Over at Normblog, Norm begins a post with the words:
“Here’s another in that series: religious beliefs vindicated by being redefined to mean something different from what people used to think they meant. We’ve had religion not being about beliefs so much as about practices; . . .”
Well, actually, not quite. Nothing has been redefined, and most people did not previously think the way asserted here. Unless, of course, by “people” Norm means merely, “educated Westerners since the Enlightenment”. But that group constitutes a small (and often blinkered) minority of the world’s human population. For most of the world’s people, for most of human history, religion has indeed been mostly about practices and not about beliefs. I am thinking of Taoism, Buddhism (particularly Zen), large parts of Hinduism, and the mystical strands of Judaism (eg, the Kabbala), of Christianity (eg, the Name-Worshipping of Russian Orthodox believers) , and of Islam (eg, Sufism). In the tradition of The People of The Book (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), one hears and accepts The Good News and then engages in religious actions such as worship, prayer, and meditation. In the Eastern tradition, by contrast, it is the repeated doing of certain religious actions (Yoga, Zen sesshin) which may lead the practitioner to Enlightenment, not the other way around. I have argued this before, for example here and here.
That beliefs should or do always precede actions is a peculiarly western and peculiarly modern notion, part of the prevailing paradigm of post-Reformation Western thought. That this fact is hard for many modern westerners to grasp is evidence of the strength of the prevailing paradigm on our thought. However, the strength of a paradigm on the minds of our best and brightest is not itself evidence of the paradigm’s necessity, nor its uniqueness, nor its truth, nor even its comparative usefulness.