Re: Atheism and Religion

Richard Reichart (reichart@PLUTO.NJCC.COM)
Sun, 12 Nov 1995 02:02:21 -0500

On Fri, 10 Nov 1995 "Richley H. Crapo" <rcrapo@WPO.HASS.USU.EDU> wrote

> 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".

This point is well taken, and well supported in Crapo's next paragraph
describing liberalization of our legal definitions to include individual
nontheistic personal beliefs as a basis for conscientious objection to
war, and organizations' nontheistic beliefs as a basis for tax exemption.

The liberalization may not be quite so clean as suggested, however. In the
U.S., where the dominant culture tends to frown on mind-altering drugs,
the law has repeatedly prohibited their use in what are to some clearly
identified as _their_ religious practices: the sacred mushrooms, for
example, or marijuana.

Crapo then says that within cultural anthropology there tend to be
"lumpers" who prefer "functionalist" definitions and "splitters" who

> 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

Although I do not intend to challenge these points, I find it surprising
that the conceptual framework I put forward, or something like it, is not
part of common cultural- anthropological thought today.

I suggested that anything properly regarded as religion is _both_
functional for the community -- as "the ethical ties that bind" -- and
also a description or explanation of the community's "source of being"
which can be, but often are not, some set of myths or supernatural ideas.

Not only Buddhist and Confucian sects, but modern Religious Humanist sects
contain no requisite supernatural element -- although there's enough
mystery and spirituality-talk in all of them to suggest that untested and
untestable beliefs are an intrinsic component of "religion."

I also suggested that ethical thinking is an intrinsic component of
whatever is religious in a culture.

It is from cultural anthropology that I would expect a systematization
which eschews traditional philosophico/religious thinking and terminology
in favor of analysis of observed behavioral patterns, so that the real
problems are less with the core concepts than with how to decide on the
inclusion or exclusion of particular cultural behaviors and beliefs.

... Dick Reichart