Restaging the Will to Believe: Religious Pluralism, Anti-Syncretism, and the Problem of Belief



In this article, I examine anthropological conceptions of religious belief by concentrating on the problems that arise in employing them in socioreligious fields characterized by pluralism, a high degree of mobility in changing religious affiliation, and by what Rosalind Shaw and Charles Stewart have called “anti-syncretism” (1994). Instead of discarding the concept for anthropology, however, as some scholars have proposed, I suggest that indigenous discourses referring to and practices of belief represent an important field of anthropological inquiry, particularly as concerns non-Western forms of Christianity. In this article, I argue that people's ideas of and experiences with spiritual entities engender particular ways of talking about and practicing belief. Analyzing religious practices among the Zambian Gwembe Tonga, it is shown that some conceptual problems can be overcome by shifting the focus from belief as a stable and perpetual interior state of religious practitioners to the practice of cyclically regenerating a condition of internalized “believing.”