Tag religion

Posts: 6

Needham’s review of Paul Veyne’s ‘Did the Greeks believe in their myths?’

This post is a continuation of my thoughts in my previous post

Now to Needham’s review of Veyne’s book. The review is short, and much is taken up with flattering comments on Veyne’s style, but overall the conclusion is negative—he characterises the argument as ‘erratic and inconsistent’. On my reading, Needham makes three substantive points, which I shall deal with one by one here in order of importance.

  1. The only criticism that really has bite is that Veyne is vague about what the key terms in his analysis—belief and truth—mean to him. Partly on the basis of Veyne’s previous work, Needham reads Did the Greeks…? as an exercise in epistemological relativism, and makes a version of the usual objection to the paradoxes of relativism: if truth is always to be defined in local terms, in relation to historically specific programmes of truth, as Veyne would have it, then what exactly does Veyne mean when he says, absolutely, and not qualified by any context, that truth is plural?

Needham writes:

As it turns out, Veyne actually concentrates not on belief but on truth, but only to place himself in a further difficulty. He concedes that ‘truth’ too means so many things, yet he passes over the variety of theories of truth and, in the end, commits himself consistently to none. The nearest he gets to a steady acceptance is to say that truths and interests, which are both limited and arbitrary, are ‘two different terms for the same thing’.

Needham is right to call Veyne out for not clarifying his terms, and attributing this weakness to strong epistemological relativism is not an unreasonable interpretation. However, I believe another reading is possible.

Veyne details the variety of ‘regimes of belief’ in terms of different truth conditions and specific practices, such as the use of footnotes in academic writing, with which they are associated. These things are the specific form that believing has, historically taken. But it is still possible to speak of believing in the abstract, as the category to which all these concrete modes of belief belong. What is it that makes the ordinary ancient Greek’s vague and lethargic belief in gods and heroes an instance of the same class of phenomenon as the mediaeval lawyer’s insistence on footnotes, and the modern newspaper reader’s suspicion of bias? They are all specifications of the practical and social relationship between thinker and what the thinker accepts as truth. To put it more pithily, belief is about a relationship to a body of truth.

I admit, it’s not clear from Veyne’s text that this is what he means by belief and truth, but it’s a reading that makes sense of his concrete claims, and saves his general conclusions from Needham’s anti-relativist criticism. Needham is right that Veyne is unclear on this score, and clarifying the meaning of the general category of belief, and of the general category of truth on which it depends will be an important task for any ethnographic approach to belief.

  1. He complains that Veyne, in seeking to understand belief, did not take into account the attempts of philosophers such as Wittgenstein, Hume, Kant, and so on to do the same thing.

These writers were engaged in what Veyne describes as an exercise of ‘the constitutive imagination’. Like the ancient and modern historians whom Veyne describes, they were engaged in shaping programmes of truth, legitimising some ‘regimes of belief’ and delegitimising others. They were not in the business of describing the plural programmes of truth of others, and they would only have had a place in the book alongside the mediaeval jurists and modern journalists that Veyne—as case studies of the kind of second-order belief theory and practice that Veyne is interested in describing.

In other words, Veyne is writing at a higher level of generalisation or abstraction than Kant et al., and for a different purpose. The philosophers’ question would not have been ‘Did the Greeks believe in their myths’, but the logically posterior question, ‘Were the Greeks right to (dis)believe in their myths?’, which is only meaningful once it is established whether or not (or to what extent, in what senses) they did, in fact, believe.

  1. Finally, Needham chides Veyne for not taking account of ‘sceptical anthropology’. He argues that ethnographers have succeeded in explaining the kinds god-language that Veyne’s question raises, but without resorting to the notion of belief. He concludes that these writers,

confirm that it is not ‘pointless’, as Veyne proposes, to try to determine the true thought of other peoples, but that we shall not do so if we attribute our thoughts to them.

No page references are given in the review, but thanks to Google, it is possible to trace the passage in Veyne’s book to which Needham refers. Needham suggests that Veyne says it’s pointless ‘…to determine the true thought of other peoples thought’. The ‘pointless’ here is taken out of context and is quite misleading. In fact, Veyne was not saying it was hopeless to try to understand ‘other people’s’ thought, but that when faced with contradictory forms of thought, one must recognise the plurality rather than trying to explain it away. The full passage reads as follows:

Struggling to determine ‘the’ true thought of these people is pointless, and it is equally unproductive to attempt to resolve these contradictory thoughts by attributing one to popular religion and the other to the beliefs of the privileged social classes. (Veyne 1988:89)

The sceptical approach that Needham recommends begins by setting aside the question of belief. It may have found other explanations for religious language, and they may be illuminating, but this approach cannot even recognise the plurality of modes of belief that Veyne draws our attention to and makes it his business to describe and understand.

In summary, then, Needham’s critical review does not persuade me that Veyne’s way of understanding belief is not a really critical piece in understanding human thought, though Needham is right to say that Veyne is vague about his key terms. They’re still arguing in my head and Veyne is still winning.


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.

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

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 — post-print version of article

As promised, here’s a post-print version of my Cultures of Belief article, which was published in Anthropological Theory.


The text is identical to the journal version, but the formatting is different — this is the version I’m allowed to distribute according to the publishing agreement. If you have access to the journal, for example through a library, you can see a prettier version here.