Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

Table of Contents | Cover Page  |  Editors  |  Contributors  |  Introduction  |  Web Version


 Émile Durkheim combined both belief and practice in his definition of religion, but others have stressed their separation, arguing the priority of one over the other. The lex orandi, lex credendi phrase dear to many high church Anglicans gives obvious priority to practice. To complicate matters further, practice takes on different connotations in different settings. Christian liberationists stress the importance of doing right deeds in the world, while Eastern Orthodox equate practice with strict obedience to ritual requirements.

An important (still unresolved) question for the social sciences that goes back at least to Robertson Smith (1889) is this: Which is more fundamental to religious experience—belief or practice? Although it is difficult to imagine how to go about identifying religion in the first place without taking belief into account, social scientists who have studied religion through field research have been moved to speculate on whether religious practice is actually not more central than belief after all. Let us see how this might occur.

Field researchers are often confronted with a disconcerting gap when they attempt to question informants about their understandings of religious practices. The informants are unable to supply much information. Faced with a really persistent researcher, informants may become irritated, confused, and embarrassed. They may state that they cannot say what the practices actually mean but they do them because it is a custom that they feel obligated to follow. Even when an informant can supply an interpretation of religious practices, this may strike the researcher as halfhearted and less than genuine. Perhaps the informant doesn't seem convinced by his or her own explanation but says it out of a desire to avoid appearing foolish or merely to bring the researcher's exasperating questions to a halt. Sometimes an informant can provide an extensive analysis, but unless the informant is a religious specialist, this is atypical. Most people appear content to practice their religious traditions without inquiring very deeply about their meaning and without being able to give an extensive account of what their practices signify.

Another disconcerting finding of field research has been that the participants in religious practices often have little shared understanding of what these practices mean. A classic study in this respect is the anthropologist James Fernandez's (1965) work on the Fang cult of the Bwiti in West Africa. In analyzing Fang ritual, Fernandez was led to distinguish between social consensus and cultural consensus. By social consensus , he meant general agreement about the appropriateness of certain practices in particular circumstances. By cultural consensus , he meant agreement among the people on the meaning of these practices. Fernandez concluded that it is social consensus that holds the Fang cult together, and not cultural consensus. Extrapolated as a general principle, such a position assigns priority to people's consensus about practice, net of an absence of consensus in their religious beliefs. This position poses a challenge to social scientists in the Weberian tradition who regard cultural meanings to be the hallmark of religion.

It should not be surprising then that social scientists often have accepted the distinction between belief and practice, and in some instances have been inclined to give greater weight to practice. The dichotomy may well be a misleading one, however, made to seem appropriate because of deep-seated Western philosophical premises in which thought and action are held to be separate. Some recent fieldwork (Bachnick 1995) attacks the dichotomy on these terms, arguing that the meaning of religious traditions should not be treated as distinct from practice. The gist of the argument is that any attempt by the field researcher to elicit an exegesis from informants presupposes a false distinction between belief and practice that violates informants' own experience of their religious traditions. Particularly when familiarization with religious practices occurs in early childhood, the practices may never acquire the sort of elaborate exegesis that field researchers delight in finding (see, for example, Reeves 1990:110 f).

Edward B. Reeves


J. M. Bachnick, "Orchestrated Reciprocity," in Ceremony and Ritual in Japan , ed. J. Van Breman and D. P. Martinez (London: Routledge, 1995): 108-145

J. W. Fernandez, "Symbolic Consensus in a Fang Reformative Cult," American Anthropologist 67(1965):902-929

E. B. Reeves, The Hidden Government (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1990)

W. R. Smith, Lectures on the Religion of the Semites , 2nd ed. (London: Black, 1889).

return to Encyclopedia Table of Contents

Hartford Institute for Religion Research   hirr@hartsem.edu
Hartford Seminary, 77 Sherman Street, Hartford, CT 06105  860-509-9500