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.

The Inevitable Atheist Church
Everybody's a Christian
Overwhelming Religious Diversity and the Agnostic Chair
I Find This Post Very Offensive