Is religion about belief or practice? Most of us would answer “both” without much hesitation, especially if our main experience was of Christianity. But it may not be quite so simple. Sociologists of religion have long noted that while religious practices can be openly shared, beliefs are private and more difficult to get at. Many Christians are not really sure how much of the Creed they actually believe, at least in the solid everyday way that they believe that their car is a Ford Escort.
Peter Lipton, the fondly-remembered professor of the philosophy of science at King’s College Cambridge, called himself a practicing Jew. And, given that he took his family to synagogue every Saturday and observed the relevant festivals with enthusiasm, it was hard to contradict him. But he was also an atheist. He admitted that it was probably harder for a Christian to separate the practical from the faithful side of his religion. But he proved that “religion as practice” is a real phenomena and one that new atheists have never really got a handle on.
Unlike Dawkins and Co, archaeologists and sociologists prefer religion to be defined as a set of practices because these can be observed. Frankly, we haven’t a clue what the ancient Greeks really thought of their gods. And I fear if we did, it might disappoint our conception of the Greeks as a particularly rational tribe. But it is an academic commonplace to state that ancient Greek religion was a matter of performing the rituals properly rather than buying into the theology. Ramsay MacMullen’s Christianising the Roman Empire 100AD to 400AD is expressed in this mode. MacMullen tries to explain pagan conversion to Christianity without any reference to theology. Beliefs are completely irrelevant to his account. Clearly, this is not a very convincing tale but it is not clear what choice he has. Even Rodney Stark, in his far more sympathetic account of the rise of Christianity, concentrates on practice and not belief.
(By the way, there’s another reason MacMullen’s book should be treated with caution. He has a chapter on Christian persecution of pagans in the late fourth century. But his main example of such persecution is the description of the deadly force used against the pagans of Gaza in an account called the Life of Porphyry. This is odd because MacMullen is well aware that the Life of Porphyry is a fictional account written perhaps two hundred years after the events it purports to describe. Yet without it, MacMullen’s evidence of deadly Christian attacks on pagans is extremely thin.)
Peter Harrison’s chapter in Science and Religion: New Historical Perspectives (edited by Thomas Dixon, Geoffrey Cantor and Stephen Pumfrey) tries to explain where we got the idea of religion as belief instead of ritual. Harrison suggests that, just as modern science did not exist until the early nineteenth century, so “religion as faith” is also a modern category. Our modern definition of a religion as a bundle of beliefs dates, he says, from the Enlightenment. Eighteenth-century philosophers created “religion” by trying to force Christianity into the same boxes that they had used to understand science. While this almost works for Christianity, it becomes wildly inappropriate for most other kinds of ritual behaviour.
That, suggests Harrison, might be where the conflict between science and religion comes from: both are defined as a collection of beliefs and as those beliefs are not the same, you could say that there is a conflict. But if it is more correct to say that religion is a series of practices, there is nothing very much for science to conflict with. Appealing though this idea might be, I don’t buy it. It seems clear to me that Christianity does have a Creed and a set of core beliefs. Whether these beliefs are more often inimical then conducive to science is an interesting question. But science and religion do interact at the level of what they both have to say about reality. We can’t spirit away any conflict by claiming religion is about what you do rather than what you think.
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