A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending a workshop at Yale University on the term “belief”. The focus was on whether, how, and why “belief” remains a useful category for discussing and explaining religion today. The day of conversation was immensely interesting and I will make no attempt here to convey its richness. As is usually the case with such succesful conversations, I left with more questions than answers.
One such question occured to me as I began to prepare my own short presentation and sharpened in the course of the day. On the one hand, it is clear that “belief” is valuable as a first-order category: religious communities often use the language of “belief.” For scholars, the question is less “What do they believe?” than “How do they (whether an institution, group, or individual) articulate what they or others should or actually believe?” The answer to this question would be descriptive. More interesting would be the next stage of analysis, in which we try to understand how and why they articulate things the way that they do.
On the other hand, the value of “belief” as a second-order category – one that we might use to describe or explain things independently of the statements of the actors themselves – is less clear to me. Here I wonder if we have the question backwards. Instead of asking, “Is belief a useful category?”, might it be more productive to ask, “Is there any analytical work that ‘belief’ does that we otherwise could not do? In other words, if scholars of religion were to ban the word/concept “belief” (in this sense) from their writings, would anything be lost?