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Flashcards in L4: BELIEF Deck (10)
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  • What will I discuss
  • Dawkins
  • The dictionary definition of belief is a ‘persuasion of the truth of something’
  • In this essay I will look at why belief is a problem for anthropologists, and the different ways in which problem can be resolved in anthropology.
  • Richard Dawkins says that faith means belief in something without evidence. For him, there is no knowledge about belief. This is due to the fact that belief is taken to be an interior privatized state, and therefore cannot be argued or understood in rational discussion.
  • This is a problem that makes belief difficult to study for anthropologists – whether we can assume that there is coherence in religious belief systems.
  • Look at this with the work of Lindquist and Coleman (2008), and Mair (2012).

PARA 2: Tylor

and his critic (Tambiah 1990)


We can look at how some anthropologists in the past have tried to define belief, and this will help us understand the genealogy of the problem…

His definition of religion: ‘belief in supernatural beings’

  • Belief is central to his definition of religion
  • He believes that belief is separate from knowledge, and that there is a prioritization of belief over ritual.
  • vHis intellectualist approach means that religion for him arises as a problem-solving exercise.

CRITIC OF THIS VIEW TAMBIAH (1990:43) “Tylor has no feeling for what religion, particularly public, organized, ritualized religion meant to the worshippers themselves”

•He is saying that there is complete neglect in Tylor’s work about the role of the public organized/ritualized religion in creating belief.




♣ Like Tylor, was interested in the conceptual and ideational aspects of religion and defined ‘beliefs’ as coherent collective representations.

♣ He contrasted beliefs (or states of opinion) with rites (or modes of action), paying due attention to both.

• When we study religion today, we study more modes of action rather than states of opinion. This happens because of this particular genealogy that links back to Durkhiem.




There are a few key problems that anthropologists are faced with:

  • Can we assume intellectual coherence in the religious systems of the society of others, and indeed, of ours?
  • How can we establish the relationship between belief and rite?
  • How can such terms (belief and rites) be applied to assumptions about religion as an ‘inner state’ as well as ‘outer form’?



- Believes that it is during ritual that belief is the strongest, and the person is transported into this other reality/mode of existence. It is in everyday life that belief was a reflection of this state in a ritual.

• Belief for Geertz cannot be seen as involving pure induction from experience. He rather sees religious belief to be coming out of this a priori acceptance of authority, in which you believe in something already and this makes the experience transformative.

This idea was very much criticised by Asad, who argues:

  • He argues that Geertz is too focused on the primacy of meanings, but what we should rather be looking at is the ways this belief has been constructed
  • He says if we assume this apriori acceptance of authority then we never will ask the question about the historically specific modes through which a particular belief hs come into being.
  • He argues that that we see such a focus on interior states of belief as a modern privatized one with Geertz, but we should rather be thinking about the outward mechanisms that might have produced it.


  • An anthropologist who looks at this problem of the ‘interior state’
  • Says there are many possible uses of the concept of belief, such as a common word in the English language, a psychological term designating an inner state, an identifying peg, or as a basic concept in Western philosophical tradition.
  • He says, as anthropologists, we need to make sure that we are able to distinguish between these different ways, and think about the differences amongst the people that we study.
  • For example, a child is send to Sunday school by his parents, so officially he is Christian – those are the teachings he is taught to believe in. But whether or not he is actually believing in them or not, we cannot take one to mean the other.
  • This is the main point of what I have discussed so far: the main problem with belief, is how are you suppost to know what a particular interior state is? Its compounded with the idea that there are so many variable ways of talking about belief that its unclear what is being talked about when using the term belief?

PARA 7: Seen the problems of belief. Now can look at these problems going forward, by looking at Lindquist and Coleman.


They turn towards Pouillon, who offers three conjoined uses of belief:

  1. Belief in the existence of someone or something or the acceptance of a fact the cognitive level
  2. Internalisation or representation of a statement as one’s own, or held to be true. Here, people often speak of ‘seeing’ or ‘knowing’, rather than believing. This usage presupposes a process of socialization in which some conditions are staged that provide you with a certain belief, differentiating from seeing or knowing something
  3. Believing in, or putting confidence or trust in something. Has emotional overtones rather than cognitive.

PARA 8: What do Coleman and Lindquist say about knowledge and belief?

  • They argue that the separation we make between knowledge and belief comes out of a particular kind of cultural distinction we make between a natural world (where we have humans, animals, plants, mountains etc, and have institutionalized techniques in which we can get scientific evidence for these things), and ‘another world’ which does not follow these same laws.
  • This distinction is common to cultures where the object of belief is located in a different order to reality than of the created natural world.
  • Richard Dawkins - no evidence for belief
  • Karren Armstrong - cant get evidence… because the laws or the reality of that belief are different.

Ultimately both of these view points are based on this distinction between the natural world as this other world that follows other laws and logics.

• They argue that belief is a trust/conviction about something, and we might be better focusing on those convictions rather than clearly formulated stated belief. This idea that we should be looking at the shared convictions, shared trust that people have in a particular belief.




Looks at questions such as:

  • What is it that anthropology can add to this debate about religion?
  • He says that what anthropology should be doing is being ethnographically sensitive to what people believe in and how they believe in it.
  • Rather than just making a distinction about their interior state, anthropologists should describe with ethnographic position the historically specific modes and styles of belief in relation to their specific context.

Main point: What anthropology should be doing is to focus on styles of belief – not simply on the content of belief. Belief is historically specific and styles and cultures of belief are amenable to ethnographic description and analysis, thereby leading to a truly comparative anthropology of belief that can contribute to the anthropology of religion and to the anthropology of ethics.

• Goes back to original idea of belief as being interior. IF you are thinking this way, this too is a historically specific and certain style of thinking about belief. SO, rather than thinking about belief to be one thing, it is through ethnography we can understand the styles of parts of cultures of belief that are formed within particular cultures.



Chua (2011) ‘Soul Encounters’


An interesting example to look at in terms of belief.

  • Field work in Christian Bornero (Malaysia). Looked at peoples soul encounters with spirits here.

She starts with describing how funerals were a really big deal there, which were lively affairs which included food, gambling, cards. There was a great sense of community and would last for a couple of days. But, when it was time for the body to be taken for burial, it is in this moment there is a strong change, in which there is a feeling of anxiety, which people describe as ‘having a knot in their stomach’.

She explains that this is what can be considered ‘soul encounters’ in Borneo – this feeling in the presence of spirits./non-humans. The unseen world is not something one can see with their eyes, but it is more of a feeling. With Christianity then, they also have these soul encounters, and this is for them becomes its own felt, embodied experience. Their existence means that whereas most of the Bidayuh acquaintances didn’t know what God, Jesus or other invisible entities look like, they certainly know what they feel like. This is important part of their belief in Christianity, as it is reaffirmed in these moments.

Chua explains that therefore, soul encounters are not simply the sites at which belief about the existence of spirits or Christian personages is act out, it is rather that they are the very points at which belief is constituted. In this context, she explains that belief may thus be described as what David Morgan (2010:8) calls “an embodied epistemology” – a way of knowing that engages the entire human being and the relational and ambient nexus in which it exists.

It is here we can see that by conceptualizing belief in these terms, we are steered away form this division between inner states and outer forms towards a more “capacious” approach that treats “embodied capacities of gesture, feelings and speech” as integral, instead of supplementary, to religiosity. We can see that Geertz notion that belief is conceived of as interior privatized state that is experienced by individuals has many faults, with limited applicability across social, historical, and cultural boundaries. We can see that these bodily and somatic states, such as these clenched-fist moments that constitute soul encounters, are not private, interior experiences but highly palpable, public entities that are perceptible and accessible to others.

She discusses however the last few decades, the concept of belief has come under sustained scrutiny within anthropology, often emerging as a problem to be written against (Lindquist and Coleman 2008), rather than a category to be embraced. But Chua argues that Belief itself might be understood as a material form—as a corporeal, tangible, and public component of religiosity that is instantiated in somatic experiences, bodily states, and social interactions. People can learn how to interpret and understand these bodily states and feelings. She explains that anthropologists too can feel these things, in which she too started feeling these knots in her stomach. This sense was a product of her own memory, association and history. She argues thus that anthropology of belief can be moved forward by finding these bridges and learn how to interpret these feelings and realize that they are simultaneously deeply personal and shareable through discourse.