In this introduction we provide a genealogy of anthropological writings on belief and discuss the politics of using the term in cross-cultural contexts. We summarize the contributions to this issue and argue for the virtues of writing 'against'—rather than 'with'—the term in ethnographic texts. The article concludes with reflections on the way anthropological discussions of belief have expressed wider assumptions about the representation of culture.
Galina Lindquist and Simon Coleman
Typically, magic takes no stance against the socialized beliefs that determine it, in contrast with both science and modern religion, which, in the face of doubt, assert the truth-value of their propositions against such determination. In other words, science and religion engage in 'believed belief'. Their aversion to magical belief is the one thing they can agree on. Believed beliefs produce convictions of truth sufficiently intense to base actions on, such as the killing of someone identified as a witch. Ethnography on Sukuma healing allows us to distinguish this experience of the witch from that of oracles and magical remedies. While research in terms of belief(s) tends to oppose cultures, an approach based on experiential structures links up seemingly distinct practices from different cultures, while differentiating seemingly similar practices within a culture.
Anthropologists have moved away from using belief as the defining feature of religion, portraying it instead as something whose nature and significance vary among times and cultures. This raises new questions about how specific notions of belief come into being and their connections to social, cultural, and political systems. This article explores these questions in the Jewish community of Copenhagen, focusing on two periods when ideas about belief changed radically: the emancipation period at the opening of the nineteenth century, and the decades after World War II. In each, changes in the ways that Jews conceptualized and appealed to belief reflected changes in the internal social dynamics of Danish Jewry. They also reflected changes in the larger Danish culture and in state political agendas.
Jon P. Mitchell and Hildi J. Mitchell
This article argues for belief, suggesting that the reason why anthropologists might have moved against belief is their persistent attachment to a linguistic model of religion that sees the job of the anthropologist of religion as being one of translation. In such a model, the absence of the word 'belief' signals the absence of the process. We argue for the enduring utility of belief, not as a linguistic category, but as a description of experiential processes at the heart of religion. Using examples from popular Catholicism and Mormonism, we contend that such processes are rooted in the body. Through bodily practice and performance, religion is generated as an immanent force in the world—people come to believe.
Marjorie Mandelstam Balzer
An analysis of the Sakha Republic (Yakutia) in the Russian Federation reveals a variety of village and urban reactions to crises of faith and power. The significance for group identity and instances of synergistic group belief are discussed. The transition that has seen amorphous underground shamanic practice lead to the institutionalization of shamanic cosmology is reflected in the recent opening of a temple in the Republic's capital, Yakutsk, and in the various groups that adhere to charismatic healers and seers. Debates about faith, as well as fragmented faith epistemologies, are described. The data derive from over 25 years of intermittent fieldwork in the Republic and with the Sakha diaspora. My approach is situated at the crossroads of medical-psychological anthropology, political anthropology, and new religious movement analysis.
Mira Z. Amiras
This article explores the experimental work of Michael Murphy, co-founder of the Esalen Institute, and George Leonard, who is on the Board of Directors of Esalen. Leonard was the first to coin the term 'human potential movement', using it to describe the work that Esalen promoted beginning in the 1960s. In the 1990s, Murphy and Leonard devised an experiment in what they called Integral Transformative Practice (ITP): methods of achieving the extraordinary through meticulous body/mind practices not tied to a specific spiritual path. A key question raised by participants during the experiment was whether it was necessary to believe in order to achieve. This article explores what did and did not correlate to 'success' both within the original experiment and in the past 10 years of subsequent experimentation.
Cosmology may be helpful in positioning belief. I suggest, through discussing the contributions to this collection, that belief, especially propositional belief, is integral to monotheistic cosmoses that are constituted through gigantic fractures (like that between God and human being). Such fractures distinguish between cosmic interior and cosmic exterior. The fracture as boundary is absolute, paradoxical, not to be breached. Thus, the infinite Hebrew God integrates His finite cosmos by holding it together from its outside. The absolute boundary signifies cosmic discontinuity. Here belief in the unfathomable may be central to overcoming such discontinuity and, so, to integrating cosmos. By contrast, an organic cosmos is held together within itself, is more continuous within itself, is more holistic, and, in flowing through itself, obviates any centrality of belief.
On first reading Les Mots, it was as much of a surprise to note that references to religion and belief were both so frequent and so central to Sartre's unconventional autobiography as it was to learn that the famous Christian missionary Albert Schweitzer was his cousin. Further readings and analyses have reinforced my view that the language of belief plays a critical part in the text. These questions of belief and the references to religion that appear frequently in Les Mots have received less attention. It could be said that these references are merely illustrative of Sartre's attempt to explain himself to himself and to us, and function as any metaphor would. But such a suggestion would fail to account for the many references to religion and belief and to explain why they are so tightly interlinked. We will argue that closer attention to these subjects provides significant insight into the work. Sartre, it would appear, uses a religious template, rather than an existentialist or a Marxist one, to understand his life's project, his past and his present. We will therefore investigate the nature of this use of the language of belief as a religious template and evaluate its significance.
Maria Costanza Torri and Thora Martina Herrmann
From time immemorial, local and indigenous communities in India have developed traditions, representations, and beliefs about the forest and biodiversity. The cultural practices and beliefs of a community play a significant role in enhancing community-based initiatives, particularly in achieving sustainability in the long term. Nevertheless, too often conservation policies do not take into consideration the link between the culture of local communities and their environment. A comprehensive understanding of the relationship between cultural traditions and practices related to biodiversity and their current status and manifestations is crucial to the concept of effective and sustainable conservation policy. This article examines the traditional practices of the communities in the Sariska region (Rajasthan, India) as well as their beliefs and their values, underlining the special relationship that these tribal and indigenous communities maintain with the forest and their usefulness in community-based conservation. Some conclusive remarks on the importance of adapting conservation approaches to local cultural representations of the environment will be drawn.
The rate of depletion of plants and animal species in Ghana has assumed an alarming dimension, and the government is finding it difficult to control the process. Several factors account for this. A major one is the neglect of the traditional ecological knowledge prevalent in the culture of Ghana. Sasa is the Akan word for the spirit believed to be found in some plants and animals. This paper examines the role of sasa in flora and fauna conservation in Ghana. Traditional Ghanaians have a strong belief that some plants and animals have special spirits, which when cut (as in the case with plants) or killed (animals) can bring serious harm to the person. Thus, such plants and animals are not eliminated. This paper argues that sasa as an Akan indigenous conservation tool can complement the modern means of nature conservation in Ghana.