Matthew Bowman: Why religion is about more than belief — a defense of cultural Mormonism

“‘Religion’ has long meant not just theology,” scholar writes, “but also rituals and communities and moral code.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Latter-day Saint faithful attend General Conference in April 2022, when the Conference Center permitted half-capacity amid the continuing pandemic. Religion scholar Matthew Bowman says there are reasons people attend church beyond mere belief.

There are a lot of terms for people who attend meetings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints but say that they don’t believe in some or all of its teachings. “Cultural Mormon” is one. “Hypocrite” is another. Either way, though, the assumption is that participation without belief requires qualification. Or, put slightly differently, the assumption is that believing is the real core of what being religious is.

In a way, church members were taught this lesson by the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1879, the court handed down a decision in the case of George Reynolds. He was Brigham Young’s secretary and the man church leaders had decided would be the test case to see if the court would agree that the First Amendment protected the practice of polygamy.

The Supreme Court said that it didn’t. “The legislative powers of the government reach actions only, and not opinions,” the justices ruled. Reynolds was free to believe in polygamy, but the government could make laws restricting his ability to practice it.

Reynolds was sorely disappointed, but he might have seen the decision coming. The United States was dominated by Protestantism, and the first Protestants had broken away from the Roman Catholic Church because they thought Roman Catholicism gave too much attention to religious ritual and not enough attention to belief.

Protestants thought that real religion was what you believed. What you did should grow out of belief, not the other way around. If you did religious things, like get baptized, it should be because you already believed in them. Being baptized as a way to gain belief seemed to them nonsensical.

It should have been no surprise that the Supreme Court used the case to push the Utah-based church to be more Protestant, to tuck its scandalous practices away from lived reality into the safety of the minds of men like George Reynolds.

What is more interesting is how successful that campaign was inside the church.

Matthew Bowman is Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University.

Today, Latter-day Saints give a great deal of weight to belief. In part this is because of events like the Reynolds case, which taught members how they might gain respect of Protestant Americans. But in part that was easy, because the first generation of members were Protestants themselves, who spoke about joining the church in Protestant ways. They talked about being persuaded or converted or finding the faith reasonable.

It is an odd quirk of history that many devout believers and former practitioners alike are firmly convinced that sincere belief is the bedrock for any participation in the church. Gordon Monson stated as much in a recent Salt Lake Tribune column. Members pile intensifiers upon intensifiers as they declare how deeply, thoroughly and firmly they know that their religion is true. Those who doubt wrestle with whether they should practice the faith at all, and some who have left the church tell them that they should not. As the cliché runs, “If you don’t believe it, why don’t you just leave?”

The answer to that is easy: Those people don’t leave the church because religion isn’t just what you believe.

There are many religions around the world that place little or no weight upon what one believes. Polling regularly shows that very few Japanese people say that they “believe” in any given religious tradition. Only 6% of Japanese people say that God or a divine being is important in their life. And yet large majorities of Japanese people say that they practice Shintoism or Buddhism, and participation in religious rites is quite common. In short, in Japan being religious is about behavior, what you do, more than it is about what you believe.

Europeans originally used the word “religion” to describe not just the stories they told about the universe but also the things they did in response to those stories. “Religion” has long meant not just theology, but also rituals and communities and moral code. And as anybody who has tried teaching knows, humans learn not simply through information, but also through action and art and activity.

We hold graduation ceremonies and birthday parties because we aren’t brains in bottles. We are bodies that want to stretch and move under the sun. Getting a diploma in the mail hardly means as much as striding across a stage in a robe among hundreds of people to celebrate you. We learn through motion and community as much as we do through words. We grow not simply by repeating slogans, but also by standing up, walking over to another person, and shaking hands, hugging, looking at each other’s eyes.

We humans are fleshy and embodied creatures, made up of emotion and hungers as much as we are minds that know or believe. Religions succeed because people find that they feed them in ways beyond the merely intellectual. And religions flourish when they recognize that they meet needs communal and emotional and physical — and mark all of them as legitimate.

So we might call people who don’t believe yet attend church meetings cultural Mormons or hypocrites. But I’d suggest that these people are simply Mormons — or, if you like, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Matthew Bowman is Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University and the author of “The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith” and “Christian: The Politics of a Word in America.”