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Protestant Bias

December 12, 2009

There’s such a huge Protestant bias toward religion in the western world: everyone assumes that all religions are about good morals, sincerity, and having the right beliefs.

This is so much the case that when I suggest that some religions are concerned with orthopraxy rather than orthodoxy, the students think this is tantamount to nonsense. For them, this amounts to me saying that there are belief systems that aren’t concerned with beliefs (which is why I hate the phrase “belief system”).

In any case, when I explain what orthopraxy is, I inevitably have students who ask: “why would they practice if they didn’t believe in it?” They absolutely insist on the priority of belief.

My usual response is to invoke Paschal’s line about belief following practice (you believe because you kneel down) and a Zen thinker I once read who explicitly denounced belief (he said zazen will work no matter what you believe).

I think students are relatively unconvinced; they still think belief is prior. I’m trying to come up with a good example. This is what I’m presently thinking: most of us wouldn’t say football (or any sport) is primarily about belief. You don’t play or watch football because of some sort of “belief” about football. Football isn’t a belief system—it’s a game you play. Similarly, some religions you just practice—beliefs about such practices are secondary or tertiary at best.

Or maybe greeting practices: I shake hand with people, and that’s just a practice—I don’t hold beliefs that lead me to practice it.

Anyone have other ideas?

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18 Comments leave one →
  1. Alderson Warm-Fork permalink
    December 12, 2009 8:56 pm

    ‘Fraid I’ve not got much help to offer, and a few unhelpful comments.

    Like, football is mainly about practice, because it’s mainly about us. It’s a game, explicitly a human creation. Greetings also. And in some ways so is meditation and all that Buddhist jazz. But theistic religion, at least, is supposed to be about reaching out to something external. So that may weaken the example.

    Plus, your students might figure, well, rituals make sense if they acheive something – bring rain, prevent sickness, and secure victory in battle, etc. But how many people think they do nowadays?

  2. Carla permalink
    December 13, 2009 8:13 am

    The greetings example seems flawed, to me, in that the obvious response is, “No, you have beliefs that cause you to shake hands with people, such as the belief that you should welcome people and introduce yourself in a social situation.”

  3. December 13, 2009 8:26 am

    Unfortunately, talking about religion with the help of a game metaphor does not get any better responses from people not accustomed to think that there could exist any other modes of thought beside the ones they personally happen to find most useful. At least it hasn’t helped me – people seem to feel that allowing the use of a game metaphor means that something important gets taken out of the religion.

    And it’s one thing to talk about some other people who don’t see doctrinal stances very important. When I use a game metaphor for describing my own attitude towards religion, I get called a hypocrite – for not wishing to approach Christianity with hands full of doctrines I “belief”, but from another perspective. It’s so alien!

    The only response I have managed so far is to ask what people mean by “belief” and “believing” when they demand that someone should “believe” x and y to be z. Usually, people are not comfortable to reduce “believing” to “holding that proposition x equals true”, either, leading to a bit more nuanced discussion about believing where people awake to the possibility of thinking in different terms even if one’s own tradition has it some other way.

  4. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    December 13, 2009 11:38 am

    Alderson, it’s good to see you around. You haven’t been posting much lately (here or on your own blog!).

    Of course my response to your first comment is that religion is NOT about gods, despite what people say. Religion is mostly about reproducing social relations (and sometimes challenging them).

    But independently of that, one can participate in a religion without believing in gods. There are tons of practicing Jews who are atheists. There are a few Christians who are atheists. And so on …

    I’m not sure what you’re saying about rituals; how does that connect?

  5. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    December 13, 2009 11:42 am

    Carla, that’s not really. I’ve rarely if ever had a thought process like that. When I see a peer pass me in the hallways, I don’t check my “beliefs.” I automatically reach out and shake her hand—it’s merely habitual. Children are taught how to shake hands before they’re taught beliefs about hand-shaking. In addition, even if we had such beliefs about hand-shaking (i.e., if they weren’t just habits), it still wouldn’t explain much. Why do I shake with my right rather than my left? Why do I hold another’s hand with a certain firmness? I don’t have beliefs about these things—only habits.

  6. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    December 13, 2009 11:44 am

    Timo, that’s an interesting suggestion: try to point out the absurdity of reducing a religious tradition to a serious of propositions, as if Christianity (for instance), could be understood in its entirety by reading the Apostle’s Creed.

  7. Carla permalink
    December 13, 2009 1:23 pm

    I think if you elaborate on the analogy, like raising the question about why we shake with the right hand vs. the left, it makes more sense. I understood what you were shooting for, it just seems too easy to dismiss an analogy that claims that handshaking is purely habitual, with no reason behind it.

  8. December 13, 2009 1:46 pm

    To me, it seems that approaching belief from a more postmodern or “emerging church” perspective might help. In that context, orthopraxy is about living out what you say you believe. In that sense, belief is not ignored so much as put in a secondary position. It’s not about having the right belief, but about actually living out some of the core things that you believe. And you could so far as to say that if you’re not acting out what you say you believe, then you don’t actually believe it.

    Another way of approaching the question of belief following actions is by asking students for examples (or giving students examples) of things they would now consider to be “right” or at least acceptable because they’ve been doing it. For instance, what actually constitutes cheating?

  9. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    December 13, 2009 1:50 pm

    Hi Brenda, thanks for your comment!

    I think that the focus you’re suggesting—living out beliefs—still makes beliefs primary. On this view, beliefs are logically prior to practices, which is what I want students to get away from.

  10. December 13, 2009 2:23 pm

    “This is so much the case that when I suggest that some religions are concerned with orthopraxy rather than orthodoxy, the students think this is tantamount to nonsense.”

    The funniest thing about these sorts of dichotomies is that orthodoxy itself has nothing etymologically to do with beliefs, and its sense should really be much closer to what we talk about when we talk about orthopraxy today. A quick trip to the OED points to orthopraxy as a recent neologism, which is what I suspected:

    1852 T. T. LYNCH Orthodoxy in Lett. to Scattered (1872) 270, I wish there was more orthopraxy in the world. 1859 Life Eben Henderson vi. 382 Let us have orthopraxy as well as orthodoxy.

    My hunch is that it was invented out of a perceived need to do the work that “orthodoxy” should have been doing, and probably was doing in the lives of those for whom beliefs and doctrines were more central.

    Which brings up another point. I would add, too, as a defense of… “orthodidaskalia” maybe?… creeds and doctrines aren’t just about getting your cerebral ducks in a row, at least not for anyone who is formed by them. In Christianity at least, the centrality of confession of faith is a central practice in itself, and I imagine there is a comparable orientation in other religions also.

  11. Josh permalink
    December 14, 2009 10:18 am

    I would talk about non-religious cultural rituals to signifiy the importance of praxis. Think about Thanksgiving or the 4th of July. No belief is necessary to engage in these rituals. The importance is in the doing.

    Or how about birthday parties? Participation in a birthday party builds small group solidarity, without being built on any particular set of beliefs or ideologies. It’s just what we do around here. Likewise for New Year’s Eve or Halloween.

  12. December 15, 2009 11:23 am

    Have you done a complete survey of the western world?

    In Israel — which sees itself as Western, and I think rightly so — people I talked to were positively baffled by the idea that Americans from Christian families who celebrated Christmas with gifts and decorations did not consider themselves Christians just because they did not believe in Jesus or in God.

    When my secular American friends came to visit, my Israeli family and friends wound up basically rejecting their claims that they were not Christians, thinking that they were describing themselves as non-Christian as part of some kind of wordplay or prank or some mysterious form of American politeness. It was that baffling to them.

    My favorite was a conversation with my grandmother: “In America, being a Christian means that you actually have to believe in certain things…” “That’s preposterous! What does that even MEAN?”

  13. December 15, 2009 11:24 am

    (So: I’m pretty sure you mean the CHRISTIAN world, not the Western world.)

  14. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    December 15, 2009 12:43 pm

    Great comments all! I’m impressed at the sophistication of this discussion!

    Josh, I like your suggestion of holidays. We wouldn’t celebrate a birthday if we didn’t “believe” it was a birthday (usually), but that party certainly isn’t an “expression” of that belief.

    Duckrabbit, that’s awesome, and I’m not surprised to hear it (although I haven’t heard it that way before)!

  15. sophia permalink
    December 15, 2009 3:12 pm

    I’m basically an integrist. I think actions preceed beliefs – the external is internalised, if you had to wait till something was internal before externalising it you’d never do either.
    But then that’s individualism for you. Basically individualism pretends that you have to accept something internally before you can do anything with it – and in doing so it deprives people the ability to control their ideological environment – which is generally done in an externals -> internals direction. But those people who don’t bother with the internals first schema (advertisers for instance) can mould society to their whims.
    It’s irritating.

  16. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    December 15, 2009 3:18 pm

    Uh, I’m not sure I’m following you …

  17. Beelzebub permalink
    December 16, 2009 2:43 am

    Why not bring up Durkheim’s findings on suicide, in particular, that Protestants have a higher suicide rate than Catholics and Jews? There’s a rather obvious reason for this and it becomes more obvious after you look at the other findings Durkheim made about suicide rates and I believe it has something to do with community.

    “Why do I shake with my right rather than my left? Why do I hold another’s hand with a certain firmness? I don’t have beliefs about these things—only habits.”

    Well, in this case, form is less important than content. That you use your right hand rather than your left or a certain firmness rather than another, isn’t really what’s important — it’s that you are greeting someone. Is it not considered poor form to refuse a handshake? And firmness, handedness, and other details of the shake do communicate certain things (or are perceived to communicated those things by the hand-shakers), but these are, of course, culturally dictated. Are you fist bumping? Doing that hand-around-the-thumb-come-a-little-closer-and-do-a-kind-of-half-embrace-thingy that I always get wrong because I’m going for a traditional handshake? Are you, indeed, shaking with your left hand because you’re a member of a secret society of some sort? The methods are fairly arbitrary, but I don’t think the message that lies behind them are at all.

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