Anthropology of religion

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Anthropology of religion is the study of religion in relation to other social institutions, and the comparison of religious beliefs and practices across cultures.[1]


Al-Biruni (973–1048), wrote detailed comparative studies on the anthropology of religions and cultures across the Mediterranean Basin (including the so-called "Middle East") and the Indian subcontinent.[2] He discussed the peoples, customs, and religions of the Indian subcontinent.

In the 19th century cultural anthropology was dominated by an interest in cultural evolution; most anthropologists assumed a simple distinction between "primitive" and "modern" religion and tried to provide accounts of how the former evolved into the latter.[citation needed] In the 20th century most anthropologists rejected this approach. The anthropology of religion today reflects the influence of, or an engagement with, such theorists as Karl Marx (1818-1883), Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), Émile Durkheim (1858-1917), and Max Weber (1864-1920).[3] Anthropologists of religion are especially concerned with how religious beliefs and practices may reflect political or economic forces; or the social functions of religious beliefs and practices.[4][clarification needed]

In 1912 Émile Durkheim, building on the work of Feuerbach, considered religion "a projection of the social values of society", "a means of making symbolic statements about society", "a symbolic language that makes statements about the social order";[5] in short, "religion is society worshiping itself".[6][7][incomplete short citation]

Anthropologists circa 1940 assumed that religion was in complete continuity with magical thinking,[a][8][dubious ] and that it is a cultural product.[b][9] The complete continuity between magic and religion has been a postulate of modern anthropology at least since early 1930s.[c][11] The perspective of modern anthropology towards religion is the projection idea, a methodological approach which assumes that every religion is created by the human community that worships it, that "creative activity ascribed to God is projected from man".[12] In 1841, Ludwig Feuerbach was the first to employ this concept as the basis for a systematic critique of religion.[13] A prominent precursor in the formulation of this projection principle was Giambattista Vico[14] (1668-1744), and an early formulation of it appears in the ancient Greek writer Xenophanes c. 570 – c. 475 BCE), who observed that "the gods of Ethiopians were inevitably black with flat noses while those of the Thracians were blond with blue eyes."[15]

Definition of religion[edit]

One major problem in the anthropology of religion is the definition of religion itself.[16] At one time[vague] anthropologists believed that certain religious practices and beliefs were more or less universal to all cultures at some point in their development, such as a belief in spirits or ghosts, the use of magic as a means of controlling the supernatural, the use of divination as a means of discovering occult knowledge, and the performance of rituals such as prayer and sacrifice as a means of influencing the outcome of various events through a supernatural agency, sometimes taking the form of shamanism or ancestor worship.[citation needed] According to Clifford Geertz, religion is

(1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic."[17]

Today, religious anthropologists debate, and reject, the cross-cultural validity of these categories (often viewing them as examples of European primitivism).[citation needed] Anthropologists have considered various criteria for defining religion – such as a belief in the supernatural or the reliance on ritual – but few claim that these criteria are universally valid.[16]

Anthony F. C. Wallace proposes four categories of religion, each subsequent category subsuming the previous. These are, however, synthetic categories and do not necessarily encompass all religions.[18]

  1. Individualistic: most basic; simplest. Example: vision quest.
  2. Shamanistic: part-time religious practitioner, uses religion to heal, to divine, usually on the behalf of a client. The Tillamook have four categories of shaman. Examples of shamans: spiritualists, faith healers, palm readers. Religious authority acquired through one's own means.
  3. Communal: elaborate set of beliefs and practices; group of people arranged in clans by lineage, age group, or some religious societies; people take on roles based on knowledge, and ancestral worship.
  4. Ecclesiastical: dominant in agricultural societies and states; are centrally organized and hierarchical in structure, paralleling the organization of states. Typically deprecates competing individualistic and shamanistic cults.

Specific religious practices and beliefs[edit]

  • Apotheosis – Glorification of a subject to divine level
  • Apotropaic magic – Magic intended to turn away harm or evil influences
  • Amulet – Object worn in the belief that it will magically protect the wearer
  • Animism – Religious belief that objects, places, and creatures all possess a distinct spiritual essence
  • Circumcision – Removal of the human foreskin
  • Cult (religious practice) – Devotion to a deity, person or thing
  • Deity – Supernatural being
  • Demon – Evil supernatural being
  • Divination – Attempt to gain insight into a question or situation
  • Esotericism – Range of related ideas and movements that have developed in the Western world
  • Exorcism – Evicting spiritual entities from a person or area
  • Evil – Opposite or absence of good
  • Fertility rite – Religious ritual intended to stimulate reproduction
  • Fetishism – Human attribution of special powers or value to an object
  • Genius (mythology) – Divine nature in ancient Roman religion
  • God – Principal object of faith in monotheism
  • Ghost – Supernatural being originating in folklore
  • Greco-Roman mysteries – Religious schools of the Greco-Roman world
  • Heresy – Belief or theory that is strongly at variance with established belief or customs
  • Icon – Religious work of art in Eastern Christianity
  • Immortality – Eternal life
  • Intercession – Praying to a deity or to a saint in heaven on behalf of oneself or others
  • Kachina – Spirit being in western Pueblo religious beliefs
  • Magic and religion
  • Mana (Oceanian mythology) – Life force energy, power, effectiveness, and prestige in Pacific Island culture
  • Mask – Any full or partial face covering, whether ceremonial, protective, decorative, or used as disguise
  • Miracle – Event not explicable by natural or scientific laws
  • Medicine – Diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of illness
  • Modern paganism – Religions shaped by historical paganism
  • Monotheism – Belief that there is only one god
  • Mother goddess – Goddess who represents, or is a personification of nature, motherhood, fertility, creation
  • Mythology – Type of traditional narrative
  • Necromancy – Magic involving communication with the deceased
  • New Age – Range of new religious beliefs and practices
  • Occult – Knowledge of the hidden or the paranormal
  • Omen – Portent, harbinger
  • Poles in mythology – Stake or post used in ritual practice
  • Polytheism – Worship of or belief in multiple deities
  • Prayer – Invocation or act that seeks to activate a rapport with a deity
  • Principle of contagion
  • Prophecy – Message claimed to be from a deity
  • Reincarnation – Concept of rebirth in different physical form
  • Religious ecstasy – Altered state of consciousness
  • Ritual – Activities performed according to a set sequence
  • Sacred food as offering – Concept within anthropology
  • Sacrifice – Offering of material possessions or the lives of animals or humans to a deity
  • Science and religion
  • Shamanism – Religious practice
  • Spell (paranormal) – Formula intended to trigger a magical effect
  • Supernatural – Supposed phenomena not subject to the laws of nature
  • Supplication – Form of prayer, wherein one party humbly or earnestly asks another party to provide something
  • Sympathetic magic – Type of magic based on imitation or correspondence
  • Theism – belief in the existence of at least one deity; the opposite of atheism
  • Totemism – Emblem of a group of people
  • Veneration of the dead – Cultural or religious practice
  • Western esotericism – Range of related ideas and movements that have developed in the Western world

See also[edit]


  1. ^ In 1944, Ernst Cassirer wrote:

    It seems to be one of the postulates of modern anthropology that there is complete continuity between magic and religion. [note 35: See, for instance, RR Marett, Faith, Hope, and Charity in Primitive Religion, the Gifford Lectures (Macmillan, 1932), Lecture II, pp. 21 ff.] ... We have no empirical evidence at all that there ever was an age of magic that has been followed and superseded by an age of religion.[8]

  2. ^ T. M. Manickam wrote:

    Religious anthropology suggests that every religion is a product of the cultural evolution, more or less coherent, of one race or people; and this cultural product is further enriched by its interaction and cross-fertilization with other peoples and their cultures, in whose vicinity the former originated and evolved.[9]

  3. ^ R. R. Marett wrote:

    In conclusion, a word must be said on a rather trite subject. Many leading anthropologists, including the author of The Golden Bough, would wholly or in the main refuse the title of religion to these almost inarticulate ceremonies of very humble folk. I am afraid, however, that I cannot follow them. Nay, I would not leave out a whole continent from a survey of the religions of mankind in order to humour the most distinguished of my friends. Now clearly if these observances are not to be regarded as religious, like a wedding in church, so neither can they be classed as civil, like its drab equivalent at a registry office. They are mysteries, and are therefore at least generically akin to religion. Moreover, they are held in the highest public esteem as of infinite worth whether in themselves or for their effects. To label them, then, with the opprobrious name of magic as if they were on a par with the mummeries that enable certain knaves to batten on the nerves of fools is quite unscientific; for it mixes up two things which the student of human culture must keep rigidly apart, namely, a normal development of the social life and one of its morbid by-products. Hence for me they belong to religion, but of course to rudimentary religion—to an early phase of the same world-wide institution that we know by that name among ourselves. I am bound to postulate the strictest continuity between these stages of what I have here undertaken to interpret as a natural growth.[10]


  1. ^ Adams 2017; Eller 2007, p. 2.
  2. ^ Walbridge 1998.
  3. ^ Eller 2007, p. 22; Weber 2002.
  4. ^ Eller 2007, p. 4.
  5. ^ Durkheim 1912; Bowie 1999, pp. 15, 143.
  6. ^ Nelson 1990.
  7. ^ Durkheim, p.266 in the 1963 edition
  8. ^ a b Cassirer 2006, pp. 122–123.
  9. ^ a b Manickam 1977, p. 6.
  10. ^ Marett 1932.
  11. ^ Cassirer 2006, pp. 122–123; Marett 1932.
  12. ^ Guthrie 2000, pp. 225–226; Harvey 1996, p. 67; Pandian 1997.
  13. ^ Feuerbach 1841; Harvey 1995, p. 4; Mackey 2000; Nelson 1990.
  14. ^ Cotrupi 2000, p. 21; Harvey 1995, p. 4.
  15. ^ Harvey 1995, p. 4.
  16. ^ a b Eller 2007, p. 7.
  17. ^ Geertz 1966, p. 4.
  18. ^ Rathman, Jessica. "Anthony Francis Clarke Wallace". Archived from the original on 27 September 2003. Retrieved 22 November 2017.


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