For decades, religious studies has struggled with the concept of belief. Many scholars have criticized the concept as misleading the discipline, and some have suggested that it be abandoned entirely. Contrary to this trend, I argue that the concept of belief is not only useful but in fact unavoidable in our scholarship. While legitimate concerns about the proper use and conceptualization of it have been raised, I argue that these can and must be addressed in a manner that retains the concept. I address three distinct sets of problems concerning belief: the Christian-inflected history of the concept and its distorting application to other religions; epistemic and evaluative concerns about treating religious beliefs as truth claims; and the subjective interiority implied by the term “belief.” In each case, I recommend theoretical strategies that address these concerns, while retaining belief as a valid analytical category. FOR DECADES, religious studies has struggled with the concept of belief, wrestling with a ghost that—for all the times it has supposedly been exorcised—seems unwilling to depart.1 Despite being derided, as long ago as 1979, as “not merely useless in the task of interpreting the meaning of the historical religious traditions, but rather [as] positively misleading,” the concept of belief has endured, tenaciously (or frustratingly) remaining part of the lexicon of religious studies (Wiebe 1979, 234).2 Many of the reasons proffered for being suspicious of the concept have merit. However, calls for its dismissal from the discipline—to “quine” the concept of belief, as philosophers would say—are not only premature, but ill conceived. While we can and must exercise caution in deploying the category of belief, I argue that the concept is not only useful but in fact unavoidable in the study of religion. My argument proceeds in three sections, each of which considers a subset of objections to belief and suggests how they ought to be addressed. First I consider critiques based on the history of the concept and the mistaken but prevalent assumption that belief constitutes a necessary or central aspect of religion. In response, I recommend demoting “belief” to one among a number of helpful analytical categories, a process that is already underway given the recent ascendance of alternative categories and concepts such as power, embodiment, and identity. Belief is, I argue, neither dispensable nor solely sufficient for the analysis of religion. In the second section, I consider long-standing traditions in religious studies that construe religious beliefs in ways that immunize them from assessments of truth or falsity. Although these strategies are motivated by legitimate concerns, I contend that religious beliefs must be viewed as truth claims. By distinguishing between interpretative and explanatory tasks, acknowledging religious beliefs as truth claims facilitates less tortuous interpretations of them, without constraining researchers’ ability to explain them. Section three addresses objections to the subjective interiority supposedly implied by the concept of belief, and the related shift to social theory, according to which “individual beliefs” are red herrings. By contrast, I propose a metaphysically multi-faceted model of belief that acknowledges a delimited version of interiority. Rather than replacing it, I argue that the efficacy of social theory actually depends on the concept of belief. I do not claim to dispel all the difficulties surrounding the concept. Belief is, and will likely continue to be, a problematic concept in the study of religion for a variety of reasons that are both philosophical and historical in nature. However, responding to these challenges by dismissing the concept of belief tout court would not only require a fundamental reorganization of the field of religious studies; it would mean evacuating the discipline of any minimally reasonable conception of what it is to be a human subject, and eliminate many of the basic theoretical means by which religion needs to be interpreted and can be explained (Wiebe 1979, 235). It is therefore incumbent on scholars of religion that we resist the temptation to jettison the category just because it is methodologically complicated. Instead, its retention depends on continuing interrogation of the meanings of belief (those constructed by both scholars and practitioners) and refinement of the means by which we conceptualize and study it. THE PROBLEM OF CHRISTIAN ORIGINS Among the various problems with belief, perhaps those that are most familiar to scholars of religion concern the historical origin of the category and the often implicit assumption that belief is “the essence of religion.” In short, the notion that belief constitutes the necessary quality or most important aspect of religion appears to be a peculiarly Christian—and, more specifically, a modern, Protestant Christian—idea (Schilbrack 2014, 58). Because other religions do not necessarily emphasize belief, this has resulted in fundamentally misconstruing those traditions and misleading the entire discipline (as well as the public) into conceiving of religion as principally a matter of what people believe. As early as 1894, William Robertson Smith noted that “to us moderns religion is above all a matter of individual conviction and reasoned belief, but to the ancients it was a part of the citizen’s public life. . . which he was not bound to understand” (Robertson Smith 2005, 21). Along similar lines, Wilfred Cantwell Smith argues in Belief and History that belief was not a central concern of many biblical authors (Cantwell Smith 1980, 249). Jason Bivins identifies a range of thinkers—Talal Asad, Daniel Dubuisson, Hans Kippenberg, Tomoko Masuzawa, Russell McCutcheon, and Robert Orsi—who all point out the Christian and specifically Protestant bias of emphasizing belief in the study of religion (Bivins 2012, 56). Many of these contemporary objections can be traced back in part to Donald Lopez’s 1998 essay “Belief,” where Lopez writes of “an ideology of belief, that is, an assumption deriving from the history of Christianity that religion is above all an interior state of assent to certain truths” (Lopez 1998, 31). Bruce Lincoln criticizes Clifford Geertz’s definition of religion for being too focused on interiority and thereby excluding “things one intuitively wants to call ‘religion’—Catholicism and Islam, for instance—that are oriented less toward ‘belief’…and more to embodied practice, discipline, and community” (Lincoln 2006, 1). More drastically, Mary Rubenstein (2012) perceives an “allergy” to the concept among religious studies scholars in general, and Bivins notes that the field of religious studies “habitually discredits belief as a ubiquitous analytical category” (Bivins 2012, 64; Rubenstein 2012, 55). In 2011, Yale University hosted a roundtable on the concept, motivated partially by the question of whether or not belief is “a usable categorical for analysis in the study of religion.” Kathryn Lofton, host of the roundtable, declares that “most scholars of religion. . . [see] compelling evidence that belief ought to be avoided altogether as a remainder of a reformed theology” (Lofton 2012, 52). There is, therefore, widespread recognition that positing belief as the central category of religion does violence to non-Christian religions. But even within the tradition of Christianity, emphasis of the category of belief can be misleading. It has been argued that belief becomes central to Christianity only in the early modern era, in the wake of the Protestant Reformation and in the face of burgeoning secularization (Fernando 2012, 76). Martin Luther’s emphasis on the doctrine of sola fide (justification by faith alone) was central to this inward-turning of Christianity. A related, common feature of early Protestants’ anti-Catholic rhetoric was criticism of the highly ritualized and “magical” thinking that characterized Catholic practice—for instance, celebration of the mass and the transubstantiation of bread and wine into the blood and flesh of Christ (Thomas 1971, 51, 53, 75–67; Styers 2004, 26, 36–37). The distinction between its own faithful interiority and Catholicism’s allegedly benighted superstitions helped to facilitate the creation of a new, distinct identity for Protestants. In the early modern period, such rhetorical maneuvers were particularly attractive in the face of the rising tide of secularization and the nascent scientific worldview that threatened the plausibility of supernatural claims. Shifting to belief as the proper site of religion allowed a new understanding of religiosity that was not vulnerable to the most obvious objections of the “cultured despisers” of religion against whom Schleiermacher defended Christianity (Schleiermacher, 1996). Similarly shifting to the discourse of interiority, in his Letter Concerning Toleration, John Locke writes: “All the life and power of true religion consists in the inward and full persuasion of the mind; and faith is not faith without believing” (quoted in Fernando 2012, 77; see also Nongbri 2013, 34). In addition to deemphasizing supernatural claims that could run afoul of the burgeoning scientific ontology, the construal of religion as a matter of interiority was also thought to help ensure peace and stability in the wake of the Wars of Religion. Reconstructing religion as a matter of private belief made it essentially invisible to the public eye, banishing it from the public realm and rendering it less likely to become a subject of dispute between disparate sects or denominations of Christianity (Nongbri 2013, 6).3 This reconceptualization of religion as primarily a set of beliefs began roughly in the sixteenth century and culminated in the eighteenth century (Nongbri 2013, 96; see also McCutcheon 2004, 166). Therefore, insofar as belief may be described as “central to religion,” it can only be done so with regard to one tradition, Christianity, and then only in its modern, primarily Protestant manifestation. Importantly, this emphasis on belief is an outgrowth of identifiable cultural, political, and intellectual trends that were in ascendance in early modern Europe. Clearly, if belief’s centrality to certain manifestations of Christianity is a relatively recent development and largely a product of historically contingent circumstances, there is no reason to suppose that all religions are belief centered. This is a legitimate argument against the essentialization of religion in terms of belief. It does not, however, amount to an argument for dismissing the category of belief entirely from religious studies. What it indicates is the necessity of balancing the discipline’s historical overemphasis of belief with alternative categories of analysis—a goal that is already under way and which has been so for some time. As early as the nineteenth century, the Cambridge ritualists argued that, contrary to intuitive suppositions, ritual is primary and myths—narratives in which religious subjects could be said to believe—are secondary developments that arise from them.4 More recently, analytical categories such as embodiment, materialism, power, and identity have arisen, all of which now garner significant scholarly attention and provide analytical traction in ways the category of belief does not. Put simply, the discipline appears to have learned its lesson concerning the erroneous supposition that belief is either the sole or primary index of religion. None of these alternative categories will provide a paradigm for the study of religion that is entirely sufficient (nor do I mean to imply that their proponents necessarily make that claim). To the contrary, the emergence of these alternative categories ought to be seen as supplementing and counter-balancing, rather than replacing, belief. Even Catherine Bell, one of the foremost contemporary scholars of ritual studies, complained of religious studies’ absence from academic discussions of the role and nature of belief, and predicted that “the question of how to use the concept of belief, and how to identify the types of phenomenon potentially illuminated by such a concept, remains an inescapable aspect of studying religion” (Bell 2002, 100, 102). The reason that belief alone (or embodiment, or ritual, etc.) is unlikely to provide the necessary and sufficient means for a comprehensive analysis of religion is simple: as a constructed category, religion has no essence. It is a term of art deployed to capture a collection of phenomena, all of which arise out of varying historical contexts. The relative importance of belief will likely be determined by the historical circumstances that apply in each case. The particularly modern, Western, Protestant provenance of the emphasis on belief may be a matter of historical contingency that indicates the error of assuming that all formations we might denote as “religion” will function similarly. It also, however, indicates that certain historical circumstances can create conditions in which belief does become central to the construction of a religion. Secularization and polemical reactions against “superstitious” ritual may not be the only conditions in which religion transforms largely into a matter of subjective interiority, but they do demonstrate that belief is a helpful—indeed, necessary—category of analysis in at least some cases. History might demonstrate that belief is not the essence of religion, but it also demonstrates that belief can become central to certain species of it. This, however, is not to say that even modern Western Protestantism can be analyzed solely through the category of belief; other dimensions such as ritual and identity are necessary here as well. Similarly, those religious formations that construct themselves primarily through modes other than belief likely still require examination via the category of belief to assemble a more comprehensive analysis of them. As a multi-dimensional phenomenon that arises out of a complex mixture of social, political, and intellectual conditions and which typically requires explanation through a variety of theoretical lenses, it is unlikely that any manifestation of religion will ever be entirely captured by a single (artificial!) analytical category. Embodiment, identity, ritual, and belief—and likely further categories yet to be devised—will all be necessary in concert to achieve as comprehensive as possible an analysis of religions. The complex, historical, and artificial nature of “religion” suggests that belief is likely to remain neither disposable nor solely sufficient for the study of it. PROTECTING AND CHALLENGING THE RELIGIOUS SUBJECT If the problem of the origins of the category of belief can be dealt with rather straight-forwardly by counter-balancing it with alternative analytical categories, the problem of how to construe the epistemic status of religious subjects’ belief claims is a more loaded one. One of the reasons religious studies has become hesitant about the category of belief is because “its focus on truth claims tempts an evaluative response,” and evaluative responses have a checkered history in the study of religion (Bivins 2012, 55). Engaging the question of the truth or falsity of a religious belief hearkens back to two problematic legacies of the discipline. On one hand, there are the field’s roots in theology, a discipline largely if not primarily defined by its concern with the truth of religious doctrine. Even the appearance of validating religious beliefs threatens the contentious border that separates religious studies from theology, which is vital to the legitimacy of religious studies’ identity as a nonconfessional field of research in the modern academy. On the other hand, deeming religious beliefs false could seem to echo the racism and chauvinism that infects many early anthropological studies of religion, such as Edward Tylor’s Primitive Culture and Lucien Lévy-Bruhl’s How Natives Think, which dismissed the beliefs of religious subjects on the basis of their allegedly less evolved cultures and “primitive minds.”5 The most common route to navigate the narrow strait between these hazards has been to construe religious beliefs other than as truth claims, obviating the possibility of appearing either too theological or too ethnocentric by circumventing the truth question entirely. Various strategies have been developed in this regard, such as interpreting religious statements as functioning in some sort of symbolic or metaphorical fashion, rather than in a literal sense. Nancy Frankenberry locates variations on this strategy in thinkers as diverse as Paul Tillich, Mircea Eliade, Paul Ricoeur, Clifford Geertz, Peter Berger, and Robert Bellah, and she has raised powerful objections to them, showing how symbolic or metaphorical meanings cannot be as easily divorced from literal meaning as some have claimed (Frankenberry 2002). Moreover, as I show below, such techniques are often simply unnecessary: even religious beliefs that seem incredible or obviously false typically can and should be interpreted as making truth claims. Another popular maneuver has been to invoke a radical kind of relativism that insulates religious claims within their own discursive realms within which they are all “true.” Eliade, for example, argues that “religious data . . . exist on their own plane of reference, in their particular universe” (Eliade 1969, 6). This strategy too has been trenchantly criticized, perhaps most effectively by Donald Davidson, who has shown that the very possibility of interpretation depends on a background of “massive agreement” between interpreter and subject. Accordingly, the fact that scholars are able to understand the claims of religious subjects at all indicates that they do not inhabit radically different worlds with fundamentally incompatible standards of truth and falsity, undercutting the relativism for which thinkers like Eliade have argued (Davidson 1973–1974; Schilbrack 2014, 68; Godlove 1997).6 Occam’s razor would also suggest that the study of religious beliefs ought not to posit additional hypotheses unnecessarily. The proposition of radically different and fundamentally incommensurable worldviews as a means to explain differing truth claims seems gratuitous in contrast to the much simpler explanation that reasonable individuals can disagree, especially concerning the status of supposed nonempirical realities. “The divine as such,” Terry Godlove reminds us, “cannot be pointed out” (Godlove 2002, 106). As an example of a seemingly problematic religious belief, consider the (in)famous claim of the Bororo: “I am a red parrot.” The statement originates with Karl von den Steinen’s Unter den Naturvilkern Zentral-Brasiliens and was bequeathed to religious studies by Lucien Lévy-Bruhl. Lévy-Bruhl initially interpreted the claim as evidence of a “primitive mentality” that was unable to distinguish between humans and other animals; he took the statement to mean that the Bororo understood themselves to be identical with the feathered, airborne creatures who populated their environs. J. Z. Smith points out, however, that this understanding of the claim was not supported by any other field research with the Bororo people and is, in fact, contradicted by elements of von den Steinen’s own account: No study of the Bororo listed in H. Baldus’ definitive bibliography of the ethnology of Brazilian tribes that I have seen independently confirms von den Steinen’s claim that the Bororo flatly assert: “Die roten Araras sind Bororo wir sind Araras” . . . The Bororo never said that they were red parrots in the sense that von den Steinen and the majority of his later commentators understood them. They declared several times, according to von den Steinen’s own account, that when they are dead they will become red parrots, and thus they may speak of themselves as being red parrots in the present “as a caterpillar says that he is a butterfly.” The identification is quite specific. Only the Bororo will become red parrots. When pressed, they speculated with von den Steinen that members of other tribes will become other species of birds, that Negroes will become black vultures and the white man would probably become a white heron. . . This belief in the transformation of the Bororo after death into red parrots is well attested in the ethnographic literature. (Smith 1972, 392–93) The belief “I am a red parrot” should be read as a truth claim. It is not a symbolic or metaphorical invocation of some more abstract notion, nor does it refer to some radically different worldview in which its truth status would be assessed differently. According to the ethnographic record (pace Lévy-Bruhl), the Bororo mean simply to say that they will reincarnate as red parrots after they die as human beings. While such a belief might strike the contemporary American as curious or obviously incorrect, there is no reason to take it as anything other than a literal claim concerning the postmortem state of affairs many Bororo expect to obtain. Following its misinterpretation by Lévy-Bruhl, further ethnographic research and examination of relevant textual sources reveals a truth claim concerning the afterlife that is neither less literal nor less credible than other afterlife beliefs attested to by more familiar religions. Taking the belief as a truth claim—despite its apparent counter-intuitiveness—allows for a more succinct interpretation, in addition to more accurately reflecting the meaning intended by the Bororo themselves. Recognizing religious beliefs such as this as truth claims, however, sets up a tension if not an outright contradiction between the claims of the religious subject and those of the interpreting scholar, and the concern to avoid this conflict has driven some to endorse questionable hermeneutical strategies. Influential figures such as Mircea Eliade and Ninian Smart, for example, have emphasized the need to respect religious subjects and their own perspectives on their beliefs and behavior (Smart 1973, 10; Eliade 1969, 6). By contrast, others such as Craig Martin and Robert Segal have more recently defended not only the possibility but the necessity of challenging religious subjects’ own claims, arguing that the study of religion itself depends on that capability (Martin, forthcoming; Segal 1983 and 1980). Both Eliade and Smart, on the one hand, and Martin and Segal, on the other, have a point. Generously interpreted, the point Eliade and Smart underscore is the following: narrow focus on individual religious beliefs and the refutation of them impedes a researcher’s ability to understand the subject’s overarching perspective. Alternatively, Martin and Segal are correct that disallowing scholarly explanations that contradict religious subjects’ own claims would effectively end the academic study of religion, reducing it to theology by another name. The former seek to avoid labeling religious claims “false,” because doing so can hamper interpretation; the latter insist on the ability to do so to maintain the capacity to explain religion in nontheological terms. Both insights can be retained and the conflict they indicate largely dissipated by drawing a distinction between two separate (but related) analytical tasks: interpretation and explanation (Blum 2015, 35–40). During the interpretive phase of analysis (which must be performed before the explanatory phase), it is the subject’s perspective that matters, because the scholar’s goal is to discern the meaning of a given belief for the subject, within and largely determined by the web of other beliefs, attitudes, and assumptions with which it is related. For this particular purpose, the actual truth or falsity of a belief is irrelevant.7 A false belief—as long as it is taken to be true by the subject who holds it—still functions as an insight into the subject’s behavior and other beliefs (Wiebe 2013, 120). My belief that there is a new Thai restaurant down the street from my home may be false, and there may even be good reasons for taking that belief to be false (the street corner is under construction and has been so for some time), but my decision to walk to that corner with the intention of purchasing green curry chicken is inexplicable in lieu of that belief. It is the fact that I hold such a belief to be true rather than its actual truth or falsity that is relevant to accurately interpreting my actions and related beliefs. In the interpretive phase of analysis, challenging the truth of a subject’s beliefs is not incorrect so much as it is irrelevant and unhelpful. What matters in the interpretation of religious beliefs is not their actual truth or falsity, but the fact that the subject herself takes them to be true. Only by recognizing this fact—and by bracketing questions concerning the actual truth of those beliefs—can the meaning of the religious subject’s beliefs and behavior be discerned (Blum 2012, 1030–32). This is the insight of Eliade, Smart, and others (many of them associated with the phenomenological tradition in religious studies), and it concerns only the interpretation of religious beliefs.8 Explanation of a religious subject’s beliefs, however, is another matter. Here, the ability to challenge the religious subject’s beliefs is crucial, and it is entirely appropriate to do so. This, in fact, is unavoidable unless the theoretical task of religious studies is to be reduced to theological endorsement. Once the meaning of a religious belief has been grasped by interpreting it within the context of a subject’s consciousness and behavior, it may then be explained in terms entirely alien or even opposed to her perspective. This often means proposing an origin, cause, or function for the belief (typically in naturalistic terms) that either is not available to the subject or which contradicts her own account. These explanations, however, must not be conflated with the belief’s meaning: the latter is determined by its contextual relations to other beliefs, attitudes, and emotions on the part of the subject who holds the belief, whereas the former is determined through the invocation of one or another applicable theory. Challenging the truth of a religious subject’s beliefs is, therefore, entirely acceptable in the explanatory phase of analysis. Doing so in the interpretation of a belief is not, however. Therefore, religious beliefs should be regarded as truth claims. Doing so in concert with distinguishing between interpretive and explanatory tasks allows the researcher to challenge the truth of those beliefs at the proper analytical moment, in a way that undermines neither the interpretation nor the explanation of those beliefs. METAPHYSICS AND INTERIORITY There is also the metaphysical problem of precisely what kind of entity is denoted by the term “belief.” Benson Saler identifies three different philosophical conceptions of belief, each of which implies (or avoids) a distinct metaphysics: (1) the mental state theory: “one entertains a proposition in the mind and believing, construed as a mental act or event, occurs when one mentally assents to that proposition”; (2) the disposition theory: “…when we say that someone believes something, we are claiming that that person has a tendency or readiness to act, feel, or think in a certain way under appropriate circumstances. This may include verbally and publicly affirming a proposition on occasion,” and (3) the cognitivist theory, which is “thoroughly physicalist or materialist in orientation” and often includes high expectations of cognitive science’s ability to eventually rid us of folk psychological terms like “belief” (Saler 2001, 54–57; Schilbrack 2014, 61–70). While the first option may capture what for many is the most intuitive sense of “belief,” prevalent trends in academia have favored a general shift away from belief construed as a mental state and toward conceptions that render it a more public entity. This aversion to interiority is often based on its apparent endorsement or entailment of a metaphysical dualism that instantiates odd, nonphysical entities, such as minds, that seem to escape a materialistic-naturalistic paradigm and to short-circuit explanatory theories that emphasize the social. Russell McCutcheon’s work may be seen as exemplary of the sorts of concerns that arise in this regard. He criticizes Wilfred Cantwell Smith (among others) for prioritizing “interior and generally inaccessible personal experiences and religious convictions at the expense of observable, documentable data. . . For Cantwell Smith, like [Rudolf] Otto before him . . . religion is essentially an a priori mystery” (McCutcheon 1997, 128). The invocation of internal states or some type of subjective interiority through concepts like belief is problematic because it supposedly detours inquiry from the productive path of observable phenomena into a dead-end of shadowy psychological posits that cannot be verified. For McCutcheon and others, references to interiority play an obfuscating role, perpetuating an air of mystery that insulates religious experiences and beliefs from social scientific explanations, maintaining a kind of theological last redoubt within the secular study of religion.9 What terms like “belief” allegedly obfuscate is not only the historical (as opposed to transcendent) nature of religion, but what many critics regard as the essentially social nature of belief and indeed all that passes for subjectivity. Religion, according to McCutcheon, “processes socio-politically enmeshed human beings into self-absorbed and seemingly disembodied believing minds”—that is, it mythologizes belief into a state of interior thought or knowledge, creating the illusion that socially constructed human beings are autonomous, deliberating subjects (McCutcheon 2004, 177). Opposing this illusion, McCutcheon cites Donald Lopez and Robert Sharf, whom he describes as having helped to dispel mistaken assumptions about the supposedly “private” and “asocial” nature of belief (McCutcheon 2007, 962). From this perspective, to posit belief as the explanation for a given behavior is to ignore the insidious power of society in forming human subjects and, indeed, to further the unfortunate effect of religion in obscuring that dynamic (McCutcheon 2014, 38 and 177). According to McCutcheon, it is the mark of scholarship in the humanities to assume that all human thought and behavior is ultimately not only historical, but collective in nature. To this end, he approvingly quotes Bryan Turner, who writes that “all social beliefs, indeed all beliefs as such, are determined. There is no residual category of beliefs which are not causally determined” (McCutcheon 1997, 962). These are strong claims. Unless the scholar of religion assumes that “there is no escape from…the collective” and regards “all beliefs” as determined, she is allegedly failing in her scholarly duties (McCutcheon 2004, 165). Admission of the reality of even a delimited subjective interiority would violate what are here proposed as axioms of research in the humanities: the necessarily social and ultimately determined nature of all thought and behavior. Although these conclusions are extreme, similar concerns underlie the disposition theory of belief, and the related shift in psychology toward behaviorism. Behaviorism sought to render psychology scientifically respectable by evacuating the field of references to “mind” and supposedly mental entities like belief, replacing them with a vocabulary that consisted entirely of terms describing empirically observable behavior, and “dispositions” toward such (public) behavior. Cognitivism, Saler’s third option, may be seen as the latest and perhaps final step in this general turning away from the mental. It is aptly represented by thinkers such as Lopez and the philosophers of mind Paul and Patricia Churchland, who call for the ultimate elimination of everything but the material from our explanatory repertoire. Godlove aptly summarizes this perspective: “there really are no such allegedly contentful mental states as belief, hope, and doubt . . . really, these are names for enormously complex, ill-understood bits of matter interacting with one another in enormously complex, ill-understood ways” (Godlove 2002, 18).10 The trajectory here is clear: as research moves away from the domain of the interior, the mental, and the invisible, and toward that of the exterior, the physical, and the tangible, it supposedly achieves greater purchase as mature and respectable academic work. Allegedly covert apologetic strategies and empty hypotheticals are replaced with rigorous empirics and observationally verifiable theories. Within this general trend toward the public and the palpable, it is easy to see how the notion of belief came to be seen as suspect, an atavistic regression or a frustratingly resilient vestige of a bygone period in religious studies that too easily accommodated some scholars’ lingering subjectivist tendencies. However, the drive to exterminate interiority from the intellectual horizons of religious studies has led to claims that are so overstated as to undermine their own agendas. Posited realms of incorrigibly mysterious and ahistorical subjectivity should indeed be regarded with suspicion. But deflating such questionable and possibly protectionist notions does not require denying the existence of the internal mental lives of persons or inflating the domain of the social to ubiquity. In short, the best insights of thinkers like McCutcheon and Lopez may be incorporated into religious studies methodology in concert with a revised understanding of “belief,” rather than its blanket rejection. That revised understanding begins with the following realization: articulating the role of the social in forming human behavior without the concept of belief is exceedingly difficult. McCutcheon applauds thinkers such as Lopez and Sharf, as well as Joan Wallach Scott and Slavoj Zizek, for dismissing “the irreducibly originary, causal nature of the dynamic interior world from which hunches (not to mention beliefs, meanings, experiences, and impulses) arise” (McCutcheon 2014, 39). It is not clear, however, why either belief in particular or subjectivity in general must be construed as “irreducibly originary.” It is not necessary to hold that belief originates from some unsullied domain of ahistorical subjectivity to acknowledge that belief—understood at least partially as a mental state—plays an important role in the causal stories we need to tell. Very few if any serious scholars today would suggest that beliefs arise in a vacuum untainted by contextual influence. The critique of belief, when defined in this manner, is attacking a straw man. In fact, however, it is not only that a concept of belief and some of the best insights of social theory may be retained together without contradiction; rather, the social theorist needs belief for his theory to work at all.11 Durkheim—one of the primary sources from which social theorists derive their paradigm—makes this point explicitly: “collective force is not wholly external to us; it does not entirely move us from the outside. Indeed, since society can exist only in individual minds and through them, it must penetrate and become organized inside us; it becomes an integral part of our being” (quoted in Martin 2014, 16). In explicating the formative power of society, Durkheim explicitly notes its dependence on “individual minds.” Similarly, Bennett M. Berger refers to “choices…made under a series of constraints and incentives set by social structures and more or less legitimated by internalized culture” (quoted in Martin 2014, 87). Even if one wishes to argue that the social is the final realm in which explanations should be sought, that hypothesis cannot be articulated without reference to minds that exist “inside us” and culture that becomes “internalized.” Interiority has not been dismantled and eliminated, but only reconceived as related to and powerfully influenced by the social. Social processes do not explain away beliefs; they explain how people come to have many of the beliefs they do.12 There is a further danger in so heavily emphasizing the social and effacing the individual. Pascal Boyer warns that one trap into which cognitive science of religion sometimes falls is “theologism,” which “begs the question of systematicity by positing that religious representations necessarily constitute shared, integrated, consistent sets of assumptions, often in the face of less than perfect empirical confirmation” (Boyer 1994, 229). In other words, in depicting it as a coherent, integrated system, the cognitive scientist misrepresents lay religious belief as something more akin to the carefully constructed systems of theologians. As several sociological studies have shown, the beliefs to which individuals attest are often surprisingly lacking in terms of internal consistency (Bell 2002, 114–15). This is a failure to distinguish between what Gregory Schopen calls “formal doctrine” and “belief” (Schopen 1998, 266). The gap between the character and content of religious belief among lay people and theologians—the latter of whom are professionally trained in formulating coherent systems of doctrine—is likely to be significant. Similarly, the strong claim that all human belief and behavior must be viewed as a product of the social has difficulty explaining the existence of “cognitive minorities,” people whose beliefs do not conform to the social milieu (Berger 1970, 6). If it is the case that all belief and behavior are completely defined by social context, then cognitive minorities ought not to exist: individuals formed in the same social context should be largely indistinguishable from each other in terms of their (supposed) mental lives. The existence of cognitive minorities—and the emergence of categories such as blasphemy and heresy to label them—indicate that society’s ability to produce compliant subjects is imperfect, allowing for the existence of beliefs that contradict the overarching social order. In both cases, it is necessary to retain the ability to acknowledge individual divergences from the systems that supposedly subsume them. This is not to suggest that social theorists are flatly wrong in asserting that social forces play a significant role in forming belief. Rather, it is to suggest that that insight undermines itself when it is overinflated into claims that are too strong to be defensible. It is exceedingly difficult to argue that all beliefs are determined by the social, but it is equally difficult to deny the more moderate thesis that social forces play a powerful (although not almighty) role in forming and influencing (rather than determining) belief. In any case, rejecting arguments that formulate belief as somehow ahistorical or mysterious does not require construing the social as either ubiquitous or omnipotent. A suppler conception of the metaphysics of belief is able to acknowledge social influence without denying interiority tout court, and thereby provides a more defensible theorization of belief. Although each of Saler’s three options is presented as an alternative theory of belief, I suggest that they may be more productively viewed as different theoretical languages, each of which is required to formulate a satisfactory approach to the study of belief. This means viewing beliefs through multiple metaphysical lenses: as neural states comprised of objectively measurable electrical and chemical processes in human brains (which are at present incompletely understood) and as tendencies or dispositions to behave in certain ways in certain circumstances and as interior states of mental assent to propositions. The three theories of belief, rather than being mutually exclusive, are in fact complementary. This position mirrors Owen Flanagan’s work in the philosophy of mind. He argues that a satisfactory theory of consciousness will require the establishment of “reflective equilibrium” between three distinct but complementary methods: phenomenology, psychology, and neuroscience (Flanagan 1992, 11–20). At the neuroscientific level, a belief can be described as a particular neural state consisting of empirically detectable sorts of activity in identifiable brain regions. This neural state can be correlated with the psychological likelihood of displaying certain behaviors and can also be profitably described from the phenomenological perspective as a mental state wherein a given proposition is held to be true by a subject. Rather than regarding one of these forms of discourse as ultimately either eliminable or comprehensive, Flanagan describes a methodological perspective that regards all three as necessary for a satisfactory explanation of consciousness, one salient type of which is belief. This suppler formulation of belief provides at least three methodological advantages. First, it retains a more defensible version of interiority. The problem with interiority is that it is simultaneously fundamental to the phenomenology of belief and resistant (though not impervious) to many methods of public analysis by third parties. A chastened version of interiority resolves the concerns of social theorists without indulging in the overly strong claims of social determinism. Because a metaphysically multimodal perspective regards belief as both partially private and partially public—in terms of the latter, by relating belief to both observable behavior and detectable instances of brain activity—the study of belief is more empirically grounded. While it acknowledges interiority as one dimension of belief, “reflective equilibrium” also posits correlations between those interior states and public phenomena. This perspective therefore cannot be accused of rendering belief a permanent mystery, forever beyond the pale of academic investigation. The phenomenology of interiority is acknowledged, but the specter of obfuscation raised by interiority is dispelled. Second, acknowledging the metaphysical complexity of belief recognizes the causal power of the social without endorsing unnecessarily extreme theses. McCutcheon had objected to religion’s propensity to construct persons as “disembodied believing minds,” and indeed many scholars have recently endorsed a more “embodied” approach to religious studies (see, e.g., Schaefer 2015). By recognizing beliefs as not only states of mind but also states of brain, beliefs are resituated in the physical, social realm, intimately connected to brains that are parts of bodies that interact with other bodies in the public world. This metaphysical formulation does not justify the strong claim that all beliefs are entirely socially determined, but it does ground belief in a sufficiently physical and public fashion such that the social must be recognized as an important dimension in explaining the causation and content of belief. Correlations between the exterior and interior dimensions of belief are complex and as yet imperfectly understood. But this is all the more reason to also acknowledge an interior dimension to belief, in addition to its exterior dimensions—a third advantage of a metaphysically multimodal conception of belief. Individuals experience themselves as having internal mental lives, and while that phenomenological dimension of consciousness is not solely determinative in the study of belief, it is a relevant part of the story that scholars must be able to tell.13 This is not only because the phenomenology of belief includes interiority, but because acknowledging the interior dimension of belief is a necessary component in clarifying theories that focus on its exterior dimensions. For example, without the ability to acknowledge a disconnect between interior states of mind and exterior behaviors, behaviorist theories of belief have difficulty accounting for the capacity of persons to lie, dissemble, or otherwise misrepresent themselves. Social theorists, as noted earlier, must rely on some concept of the “internalization” of culture to render their theories coherent. And, similarly, it is difficult to see how neuroscience could proceed in identifying the functionality of brain states without subjective phenomenological reports with which to correlate them. While the public dimensions of belief serve to bring it out of the methodological shadows, psychological, sociological, and neuroscientific approaches to the study of belief cannot be cogently conceptualized without some reference to interiority. Without the ability to correlate observed behaviors and neural activity with subjectively reported states of awareness, the study of consciousness—including beliefs—would be severely debilitated. The combination of theoretical languages provided by a metaphysically multimodal concept of belief is necessary to study this dimension of religion with the level of nuance and complexity that it demands. It is important to note that Flanagan couches his approach to consciousness within an overarching naturalistic framework: the recognition of interiority does not necessitate supernaturalism (Flanagan 1992, 2–3). Instead, this metaphysically manifold understanding of belief conceptualizes it in a way that recognizes its multifaceted nature, including but not limited to the material. When a subject claims to “believe in God,” she is not stating either that “specific regions of my brain are currently in X state” or that “I am more likely to be found in a house of worship on Sunday morning than my atheist neighbor,” although both statements may be true. She is stating that she holds it to be true that an entity that is unbound by the laws of physics and which created the known universe exists. The vocabularies of neuroscience and, to a lesser degree, psychology are more obviously amenable to a naturalistic, materialistic metaphysic and therefore lend themselves to public, empirical study. However, the type of discourse provided by phenomenology—which is keyed to interiority—is also necessary to accurately represent and understand the perspective of the religious subject, including her beliefs. A multifaceted metaphysics of belief is therefore better able both to render belief amenable to empirical study and to capture the interior significance of belief for religious subjects, the latter of which plays a necessary role in the former. CONCLUSION Despite the variety and vociferousness of criticisms of belief that have been voiced, religious studies scholars seem unable to evict the concept from our work. Perhaps, rather than evidencing an allergy to particular theoretical perspectives or some kind of apologetic nostalgia, this is for good reason. Belief is not the essence of religion, nor is it a central component of all religions. It is, however, an important dimension of some religions and plays at least a minimal role in all religions. The former is largely a matter of history and contingent circumstance: in those cases in which belief plays a central role in a religion, that fact can very likely be explained as an outgrowth of identifiable historical factors that could have been otherwise. The latter is true not because belief is essential to religion, but because beliefs are an inherent dimension of the psychological lives and social forces that characterize and shape the human subjects who produce and practice religion. Neither are religious beliefs strange discursive operators that merely masquerade as truth claims or unassailable truths insulated within distinct universes with alternative realities. The study of religious beliefs does require a sophisticated approach that is capable of addressing in a nuanced fashion beliefs that are sometimes counterintuitive, empirically unmoored, or fundamentally opposed to those of the inquiring researcher, while often serving simultaneously as axioms that frame or ground religious individuals’ and communities’ other beliefs and behaviors. This requires the bifurcated approach I have described, which facilitates the ability both to effectively interpret religious beliefs and to explain them in ways unconstrained by the truth claims they make. Nor is belief an ahistorical expression of pure subjectivity or an abstract, metaphysically mysterious entity. As an integral part of the psychological lives of human subjects, the interiority of beliefs—while perhaps frustrating to some analytical perspectives—cannot be denied or ignored, but this does not entail construing beliefs as acontextual expressions of pristine agency or as ontological anomalies. A metaphysically multimodal understanding of belief is able to capture its phenomenological reality for human subjects, while also acknowledging the inevitable roles of society and neurology in forming and constraining belief. Such a model facilitates the study of religious beliefs (as well as human mentation in general) by offering a paradigm through which distinct but related research approaches may be correlated with each other. Many critiques of belief are legitimate, growing out of concerns related to the lack of circumspection concerning our analytical categories, misuses of interpretive charity, or insufficient reflection on basic theoretical assumptions. These concerns can be addressed, however—indeed, must be addressed—not by jettisoning the category of belief, but by deploying supplementary analytical categories and theories, greater historical awareness of the biases built into our discipline’s intellectual legacy, and more refined deployment of methodological tools and concepts with which scholars of religion already operate. Rather than representing a theoretical phantasm that inevitably misleads analysis, belief is a historically complicated and metaphysically multi-faceted phenomenon that requires careful treatment and theorization by religious studies scholars. This is not because belief represents some unique dimension of a specific natural kind called “religion” or because religious belief is somehow distinct from all other species of belief, but because belief constitutes a central dimension of the phenomenological, psychological, and social lives of human beings. Without the concept of belief, a great deal of human behavior, both individually and socially, is rendered incomprehensible. Religious studies needs belief not because religion needs belief, but because human beings have beliefs. My thanks to three anonymous reviewers for their thoughtful feedback on an earlier version of this article. Footnotes 1 Unless otherwise indicated, I define “belief” as the attitude of “taking something to be true.” Most contemporary analytic philosophers accept this definition, and it captures the meaning most scholars of religion intend, as well as the intentions of most native and fluent English-speakers. Kevin Schilbrack notes that philosophers of mind who differ on a variety of points generally accept that “belief” means “[to hold] that something is true.” See his Philosophy and the Study of Religions: A Manifesto (2014), 61, 71. See also Schwitzgebe 2015. 2 In terms of its endurance, see, for example, the titles of three books published in 2016 on the AAR’s Reading Religion website: Death Anxiety and Religious Belief: An Existential Psychology of Religion, by Jonathan Jong and Jamin Halberstadt (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016); Women Beyond Belief: Discovering Life Without Religion, by Karen Garst (Charlottesville: Pitchstone Publishing, 2016); and The Social Equality of Religion or Belief, by Alan Carling (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016). 3 Charles Taylor and Hans Kippenberg also locate this formulation of religion in Thomas Hobbes’ work. See Taylor 2007; 2009, 1148; and Kippenberg 2002, 3–4. 4 This group, also sometimes referred to as the “myth and ritual school,” included scholars such as F. M. Cornford, Jane Ellen Harrison, and Gilbert Murray (who was actually from the University of Oxford). 5 Tomoko Masuzawa examines the Eurocentric biases that pervade much early research on religion, particularly in nineteenth-century anthropology. See Masuzawa 2005, especially 14–20. See also Dubuisson 2003, 147–50. 6 Davidson’s preferred language for the relativistic idea that he refutes is “scheme-content dualism.” 7 For the moment, I am putting aside the question of whether and how such determinations can be made conclusively, which is not an uncomplicated matter. 8 Typically, the interpretation of a religious subject’s beliefs will reveal an implicit explanation of those beliefs in religious terms. Robert Segal aptly makes this point. The fact that explanatory claims are embedded in the subject’s understanding of her own beliefs, however, does not mean that the interpreting scholar cannot heuristically distinguish between interpretation and explanation. After all, the scholar of religion must be able to identify religious subjects’ own explanations for their beliefs and behavior—an essential part of the phenomena we study—without being restricted to them in terms of his own theorizing. See Segal 2014 and Blum 2014. 9 Schilbrack also discusses this objection; see his Philosophy and the Study of Religions, 59–60. I do not mean to imply that beliefs and experiences are synonymous, and the relationship between the two is complex. For present purposes, however, it is sufficient to note that, as two prominent species of interiority, they are both subject to many of the same objections raised by critics who are skeptical of internal states. 10 In philosophical terms, this position is called eliminative materialism. 11 “Social theory” could be taken to refer to various schools of thought in different disciplines. 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Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Academy of Religion. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Published: Feb 13, 2018
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