It’s been about 10 years since I addressed this topic. Largely because I have no new thoughts. But probably after 10 years, it’s useful to revisit/clarify on this topic to clarify confusions, since people have a lot of opinions on this topic.
People mean different things when they mean “religion,” and the different meanings are not contradictory, nor in conflict.
At the lowest level in terms of individual cognition religion emerges from deep intuitions about the nature of the universe. Colloquially one might say that religion bubbles out of our unconscious.
In relation to social units, say the clan or tribe, religion consists of these intuitions about the nature of the universe and the world around us, bound together with rituals and verbal descriptions and narratives. These rituals and communal narratives help forge some sort of group Weltanschauung that has a functional utility in terms of inter-group competition and relations. Here religion steps out of the individual and becomes an expression of collective consensus.
As human societies became more complex the role of religious professionals became more elaborated. The common role of a shaman can be thought of as a magician, one who manipulates and operates in the domain of the supernatural. Shamans are common and ubiquitous in pre-state societies (even if a tribe does not have a “professional” shaman, someone takes on the role when needed). The priest adds on top of this institutional authority, often supra-clan or tribal. No king, no priest. Eventually, though the shaman-priest took on the role of the metaphysician. The metaphysician generates abstract principles and rationales, which can transcend the tribe or ethnicity, and allows religion to generate meta-ethnic civilizational identities in the service of priestly functions.
In relation to my post about why I am not a New Atheist, New Atheists, and the hyper-verbal expositors of modern organized religion, often tend to reduce religion to a branch of philosophy with some textual revelatory buttress. By refuting the philosophy of religion, they think that they refute religion in toto. But what they refute is only the latest and most elaborated structural expression of the religious phenomenon.
What about the priest? Though I am wary of the term “political religion,” due to semantic confusion, it seems clear that the function of the priest can be stripped of its supernatural valence. Many of the most objectionable characteristics of religion for people of liberal orientations derives from the institutionalized priestly functions. Unfortunately, the persistence of the priest in the absence of gods, shamanic powers and metaphysical justification opens the doors to secular totalitarianism.
Finally, it seems almost impossible to stamp out the shaman. Shamanism is like music. You can banish it through institutional sanctions, but once those sanctions disappear, shamanism reappears.
These different aspects of religiosity exist and persist simultaneously in most contexts, but sometimes in tension. Philosophers and priests often take a dim view of shamanic religiosity. In organized religion of the modern sort shamanism is marginalized, or highly constrained and regulated in sacraments. But the recession of state-sponsored Christianity across much of the West has arguably resulted in a resurgence of shamanism, and the proliferation of diverse supernatural beliefs which had previously been suppressed (much of East Asia is characterized by relative weakness of philosophical religion but the strength of shamanism).
The relevance of all this in relation to New Atheism is that New Atheism seems to posit a religious “Blank Slate.” That is, children are indoctrinated in religion at a small age, previous to which they had been atheists. Part of this is due to the fact that the philosophical-metaphysical aspect of religion is quite clearly indoctrination, and often of a superficial sort at that (judging by how weak most believer’s grasp of theology is). But the communal and psychological aspects are not indoctrination, as much as specific instantiations of general human sentiments, dispositions, and intuitions. The erasure of a Christian, Buddhist or Islamic religious orientation will not necessarily leave in its wake a mind primed for scientific naturalism. Rather, it will simply be one shorn of Axial-Age accretions, reverted back to the shamanic age…
As someone who is an atheist, I have never had strong intuitions that lead me to find shamanism plausible. Additionally, the philosophical arguments are wanting for me in relation to God, though they are interesting (thanks to reader Thursday I’m reading Edward Feser’s work). Finally, obviously, I take a dim view of the conformity and structure which the priests attempt to impose upon us. But I do not presume I am not typical.