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Anthropology/What is religion?

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Question
I try to explain my religion to people, but I occasionally doubt that it's a religion at all. I practice the religion of my Germanic, pre-Christian ancestors. I greet the sun and moon with prayers and chants, I give offerings to the land spirits and the ancestors and I honor the Gods that founded my people. I consider myself part of this religion because of the bloodline that connects me to the Gods of Asgard. It's part of who I am, my sacred heritage and birthright. I'm not some foaming-at the-mouth loony white supremacist/separatist and I don't care if other people wish to honor my ancestral Gods, but for me it's part of who I am. It's not a collection of beliefs written in a book, we don't really *have* beliefs. Trying to explain this to  members of other religions is almost impossible and it makes me wonder about the link between culture and religion. Are there some religions that just can't be separated from the heritage of a particular people?

Answer
Hi Rose,
Anthropologists define religion as a formal set of supernatural beliefs about reality shared by a group of people.
By formal, I mean they are coherent, people agree on their contents and transmit them from one to another more-or-less intact.
By supernatural, I mean that the principal causes invoked to explain things are phenomena that cannot be refuted by scientific methods.
By shared, I mean that more than one person has to believe in them.
Any religion can be be separated from its culture of origin, although doing so sometimes creates confusion as crucial metaphors sometimes don't match up or make sense in new social contexts or to an audience unfamiliar with the original culture.  This is why missionaries struggle to find aspects of indigenous beliefs that parallel their own religion to make proselytizing easier.  (For a fun take on this, see the musical "The Book of Mormon".)
The religion you describe as your own sounds like Asatruan, a recent (19th-20th Century) revival of pre-christian scandinavian and germanic religion. This is just one term for it, though, as there have been more than one independent efforts to revive this religion based on information in the Eddas and in Roman accounts of Germanic tribes.
So, you are free to call it what you want, whatever puts it in the best light when you need to discuss it with others.
Some white supremacists find themselves drawn to Asatruan beliefs, but the racist appeal is something from recent times.  The concept of race only starts showing up in western literature until after the 1500s AD.  Until then, few northern Europeans probably ever set eyes on someone who looked much different than they did, so they really didn't have much reason to formulate "races," nor to arrange them in any kind of hierarchy.
Cheers,
John Shea

Anthropology

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John Shea

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Questions about Old World prehistoric archaeology (especially Stone Age) of Europe, Africa, and Western Asia, prehistoric human and hominid behavior, primitive technology, origin of modern humans, extinction of the Neandertals. IMPORTANT: Between February 14 and September 01, 2014, I will be on sabbatical leave. During this time I will have limited access to email. This means that there may be very long periods (i.e., weeks) between your posting a question and my having time to answer it.

Experience

>20 years as a professional anthropologist based at a research university.

Publications
Journal of Field Archaeology, Journal of Archaeological Science, Lithic Technology, Evolutionary Anthropology, Current Anthropology, Mitekufat HaEven (Journal of the Israel Prehistoric Society), Paléorient, Annual of the Department of Antiquities of Jordan, American Anthropologist, Geoarchaeology.

Education/Credentials
Ph.D (Anthropology) Harvard University, 1991.
BA (Archaeology) Boston University, 1982.

Awards and Honors
Sigma Xi Distinguished Lecturer 2012-2014

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