Belief Matters as Much as Action

Do beliefs matter that much?

I have had some trouble in the past few years seeing beliefs affecting action. For example, does belief in the Christian doctrine of the Trinity affect daily life that much?

Building off of this, I entertained that beliefs don’t matter so much as one’s actions. This is a very America idea. Maybe even Marxist.

But then I read something interesting this week for class on the American Revolution and on ideas concerning women at the time.

Source: Florida State University Religious Studies

Source: Florida State University Religious Studies

According to Amanda Porterfield, it was common to see women as naturally the intellectual inferiors of men.

Aaron Burr (vice president to Thomas Jefferson) took a different approach. He gave his daughter Theodosia the opportunity to learn. Broadly. By age 10, she read French and Latin. At 12 she took up Greek. By 18, she had obtained Italian in addition to competence in the piano, dance, geography, and history.

Theodosia proved what Burr already assumed: women aren’t dumb.¹

Source: University of Chicago Press

Source: University of Chicago Press

This got me to thinking what beliefs can accomplish in the world. In this case, a belief had inhibited the vast potential of women. If people saw women as naturally the intellectual inferiors of men, why attempt to change that? It was natural, right?

The beliefs that matter most—in the sense that they have the most impact due to their presumption—are those we attribute to some natural, unchangeable, “real,” stable essence. What goes unquestioned? What is off limits to probe?

Beliefs matter. When left unquestioned and unprovoked, they foster a stupor that can be potentially dangerous.



Consider the relatively recent movement #blacklivesmatter. There has been a conservative backlash to it called #alllivesmatter. What gets lost on #alllivesmatter is that it superficially focuses on the phrase #blacklivesmatter without taking time to attend to the movement’s interests.

#blacklivesmatter already assumes that all lives matter: their point is black lives haven’t mattered historically (while technically it could be #blacklivesmattertoo, that gets too long to be catchy). In this case, black bodies have taken the brunt of the War on Drugs, mass incarceration, and increased surveillance.

What’s the point of connecting #blacklivesmatter to women’s education in the late 1700s? Both are responses to naturalized beliefs that inhibit groups.

Women’s education was a response to women’s inferiority. #blacklivesmatter is a response to latent (and sometimes extremely overt) white supremacy that just wants black people to shut up, throw away their identity, stop complaining, and be like white people.

#alllivesmatter promotes inaction to change the killing of black lives by ignoring the actions already happening against black lives.

Beliefs matter. Probe them.

¹Amanda Porterfield, Conceived in Doubt: Religion and Politics in the New American Nation (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2012), 42-44.

Gender: Who Has It?

20150809_211514What do you think of when you think of gender?

If you’re me, it’s something you don’t have but others do. That probably reflects my privilege as a man.

Whatever social marker it is–gender, race, class, ethnicity, age, etc.–I usually think of it as something others (Others?) have.

Let me expand on that a bit. It’s not that I don’t think I have a gender. It’s that when I think of “gender issues” I’m not usually thinking about myself, because I don’t have a glass ceiling to break through. Worries about rape are not on my mind when I walk down a street at night. Anorexia and bulimia are not problems I deal with (if you’ve seen me in person, you can tell pretty quickly I don’t have these problems). Do these affect some men? Maybe. They just don’t affect me, and I presume they don’t affect a lot of men.

This somewhat reflects the field of gender studies. When I started reading Ursula King’s edited work, Religion and Gender, she indicated that many times gender studies=women’s studies.

Now this isn’t the case across the board. There is a subfield in gender studies called men’s studies or men and masculinities, so there’s an exception to this rule.

And maybe this is just me and something I will need to look at, but when you think of a category like gender, race, class, etc., do you think about it in reference to yourself or others?

Perhaps it is also true that I don’t get out much. Chalk it up to being a father of two young children, working, and being a student.

I have started asking some close family and friends what they think of when they hear the topic of gender. When I was waiting for church to start this morning, I wrote the following in my journal:

All I know of the past (before my conscious memory) is mediated. What would I think of gender were I alive in the 1950s? If I try to image this, all of my imagination of the 1950s is already constrained by what various patriarchs and feminists have informed me about it: it was utopia or a nightmare.

My “knowledge” of the 50s comes from books, movies, shows, clips. This is not to say that if I interviewed someone who lived during that time period would be any less colored by their perspective. However, I wonder what I would catch in the conversation unedited.

In print and in video, a lot of editing goes on. Granted, if you’ve had some practice answering a question, there has been editing done there, too.

What am I saying? I have a lot of work to do. Much of my research (maybe I’ll just call them “thoughts” instead of research since I haven’t really tested them against other peoples’ thoughts) on gender comes from inside my head.

However, if I want to pursue knowledge about gender, I will have to incorporate more than just my thoughts. It will require questioning others about their experiences. It will require probing their answers, being aware of my responses, making those responses known to them to gauge how they react, probing how others think about the data I gather, and continuing this cycle over long periods of time.

Here is what I think of when I think of gender: it is an amalgam of one’s sex organs, hormones, appearance, social interactions, experiences, sexual orientation, and how each of these interact with each other over time.

With this in mind, there will be many  masculinities, femininities, or just general gendered expressions. To put it another way, gender looks different for a black lesbian, a poor Chinese man, or a young trans woman. Each social marker will affect how gender appears.