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March 19, 2006

Writing Problem #1

ifugaowarrior.jpgThe history of the effort to explain religion -- an effort that dates back to the Greeks and is still being debated on the pages of the New York Times -- will be an important thread in my narrative. But don't I need to give away some of the most up-to-date theories on this early on in the story: when I'm investigating the anthropology of belief and disbelief, doubt amongst the headhunters, etc? Can I talk about whether early humans believed without discussing why?

Posted by Mitchell Stephens at March 19, 2006 7:41 PM


Most academics would scorn work that remains "merely" descriptive (saying "whether") and that avoids explanation (saying "why"); at least some of your other work has not stayed at the descriptive level. Even if your narrative is not academic, I think, discussing beliefs and dis-beliefs involves explaining why people believe, or refuse to.

Posted by: george at March 20, 2006 4:00 AM

not to worry. I will, as should be clear from all the discussion of "causes" of religion below, not shy away from "explanation." Though this is to be a narrative history of disbelief, not just another version of Dennett's book (or Hume's). The issue I'm struggling with is whether to include the "why religion?" explanations as they develop in that history (from Xenophanes to Atran) or where they might help explain that history (from the beginning on). And maybe by wording it thusly I've just answered my own question.

Posted by: mitch at March 20, 2006 5:42 AM

Not to beat a dead horse, but the issue actually brings up something I've often thought about in reading your very wonderful blog: is atheism itself a a religion? If a religion is any system of belief about deity, then belief that denies that deities exist is a belief about deity. I just googled this question, and of course there are tons of definitions; but at least some would support this approach, although some "compromise" definitions stipulate that religions--often--involve rituals, a code of ethics, a philosophy of life, and a worldview.

Posted by: george at March 20, 2006 5:20 PM


The short answer is that atheism simply is not a religion.

This introductory text from the Wikipedia article on atheism may be of note here:

Atheism, in its broadest sense, is an absence of belief in the existence of gods. This definition includes both those who assert that there are no gods, and those who make no claim about whether gods exist or not. Narrower definitions, however, often only qualify those who assert there are no gods as atheists, labelling the others as agnostics or simply non-theists.

Although atheists often share common concerns regarding empirical evidence and the scientific method of investigation and a large number are skeptics, there is no single ideology that all atheists share. Additionally, there are certain individuals whose religious or spiritual beliefs some might describe as atheistic, though those holding such beliefs do not normally describe themselves as atheists.

Atheism includes, but is not equivalent to, the position of antitheism, the active opposition to theism.

Posted by: Dayv at March 21, 2006 2:37 AM

OK, just added 1,500 words to my draft of the opening anthropology chapter on why humans believe -- from Atran, Dennett and Boyer.

And, oh yes, I do believe the question of whether atheism can in some way be considered a kind of religion is an interesting one -- which I hope we can continue to discuss.

Posted by: mitch at March 23, 2006 3:08 AM

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