Religion is Not About Beliefs

If that sounds strange, bear with me.

Clearly beliefs are important — one might say fundamental — to any particular religion. My claim is that beliefs are unimportant (or worse, a distraction) if your goal is to understand the phenomenon of religion, broadly construed.

In other words, this is a post about how to do effective religious anthropology (for atheists).


How I got here

I've been an atheist pretty much my whole life, identifying with term (or at least the concept) since I was around 10 or 11 years old. I remember one night, after I tried praying for about a month, deciding that the whole enterprise felt flat, because I just didn't think any of it was real.

I may have decided to be an atheist, but I never stopped thinking about religion. I still felt it was an important issue. As a teenager and young adult, I had many discussions about religion (with believers and atheists alike) and always the central questions were about belief.

Do you believe in God? In the soul? In an afterlife? In the resurrection of Jesus Christ? Etc.

These questions fascinated me, but I had my answer: no, I did not believe. And I thought that settled the matter. I understood the issues, made up my mind on the important questions, and thought it was all false. There. What else needed to be discussed?


A nagging fascination

Having decided that God isn't real, I was left with an even more challenging question. If the beliefs are false... what (on Earth!) is going on? How does it all work? Why do so many people believe, and why are the beliefs so utterly crazy?

That's what I've been attempting to figure out for the past 10 years or so, with very limited success, until about six months ago. That's when I realized religion is not about beliefs.

In hindsight this should have been obvious. If I was looking to understand the phenomenon of religion — which includes a huge range of traditions, from animism to Buddhism to Judaism to Christianity — how could the (specific) beliefs matter? The beliefs are precisely what makes each religion unique, different from all the others. If I wanted to understand religion as a general phenomenon, clearly the specific beliefs weren't going to point me in the right direction.

A lot of atheists make this mistake, I think, of trying to understand religion in terms of the beliefs. It's a hazard of our clinical, Aspie mindset. The same rationality that helped us to realize there are no gods is a rationality focused on the logical content of propositions, i.e., on beliefs. For those of us who fetishize reason, beliefs really are the most important thing, at least when it comes to figuring out how the world works.

But if you want to get past questions of what's true about the world, and start asking what's true about religion itself, you have to ignore the beliefs, because they only get in the way.

When you focus on the beliefs, your bullshit alarm starts ringing, and you get worked up about how false those beliefs are. You get hung up asking, "How could anyone believe these things?"

So... stop. Don't worry about the beliefs. Ignore them. Better yet, put them in little clinical boxes with labels that say SPECIMEN, and tuck them away in your favorite filing system [1]. Then you can start to make progress on the really interesting questions. (And maybe, after that, go back and reconsider the beliefs.)

Religion is like magic in a lot of ways. Magic always relies on misdirection. While secretly trying to do X, a magician is careful to make sure the audience is focused instead on Y. Often this mis-direction is effected through words, by framing the trick in a way that causes the audience to miss the key sleight of hand. These words are called patter, and someone watching a magic trick, trying to understand what's actually going on, would be wise to ignore the patter.


If not beliefs, then what?

If religion is not about beliefs, this immediately raises three questions. I'll have more to say about these later, so for now I'll just give quick, succinct answers, without evidence or argument.

  1. How should we study religion, if not by engaging with the beliefs? A: I propose the following methodology (which is useful for studying all aspects of human behavior, really): Words deceive. Actions speak louder. So study the actions.
  2. How can we make sense of all the beliefs, especially given how crazy, colorful, and loud they are? A: Crazy religious beliefs should not be taken literally. Instead, they are shibboleths.
  3. Okay then, what is religion about? A: Religion is not about beliefs. Instead, religions are strategies for the survival and reproduction of human tribes.

Much more to come on all these topics. Stay tuned.


[1] favorite filing system. I recommend ... it's my new religion.

Originally published September 18, 2012.