Re: Atheism and Religion

Richard Reichart (reichart@PLUTO.NJCC.COM)
Fri, 10 Nov 1995 18:13:45 -0500

As a recent lurker here, as one absent from anthropology academically
for the past four decades, and as a believing, faithful Religious
Humanist, I'm disturbed to see people professionally involved in
anthropology raising the issue of whether religion requires a belief in
the supernatural.

It seems to me that:

Religion clearly refers to any set of beliefs and practices held in common
by a group for the purpose of specifying their common relationship to a
source of their being (and/or a different life after the end of this one).

The most obvious and central function of a religion is to assist in
preserving the coherence of a human community -- as evidenced by the fact
that it appears to have been preceded by the form "religious" to denote a
group (a community) tied together by common beliefs and practices.

That most, but not all, historic religions have rested ultimately on some
beliefs in a creation or a creator, which exist or existed outside the
natural world inhabited by their adherents, does not make such beliefs
intrinsic to the function of religion.

What does appear to be requisite for a religion to exist is that its
beliefs and practices concern themselves with how one does, or should,
relate to others in the group. That is, all religions seem to have as
much or more to do with ethics as they have to do with theology or the
"spiritual," whatever that is taken to mean. Thus, quite respectable
persons have said such things as "to do good is my religion," or "science
is my religion" -- and this contrasts clearly with the metaphoric use of
the term, as by those who say "carpentry (or music, or cooking ...) is my

I believe my preceding statements leave two key issues begging for input
from anthropologists. The first is: can communities exist, and persist,
_without_ a religion? The second is: can religions exist, and persist,
which do _not_ function as community glue? (And, of course, if either
is the case, how does it work?)

... Dick Reichart

P.S.: BTW, the U.S. Supreme Court's acknowledgment of "secular humanism"
as a religion came in a footnote to a 1957 case affirming the right of the
Washington Ethical Society to be treated as a religion for tax purposes.
Curiously enough, the American Ethical Union and the Ethical Culture
Movement in general has insisted for 119 years on refraining from any
official position with regard to theism, deism, humanism, or any other
creed beyond the preeminence of ethics.