Belief Part I

(As explained in my previous post this is a section of a my paper I’m writing for class–but I’m intending it to be a very rough unedited write-up)

Folklorist Marilyn Motz defines “belief as a process of knowing that is not subject to verification or measurement by experimental means within the framework of a modern Western scientific paradigm” (Motz 1998: 340).  The anthropology of religion at the most basic level is the anthropological study of what humans believe and how those beliefs shape their perceptions, behaviors and social realities.  Belief  is central to the study of religion, but belief and belief systems goes beyond Western, and even anthropological, definitions of religion.

Jean Pouillon, a French ethnologist, writes the verb “croire ‘to believe’ is a paradoxical in that it expresses doubt as well as assurance” (Pouillon 2008: 91).  Pouillon defines belief as faith or confidence in one’s conviction that an expected outcome will result from a behavior, social action, or relationship.  While this can be extended to religion, Pouillon demonstrates that belief can just as easily be discussed in regard to something such as “economic obligation” (Pouillon 2008: 92).  When it comes to understanding belief’s ability to influence a person’s well-being, the full scope of the individual’s beliefs must be taken into consideration.  When it comes to a person’s recovery, it is not only the patient’s beliefs but also the beliefs of the patient’s family, healer, and the larger community.

In chapter, “The Sorcerer and His Magic”, Claude Leví-Strauss argues that belief is vital to both the beneficial and harmful psycho-physiological effects of spells, sacred rites, and cruses (Levi-Strauss 2010: 125).  Leví-Strauss presents three levels of belief that are paramount to understanding the power belief has to affect people.  He writes, “…the efficacy of magic implies a belief to magic.  The latter has three complementary aspects: first, the sorcerer’s belief in the effectiveness of his techniques; second, the patient’s or victim’s belief in the sorcerer’s power; and, finally, the faith and expectations of the group, within which the relationship between sorcerer and bewitched is located and defined” (Leví-Strauss 2010: 125).  Writing in 1915, Emile Durkheim described the study of belief as searching  “…  underneath the symbol to the reality which it represents and which gives it its meaning” (Durkheim 1964: Location 48).  These three layers of belief transform symbolic knowledge rooted in core cultural values, a belief system’s cosmology, and communitas into a powerful psycho-physiological effects.

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