Dealing with Religious Beliefs: Some Suggestions from Anthropology

By Stevens, Phillips, Jr. | Free Inquiry, Winter 1995 | Go to article overview

Dealing with Religious Beliefs: Some Suggestions from Anthropology


Stevens, Phillips, Jr., Free Inquiry


Humanists and skeptics who express a supercilious attitude toward religious beliefs ought to consider three important findings from world anthropology. First, beliefs identified as religious are absolutely universal to human cultures and are as old as human history. This conclusion leads to the suggestion that bases for human projections that take form as cultural beliefs in extra-human powers may be innately human, deeply rooted in the evolutionary biology of the species. Second, religious belief is an extremely powerful motivator of human behavior. Third, the most effective way to change people's beliefs and/or practices is not to scoff at them, but to understand them and work within them while at the same time offering alternatives, so that the believers and practitioners themselves can begin to see flaws in their own systems and accept the alternatives as superior.

The first premise combines two findings by anthropologists. The conclusion regarding the universality of religion is now more than a century old, and as anthropological knowledge of world cultures has expanded it has only been confirmed; but unfortunately it has not been uniformly accepted outside the discipline of anthropology. Some nineteenth-century ethnologists took their definition of religion as the structure of beliefs represented by the Judeo-Christian tradition and, unable to find parallels in second- or third-hand reports of certain other belief systems, concluded that many "primitive" peoples lacked religion entirely. This notion fit well with the evolutionists' assumption of European cultural superiority, and it proved surprisingly durable. One popular proponent of this argument was John Lubbock (Lord Avebury, 1834-1913) whose writings are today regarded as exemplary of Victorian ethnocentrism, racism, and shamefully sloppy science; but the New York Times of December 5, 1993, published a letter from an American college professor in the social sciences citing Lubbock's 1870 work, The Origin of Civilization and the Primitive Condition of Man, as evidence for the absence of religion among many early societies. The apparent universality of religion, the letter-writer said, is a result of diffusion.

In the 1950s and the 1960s anthropologists began to operate under another significant premise: that, if a cultural trait is found to be universal, or very nearly so, we are justified in looking below the cultural level, perhaps into neurobiology, for explanations. This new view of the behavior of our species was stimulated by expansions in mammalian ethology, especially primatology, which revealed fundamental behavioral similarities among all primates and many higher mammals. Today's emergent area of "evolutionary psychology" is reconsidering many tentative conclusions reached by anthropologists over thirty years ago. Religion is a Western designation for a complex mix of beliefs and behaviors, and any search for a "biology of religion" is misdirected; but understanding of many of the fundamental sentiments and behaviors that lie at the bases of religious belief and ritual systems can, indeed, be sought at the level of evolutionary biology.

The very weak argument that the number of "true believers" in any society is relatively small is rendered moot when we consider the number of religiously motivated migrations, persecutory movements, and wars throughout history; and how many contemporary social problems have religious bases.

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Dealing with Religious Beliefs: Some Suggestions from Anthropology
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