I'm grateful to Andrew Sullivan for his discussion of my argument about the respective places of belief, on the one hand, and practice and ritual, on the other, within religion. Andrew is, so to say, an insider in this matter, whereas I am a complete outsider, and so he will have experience and perceptions about it that I lack. All the same, I think we are at cross purposes in a number of ways.
Andrew suggests that I ignore religious doubt. But I don't; I pretty much take it for granted, in fact, that for any major sphere of belief, whether it be religion, politics, philosophy, personal affairs, or whatever, doubt must sometimes feature in most people's thinking, if not in absolutely everyone's. As it happens, in my most recent post I specifically highlighted Frank Skinner's mentioning his own religious doubt, and his observation that this doubt 'is at the centre of being human'.
Second, Andrew speaks of beliefs of a kind that haven't been at the centre of my mind in writing about this question; such as the belief that 'the Blessed Virgin was... transported into the sky rather than dying' - one, I have to confess, I wasn't aware of. However, in questioning the thesis that belief isn't a crucial part of what religion is about, I had in mind more 'mainstream' beliefs, such as the beliefs that there is a God, that this God has certain characteristics and enjoins certain ways of being and doing, the belief in the immortality of the soul, and so forth. Here, just today, I read that a Scottish rugby player, Euan Murray, believes that 'the Bible is the word of God' and he will not play rugby on the Sabbath on that account. Well, is this a belief or not? It is associated with a practice, no question about it: the practice of observing the Sabbath. But how can the bible be the word of God if there is no God or if there is one but He doesn't have any words? How can Euan Murray's practice of not playing rugby on the Sabbath be made sense of if we treat his beliefs as merely marginal or of no consequence?
Most importantly of all, Andrew construes the question at issue between me and those I've criticized on this issue as if I were contesting the importance of practice in the lives of people of faith. But I have never done that. All I contest is the thesis of the unimportance of belief there. For it doesn't have to be either-or, and I maintain, even as an atheist, that it isn't either-or - that both belief and practice can be central in religious observance, and that for millions of believers this is indeed so.
From my reading of Andrew's post I take it that he wouldn't himself necessarily want to quarrel with that, since he writes of religion as an 'interaction between dogma and practice' and also says that 'for faith to live, it must be practised' - which seems to imply a something-there that is to be practised. Coming from an insider's knowledge of what it means to be religious that I myself do not have, I take these thoughts of Andrew's as confirmation of what I've been arguing on this score and as the sign of a measure of agreement between us.