Bridging belief and practice - bridging theoretical and empirical studies of religion

This project was led by Dr Elena Kalmykova in the Department of Philosophy and is funded by a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellowship.

Dr Elena Kalmykova recounts her two-year fellowship within the Department of Philosophy on her research project on bridging the gap between theoretical and empirical studies of religion, which up to now have developed separately, as the studies of beliefs and the studies of practices.


Ipan-panentheismn contemporary study of religion there is a gap between research of religious beliefs, on the one hand, and research of religious practices, on the other. The former is investigated in philosophy of religion, while the latter is investigated in religious anthropology, ethnology and other empirical disciplines. As a result, the totality of religion turns out to be artificially split, and the investigations cease to study any link between religious beliefs and religious actions. This link is positioned in “no man’s land” between the two branches of investigation.

The research gap between the study of beliefs and the study of practices is gradually being recognized by the philosophers. Prominent researchers recently articulated that in contemporary philosophy religious practices, and their embodied and extended aspects, are undertheorized, which has negative consequences for investigation of religion. However, no solution was proposed so far.

This two-year project received funding of €195,455 from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie, grant agreement No 660954. The project started in March 2016.

Project aim

The aim of the project was to bridge the aforementioned research gap by reconsidering the concept of belief, and emphasizing its embodied aspects. Even though beliefs and practices are heterogeneous issues, there is one thing which unites them and serves as their core – human body. We form beliefs on the basis of embodied perception and practice beliefs using our bodily capabilities to move, speak, dance etc. The project reached its goal by elucidation of undertheorized embodied properties of religious belief and then reconsidering the relation between beliefs and practices within embodied framework. The chosen method allowed to provide explanation of some discrepancies of religious beliefs and practices (‘belief as an artefact’), which gives insight into the nature of religious disagreement and can be potentially used to improve inter-religious dialogue. Finally, a new conceptual framework for the investigation of the link between beliefs and practices, that can be used both by empirical researchers and philosophers, was developed.


The work started with elucidation and formulation of the properties of everyday beliefs - ‘paragons of belief’. Then I considered these in light of the most prominent contemporary philosophical theory of belief: belief as a mental attitude with propositional content. After that I traced how propositional religious beliefs, usually identified with doctrinal statements, function in lived religion. The goal was to see whether propositional theory fits the empirical data of sociology, psychology and cognitive science of religion. Comparison revealed massive deviations of religious beliefs from everyday beliefs and from propositional standard of belief, such as doctrinal ignorance and theological incorrectness. I concluded that propositional theory fails to provide a satisfactory account for religious beliefs, and we have to look for other candidates to exercise the distinguished properties in religious beliefs.

The next step was to revise the religious belief from embodied perspective. Doctrinal belief poses a puzzle: on the one hand, philosophy and theology often deem knowing it essential for belonging to religious traditions. Such doctrines as “God is Trinity” or “There is no self” are deemed to lie at the heart of religion. On the other hand, empirical facts as theological incorrectness and disinterest of common believers in the content of doctrines show that people often do not understand the content of doctrines and do not care about getting it right. How can we understand the role doctrines play in religious practice? Application of embodied method showed that in lived religion doctrine is often treated as a sacred artefact (for example, as an icon). It is held without proper understanding of its propositional contents, but with a reverence and a strong adherence to them. Thus, what is considered to belong to the domain of mental states and their propositional content (doctrinal belief), in lived religion is treated similarly to a material object of embodied religious practice.


In the final part of my work I brought together the most insightful ideas of embodied approaches in order to develop a new embodied framework suitable for both empirical and philosophical study of religion. Thus I proposed to base our understanding of religion not upon the content of doctrinal beliefs, but upon embodied perception of religious meaning. This allowed to shift philosophical consideration of religion from the propositional content of doctrines to religious perceptions and the embodied means of gaining them. Furthermore, it refocuses consideration of religious practices and material culture, which allows including these into philosophical scope. One of important conclusions is that religious behaviour is not always caused by propositional beliefs, but instead follows religious perceptions and is cued by material artefacts and the structure of environment. This means that some of the properties attributed to beliefs in religion can be realised by non-mental objects as artefacts and places. Therefore, the proposed embodied framework successfully accounts for the discrepancies of beliefs and practices, identified in the first part of this work.