What do you believe? It's a loaded question.

At first glance, it seems straightforward enough. It serves as a kind of sorting hat to separate religious believers from atheists and, further, to place Christians, Jews, Muslims, Jains, Zoroastrians and others into tidy categories of their own.

But ask the religion scholar and bestselling author Karen Armstrong, "What do you believe?" — as I once did in an interview — and you run the risk of a smackdown.

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The suggestion that belief is somehow beside the point is something many believers would find perplexing at best, highly troubling and offensive at worst, writes Mary Hynes, host of CBC's Radio's Tapesty. (CBC)

"It's the wrong question," the usually placid Armstrong said in an exasperated tone of voice.

As host of Tapestry, the CBC Radio program about modern spirituality, I’ve had many conversations with Armstrong, touching on some pretty contentious stuff, from Islamophobia to honour killings to Armstrong’s troubled years in a convent as she prepared to become a nun. 

But this simple question about belief was the one that sparked something close to irritation. The reason soon became clear: Armstrong would rather people didn’t believe in belief. 

In a 2009 piece for London's Guardian newspaper that carried the headline Should We Believe in Belief? Armstrong argued that religions have come to place entirely too much importance on what people believe — to the detriment of both the faith traditions and their adherents.

"The extraordinary and eccentric emphasis on 'belief' in Christianity today is an accident of history that has distorted our understanding of religious truth. We call religious people 'believers,' as though acceptance of a set of doctrines was their principal activity," Armstrong wrote. 

Religion, faith and belief

This story is part of a CBC News series looking at religion, faith and belief in our world.

"All good religious teaching … is basically a summons to action. Yet instead of being taught to act creatively upon them, many modern Christians feel it is more important to 'believe' them."

Armstrong isn't alone in wanting to put some distance between spiritually minded people and the concept of belief.

Kelly J. Baker, a professor of religious studies at the University of Tennessee Knoxville, says the idea of belief, meant to signify adherence to a religious tradition, is much too narrow to convey what it means to live in any given faith.

For Baker, belief is a kind of hologram standing in for something much more complex, rich and indescribable.

"Belief is a problematic starting point for the study of religious people," Baker writes in Bulletin for the Study of Religion. 

'Impoverished concept'

She calls it "an impoverished concept" that "ignores how people embody, enact, imagine, practise, participate, discuss, envision, hope, desire, want, and construct their religions.

"Religion is not simply belief, but is enmeshed in lives, materially and metaphysically."

And yet, belief remains central to the religious lives of millions of people around the world.

In some traditions, the details of what you believe aren't just relevant — they are everything.

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Worshippers carry effigies that represent evil spirits during a parade on March 11, 2013, in Jakarta, Indonesia, one day before the Day of Silence that marks Balinese Hindus' New Year. (Dita Alangkara/Associated Press)

Your beliefs mark you as being either someone who is true to the faith or as a heretic who is destined to burn in hell.

The suggestion that belief is somehow beside the point is something many believers would find perplexing at best, highly troubling and offensive at worst.  

The 17th-century mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal stickhandled around the question with his famous wager, which I will roughly paraphrase here: If you bet on God existing and God does not exist, no harm, no foul.

However, if you bet on God not existing and He does, in fact, exist, woe betide you, sinner: God will not be pleased.

Pragmatic conclusion

Pascal's pragmatic conclusion:  "Wager, then, without hesitation that He is…."

As Pascal suggested, there might be a great deal riding on how you answer the question "What do you believe?"

Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason, finds belief not simply baffling — he finds it a scandal.

He contends one of the unacknowledged tragedies of Hurricane Katrina was that so many people, trapped by rising floodwaters, held firm in their belief that their God would save them.

"Those people died talking to an imaginary friend," Harris says bluntly.

Common ground does exist between atheists and some believers. Judaism, for example, has long held that everything comes down to what kind of person you are in the world.

Your actions — how you treat your fellow human beings — are understood to mean much more than any profession of faith or recited creed. This view wouldn’t be out of place in a gathering of humanists, atheists or agnostics.

Given that the question is of immense importance to many religious people, it’s inevitable that many from the world of science have tried to understand how belief happens, and how it survives in a climate of widespread skepticism.  

Culture clash

When science trains a lens on spiritual impulses, the results can often be an uncomfortable clash of cultures, neither side speaking anything like a common language.

In her book When God Talks Back, Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God, Stanford University anthropologist T.M. Luhrmann tried to bridge the chasm between those who believe and those who find the concept of belief unfathomable.

Still, T.M. Luhrmann’s chasm is alive and well. On the one side: those for whom belief is real, tangible and beyond question. On the other: those who regard belief with skepticism, hostility, confusion or bemusement.

So, go ahead and ponder the question, "What do you believe?" But spare a thought, too, for its corollary: Does it matter?