. ”
          Wait, what? These people are Christian (well, not sure about the entirety of the Kennedy family) so what things have they done to make them atheists in Chrsitian clothing? You sound like you are going for a political angle here (my politics equal good Xtians, other politics equal atheists). Really, Nuns on the Bus are atheists? That is almost the most absurd thing Ive heard today.

        • Mogg

          I had to look up Nuns on the Bus as I hadn’t heard of them, but really? How are a bunch of people who have dedicated their lives to their belief and have gone out to publicly criticise politicians for supporting what they see as immoral social and taxation policies not Christian? Wasn’t Jesus quite big on the plight of the poor and quite harsh on the rich? It all sounds very Christian to me. I have no reason to assume that Obama is anything but Christian, either, seeing as he is a churchgoer, proclaims himself to be a Christian, etc. I have no idea about the Kennedys apart from that they were traditionally Catholic.

          • Yoav

            But none of these people is a TrueChristian™.

            • Mogg

              Apparently. I’m not sure if I want to know what Joe Clark’s version of TrueChristianity is, it doesn’t seem very nice from the limited information he’s put out so far.

          • Nox

            It is an odd accusation. Leaving aside the use of disbelief or liberalism as a character flaw to accuse someone of (and the revealing disapproval of female priests) (and the disturbing endorsement of pretending to believe without believing), it is just a weird thing to accuse them of. I mean they are still f*cking nuns. They still took the same vows as Teresa. These are people who have devoted their life to their belief in the christian god. Whether you approve of that choice or not (obviously I don’t), it makes very little sense to say they live as if there is no god.

            • Troutbane

              The weird thing is, and someone please correct me if I’m wrong here, its not like they are pro-choice, pro gay marriage, or even pro evolution. Their main beef seems to be helping the poor which I recall some Bronze Age myth about some Jewish carpenter that did something similar.

        • blotonthelandscape

          Yes, what I would have called a “lukewarm” christian, that label I lived in perpetual fear of for my entire adolescence. It’s code for “people who believe in God but live differently than I would expect of believers”. As already said above, it’s political BS that you’ve bought hook, line and sinker. Congratulations.

          You appear to live in a bubble where you expect everyone who reads the bible to come to the same conclusions you do. Unfortunately the bible simply lacks the clarity and single-mindedness to accommodate that worldview, which is not surprising given the range of time periods, geographies and cultures that the various authors come from.

        • JohnMWhite

          So you admit that helping the poor, fighting for civil rights for minorities and trying to provide health care so people don’t die just because they’re not filthy rich are actions taken in spite of god, not because these people cared what that brutal, violent dictator thinks?

  • Yoav

    Agnes Bojaxhiu spent years perpetuating suffering and withholding medical treatment from victims of her “missionaries of charity” while hobnobbing with dictators like Haiti’s Duvaliers. If she’s an example of anything it’s of why religion is not a positive, or even benign, but a destructive influence on humanity.

    • RW

      Thank you!

  • busterggi

    By practise I’m pretty good as a Christian and fair as a Jew or Muslim or Buddist.

    Yet I don’t believe in anyof them so practitioners of all three keep telling me I’m going to their hell. Guess I’ll have to have time-shares in each.