Foto belief Cesari
Foto von Silke Lapina,

Jocelyne Cesari on a common yet highly disputed word.

Following in the steps of Talal Asad, scholars have produced significant knowledge on the Western origin of our dominant conceptions of religion, including its focus on belief. There is additionally very stimulating work on the challenges brought by the usage of Western Christian categories to study non-Christian religions. None of these studies, however, have been channeled into the social understanding of the religious experience of individuals or groups. In fact, most existing surveys of sociology of religion still define religiosity in terms of church attendance or observance of rituals, which is far from sufficient to capture the complex and multifaceted expressions of religion in people’s lives. To overcome this gap between critical studies and the understanding of religious experience, I suggest the systematic utilization of the belief-behave-belong triad.

Of course, the breakdown of religion into the three Bs is nothing new. For some time, sociologists of religion like Grace Davie and Danièle Hervieu-Léger have argued that exploring the relations between believing, belonging, and behaving is a more relevant way to understand modern forms of religiosity. A person can believe without automatically behaving and belonging; can belong without believing or behaving; or can behave without believing or belonging. Surveys have shown that many Christians in European societies maintain private religious beliefs but do not practice on a regular basis (i.e., believing without behaving). In other cases, Christian identity is a cultural or national marker rather than an indicator of piety. More generally, once we analyze religion along these three dimensions, we realize that the focus on belief does not reflect the most significant modes of people’s engagement with religion. In fact, religious belonging and behavior precede belief in the early stages of socialization through family, school, peer groups. etc. In other words, people forge attachments and behave according to family and contextual norms before being able to formulate their beliefs. Belief, especially in its reflexive and cognitive forms, may develop later in life, whereas it remains the major focus of academic research. Even when scholarship pays attention to belonging or behaving, it is done independently of the interactions among the three Bs: theology investigates religious ideas and doctrine, while the field of religious studies investigates beliefs, behaviors, and institutions. To date, there is no attempt to systematically explore the interactions among the three.

Qualitative research on Muslims in different contexts can illustrate how to better understand religiosity by focusing on the interactions among believing, behaving, and belonging. In the case of most Muslims in Europe and the United States, belief in God is a strong component of personal identity and personal connection with God. The content and truthfulness of the Islamic creed is generally not discussed, and debates over belief are infrequent (converging with statistical work that repeatedly highlights the belief gap between Muslims and non-Muslims in Europe).1 Multiple monographs indicate that Muslims in Europe consider Islam’s values to be universal, meaning that Islam is compatible with other religions and cultures in the society in which they live. In fact, the majority of respondents consider the synergy between religious and national identities to strengthen their religious identity, as they rediscover religious meanings in the context of being a minority and experience a greater personal attachment to their tradition than they might have had in their country of origin. What makes Islamic practices distinctive and challenging for the believers are their social and cultural underpinnings and their reception in mainstream society. As a consequence, conflicts between personal and social identity arise.

The hijab controversy is central to these tensions. The headscarf is considered positively by Muslim women even when they do not wear it, with data suggesting that, in contrast to popular opinion, women are more in support of the hijab than men. Along the same line, belonging to Islam is strongly asserted, even in cases where individuals doubt or question their faith, or have no faith at all. However, a clear line exists between “being Muslim” and being a “practicing Muslim,” indicating that “being Muslim” is an identity lacking a clear relation to a set of orthodox practices. Along the same line, multiple surveys on American Jews have highlighted how being Jewish is first and foremost a sense of belonging to a group rather than holding certain beliefs or engaging in particular practices. In these circumstances, we are in dire need of a thorough investigation of the specific interactions among the three Bs in different religious and cultural contexts.

Additionally, the cultural environment significantly influences the individuals behaving and belonging. For example, the resistance against Islamic signs of piety in European societies (from mosque building to dress codes and dietary rules) illustrates such a context in which the dominant conception of religion emphasizes belief and choice on the part of the believer. It is therefore no surprise that conflicts erupt when Muslims exhibit religious markers that reflect their behavioral orthodoxy in societies where the engrained perception of religion is that it is personal and should not be visible in the makeup of one’s social self. This disjunction between private belief and public behavior is the outcome of several centuries of socialization that in European societies has associated modernization, progress, and individual empowerment with the decline of religious practices. It leads to significant variations in modes of behaving for Muslims according to the national contexts. For example, Sufis from Senegal may exhibit more “orthodox” practices in New York than in Paris because the visibility of religious practices is perceived as less conflictual in the former than in the latter context.

Another way to expand the study of religion beyond belief is to observe the interactions of collective forms of believing, belonging, and behaving in relation to the attachments and commitments to political communities or groups. In my work on political Islam, I have demonstrated that religious belonging is more relevant than belief for understanding the politicization of Islam by showing how Islamic and national belonging have been linked in postcolonial nation-state building.

Taking seriously the variations of the three Bs within the same religious group across different cultural contexts (or across religious groups), obliges us to consider religiosity as configurations of contextualized and fluid interactions. It is key to pay attention to the simultaneous changes of ideas, institutions, and contexts over time. Such a multilayered method deserves more substantial engagement, which is beyond the scope of this response but nevertheless worth considering.


Jocelyne Cesari is the T. J. Dermot Dunphy Visiting Professor of Religion, Violence, and Peacebuilding at Harvard Divinity School (2019-2020), holds the Chair of Religion and Politics at the University of Birmingham, UK, is a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center on Religion, Peace and World Affairs, and is a Professorial Fellow at the Institute for Religion, Politics and Society at the Australian Catholic University.

Foto von Silke Lapina,

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