As always, religion is one of my favorite topics. Last week we covered religion in my Anthropology 210 course (Introduction to Social and Cultural Anthropology) and student questions prompted me to reflect on a few of the concepts that I usually teach each semester. In the following essay I expand a little on my thoughts.
I am somewhat of an old fashioned cultural ecologist. I look at humans as organisms part of a world ecosystem; complete with competitors, multiple habits, resources, etc. Culture I see as an adaptive tool, helping members of our species adapt the multitude of situations they find themselves in around the world. Every cultural aspect in our world has some sort of functional purpose (functionalism), yet the most important 'function', if you will, is reproduction. If some aspect of culture hurts your chance of reproduction, chances are that you wont believe much in that part of your culture, and it may in fact disappear over time, depending on whether it affects other people the same way. But, realistically, we can say that reproduction is made possible by so many other things, such as food security, partnerships, economic success, and the success of the social institutions in the societies in which we live.
When I look at the numbers surrounding religion, my first assessment is that religion must be immensely valuable to the human species. The vast majority of people on this planet, now pushing 6 billion, have a religious belief system of some kind, and the large majority of them are also members of a formally organized religion of some sort. Ten thousand yeas ago this probably wasn't the case: though I have no doubt that virtually everyone then had "religion", formally organized religion may not yet have been invented. We don't really know, but its an excellent topic for archaeological inquiry. Yet its only in the last 1000 years that its become a global phenomenon. The numbers alone tell me that this isn't something to be taken lightly. There is something incredibly adaptive about religion, but what is it?
What is Religion?
Defining "religion" might be a topic of philosophical discussion to some, but for anthropologists its a key part of their work. Problematically, Anthropologists have offered up hundreds of definitions of religion in their books, lectures, and papers. Indeed, I could offer one of my own right here. However, I don't see how that will help the situation. Rather, I'd prefer to focus on meaning. Definitions don't determine meaning; rather, that are attempts to capture meaning in a concise statement.
Unfortunately, in English, the term religion means a number of different, albeit related concepts. First, there is religion:
a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.This is what we think of as religious belief, or religious ideology. When using religion in this context the term reflects the personal belief systems of one or more people. But then consider religion:
a social institution, the premise of which is a fundamental set of beliefs and practices, but that also includes mechanisms for social and political organization.This second concept can be thought of as a religion, or organized religion. Of course, the term religion is also sometimes used memetaphorically to refer to something that someone is extremely dedicated to (like archaeology, Apple computers, or Star Trek), but let me come back to that.
Though they are related, the two concepts above are quite different. The first is an aspect of the individual, whereas the second is an aspect of society.
Religious belief is such a ubiquitous phenomenon that it is commonly accepted by anthropologists as a "cultural universal", something that exists in all cultures. Previous generations of anthropologists sometimes referred to the belief aspect of religion as "Magical Thinking" to differentiate it from organized religion. Regardless of whether you call it religion, magical thinking, superstition, or just a belief in the unknown, virtually every person on earth expresses some level of this phenomenon. Contrary to popular opinion, the level of belief in religion or magic has nothing to do with education or technical ability, rather, its almost entirely correlated anxiety and uncertainty of outcomes (See Homans 1941 or Gmelch 1971).
Where do Atheists fit in? Atheists are literally those without a belief in gods. The term is generally understood as those without any religious beliefs, or conversely, to refer to people who believe that religious beliefs are false, or nonsensical. I will, for the sake of the argument, stipulate that they do not have religious beliefs (even though many probably do). By one estimate, self-proclaimed atheists make up slightly less than 2.5% of the world's population. There are no atheist societies, unless you want to define culture liberally as any shared set of beliefs (The American Society of Atheists). Principally, we are talking about atheist individuals; that is, people without religion in the first sense. Even members of the ASA are also members of a larger society that, no doubt, has many religious institutions (religion in the second sense). Consequently, atheism has no bearing on our discussion at all, other than to say in any given place there may be some individuals who profess atheism. Atheism, by definition, is not a religious belief system, but is it possible that groups like the ASA are religious institutions? Unfortunately no; that would be a complete misunderstanding of other religious insitutions, and also of atheists themselves.
Religious institutions provide many social functions: leadership, organization, social welfare, education, solidarity and support systems, etc. They provide a social infrastructure for the perpetuation of these other social institutions and there is good historical reason to believe that organized religion has been a major factor in the growth and evolution of society in general. However, religion does not have a monopoly on any of these facets. Secular social institutions can accomplish most of these functions well enough. By and large, historically speaking, in the last 1000 years religious social institutions have dominated similar secular systems in popularity and success.
Why is this the case? Our human capacity for religion is a powerful adaptation. It doesn't take much effort to see that ideology is a powerful motivator and a major component for cultural solidarity. Unlike strictly political institutions, religious belief systems transcend national boundaries. And whereas religious institutions compete with secular institutions to provide the same social functions, as secular institutions grow in scale they seem to have difficulty maintaining social momentum, possibly due to a lack of ideological fervor. The success of organized religion in promulgating around the world, til upwards of 85% of its population claims to be part of an organized religion is unprecedented (especially considering that 10,000 years ago possibly 0% of the worlds population was involved in organized religion). It adequateness as a social and political instrument is undeniable.
I dont have an answer for the questions I've raised here. However, I do believe that the distinction between religion (with a small 'r') and Religion (with a big 'R') is critical to achieving the answer. The former has probably been around for at least 30,000 as a ubiquitous cultural phenomenon, whereas the latter is a recent human invention. Forget the wheel and fire; Religion has turned out to perhaps be the most significant invention in human history.