Religion: A Humanist Interpretation

Raymond Firth

Routledge 1996
A book review by Danny Yee © 1996
Many introductions to the anthropology of religion immediately embroil the reader in historical and theoretical complications. While Firth doesn't ignore these in Religion: A Humanist Interpretation, he does avoid letting them get in the way of a basic understanding of religion as a human activity and a human construct. He has also avoided the shallowness an attempt at a systematic survey of religions or the forms of religious belief and activity would require: instead he has assembled six specialised articles from his earlier corpus and supplemented them with a more general introduction and conclusion.

The first article, written in 1948, is an argument for focusing on religious belief as a means of personal adjustment rather than (in the then dominant paradigm) on the social-functional role of religious ritual. The second tackles the relationship between religion and politics, arguing that links between the two are inevitably manifold but that religion is more than Marx's "spiritual aroma of the world". The third applies to Christianity the understanding of concepts of God and gods derived from study of "primitive" religions. The fourth is about the role of pragmatic and economic considerations in motivating religious offerings and sacrifices. The final two articles, based on Firth's fieldwork in Kelantan, explore aspects of Malay religion: the first looks at ritual and drama in spirit mediumship; the second at the balance between skepticism and belief in practitioners (and consumers) of rice and fishing magic.

The concluding chapters "sharpen the argument" for the "essentially human character of religious phenomena". Firth shows how the incompatibilities and paradoxes of religious systems — apparent in their diversity, in their concepts of transcendence and sacredness, and in problems of factionalism, authority, and leadership — result from their human origins. And in a short final chapter he dismisses religious claims to ultimate truth, finding truth in every religion, but a human rather than a divine truth.

Though the older material it is built out of has been reworked a little, A Humanist Interpretation lacks the polish a more unitary work might have had. It is, however, a concise and readable demonstration of how an anthropological approach can illuminate different aspects of religion, with a nice balance between generalities and ethnographic and comparative detail. If it is a little pointed in its treatment of religious claims to truth, that will perhaps be beneficial when it comes to convincing students with strongly held religious beliefs of their own to take the more dispassionate view anthropology requires.

April 1996

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%T Religion: A Humanist Interpretation
%A Firth, Raymond
%I Routledge
%D 1996
%O paperback, bibliography, index
%G ISBN 0415128978
%P 243pp