Tag Christianity

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Abby Day’s Believing in Belonging: Review

Here’s my review of Abby Day’s Believing in Belonging which appeared in last year’s edition of the Journal of Religion and Society. Though I didn’t quite buy the theoretical argument of the book, I thought the substantive work on people’s attitudes towards institutionalised religion, gods, ghosts and fate was fascinating.

The commentary on the census is also very useful. I referred to that aspect of the work in a previous post, where I questioned an evolutionary explanation of religion that relied on data from historical censuses.

The full text of the review follows, and a pdf version (post-print) is available here.


Review of Believing in Belonging by Abby Day

Religion and Society: Advances in Research, Volume 3, Number 1, 2012 , pp. 211-241(31)

Believing in Belonging is a study based mainly on a series of interviews conducted in the early 2000s in the north of England. Suspecting that sociological studies of religious affiliation were failing to capture something important, Day asked her interviewees instead about ‘belief’. In the substantive chapters she outlines the main issues that emerged from these conversations: community and identity, relations with kin, enduring relations with the dead, the operation of fate or providence, and the importance of morality.

The most interesting finding relates to a puzzle about contemporary religious belief. In the 2001 census, which was the first to include a question on religious identity, 72% of respondents identified themselves as Christian. This was interpreted jubilantly by many, Day notes, as a refutation of the secularization thesis. The census was not the first survey to show that a high proportion of British people continue to identify themselves as Christian, but it added to a longstanding sociological puzzle: while a high proportion of people in postwar Europe are still willing to call themselves Christian, other markers of religion, such as participation in acts of worship, show a dramatic and continuing decline.

There are two established explanations for this discrepancy. One is that many of the self-identified Christians are ‘nominal’ Christians, who identify themselves as Christian if asked, and may attend church for weddings and funerals, but otherwise do not think twice about belief. On this interpretation, the high rates of religious identification in surveys such as the census tell us little or nothing about the decline of belief in religion. The other explanation, most influentially advanced by Grace Davie, is that the phenomenon is just another aspect of the individualization of western societies, in which traditional communal institutions have lost their authority and people engage with culture on their own terms. On this view, the fall in church attendance cannot be taken as evidence of a corresponding loss of belief, rather, people continue ‘believing without belonging’.

Day’s research supports neither explanation. She finds that her interviewees can be divided into ‘theocentrics’, who see a relationship with God at the center of everything they do, and ‘anthropocentrics’, who do not. Theocentrics tend to be quite hostile in their evaluation of anthropocentrics, and vice versa. But the surprising and significant finding is that the boundaries of these groups do not coincide with the boundary between those who identify themselves as belonging to a religion and those who do not. About half of the interviewees who identified themselves as Christian were ‘anthropocentric’, and many of those were assertively atheist as well as rejecting the authority of institutional religion.

This is a problem for the ‘believing without belonging’ school, because it suggests that little can be assumed about people’s acceptance of religious beliefs on the basis of their self-declared religious identity. On the other hand, many ‘anthropocentric’ respondents, whether or not they felt they belonged to a particular religion, did believe they had experienced ghosts, and that the hand of fate acted in their lives. This means that neither falling church attendances or even outright antipathy to religion can be taken as clear evidence of rationalization of society.

Day’s own interpretation of her findings is that claiming, or ‘performing’, religious identity through surveys and narratives is a way of asserting a sort of ascribed cultural heritage, and simultaneously excluding ethnic others from it. Beliefs about other things—values, the dead, and so on—are used in the same way to express the importance of various social relationships, and often to exclude weak groups including women and children. Day’s ‘neo-Durkheimian’ conclusion is that belief is ultimately a matter of ‘the social’: ‘believing in belonging’.

Much of the detail of Day’s interviews is of interest. For example, the way in which informants sometimes reveal their own awareness of having decided to believe that they can speak to their kin beyond the grave, because the alternative would be unbearable, or the fact that ghosts are experienced in an embodied, sensually rich way, but rarely visually, or that among her respondents, only deceased kin were experienced in this way, not friends or unrelated strangers. Interviewees say they believe morality is doing to others as one would be done by, but in practice, they mean ‘doing to’ people like themselves, and various ethnic, or gendered ‘others’ turn out not to merit the same treatment. Many ‘anthropocentric’ people say that being culturally Christian means that their values are based on the Ten Commandments, and do not notice that they have tacitly edited out Commandments I – IV, which stipulate proper behavior in relation to God.

This material alone makes the book a valuable contribution to the literature. However, in terms of its theoretical aims—to provide a sound basis for understanding belief—the book is less successful. Day is ambitious in this respect and there are theoretical claims throughout. Here space allows me to mention only the most important of them, Day’s argument (drawing on Austin and Butler) that belief should be understood as ‘performative’ in the sense that the narration of beliefs brings about concrete effects. However, the claim is nowhere clearly explained, and Day’s usage is slippery: sometimes the effect of performance is the creation of a community of identity or some other object of belief, sometimes it is the creation of the belief itself, sometimes she seems to be claiming that the performance itself is the belief.

The reason that defining ‘belief’ is so important to Day’s argument—and this is also the reason it is so difficult to define—is that she seeks to displace the concept of ‘religion’ from its central position in social scientific work, but seems to want to replace it with an equivalent concept that covers much the same ground, including fate, morality and communication with the dead. But there is no reason to think that the different things the interviewees speak about under the rubric of ‘belief’ cover, from their point of view, a single field of thought or activity, and therefore no reason to expect to be able to find a unifying definition, or even that a family resemblance relationship obtains between them. Day sets out to replace the survey designers’ blunt questions about religious affiliation, which assume too much, with a more inductive approach, but the design of her structured interviews, starting with the question, ‘What do you believe in?’ incorporates its own assumptions, above all that there is a single, coherent phenomenon that corresponds to ‘believing in’. Day’s descriptions of the anxiety evoked in her participants by her first question—for instance, ‘Sometimes informants demonstrated surprise at the question and needed a few seconds to gather his or her [sic] thoughts. Some physically drew back and looked at me in shock…’ (p. 41)—suggest that for them ‘believing in’ corresponded to no clearly defined or salient category.

Day has not solved the problem of belief, but notwithstanding these limitations, her book is an important contribution to the literature that has significant implications for future empirical and theoretical work, as well as for public policy.

Cultures of Belief – New paper out in Anthropological Theory

I’ve just had a new paper out in Anthropological Theory — this is behind a paywall, I’ll make a post-print version available through this website soon for those who don’t have access to the journal through an academic library.

The paper is titled ‘Cultures of ignorance’. In a nutshell, the argument is that academic students of religion have settled on a way of accounting for religious language and thought that distinguishes ordinary, everyday belief from religious belief. The former is understood to be literal and practical. The latter, by contrast, is taken to be indirect, metaphorical, symbolic, affective, moral and so on, and by implication not to be about propositional belief. Drawing on my own field research in northern China’s Inner Mongolia, I argue that there are ways of relating to a body of true knowledge that fit neither of these models. I argue that in order to understand what is going on in this situation and many others we need to develop an ethnographic sensibility to locally specific ‘cultures of belief’. To get this project off to a start, I suggest some initial building blocks for a general anthropology of belief, based on religious thought in ancient Greece, mediaeval Judaism, and contemporary US Evangelism.

Here’s the abstract:

In popular thought about the meaning of religion, as well as established debates in anthropology, religious belief is interpreted as either a commitment to a clear set of propositions, or as a non-literal, symbolic, ethical or social commitment. Anthropologists have tended to support the latter of these positions, so much so that this can now be seen as the ‘anthropological’ position; it is also characteristic of the view of scholars in related disciplines, such as religious studies. This article argues for a third possibility: that religious (and other) believers are often engaged in complex, reflexive practices that stipulate specific cognitive and non-cognitive relationships to propositional content. This is demonstrated with reference to contemporary Buddhism in Inner Mongolia, China. The author argues that the existence of such cultures of belief demonstrates there is a need for a systematic anthropological theory of belief and suggests some sources that may contribute to its formulation.

Mair, J., 2013. Cultures of belief. Anthropological Theory, 12(4), pp.448–466.

Cross-cultural conversations at cross-purposes

Part of my argument in the recent neoliberalism debate was that,

evidence of discontent about any aspect, be it ever so narrow, of what have been identified as neoliberal transformations is taken, without further justification, as a rejection of all of the phenomena that have been so identified

My point was that just because lots of people in different countries are critics of, say, structural adjustment programmes, we cannot leap to the conclusion that they share the same conception of the state and civil society and all agree on the proper balance of power and resources between the two; their motivations and assumptions might be quite different in each case.

This is a formal problem of cross-cultural description or comparison: the conversation at cross-purposes. We recognize something familiar in other people’s statements, and rush to fill in the rest from our own common-sense ideas, which may be quite different. My favourite example of this is one that operates in both directions — a reciprocal conversation at cross-purposes.

Self-Cultivation, Jesus Christ, and Christ Jesus

Christian missionaries, mainly Americans, operate in China in spite of a prohibition on missionary activity. Their message tends to be the rules-based version of modern Evangelism that has taken so much of the world by storm over the past 30 years: don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t gamble, and so on.

Christians I have met in villages in the north of China, or people who were interested in Christianity as they would invariably put it, were, it seemed to me, used to thinking about religious practice quite differently: as being aimed at a gradual process of self-cultivation. Like an impressive athletic feat — such as running a marathon — this is something that is easy for anyone to admire. But to participate — that takes a certain degree of commitment, free time and self-confidence. Again and again, when I asked people if they were Christian they would self-deprecatingly say that they knew little about it, that they were busy, but planned to start being a Christian in the future, perhaps when the harvest was in and there was less farm work to be done.

I was in China researching the revival of Buddhism in Mongolian areas, and Buddhists — or people who were interested in Buddhism — would often tell me similar things: Buddhism is a deep culture that is very powerful, but not many people are capable of putting it into practice, they were happy being relatively passive admirers.

When the village Christians do practise, they see the purpose of self-denial not as the fulfilment of an imperative duty, but rather as a technology through which they will gain good fortune through hard work. This means that it the practices taught by missionaries, sometimes long ago, tend to drift into more extreme forms of asceticism. For instance, in one village I was told that a religion of Christ Jesus had emerged to challenge the established religion of Jesus Christ. The followers of Christ Jesus interpreted the injunction to pray often as an esoteric teaching involving sitting absolutely still for hours with a wet towel on one’s head— a dangerous as well as an uncomfortable proposition in windy, icy Inner Mongolia.

Guilty Buddhists

The reciprocal part of this conversation at cross-purposes is the adoption of Buddhism in many non-Asian contexts in which religion, especially monotheisms, tends to be thought of as a revelation of moral duty — that is, as part of a system of rule-based morality — rather than a set of technologies for self-development. The corollary of duty is guilt. If what I have read is representative, Western Buddhist leaders seem to be occupied quite a lot of the time with advising their followers not to feel guilty if they miss out on a meditation session (just google ‘don’t feel guilty for not meditating’ to see what I mean), or if they cannot resist eating meat.

This conversation at cross-purposes is facilitated by near-enough ‘religion’ concepts — false friends that make communication easy, even intuitive. The confusion that arises is evident in the accusations of hypocrisy, or justifications of apparent hypocrisy, that arose in early anthropological studies of Buddhism.

The idea that a Buddhist who does not follow Buddhist precepts is hypocritical, among my Inner Mongolian Buddhist friends at least, would be as inappropriate as accusing a Manchester United fan of being hypocritical for failing to play in the Premier League. On the other side, to my Chinese and Mongolian informants, foreign religionists — mainly those missionaries — often seem arrogant because they imagine that they themselves are capable right now, without any preparation, let alone indefinite deferment, of participating in all the practices that are commanded of them by their God. (I’m not making a point about Chinese people getting Christianity wrong, or non-Asians getting Buddhism wrong — I don’t have a horse in those races, I’m just interested in the formal problem.)

A request

For some time I have been toying with the idea of compiling a compendium of cross-cultural conversations at cross-purposes, or cross-cultural faux amis / false friends. It would include those situations in which concepts on each side of the conversation are different enough to produce disagreements or confusion, but similar enough that it may be unclear where the disagreement originates. Please let me know in the comments or by email if you know of any good examples for my collection.