Anthropology Belief
by
Jan J. Lorenz
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 August 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0190

Introduction

Belief has been one of the central concerns in anthropological and sociological studies of religion since the onset of the two disciplines. Within the anthropology of religion, the term was first used to refer to propositional conviction regarding the veracity of claims about the existence and nature of divine beings and the cosmological and moral order to which human beings and the world were subjected. Gradually, belief began to be considered with more criticism, primarily on the account of its ambiguity and questionable applicability across religions and societies. Studies of belief have touched on fundamental concerns of an epistemological and methodological nature. If belief is an internal state of mind, then how should anthropologists study such a phenomenon? Is it a relevant topic for a discipline that has, since its beginning, been concerned with the interpersonal dimension of being human, with the social fabric of existence rather than mental states and inner convictions? Partially in critical engagements with these questions, anthropologists have begun to reconceptualize belief, noting, for example, not only the diversity of entities that people believe in, but the multiplicity of the very forms of belief. Rather than a set of convictions about what is true and real, belief can be defined as trust in and commitment to gods or other human beings. It can be situationally and dynamically changing or habituated in one’s body and experienced physiologically. Belief, finally, can be as much about conviction and trust as about doubt or rejection of faith—and this polarity has become one of the new areas of the anthropological debate.

General Overview

The following overview of studies on belief is divided into six sections, which together comprise the core of anthropological research on this topic. The first subsection introduces scholarship that over time has been subject to critical revaluation and continues to inform contemporary debates. The second subsection discusses studies proposing to look at belief as a phenomenon differentiated not solely in content, but also in form. A notable swerve in anthropology of religion, toward contesting belief as a viable analytical category, is covered in the next subsection. This is, in turn, followed by an overview of studies focused on the temporal, spatial, and contextual dynamics of belief or believing as a process. Finally, this overview introduces the innovative and growing body of research on the interrelationship of belief as grounded in human bodies and material objects and the newly emergent scholarship on atheism and doubt.

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