Re: Atheism and Religion -Reply

Richley H. Crapo (rcrapo@WPO.HASS.USU.EDU)
Fri, 10 Nov 1995 22:35:15 -0700

One common source of confusion in discussions about whether religion
can be nontheistic is a failure to separate emic from etic definitions,
particularly a failure to distinguish what can LEGALLY have the status of
"a religion" in the United States (or other countries) and what makes for a
good anthropological (versus legal) definition of "religion".

In the U.S., under the Seeger (and some other military draft/conscientious
objector) decision by the Supreme Court, the Freedom of Religion clause
of the Constitution includes the right of an individual to determine what is
or is not a religious belief or value system. Thus, a person's self-defined
"religious" values need not be expressed in traditional. mainstream
theological language. Thus, the words "god" or "supernatural" cannot be
mandated by the government as necessary for a belief system to qualify
as "religious". Indeed, such a mandate would violate the Establishment
Clause. The bottom-line is that there are and have been a number of
incorporated groups in the United States that (following similar
reasoning) have been granted the status of "religions" for such
purposes as evaluating their taxation status. It should be needless to say
that just because this makes good legal sense to the government does
not make it a good scientific basis for determining the most useful
cross-cultural definition for use within anthropology.

Within cultural anthropology the question of how best to define religion
seems to have an effect similar to the question of how to define
"species" within among biological anthropologists. You have your
"lumpers" and your "splitters". The former seem to prefer one form or
another of a "functional definition" (if, indeed, it is appropriate to use the
term "definition" when classifying things by their functions), while the
latter are usually seeking some essential attribute(s) that is/are at the
core of religion wherever it is observed. The former, noting functional
similarities between theistic and nontheistic ideologies, tend to drop the
supernatural from their definitions, much as Tillich did within western
theology, and speak of religion as any system of "highest priority values"
or "fundamental beliefs about human nature and the place of humankind
within the universe". The latter tend to focus on the contrast between
supernaturalistic and naturalistic philosophies and use some form of
supernaturalism (be it animatism, animism, or anthropomorphic thinking
about the nonhuman world) and would generally find the concept of an
atheistic religion to be a contradiction in terms