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Folk Theories of Religion

July 22, 2010

There is a dominant folk theory of religion out there: the theory is that religion is about belief, and the behavior or actions of religious practitioners somehow are causally produced by the beliefs they hold.

This is not only false as a theory of religion, but it is a dangerous theory as well: it leads to people thinking that if the Qur’an says Muslims should kill infidels, that means people who “believe” in the Qur’an will kill infidels. This is clearly not true.

Nye puts it well in Religion: The Basics, where he is discussing how defining religion as a “belief system” slides into an explanatory account:

What is happening here is, in fact, that this idea of belief is being used not merely as a definition [of religion], but as an explanation. That is, religious belief becomes an explanation in itself: our absence of understanding what a person from another religion is doing or thinking leads us to fall back on our basic knowledge of their beliefs. Thus we assume that a Hindu is acting a certain way because s/he ‘believes’ in reincarnation, and a Muslim in another way because s/he believes in Allah. Such an explanation may or may not be correct—but what it does is rule out a number of other possible explanations. (117)

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