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What’s Belief Got to Do with It?

By Kelly Baker

“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.

As Craig Martin notes in a previous post, belief is a problematic starting point for the study of religious people. It is an impoverished concept that ignores how people embody, enact, imagine, practice, participate, discuss, envision, hope, desire, want, and construct their religions. Religion is not simply belief, but is enmeshed in lives, materially and metaphysically. In a recent meditation on “belief,” Robert Orsi discusses the materiality of belief and the practice of religious life. Belief doesn’t quite explain what religious people do or even why they do what they do. It cannot encapsulate the messy richness of religious practice.

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