It’s not about belief

Recently, I’ve been bothered by ill-informed commentators and pundits like Richard Dawkins who assume that all religion is defined by some belief in a supernatural God. Those of us who are Unitarian Universalists encounter this attitude frequently;– I’ve had people say to me, “Well, you don’t belong to a real religion, ’cause you don’t even have to believe in anything.” Even some Unitarian Universalists worry about coming up with a statement of what they believe.

But belief is not the single most important defining characteristic of religion. Today I happened to be reading Introduction to World Religions, edited by Christopher Partridge, and I found some powerful examples of religions in which belief is not particularly important. For example, Hinduism:

Hinduism has no historical founder, no unified system of belief, no single doctrine of salvation, and no centralized authority.

And what about Confucianism:

Neither Confucianism nor Taoism is like Judaism, Christianity, or Islam — monotheistic religions with God at the centre. Confucianism, especially, became a religion without any great speculation on the nature and function of God. For this reason it was often not even considered a religion [by Westerners]. However, it clear that Confucianism is a religion, and that it was the dominant tradition of pre-modern China.

And this interesting bit about Judaism:

From biblical times Jews have subscribed to a wide range of beliefs about the nature of God and his action in the world… Reconstructionist and Humanistic Judaism rejected the supernaturalism of the past, calling for a radical revision of Jewish theology for the contemporary age. In more recent times, the Holocaust has raised fundamental questions about the belief in a supernatural God who watches over his chosen people….

Yes, Christianity is somewhat obsessed with belief in God. But it is wise to remember that outside a Christian context (e.g., as a post-Christian, or as a non-Christian), you can be perfectly religious without worrying one way or the other about belief in God.

8 thoughts on “It’s not about belief

  1. Jean

    Thank you. I have been thinking about this a lot the last couple of days. I just can’t get my heart, or some other metaphorical body part to embrace the idea of god. Or the singular divinity of Jesus. Or the holy ghost. Or eternity. Any of that. But I do have a deep conviction that life is remarkable, that what I do while I am alive matters, and that the legacy I leave is the work I do while I am here that touches those who live beyond me. That’s *my* afterlife!

    Yet, I also — and I have to say this — too often find UUs frustrating, because there seems to be this predilection to shut down conversations about god and Jesus and divinity and all that as “unintellectual” or even anti-intellectual. So where do we go then, those of us who don’t embrace god, but don’t reject conversations about him/her/it/etc???

  2. Rev. Sarah

    Thanks, Dan! This is helpful. We really do get stuck on the “belief thing” and on the image of the God we don’t believe in. It’s refreshing to recall that we’re not the only religion that’s not based on structured beliefs about divinity.

    Just this past Sunday, at the request of parishioners, I facilitated a discussion of Richard Dawkins video “The Root of All Evil? The God Delusion.” It really got some lively conversation going about the role of belief within religion as well as the roles of experience and rationality. I disagree with probably about 85% of what he says in the video (and I am, at heart, a religious humanist) and think that as a scientist his argument should have at least paid attention to what the scientific study of religion has told us about human religious experience. The video was highly provocative, and piqued many people’s interest in learning about religious humanism and/or reading Bill Murry’s new book Reason and Reverence.

    I am surprised to be saying this, but based on Sunday’s experience I think that exposure to secular humanist religion despisers like Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett can be a very good thing for many people in our movement–it can be just the provocation they need to get them thinking about how they formed their beliefs, how they use their reason, how they interpret their experiences. I think this exposure is most beneficial if it’s done in a facilitated context with a knowledgeable facilitator (esp. one who has a different perspective than the video or book) and participants with a variety of theological orientations.

    Oh, and I can’t resist adding that some participants in the discussion were unhappy that I kept insisting that fundamentalists used reason in their religion just as much or even more than religious liberals. But it’s true! We kid ourselves if we think we’re one of the few “religions of reason.”

  3. Pingback: Tête-à-Tête-Tête » Blog Archive » Religion ≠ Belief

  4. Jaume

    It is not just an issue about pundits and scholars. In many countries, your group may not be recognized as a religious organization (and therefore be illegal or at least “irregular”, and not enjoy any of the rights given to organized religions) if your bylaws do not include explicit mentions of the worshipping of God or at least a creed that includes belief in supernatural things.

  5. Administrator

    Jean — Yup, some Unitarian Universalists do have a tendency to shut down conversations about god, Jesus, etc. Fear, maybe?…

    Rev. Sarah — Nice point, that fundamentalists use reason as much as religious liberals. It would serve us religious liberals well to remember that, wouldn’t it?

    Joel — Yes, and that assumption does lead to miscommunication (to put it lightly).

    Chance — heh heh heh heh

    Jaume — In many countries, almost including the United States — a year or so ago, the state of Texas tried to revoke the tax exempt status of Unitarian Universalist congregations because of exactly that.

  6. Eric Alan Isaacson

    Accepting the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize, His Holiness the Dalai Lama of Tibet declared, “Buddhism does not accept a theory of God, or a creator.”

    Tenzin Gyatso, Dalai Lama XIV, Nobel Evening Address (Oslo, Norway, December 10, 1989), in THE DALAI LAMA, A POLICY OF KINDNESS: AN ANTHOLOGY OF WRITINGS BY AND ABOUT THE DALAI LAMA 108, 115 (Sidney Piburn, ed., , 2d ed., Snow Lion Publications 1993).

    It’s puzzling to me that many on the religious right, who readily recognize the Dalai Lama as Tibet’s spiritual leader, can so much have trouble getting their minds around the fact that Unitarian Universalism is a religious movement that does not impose on its members a particular theory of God.

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