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Page author: Luke Burns

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Religious systems often include beliefs about the world (both seen and unseen), which describe (or dictate) how the world operates. Subscribing to a set of beliefs (orthodoxy) is not always essential for belonging to a religion.

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Believing in the unseen

One of the most prominent and well-known aspects of religion in the Western world is faith. This term often comes with a variety of associated meanings and implications, but at its root we can say that faith involves belief in a set of doctrines or creeds which provide meaning and direction, often in the absence of empirical evidence.

Since the relationship between religious belief and scientific empiricism has often been contentious, it’s worthwhile looking a little more closely at how people believe in things, and what this means.

There are different types of belief, and not all of them are considered religious; for example, very few of us have examined cells under microscopes, but we are all (I think!) happy to accept the idea that humans are composed of vast colonies of cellular creatures working in chemical harmony. Exceptionally few have been into space, but the image of the world as a floating globe orbiting a fiery nuclear reactor is almost universally taken as fact.

In fact, almost all of the scientific knowledge that is presented to school children, readers of popular science books, and the average person who takes an interest in such matters, is taken purely on faith. Most people simply don’t have the means, skill, or inclination to personally verify all of the claims they would need to ‘fact check’ everything they are told. This faith is placed in the educational establishment, scientific community, and social authority - in other words, in people.

There is nothing inherently wrong with this approach to gaining knowledge about the world, and there are many checks and balances built into the scientific process to help reduce the ingress of error and personal bias, but it does present an interesting parallel to religious belief. Religious belief is often presented in such a way that it cannot be experimentally verified - even if we had all the resources of a modern university. A good example is the belief that Jesus was the son of God, and that he’s capable of granting spiritual salvation. There is no DNA test that can prove this claim, and no scientific way to test that someone’s soul has been saved (or indeed that one’s soul exists at all). However, this is not entirely true.

Many religions encourage prospective adherents to test their claims through spiritual activities such as the reading of scripture, meditation, or other activities which encourage a religious mindset. For example, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (also known as the Mormons) sometimes refer to a passage in the Book of Mormon that instructs individuals to ask God whether the text is true to help resolve any doubts.

And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost.

The Book of Moroni 10.4, Book of Mormon

We find a similar claim in the Qur’an, which argues that its quality as scripture proves its authenticity, but challenges anyone to produce a work of comparable quality in order to refute it.

Or do they say [about the Prophet], “He invented it?” Say, “Then bring forth a surah like it and call upon [for assistance] whomever you can besides Allah, if you should be truthful.”

Qur’an 10.38

In the Qur’an, each chapter is called a surah, so the verse here is arguing quite strongly that no one could create something equal to just a small portion of the Qur’an, even if they had help.

In the Bhagavad Gita, a Hindu text which takes the form of a conversation between the god Krishna and his devotee Arjuna, Krishna outright states that experience will resolve the doubts that come from reading different scriptures, with different ideas and values.

When thy mind leaves behind its dark forest of delusion, thou shalt go beyond the scriptures of times past and still to come.

When thy mind, that may be wavering in the contradictions of many scriptures, shall rest unshaken in divine contemplation, then the goal of Yoga is thine.

Bhagavad Gita 2.52-3 (trans. Mascaro)

And in the Sikh holy book, itself revered as a Guru, we find these comments originally composed by Guru Arjan:

With one-pointed mind, meditate on the One Lord, and the doubts of your mind will be dispelled.

Sri Guru Granth Sahib p. 47 (trans. Khalsa)

So, unlike scientific belief, which rests on evidence that can be tested publicly and repeatedly, religious belief tends to involve evidence that is personal, subjective, and unique to one moment in time - for example a response to a prayer or a moment of spiritual enlightenment.

This absence of scientific evidence does not necessary invalidate the truth claims made by religious traditions, but does change the nature of the relationship between the religious adherent and the truth, purpose, and beauty of their beliefs.

For example, some historians question whether Jesus (whether man or deity) actually existed, since the Gospels were written long after his death, and there are barely any independent references to him from the period in which he lived. Yet, despite this lack of strong material evidence, many millions of people across the world believe in the reality of Jesus, and his life as described in the New Testament; in fact, this belief has become so central to Christianity that it is difficult to define someone as Christian if they don’t believe it, and it’s part of one of the earliest formulations of the Christian religion: the Apostles’ Creed:

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
maker of heaven and earth;
And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord;
who was conceived by the Holy Ghost,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, dead, and buried.
He descended into hell.

The third day he rose again from the dead.
He ascended into heaven,
and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father almighty.
From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Ghost,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.

The Apostles’ Creed

Some atheists and agnostics, who struggle with the the relationship between religious belief and empirical evidence, but who nonetheless were raised in a predominantly Christian culture and identify with some elements of the tradition, prefer to call themselves ‘cultural Christians’ - see for example Alana Massey’s discussion on this and Trevin Wax’s commentary for a Christian perspective.

There is a technical word for describing the way that some people insist on believing the ‘right’ things. Orthodoxy: strict adherence to a set of beliefs and principles.

Just like we found with ‘belief’, orthodoxy can also be used in non-religious contexts, wherever individuals are expected to follow a particular way of thinking or believing. For example, scientific orthodoxy is sometimes used to describe the way that certain ideas are so central to a scientific worldview that they should not be questioned - like the spherical nature of the planet, or the absence of deities in the creation of the universe.

Due to the historical influence of Christianity in western nations, and the importance of orthodox belief structures to Christianity’s success, there is a firm link between the idea of belief and the idea of religion in a western setting. Therefore, it’s often a normal line of enquiry when learning about an unfamiliar religious tradition to ask ‘what do they believe?’

However, belief was not always so central. In her TED talk, My Wish: The Charter for Compassion, author Karen Armstrong makes the point that prior to the 17th Century, the meaning of belief, and the significance it held in religious circles, was much different. It meant only to hold dear, or to prize, and the sense that people should hold a particular set of ideas about reality was not an enforced standard, as it later came to be.

It’s not just pre-modern Christianity that has a more relaxed approach to belief; in many modern religious traditions it’s not seen as important to subscribe to a specific set of ideas, but it often is important to engage in ritual practices or affirm identity with the community. Scholars have historically looked for ways to define religion according to ‘belief’ for the same reasons they have looked for books of religious law and ignored oral traditions, material culture, and lived experience - i.e. they represent a western understanding of Christian-centric religion as it was around the 19th and early 20th century when the science of religious studies was developing.

Though these belief-focused approaches are no longer common, they have nonetheless left a mark on the subject in the wider culture, and people may often think of a religion in terms such as Buddhists believe X rather than Buddhists do Y, or feel Z. It ‘s not that belief isn’t important, it’s just that it’s not the whole story.

Further reading

If you’d like a watch a summary of these ideas, you can check out this excellent video from Religion for Breakfast: What Does it Mean to Be Religious?

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This article is part of the following books:

Introduction to Religious Studies

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