Religious Essentialism

I spend a good bit of time in my courses trying to disrupt religious essentialism: the idea that all practitioners in a religious tradition share some essence, that such an essence determines their behavior, or that their beliefs are the essence that directly informs their behavior. Since I teach at school with a predominantly Catholic, homogeneous student body, I can use the following pedagogical exercise to interrupt religious essentialism.

I start by asking the students, “What does it say to do with idolaters in the Qur’an?” They may or may not know the answer; if they don’t, I tell them: “Kill them.”

Then I ask them, “How many of you identify as Christian or know someone who identifies as Christian? Raise your hand if you or those Christians you know believe in the Bible or hold it to be a sacred book.” Usually I get a lot of raised hands.

Then I go on: “What does it say to do with idolaters in the Bible?” They never know the answer to this one, so I have to tell them: “Kill them.” “So all of you who raised your hands want to kill idolaters, right? Or the Christians you know are lining up to kill idolaters?” They giggle.

I go on to point out that the relationship between stated “beliefs” and practitioners’ “behavior” is always complex. The “beliefs –> behavior” formula is absurd upon reflection. Just because someone says ze “believes” in the Qur’an doesn’t mean ze wants to kill idolaters, any more than my own students who “believe” in the Bible want to kill idolaters.

The idea that beliefs drive action is a popular theory of religion, but it’s a bad one. Something much more complicated is going on with talk about “beliefs,” and we would be wise not to take belief-talk at face value.

About Craig Martin

I am a Professor of Religious Studies at St. Thomas Aquinas College.
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12 Responses to Religious Essentialism

  1. Deane says:

    Is the logical inference from the example which you provide that beliefs are not causal of action, or only that a belief in a single scripture depends on the particular interpreter/practitioner? You mention both as conclusions, but I can’t get to the former conclusion by your example alone. I also can’t see the “absudity” of the “beliefs –> behavior” formula, as it is rather an essentializing analysis of belief which would seem to be the problem, not the causal issue (belief –> behavior). Saying that, I do agree that a more complex analysis is required, that is, analysis of belief and ideas is always an insufficient analysis of religious behaviour (but not necessarily an unnecessary analysis).

  2. Cris says:


    Can you point me to the bible verse which states this? Also, I just read an article today by Don Yoder (“Toward a Definition of Folk Religion”), Western Folklore (Jan. 1974) that makes some really nice anti-essentialist observations in the context of folk religion, which he attempts to define. You would probably like it.


  3. donovanschaefer says:

    Couldn’t agree with you more, Craig. The idea that beliefs are determinative of actions is betrayed by history at every moment. I agree with Deane that we need to factor belief systems into our understandings of how people act, but I think we need to assume that they are at best background figments.

    The problem, as I see it, is intellectual laziness. It’s easy to read a book and then say “everyone who take this book seriously will behave in just this way.” It takes time and effort to actually study the histories of interpretation of those books, not to mention the individual histories that yield complex systems of motivation and behavior.

    Ironically, academic types have traditionally been the most susceptible to this fallacy: we want to believe that the words we read and work with are powerful, and that the real work of dealing with living, complex bodies can be over-ridden by an attention to texts. Just not so.

  4. Craig Martin says:

    Deane, I wasn’t trying to make an epiphenomenalist argument. When I said belief doesn’t directly inform behavior, I mean that we can’t make this equation: “I believe in the Bible” + “The Bible says to kill idolators” = “I will kill idolators.”

    However, I do think that stated “beliefs” often (not always) serve a secondary (legitimating) role in action rather than a constitutive one. For instance, if Al Qaeda appeals to the Qur’an to justify their actions, my bet is that it is in a legitimating capacity—I doubt the Qur’an actually motivated their actions in any direct way.

    So, um, does that get at your objection, or do you have a second volley?

  5. Craig Martin says:

    Deane, here’s another common example where stated beliefs do not have a direct relationship with behavior: lots of people do not explicitly hold racist or sexist views (and would deny that they do), but behave in racist or sexist ways …

  6. Craig Martin says:

    Also, thanks for the reference; I’ll try to check that out (if my library has access to it!).

  7. Muslimerican says:

    Hi Craig,

    I liked your point, but it seems that you may have unwittingly indulged in a different form of religious essentialism: the idea that religious “beliefs” are standardized. The same (Arabic) Qur’an, for example, is believed in by Muslims, but it is rendered dozens of ways into English (and other languages). Beyond that, its contents themselves are interpreted differently by different readers. In other words, it is very much a polyvocal text.

    I also wanted to point out that the description of what the Qur’an “says to do with the idolaters” given above is incorrect. There are dozens of passages relating to conduct toward idolaters and other non-believers, none of which commands Muslims to kill them indiscriminantly. I’m not a bible scholar so I can’t comment there, but that characterization of the Qur’an was wrong.

    Here is some info about that:

  8. Deane Galbraith says:

    I was wondering whether the specific example you used could be used to answer the causal question at all.

    But the wider questions are more interesting. Usually I think that there’s a need to emphasize the material, socio-economic reasons more in explanations of religious behavior. But are there never circumstances in which ideological reasons provide the sufficient explanation of a particular religious behavior? Explanations are never total, of course, but I think there are some phenomena that are sufficiently explained merely with recourse to belief and belief communities and structures. To some extent, traditional religions are so removed from the material factors that created their belief systems (and this is not to deny that they still serve current material circumstances, which is also always explanatory), that it is the belief itself that provides the sufficient explanation. At this stage I should probably come up with an example, but I’ve been in the vege garden in the sun, and feel a bit unmotivated. But in such a case, the “living Yesterdays” (the ideas) themselves then need to be addressed, not their material production. (I think this idea of “the living Yesterdays” was Bloch’s, wasn’t it, saying that it is the living Yesterdays that must be baptized in the waters of socialism, that is the religious ideas themselves converted, because they were doing the work?). Great name for a band, “the living Yesterdays.”

  9. Craig Martin says:

    Muslimerican: I do not at all deny that the Qur’an is polyvocal—it definitely is. The “sword verse” can be opposed to what some call the “no compulsion” verse. However, PART of what it says is kill idolaters (or “slay the pagans,” as the link you provide points out). That can’t be denied.

  10. Craig Martin says:

    Deane, my argument wasn’t really an argument against the inclusion of belief in an explanation of behavior—I was arguing against that simple equation I drew in my comment above.

    I think belief must play a partial role in explanation (I don’t deny that), but I’m not sure I believe it ever plays a sufficient role. I’ve tried to think of examples of beliefs still “followed” yet so removed from their context of origin that they have to be strictly vestigial. But usually when I come up with one my friends point out that those beliefs (or related behaviors) presently serve as identity markers. For instance, how do anti-abortion beliefs (or behaviors) serve the interests of evangelicals? I don’t think we can offer a functionalist explanation along these lines. But we CAN make a functionalist explanation in terms of how being anti-abortion serves to as a marker for a certain kind of sub-cultural distinction. That is, it’s vestigial only in one sense—it still has a function. If a “belief” or a “behavior” serves no function whatsoever, won’t they really fade out of existence? Otherwise we have no explanation for why some beliefs fade and others persist. (Of course this may be a limitation on our understanding ….)

  11. donovanschaefer says:

    I agree with what Muslimerican says. It’s a gambit. Knowing what I know about your teaching, Craig, it probably works out, but it might be wise to print that as a caveat–“Trained professionals. Don’t try this at home.”

    Here’s something I was thinking about. In _God is Not One_, Prothero writes that, for instance (and he has lots of other little examples like this, but just to zoom in on one), fighting homelessness is more likely to happen in a Christian setting than in a Hindu setting. What do you make of that?

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