Jonathan Mair

Notes from the frying pan

Rodney Needham and Paul Veyne on religious belief

I recently came across a review by Rodney Needham of Paul Veyne’s Did the Greeks believe in their myths? I was quite intrigued by this as these two authors are representatives of two approaches to the study of religious belief and the anthropology of belief I have been thinking about for a while . They have often squabbled in my head, and in my imagination, Veyne always wins the argument, so I was curious to see what Needham would make of Veyne’s argument and the strong implicit critique of his own position it entails.

Social scientists have a difficult relationship with religious belief. On the one hand, belief is often absolutely central to accounts of religious communities and practice: Group A carries out this practice because of a belief X, religious innovator B used to do Y, so we can conclude he believed Z, and so on. Such accounts are ubiquitous, in the everyday language of religious people and non-specialists, psychologists of religion, and almost just as much, for all their denials, in the language of social scientists. Because this model of religious life sees belief-language as being a more or less reliable reflection of religious people’s understanding of the world, it is known (mainly by its critics) as ‘intellectualism’.

On the other hand, academic students of religion have long argued that belief is just not what most religious traditions are about, and that the use of the concept of belief is deeply misleading. I call this position ‘belief scepticism’. Academic belief scepticism goes back at least as far as William Robertson Smith’s 1889 Lectures on the Religion of the Semites. There are many variations, but a general outline of this position is as follows: we modern students of religion think that religion is all about a set of propositions that followers believe to be true, but this view of belief as propositional and central to religious life is a relatively modern Christian innovation; other religious traditions are more about practice or symbolic expression.

This belief scepticism argument has also been extended to Christianity, for example, by Abby Day, who recently argued that religion in the UK, including the that of her Christian interviewees (not all were Christian), was about social belonging and morality and not about propositional belief.

Although both intellectualism and belief scepticism have important things to teach us about religious and other belief, I do not accept either (1) that religious belief language is always a straightforward representation of systematically related propositions to which followers assent, as the intellectualists are alleged to claim, or (2) that belief-language always has another function (part of practice, deference to a social system, expression of moral values) and never refers to propositional beliefs, except perhaps in the case of (some) Christians, as the belief sceptics often argue.

I have long been a proponent of a third position, which I call the ‘ethnographic’ approach to belief—it might equally be described as ‘historical’. This simply means recognising that it is not only first order information—’God is three persons in one substance’, ‘twins are birds’, ‘actions have consequences’—that varies between persons, cultures, periods of history, but also the second-order, meta-cognitive information and practices relating to how one is supposed to relate cognitively and otherwise to this information.

The anthropologist and philosopher Rodney Needham wrote a long and influential book making the belief-sceptic case, Belief, language and experience (1972). I have always found his arguments in the book problematic and I’m always surprised by the deference with which his argument is treated by contemporary anthropologists.

Paul Veyne is a French historian of classical antiquity, who was closely associated with Foucault. His 1983 book Les Grecs ont-ils cru à leurs mythes?, published in English translation in 1988 as Did the Greeks believe in their myths? is, I think, an exemplary instance of an ethnographic approach to belief that takes into account different styles, or ‘modes’ of belief, as much as the content to which belief was applied.

His answer to the eponymous question is ‘yes and no’—the ordinary Greek did not believe in myth in the same way that he believed in things he had experienced directly, but he still believed that the events recounted in myths were true. The different modes of truth were distinguished by different truth conditions.

Veyne neatly demonstrates the importance of understanding the plurality of modes of belief or ‘programmes of truth’ by contrasting the attitudes of the Greek in the street with those of classical historians such as Pausanias and Thucydides. The historians no less than hoi polloi believe the events described by myths were true, but their activity was motivated by a second-order imperative that insisted that there could only be one programme of truth. The aim of their practice was to apply reason, logos, in order to reconcile the apparent contradictions between mythos—myths about gods and heroes—and stories of the contemporary lives of ordinary people.

Continued here


Day, Abby. Believing in belonging: Belief and social identity in the modern world. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Needham, Rodney. Belief, language, and experience. Oxford: Blackwell, 1972.

Needham, Rodney. ‘Reviewed Work: Did the Greeks Believe in Their Myths? An Essay on the Constitutive Imagination. by Paul Veyne, transl. Paula Wissing’. Man (New Series), Vol. 25, No. 1 (Mar., 1990), pp. 157-158.

Smith, William Robertson. Lectures on the Religion of the Semites: First series. The fundamental institutions. Appleton, 1889.

Veyne, Paul. Did the Greeks believe in their myths?: An essay on the constitutive imagination. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

The Meaning and End of Religion

Over the weekend I read Wilfred Cantwell Smith‘s The Meaning and End of Religion (1962). I knew a little about this book from Talal Asad’s 2001 article (jStor paywall), which I suppose is the main way most anthropologists of religion have come to know its content too. Asad lavishes praise on Smith at the beginning of the article—the book is a ‘modern classic’, and so on—but most of his article is a pretty unrelenting takedown. I have always taken it for granted that Asad’s precis is a reliable description of Smith’s position, but now I’ve actually read the book, I’ve found that the argument is much more subtle, and that many (but not all) of Asad’s criticisms are unfair.

Smith begins his book by asking a question that had exercised many other scholars before him: ‘What is religion?’. However, his answer is quite original. Religion, he argues, is not a constant feature of human experience, but a historical phenomenon which, being historical, had a beginning and has continued to change. As it is changing and heterogeneous, it sometimes has included things that at other times were excluded. Therefore attempting to understand ‘religion’ as if it was a stable thing is bound to be misleading. There is little we can say about it as a category, except to trace its history, and he therefore calls for the term to be dropped as an analytical tool altogether.

Asad writes that Smith is the first anti-essentialist theorist of religion, but that’s not all he is, and for me he stands awkwardly between the essentialists and the anti-essentialists. His account of the history of the religion concept is in some ways much more wide-ranging and complex than more recent accounts with which I’m more familiar.

Yet in his claim that the experience of the transcendent is universal and in some sense ahistorical, he looks like earlier generations of anthropologists/sociologists/historians of religion, such as Durkheim and Frazer, who sought to define religion as a trans-historical category. And there are precedents, too, for the confessional position that the true purpose of religious practice is a personal relationship or encounter with the transcendent, for example, in the work of Evelyn Underhill.*

Smith predicted that sociologists would be uncomfortable with the idea of building the category of the transcendent into their studies. It does make me uncomfortable, and my instinct is to seek to historicize the transcendent—is the transcendent/immanent opposition really universal, as he assumes? can’t its development be traced? isn’t it dependent on a certain kind of cosmology?—but the sophistication of Smith’s writing has certainly made me a bit more open to the idea….still, if you’ll permit me to mangle a metaphor, I can’t help feeling that in throwing the bathwater out of the analytical bath, he’s kept back a bit, mistaking it for a baby. If you see what I mean.

Smith argues that religion is a confusing term that is used to refer to a number of different things. These things are, he says, quite distinct, but they are conflated as a result of the contemporary application of the term ‘religion’ to all of them. They are (48f):

  • (1) A personal relationship to transcendence, piety (in this sense we say someone is more or less religious than ten years ago)
  • A system of beliefs, practices, values, or whatever, extending over time and space (in this sense we distinguish one religion from another)—this can be further analysed into two separate phenomena: (2) the ideal religion of theologians, seldom if ever realised in life, and (3) the messy, human reality of sociologists
  • (4) Religion in general, as opposed to other realms of life

For Smith, the most important of all of these is the first, which he proposes to call ‘faith’. He says that faith—a relationship of obedience, submission or recognition of the transcendent, is a human universal. This faith finds expression in practices, art, music, theology and so on, but they are not it. The phenomena described by (2), (3), and (4) are, unlike personal faith or piety, historical developments and are therefore messy, heterogeneous, and without a stable essence.

The conflation of these four aspects under the rubric of ‘religion’ leads to a number of problems. These problems are not consistently distinguished by Smith, and the following enumeration may just be my reading, but I think a passage near the very end of the book, where he explains that his argument has relevance to religious people, to students of religion, and for humanity at large, does indicate that he thinks of them as separate problems.

  • Problem 1: the religious problem. As a religious person, Smith thinks that faith, piety, the personal encounter of an individual with the transcendent, is undermined when people conflate it with its expression. The result is a focus on contingent externals, rather than the relationship itself. He doesn’t argue, I think, that the external expressions of faith is unimportant (this is key to my disagreement with Asad) but rather that treating them as religion may lead people to neglect faith and to become too attached to specifics that should be seen as accidents of history.

  • Problem 2: the sociological problem. As the meaning of the term ‘religion’ has a history, it is confusing when applied anachronistically across periods in history, or ethnocentrically to other cultures, and it should be dropped. For instance, the idea that religion is distinguished from the secular is distinctively a characteristic of European religion, because there Christianity came to dominate, but existed alongside political traditions with classical roots, which only then were understood as secular. When looking at specific traditions, such as Buddhism or Islam, we should not look for a defining essence or genius, but accept that they are ever branching, heterogeneous, contingent accumulations. When trying to understand the influence of a religious tradition on an individual follower of that tradition, we can take into account only those aspects of the tradition of which the follower is aware, rather than trying to define the essence of the religion explaining his or her actions in the light of that essence.

  • Problem 3: the human problem. Smith suggests that the reification of religion is the cause of conflict. If we recognised the universality of the human relationship with transcendence—that is, of faith—we’d learn to tolerate and appreciate each other’s concrete expressions of that relationship.

* Thanks to my colleague, Benjamin Wood for pointing me to Underhill’s work!


Asad, Talal. “Reading a Modern Classic: WC Smith’s” The Meaning and End of Religion”.” History of Religions (2001): 205-222.

Smith, Wilfred Cantwell. The meaning and end of religion. Fortress Press, 1963.

Underhill, Evelyn. Mysticism: A study in the nature and development of man’s spiritual consciousness. Jack Books, 1930.

‘Neoliberalism’ as ‘conceptual trash heap’

This is my first post in a long time. Over the last year I moved to Manchester and started teaching full time. I hope to return to blogging from time to time.

Recently I’ve seen the transcript of the 2012 GDAT debate on the concept of neoliberalism, which is due to be published in JRAI next year. I spoke in the debate as second proposer for the (resoundingly defeated!) motion The concept of neoliberalism has become an obstacle to the anthropological understanding of the twenty-first century.

I was reminded of an article I came across a few months ago: Boas, Taylor C., and Jordan Gans-Morse. “Neoliberalism: From new liberal philosophy to anti-liberal slogan.” Studies in Comparative International Development 44.2 (2009): 137-161. The argument is similar to the one James Laidlaw and I made in the debate but it is based on a much more systematic review of social scientific literature than we were able to present in our short speeches.

In a review of 148 articles on neoliberalism published in the top comparative politics, development, and Latin American studies journals between 1990 and 2004, we did not find a single article focused on the definition and usage of neoliberalism, nor are we aware of one published elsewhere.

…the use of neoliberalism in the contemporary study of political economy differs from that of other normatively charged social science concepts in three potentially problematic ways. First, its negative normative valence and connotations of radicalism have produced asymmetric patterns of use across ideological divides. Second, scholars who do use the term neoliberalism tend not to define it in empirical research, even when it is an important independent or dependent variable. And third, the term is applied to multiple distinct phenomena, from a set of economic policies or development model to an ideology or academic paradigm. In present usage, neoliberalism conveys little common substantive meaning but serves as a clear indicator that one does not evaluate free markets positively.

The authors make a very interesting argument that the origin of the term’s contemporary academic usage lies in South American critiques of Pinochet in the 1970s and 80s. Pinochet was applying radical economic policies formulated by the ‘Chicago Boys’, based on the thought of Hayek and Friedman.

Once established as a common term among Spanish-speaking scholars, neoliberalism diffused directly into the English-language study of political economy, such that its present-day usage is heir to the critical Latin American scholarship of the 1970s and 1980s. In one very important way, contemporary usage of neoliberalism has changed fundamentally since that period: it no longer denotes a new form of liberalism with specific features and empirical referents, but has become a vague term that can mean virtually anything as long as it refers to normatively negative phenomena associated with free markets. As the term neoliberalism has diffused broadly, nothing has prevented its meaning from drifting even more broadly.

This goes some way to explaining the fact that some of the strongest defenders of the concept of neoliberalism in the discussion part of the debate were scholars working on Latin America.

They also suggest an ingenious explanation of the mechanism by which the vagueness of ‘neoliberalism’ is established and maintained. They distinguish contested concepts from contested terms. In the case of neoliberalism, the concepts are ideas associated with free markets. The term is the normatively loaded ‘neoliberalism’, which is applied only by those who are critical of the concepts. Where a term is agreed upon, and only the underlying concepts are contested, there’s a shared incentive to police the boundaries of the term. But…

in the case of neoliberalism, the conjunction of terminological contestation and the contested normative valence of the underlying concepts to which it can refer short circuits debate over the term’s meaning and proper application. Because the normative valence of free market phenomena is contested, some scholars have an incentive to suggest that the negative aspects of markets are more widespread, whereas others have an incentive to argue that their positive aspects are more prevalent. Those who use neoliberalism, however, participate in only one side of this debate. To contest the intension and extension of neoliberalism, by arguing that certain cases do not qualify or that certain definitional criteria do not belong, would be to suggest that the negative aspects of markets are not as widespread as others maintain—undercutting the still-unresolved argument about whether the free market is ultimately good or bad. The result is that neoliberalism has become a conceptual trash heap capable of accommodating multiple distasteful phenomena without much argument as to whether one or the other component really belongs.