Introducing Anthropology of Religion by Jack David Eller

Published by Minnesota Atheists on

By Grant Steves

Cover of Introducing Anthropology of Religion, featuring abstract curves in blue.

Routledge , 2007 352 pages

American atheists are familiar with and focused on Christianity in its various forms. However, it is important for us to expand our knowledge of what religion is and how it operates in various cultures. In understanding the evolution of religion, we will understand its role in any society, regardless of the dogma that is manifested.

Dr. Eller defines religion as a “profoundly human and social phenomenon – arising from an addressing intellectual, emotional, and social source – in which the nonhuman and ‘supernatural’ are seen as profoundly human and social.” Religion as a social construct can be studied by scientific means. We are able to examine its elements and discover how they are developed in a particular culture.

Religion is about beliefs that explain what kinds of things exist in the world, what they are like, and what they have done. Beliefs are “‘discursive,’ something to talk about and to ‘know,’ both flowing from and to a view of religion and culture as a language or a ‘text’ to be spoken or read.”

We come to realize that belief is a fuzzy concept, and that it is culturally specific, rather than culturally universal. He informs us that some societies have no word that would translate as a belief. We are led to understand that in some cases there are at least five levels of personal belief: “acquaintance or familiarity with the belief, understanding of the belief in the conventional way, advancing the belief as ‘true,’ holding the belief as important or central to the believer’s life, and following the belief as a motivational or guiding force.” Any belief in society will fall anywhere along this spectrum of description.

Closely related to beliefs are the symbols used to represent those beliefs. Symbols are the transcendent and abstract way of relating what religious belief is about.

Symbols and language are closely related. Language is used to communicate objective facts and subjective feelings. A subset of language is religious. It is a language that encourages humans to be consummate with nonhuman beings or agents. Humans create a language to relate to spiritual entities. Humans who direct this power of religious dimensions also use emotions. He draws the conclusion that religious talk provides those dimensions. The conclusion he arrives at is that religious talk provides a model or paradigm for human thought, action, and organization to communicate with their supernatural entities.

Observation of religion reveals behavior that is created as ritual both verbal and nonverbal. Examples are found in myths, prayer, chanting, and singing. Religion is a mode of action as well as a system of belief. Religious rituals are designed to have social effects. The rituals are believed to have healing effects or transformative influences.

Eller examines the influence of religion on a culture’s morality and social order. Religion is involved in change in a society, but religion itself also changes. New religions are created during the process. These religious movements may help the revitalization of tradition or create more modern experiences.

Religion has evolved beyond the tribal experience and is now a global phenomenon. Because of this global reach and diversity of religion, it creates differences that provoke violence. These religions serve to justify violence. Religion explains the need of the violence, and the justification for perpetrating it.

Other movements create tensions and pull religion in different directions. We are pulled toward secularism and irreligion. The development of secularism confronts the religious belief system and its rituals. At the same time, fundamentalism emerges as a reaction to secularism. The tension that is created makes a resolve to expose religion as a social construct without supernatural connections. In turn the fundamentalist has the need to persuade others into accepting their return to a more conservative bend.

Eller concludes with an examination of religion in the United States as it affects the courts and Public Square.

His book has been described as one of the most “engaging, comprehensive, and compelling overviews of anthropology of religion ever published” (Stephen Glazier, Professor of Anthropology at University of Nebraska-Lincoln). It is a brilliant scientific examination of a topic that affects all humans. Eller provides an insight into religion from the viewpoint of an atheist and scientist. He provides an understanding of the religious reality that we all must have an interest in within our world.

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