I have been carrying on an argument with Nate on one of his posts (## 5 and 7) and in his responses to one of Blake’s posts ( #23) –sort of. I haven’t really laid out my position on the relation of belief and action, nor have I made an argument. I’ve only asked some questions. So I’m going to try briefly to say some things here about how I think about the issue, briefly because a full development of my ideas would take a much longer essay than this. I assume that you’ll excuse the shorthand of what follows and I’ll try to clarify that shorthand in my responses to your responses.
First, I think that the contrast between beliefs (or doctrines–I don’t think there is an important distinction between the two in this context) and practices is misleading. It is possible to have beliefs that do not issue in practices, but it is problematic, if not impossible, to assume that there are practices which do not involve beliefs: the same bodily movements that include different sets of beliefs are not the same practice. For example, suppose I am moving my hand in a way that puts something in the drink of another. If I believe that what I am putting in her drink is a sugar substitute, I am doing something very different than if I believe it is poison. These are two different practices because practice cannot be reduced to bodily movement, but must always include belief.
It may be tempting to think that the example shows that, since different beliefs yield different practices, belief is fundamental to practice rather than the reverse. I think that is a mistake. The difference between believing that X is poison and that it is a sugar substitute only cashes out meaningfully in a practice. Believing that X is poison and not putting it in my friend’s drink is a practice, an act. I cannot meaningfully believe that X is poison without that belief being made meaningful in practice; without instantiation in a practice, a belief is meaningless.
Since I think that practices include beliefs but beliefs do not necessarily include practices, I take it that practice rather than belief is fundamental to religion, though you do not have one without the other. If we talk about practice, we will be have to also talk about beliefs as they are part of the practice. This is complicated by the fact that certain practices–I have mostly in mind ordinances, our most important practices–remain the same regardless of the intent of the person performing them. A priest who blesses the bread but doesn’t believe in what he is doing has still blessed the bread. I don’t think, however, that complication undercuts the position I am taking here. Indeed, I think it strengthens it since it shows that the reality of the practice is not dependant on the actor’s beliefs. But since this isn’t the extended essay–or book–needed to discuss all of this fully, I’m going to pass over this complication.
That is the brief explanation of my claim that religious beliefs are inseparable from practices. It may turn out, as I think we would have to agree–given Mormon history–that our beliefs may vary to some degree without changing the practices in which they are manifest. For example, our beliefs about the sealings of couples have changed, but it makes sense to say that we still believe in the ordinance of sealing. Temple sealing of couples continues to be the same thing, though our beliefs about it have changed. However, if beliefs were fundamental, then anything more than a minimal change in beliefs would mean that the practice was no longer the same. However, if practices are fundamental, then beliefs can change (though not completely) without the practice changing.
As I have said in an unpublished essay:
The gospel is a divine activity, the saving activity of God. It is not the belief content associated with that activity, even though the activity of the gospel necessarily has belief content. To be a believer is to accept the gospel: it is to believe that God can save, but not merely to believe (since mere belief would not be religious belief). To be a believer is to respond to God’s saving activity with repentance and in rebirth and with tokens that testify of God’s saving power. One can do that and, at the same time, have false beliefs. However, if the exemplary pious person can have some false beliefs about his or her religion, as is true for Latter-day Saints (as well, I take it, as for most other religious people), then belief cannot define what it means to be religious.
In contrast, practice–when it is understood as necessarily involving belief rather than being contrastive to belief–does define what it means to be religious.