Is the essence of religion a belief in God… or something more?

Journalist, Sonia Sodha reflects on the first of Kwame Anthony Appiah's Reith Lectures.

Ask anyone what it means to be religious and you’re likely to get some sort of variation on “believing in God”. In fact, lots of the words we use to describe religion – such as “faith” and “creed” – relate to the idea of belief.

But in this year’s first Reith Lecture, the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah argues that in thinking about religion, we have focused too much on what religious people believe and not enough on what religious people do.

Hindu women taking part in the Kumbh Mela pilgrimage in the sacred waters of the river Ganges

According to Appiah, there are three dimensions to religion. Yes, one of those dimensions is a body of belief. But Appiah argues we over-emphasise the importance of belief at the expense of two other dimensions: the rituals and social norms that people carry out as part of religious practice, and the communities within which religious practice takes place.

The 2016 Reith Lectures are presented by Sue Lawley

To illustrate this, he uses the example of Judaism. Appiah argues that even if someone studied the Torah in great detail, and embraced all the beliefs and principles it contains, that person would not become Jewish. Taking on the beliefs of Judaism without adopting its practices or becoming part of a community of worship isn’t enough.

Indeed, Appiah says it would be impossible to adopt all the beliefs and practices set out in holy books such as the Bible, the Torah or the Qur’an in abstract. All of these religious scriptures give ambiguous, and sometimes contradictory guidance.

Take the kosher dietary code set out in the Torah: it sets out a list of birds that Jews are forbidden from eating. But this list does not map out perfectly on to modern bird species, and religious authorities disagree on what exactly is on and off the list.

The philosopher, Kwame Anthony Appiah, is the 2016 BBC Reith Lecturer

Here Appiah is pointing out that religious scriptures are not only open to interpretation, they have to be interpreted to make any sense at all. And the way that scriptures are interpreted – and religion is practised – depends very much on the cultural norms in the societies in which they are operating.

Appiah gives the example of his mother dressing for church. St Paul said in the Bible that women must cover their heads while in church. Given that this was the custom for respectable dress at the time this pronouncement was made, Appiah’s mother interpreted this as a call for women to dress respectably by local standards when they attend church, rather than a literal instruction that women should not go to church with their heads uncovered.

A line of Buddhas at the U Min Thonze cave in Sagaing near Mandalay, Burma

In other words, Appiah is arguing that it’s not a case of religions shaping cultures and societies, so much as cultures and societies shaping contemporary interpretations of religion. In the past, societies have interpreted the Bible as making proclamations against homosexuality or gender inequality, but these interpretations reflect the cultural norms of the time. It is possible to read the Bible and conclude something very different.

Appiah contrasts his view of religion with that of fundamentalists. Religious fundamentalists argue no interpretation is needed to apply religious scriptures to day-to-day life: books such as the Bible and the Qur’an contain one version of the truth that all those practising Christianity and Islam must live by.

Is Appiah right?

One critique of Appiah’s lecture is that he is arguing something quite uncontroversial, something that only religious fundamentalists and the strongest opponents of religion would really disagree with. Most Christians, Muslims and Jews do not seek to try to apply a literal interpretation of the Bible, Qur’an and Torah to the way they live their lives. Many religious scholars have long stressed the importance of interpreting religious scriptures to ensure they make sense in the contemporary world.

Another critique might be that there are a number of important contemporary questions about the role of religion that Appiah’s analysis does not help us with very much. While he stresses the importance of interpretation to religion, he doesn’t say much about who is doing the interpreting – in other words, where the power lies in religious communities. Until relatively recently, men occupied the key positions of power in most world religions.

Appiah might argue that this simply reflects the structure of power in society at large. But religion has been used to move societies rapidly backwards in terms of gender inequality, for example in modern-day Afghanistan. Implicit in Appiah’s argument seems to be the idea of religion as neither a force for good nor bad; it simply reflects the societies we live in. But there are cases where religion doesn’t just reflect human behaviours and cultures, but seems to drive them – for better or worse.

Second, Appiah’s approach helps us characterise fundamentalism as the idea that religion is all about doctrine and literal application of religious scriptures, to the exclusion of everything else. But he offers little insight in how to challenge religious fundamentalism – one of the biggest questions facing world leaders with the rise of so-called Islamic State.

Third, Appiah does not address how religious identity relates to other forms of identity, and how we resolve differences when they clash. Take the burkini ban in France: should the French state be able to insist Muslim women wear less on the beach because the burkini is not thought to reflect French cultural values? Where do we draw the line when identities clash?

The 2016 BBC Reith Lectures