Re: Atheism and Religion -Reply -Reply

Richley H. Crapo (rcrapo@WPO.HASS.USU.EDU)
Sun, 12 Nov 1995 03:05:00 -0700

11/12/95 10:44am >>> raised an interesting question about approaches
to defining religion:
" Is that belief in the supernatural a structuring property ("a religious
systems is the belief system built up around the concept of a
supernatural") or a consequence(" a religious system is the attempt to
answer questions relating to origins and this leads to positing the
existence of a supernatural as the causitive force for origins").
Obviously, one's arguement about the "need" for a belief in a
supernatural for something to be labeled a religious belief system is
heavily affected by the status one assigns to a belief in a supernatural in
the conceptual system under question."

Without taking a position on the relative merits of the two views of the
role of the supernatural element in definitions of religion, I'd like to point
out an aspect of the question about the "need" for a belief in a
supernatural. Some years ago Stewart Guthrie argued in Current
Anthropology that the *central* feature of religion should be regarded as
systematic anthropomorphism--imputing human-like qualities to nonhuman
things, especially as embodied in the use of human language in ritual. In
his approach, this tendency to anthropomorphize aspects of the
nonhuman world more or less takes the place of the word "supernatural"
in a definition of religion, bypassing all the problems entailed in the term
"supernatural". Apropos of Dwight Read's comment on the question of
the "need" for a concept of the supernatural, Guthrie argues that thinking
of anthropomorphism as the essence of religion casts an entirely new
light. He argues (and I won't attempt to outline the argument in all its detail
here) that since all attempts to understand the unknown involve relating it
to the known (a process that anthropomorphic thinking is merely one
example of), religious thinking is not different in kind from any other effort
to make sense out of the chaos of experience around us. Indeed, in its
use of "human-like" as the model for understanding the unknown,
anthropomorphizing uses a model that we all feel that we understand
intimately and one that has great psychological salience to humans.
Thus, anthropomorphic "explanations" of things around us (whether they
are formalized as "gods" human-like "spirits" or mana that responds to
symbols) are uniquely "plausible" to human beings. From this
perspective, the traditional question of why or whether humans "need"
supernatural ideas becomes a nonquestion that is better replaced by the
question "Why do human beings sometimes NOT accept such plausible
interpretations and restrict themselves to nonsupernatural (i.e.,
nonanthropomorphic) models to 'explain' the world around them."

Richley Crapo

D. Read