Belief and its discontents

Kelly Baker

Over at the Bulletin for the Study of Religion blog, associate editor Matt Sheedy re-posted my reflection on "belief" from a little while ago. Here's an excerpt or a sampling of grumpy (you can make the decision):

“They don’t really believe that, do they?” is a refrain that I find familiar, expected and, frankly, tiring. As someone who researches white supremacists and doomsday prophets, I should be used to it. The query confronts me in the classroom, at conferences, at the dinner table, and most often conspiratorially in the hallways.  It is often a hushed question in which the interrogator asks me beseechingly to say what s/he already wants (needs?) to hear.  Simply put, the interrogator wants me to say “no, of course, they don’t believe” that the world will end catastrophically, that reptoids inhabit caves under New Mexico, that Atlantis might rise, or that race war is the only way to redeem America. If I, the person who studies “weird” or “exotic” religion, will assure them that these people don’t believe, then maybe they can rest easy. I cannot assure them. And, if I am being truly honest, I really don’t want to. Instead, I emphasize that this “belief” is materialized in every prophetic utterance, billboard proclaiming the date of the end, online discussion of reptoid encounters, and each weapon purchased for the possibility of race war. (Read more here.)


Curtis J Evans said…
Hi Kelly,
I read your post and found it to be very helpful. As I was reading your admonition that religion is "not simply belief, but is enmeshed in lives, materially and metaphysically," I still wondered that if we abandoned entirely or perhaps adopted a more modest conception of belief, if this would get at what your students' persistent questions are after at some implicit level. Is it that they want to "rest easy" after they are assured that surely people don't "believe" those things or might there be some ethical element involved? They want some assurance that not only is there a connection between some set of abstract beliefs and "correct"/moral action, but something that will assure them that they won't fall prey to this or that action (that is, in those cases where the student feels the action is immoral or ethically troubling). I've noticed that in some instances when I've taught a certain segment of students (I will leave this segment's identification intentionally vague) on the ways in which southern evangelicals defended slavery and fully utilized/appealed to/combed the pages of/ Scripture to support/uphold their system of holding blacks in bondage, many of the students felt a need to defend the Bible or absolve Christianity in an abstract way from association with slavery. Obviously as an historian, I could give them no such assurance in view of the facts on the ground and the varied ways in which the Bible was used or the number of Christians who acted with "common sense" assumptions about the inferiority of blacks and white supremacy as the natural order of things. But at the most charitable level, I suspected that some students were uneasy because they were trying to carve out some ethical space for themselves; perhaps they were trying to find a way to grasp onto a something that would guarantee that they too would not fall prey to dominating and oppressing others. Reminder: this is simple one charitable reading.

One more point: one of your respondents wrote that we will never escape the "tyranny of belief obsessions until we too engage ourselves in the material, performative and relational world instead of imagining ourselves ... as transcending the phenomena we objective." I'd be curious about your take on that argument. I'm not sure what is meant by "engage." Does this somehow mean that historical work, dealing with the relics of the past, though certainly already in most cases recollected and placed in archives, artifacts, etc., is less interesting or real because we can't engage in a way that ethnographers do in relationship with living persons? What does "engage" relationally mean in regard to hate groups, etc.? Do we embody and perform such practices by "studying" them? My concern is that this strong way of stating things reinscribes a kind of "us" (we who truly know) versus "them" (those "transcenders" who won't touch the stuff they study) approach. I realize that this is not your comment, so perhaps it is not fair for me to ask you about what someone else meant But I might be worth your take on it given your own work on the Klan and the way you went about doing your research.