Tag religion

Posts: 6

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.

Evolution and Religion Part II

William Robertson Smith
William Robertson Smith (source: Wikipedia)

This is a reply to Martin Michael Blume’s comment to my previous post, which was itself was a comment on his blog on www.scilogs.com.


Michael — Thanks for the links (reproduced below) and for engaging with my comment!

I’ve read those two papers now –they are thought provoking and contain some great lines (“evolutionary theorists brought up far more scientific arguments — but committed believers in supernatural agents brought up far more children”–love it!), but I don’t think they really answer my initial objection.

On page 118 of the Reproductive Benefits paper, you write (I’ve added emphasis and labels in square brackets):

” [1] Religiosity, understood as *believing* in supernatural guidance and surveillance of all parties involved, evolved (and evolves) as a biological and highly successful solution. [2] Humans who are *members* of religious communities show statistically higher motivations towards marriage, children and family values, more cooperative orientation and finally higher reproductive success than their secular contemporaries”

What I am questioning is the relation between religiosity as defined in [1] and the membership of religious communities referred to in [2]. You draw conclusions about ‘religiosity’ (i.e., belief, on your definition — I’ll use this word with that force from now on) on the basis of data about religious affiliation, taking the latter to be indicative of the former. It is clear from the social scientific literature on religion that the link between these things is uncertain to say the least.

None of this in any way invalidates your observations about religious communities and reproduction. But if I am right the following objections follow:

1. Over-interpretation of the data

You may be over-interpreting the census data in making the leap from affiliation to traditional communities with religious associations to religiosity, on your terms. (I am dubious about the methodology of the World Values Survey for many of the same reasons by the way, but it’s a long time since I’ve looked at it so I can’t comment in detail.)

I gave Day’s study as an example in my post because her work directly addresses the difference between people’s ‘superempirical’ behaviour and thought and their response to questions about religious affiliation in a national census.

However, the question of the discrepancy between belief and affiliation has been a constant theme in social scientific studies of religion since at least the end of the 19C and the work of William Robertson Smith (ref below).

The reason this question is of enduring interest is that it confounds the expectations of modern models of religion that are basically Protestant or post-reformation in nature, especially the expectation that religion is above all about a personal, interior relationship to God and the holy, that a particular tradition of worship is associated with particular institutions and so on. Even in countries (such as the UK) where this model might be expected to apply most strongly (because for centuries it has been a model of what religion should be like), ethnographic work (such as Day’s) shows consistently that the boundaries between beliefs and boundaries between religious affiliation are frequently do not line up in the way the model would predict.

2. Anachronism

Even if it were shown that the association between religious affiliation and religious belief were sound for modern populations, your conclusions project this combination back throughout history and prehistory. If we didn’t know anything about changing configurations of religious behaviour, then that might be a reasonable move. However, there’s plenty of evidence that the idea of a discrete religion that comprises a combination of {(i) an exclusive, systematic religious doctrine + (ii) exclusive use of certain religious practices + (iii) a specific and exclusive religious affiliation} is a relatively recent invention that is even now by no means the norm, and which requires a great deal of policing to make sure that people defined by any one of these characteristics are also defined by the other two.

Unless you have evidence that contradicts the consensus in the literature, then explaining the evolutionary origins and persistence of religiosity throughout human existence in terms of the reproductive advantage it bestows on religious communities may be like seeking the explanation for the origins and persistence of language over 100s of thousands of years in terms of its essential role in hip hop. Doing this would not only misrepresent the nature of language over the long term, it would also make hip-hop seem like a universal and transhistorical phenomenon.

By eliding the difference between religious affiliation and religious belief, and drawing the conclusion that the combination is an evolutionary adaptation, you give the impression that religion in this sense is universal and transhistorical.

I don’t, by the way, have any axe to grind (some social scientists do) whatsoever on the question of human universals — I think it’s obvious that there is such a thing as human nature and that we ought to try to understand it, but it’s important that in doing that we do take into account everything we know about human variation.

More to come!…UPDATE: here

UPDATE 5 Dec 2012: Don’t know anything about the quality/provenance of this research, but if it’s right it’s grist to my mill: ‘Nones’ ≠ Nonreligious


This was the first major work to question the link between belief and communal affiliation:

  • Smith, William Robertson. 1889. Lectures on the Religion of the Semites. Edinburgh: Adam and Charles Black.

These articles by Talal Asad criticise the tendency of other scholars of religion to assume that personal, internal psychological experience, such as belief, is central to religion, thus universalizing certain aspects of contemporary Christian experience:

  • Asad, Talal. 1983. “Anthropological Conceptions of Religion: Reflections on Geertz.” Man: The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute NS 18: 237–259.
  • Asad, T. 2001. “Reading a modern classic: W. C. Smith’s The Meaning and End of Religion.” History of Religions 40 (3): 205–222.

This book describes the process through which leaders of the newly named ‘World Religions’ remade their traditions in the image of post-Reformation Christianity in the 19C:

  • Masuzawa, Tomoko. 2005. The Invention of World Religions : or, How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism. Chicago, Ill.: London : University of Chicago Press.

This article describes a similar process in the Russian Reupblic of Altai, where Protestant missionaries failed to garner many converts to Christianity, but succeeded in spreading the idea of exclusive religiosity, in a situation in which people had previously been religiously promiscuous:

  • Broz, Ludek. 2009. “Conversion to Religion?” In Conversion After Socialism: Disruptions, Modernisms and Technologies of Faith in the Former Soviet Union, ed. Mathijs Pelkmans. Berghahn Books.

This article has a good review of the ethnographic literature on belief, much of which is concerned with explaining the common discrepancy between religious affiliation, religious practice and religious belief:

  • Lindquist, Galina, and Simon Coleman. 2008. “Introduction: Against Belief?” Social Analysis 52 (1).

On the dangers of drawing universal conclusions about human nature that inadvertently incorporate specific characteristics of those populations for which data is easy to come by:

Evolution and Religion

The explanatory power of evolutionary theory is clear. However, these days, people seem to rush to evolutionary explanations for all sorts of real and perceived human behaviours. The danger of doing this is that in going straight to the question of the origins of what we’re trying to understand, we fail to put in the effort to adequately study the nature of the phenomenon, or even to establish satisfactorily that the phenomenon is real. As a result, it’s all too easy for commonsensical assumptions and misapprehensions to get incorporated into the story. And when it comes to human behaviour, things are often more complicated and more variable than common sense would lead us to expect.

It’s probably about affiliation and endogamy, Michael!

This is a particularly common problem, in my view, in evolutionary studies of religion, and I’ve just read a blog post that’s a case in point. In It’s about Fertility, stupid! The Evolutionary Adaptivity of Religion’, Michael Blume claims that:

Religiosity (defined as behavior towards superempircal agents) is today clearly adaptive: Members of competitive religious communities are building stronger families with more offspring worldwide as their secular neighbours of the same education and income levels. This is observable in empirical studies, censusses worldwide, as well as in case studies (i.e. Amish, Hutterites, Mormons, Orthodox Jews). In contrast, non-religious populations and those religious communities who do not build and support families inevitably succumb to cultural evolution (i.e. late Greek and Roman Polytheism, Gnostic groups, the Shakers) and are replaced by demographically successful religious competitors.

Blume’s interpretation of the empirical data depends on the premise that affiliation to these groups as revealed in, say, censuses, is a reliable indicator of religiosity, on his definition. But there is a good deal of social scientific evidence that shows that this cannot be taken for granted.

To give just one example, a great study of belief in contemporary northern England published last year by Abby Day (Believing in Belonging) shows that ideas about belonging and ideas about the supernatural can be surprisingly independent of each other.

For years now, church attendance in Britain has been in decline, and sociologists have debated what this means. Some argued it was a sign of ‘secularization’–an inevitable loss of religious belief associated with the modernization and rationalization of society. Others argued that it was a result of individualization, and that Britons continued to believe in God, but now preferred to practise their religion quietly on their own.

Day’s study, which was based on interviews in Yorkshire villages, found a more complex picture. Her interviewees turned out to be quite polarized in their views. Some of them–she calls them ‘theocentrics’–place God at the centre of their lives, as a source of moral value, a cause of everyday events, and an object of their attention and affections. Others–Day calls these ‘anthropocentrics’–see no place for God, and instead locate value and meaning in their relationships with other humans. Anthropocentrics take a dim view of theocentrism and vice versa.

An everyday story of small town intolerance, then, and perhaps no surprise. So why did Day not just call her two groups ‘religious’, and ‘secularists’ instead of inventing two new terms? Well, it turned out that of the respondents who identified themselves as Christian, about half were anthropocentric, and many of those were assertively atheist. Many of those self-identified Christians said they were hostile to the idea of institutional religion.

Meanwhile, many of those who identified with no religion told Day that they prayed, believed in fate or some kind of providence, had seen ghosts or had communicated with deceased relatives.

In his article, Blume mentions that his work was partly based on census data. It’s worth noting that most of Day’s Christians, including the ‘anthropocentric’ atheists, said that they had answered ‘Christian’ in response to the religious affiliation question in the 2001 UK census (the first modern UK census to include a religion question).

Day’s work shows that being associated with, or feeling a sense of identity and belonging in respect of, a ‘religious community’ is quite a different thing to ‘religiosity (defined as behavior towards superempircal agents)’. Religiosity is neither exclusive to, nor universal among, members of ‘competitive religious communities’.

In fact, unless the empirical data are sufficient to distinguish between belonging and believing, there is no reason to suppose that religiosity, on Blume’s definition, has anything to do with the increased reproductive success Blume finds for religious communities through history.

Indeed, there is a simpler explanation at hand. Many of the historical and contemporary religious groups that we identify as such combine a self-conscious sense of identity with a greater or lesser degree of endogamy (marriage within the group) and they tend to value having and bringing up children and the relationships between kin. It would not be surprising if this combination of features were to lead to reproductive success.

Blume himself inadvertently suggests this explanation when he excludes from his analysis ‘those religious communities who do not build and support families … (i.e. late Greek and Roman Polytheism, Gnostic groups, the Shakers)’.


Day, Abby. 2011. Believing in Belonging. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

UPDATE: More on this in Evolution and Religion Part II, and Evolution and Religion Part III.