Anthropology of Religion

This article traces the history of the anthropology of religion from the 19th century to the present day. A focus on issues such as rationality and ritual was held to be central to the emergence of the discipline. These themes, along with themes such as witchcraft, beliefs, language, and the body, have remained of perennial interest. More recently, focus has also been placed on the anthropologies of world religions such as Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism; in religion in relation to globalization and the diaspora; and in cognitive approaches to the functioning of the human mind.

Emergence of the anthropology of religion

The comparative study of religion formed a central building block of anthropology as the discipline emerged in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In light of evolutionary models of human development, religious practice was perceived as providing a powerful index of the mental and moral levels of the so-called primitive peoples. James Frazer’s Golden Branch, first published in 1890, traced magical and religious threads throughout history and weaves into a pattern that represents humanity’s past and future progress, claiming to discern changes from magical manipulation to religious devotion and then ultimately in the sense of purely scientific ways of participating in the world. De Frazer’s work was also a juxtaposition that reemerged, albeit in a very different way,

The use of religion as a key site for examining human rationality permeates EE Evans-Pritchard witchcraft, oracles, and magic among the Azande (1937). In contrast to Frazer’s evolutionary hypothesis and confidence in scattered examples from around the world, Evans-Pritchard focuses on a single case study from Africa, showing the interrelationships between religious, social and political aspects of Azande life. The book assesses the logic and consistency of Azande’s ways of thinking and indicates how it could translate into the understanding of a Western audience. Evans-Pritchard’s implicit interlocutor was the French ethnologist and philosopher, Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, who had highlighted what he saw as the ‘primitive’ mind’s inability to distinguish the supernatural from reality. In refuting Lévy-Bruhl’s view,

A more fundamental strand in the anthropological study of religion has been the investigation of the relationship between religion and the social order. In this work, Durkheimians inheritance discipline has come to the fore, in particular the view of ritual as an expression and promoter of social unity, along with the more general hypothesis that religious ideas provide the key socially shared categories of understanding. Reflecting on the history of the anthropology of religion, Michael Lambek (2002: p. 4) characterizes contemporary research as drawing on a number of early sources: Franz Boas’s tracing of the connections between religion and language; Émile Durkheim’s emphasis on the importance of the social; Marx pointing out forms of alienation, mystification and power;

Definitions of the anthropology of religion

Attempts to produce a universal and sustainable definition of religion have led to much debate. Not all scholars believe that a definition is possible. Saler (2000: p. Ix) states that “religion is a popular western category that contemporary western scholars have appropriated.” A similarly skeptical view is maintained by Maurice Bloch, who points out (2010: p. 4): “’Religion’ is a word that can only refer to a series of historically created situations that, although continually changing, have unique and specific linked to the Abrahamic religions. In other words religion is not a natural class, I mean a category that has a basis that is not given by an arbitrary definition. “

The earliest influential attempt at a definition was provided by British ethnologist Edward Tylor, he himself was born into a Quaker family. In primitive culture, published in1871, Tylor summarizes religion as “belief in spiritual things.” Its characterization is laconic compared to Durkheim’s statement in his book The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, published in 1912, that a religion can be seen as “a unified set of beliefs and practices in relation to sacred things, that is, set of separate and forbidden things – beliefs and practices that unite [in] a single moral community called the Church, who adhere to them “(Durkheim, 1912: p. 44). Here we see some characteristic Durkheimian juxtapositions, such as the Holy and the importance and belief balanced by practice; but also the affirmation that religion must be considered linked to a social formation, a ‘church’. This definition of religion as a type of study object, therefore, also points to a specific method of study: the focus is on what is physically appreciated and avoids the truth or otherwise value of any religion.

Durkheim’s representation of the social order turned out to be highly influential for the British anthropologist Alfred Radcliffe-Brown, who in the middle years of the century based these ideas on the development of the notion of ‘structural-functionalism’ – a vision of society as Composed of and stabilized by interlocking and complementary components, including religious institutions. The emphasis on observable reality also informed Bronislaw Malinowski’s stress not on the evolution of religion, but on the importance of fieldwork in discerning contemporary psychological and social logic of ritual and magic. At the same time, a Durkheimian approach still raised questions as to (1) the value of assuming that the rigid distinction between sacred and profane existed cross-culturally,

In the 1970s, American anthropologist Clifford Geertz combined a Durkheimian understanding of religion as a collective social act with a more Weberian emphasis on meaning and experience. For Geertz (1973: p. 4), religion was “(1) a symbol system that acts (2) to establish powerful, penetrating and lasting mood and motivations in men [sic] by 3 formulating conceptions of an order General existence and (4) clothe these concepts with such an aura of facticity that (5) the moods and motivations seem exceptionally realistic. ”Humanist’s anthropology, Geertz’s ‘interpretive’ created intellectual distance from figures like Claude Lévi-Strauss, whose French focused ‘structuralism’ of very broad cultural significance divorced from the actions and interpretations of particular people.

A later period of anthropology would be to express concerns about cross-cultural validity, but also the intellectual and cultural politics of the very act of making definitions. The best known contributor to such a debate has been Talal Asad (1993). Brought up in Pakistan, Asad spent some time working with Evans-Pritchard at Oxford before finally moving to the United States. Influenced by Michel Foucault and Edward Said, he is well aware of the power relations involved in the representation of religion and focuses on the need for ‘genealogy’ tracking of both religious and secular, Western and non-Western ways of seeing the world. For Asad, Geertz (1973: p. 29) definition encounters problems in its attempt to capture a panhuman phenomenon divorced from certain cultural, social and political contexts. In his opinion, the very act of definition should be considered as the historical product of discursive processes, ideologically charged. Similarly, the notion of religion as an autonomous activity is seen as the emergence of a unique, western history, subsequent reform.

What, then, could be the solution to these dilemmas? Bloch (2010) becomes ritual, instead of religion in the articulation of their comparative approach, arguing that the former can be found in all types of society and is a specific type of change in the way human beings generally communicate . Saler (2000: p. X) takes a more pragmatic approach, relying in part on Wittgenstein’s discussions of ‘family resemblances’ to argue that different instances of what is called religion need not all share a specific feature or set of characteristics, but which have certain overlapping similarities. Then take another pragmatic, inductive approach, taking the anthropology of religion to really be studious,

Enduring Topics in Anthropology of Religion

The following summarize some of the most prominent themes in the anthropology of religion that have remained topics of interest throughout the history of the discipline.


Asad’s skepticisms to the utility of belief as an analytic therm are not unique. Malcolm Ruel points to “the monumental peculiarity” (1982: p. 100) and the historical instability of Christian notions of belief. Notice that the original Greek verb pisteuo and the Hebrew root mn express ideas of trust or confidence in an agreement, indicating a fundamentally social orientation. The Noun pistis then takes on a special touch in the New Testament apostolic writings, where it is often used in the sense of conversion, denoting the ‘belief’ held collectively by the early Christians as a common conviction in the resurrection of Jesus. Subsequently, the Protestant Reformation was based on a tension in the interior totality of Christian belief. Nevertheless,

Similar concerns are taken up by Rodney Needham in belief, language, and experience (1972). Needham describes the problems by examining the “I believe in God” statement with one of his Indonesian informants, who belongs to an ethnic group called Lo Penan. As Needham says the problem: “Penan had no formal creed and… they had no other conventional means of expressing belief in their God. However, I had become used to saying … that they believed in a Supreme God … However, it suddenly seemed that I had no linguistic evidence for this effect “(Needham, 1972: pp. 1, 2). One of the themes Needham touches is crucial to much comparative ethnography: Whereas Western Christianity is based on the possibility of choosing outside of religious institutions or actually denying belief,

What, however, of contexts where informants maintain a strong and conscious sense of ‘belief’? Joel Robbins (2004, 2007) examines the conversion to Pentecostal Christianity of the Urapmin of Papua New Guinea and shows how the evident Christian assimilation of categories can hide a more complex relationship to the belief that perhaps appears in the former. The word ‘bilip’ pigeon is widely used by Urapmin, but it means something specific. For the Urapmin, Christian faith is not mentally necessary to a set of propositions about divinity, but rather a way of trusting God to do what he promised.


Anthropologists have often emphasized the importance of keeping in mind that ritual activity was incorporated. Alexander Henn (2008) points out that while Émile Durkheim stresses the need to explore functional aspects of ritual in the construction of human sociality and institutions, Clifford Geertz encouraged scholars to interpret rituals as similar to texts that could be ‘read’ by informants and analysts and Victor Turner ritual theory as a dialectical process, between structure and structure, secular and sacred. These approaches are characterized by Henn as “normative”, “intelligible” and “dialectical”, respectively (Alexander Henn, 2008: p. 11). They share a tendency to emphasize the capacity to generate feelings of security and continuity of the ritual. Roy Rappaport has also produced an influential discussion of ritual that sees it primarily as “the interpretation of more or less invariable sequences of formal acts” (1999: p. 24). However, questions remain about how informants’ interpretations relate to those of the analyst, including debates about how intentionality is related to ritual.

Many analysts are still influenced by the work of a Durkheim contemporary, Arnold Van Gennep. Van Gennep argued that ritual has a particular meaning during critical transitional periods in the life cycle, such as the attainment of adulthood, marriage, and death. In his opinion, he helps the participant change his role while also publicly announcing a change. Furthermore, these rites follow a surprisingly standard pattern across cultures, with separation of the person from everyday society followed by transition and then incorporation into the social group, now having a changing social status. Turner finds particular inspiration when considering the ‘liminal’ threshold-as part of rites of passage, arguing that they represent reversals of daily structure and draw on powerful ritual symbolism, such as that of death, to symbolize the end of the old state. He points out that in Zambia’s Ndembu initiation rites, circumcision of boys becomes a metaphor for killing, as it destroys the childhood state of the initiate (Turner, 1967).

Bloch (1992) is also interested in symbolic and literal violence in many rites of passage, but widely applies a Marxist framework of interpretation, highlighting the coercive powers of ritual. He agrees with Van Gennep on the existence of an underlying ritual ritual grammar across cultures and suggests that an irreducible core of the ritual process invokes a violent conquest of the current world by the transcendental, divine Kingdom. Rites of separation and rites of incorporation erase the initiate’s original vitality; but what Bloch calls violence rebounds from transcendental conquest is contained in the return to everyday life, as the person transforms from being prey to being a hunter – in a state where the powerful transcendent element inherited from the ritual dominates the identity of the person. For example, in the Orokaiva ritual involving the initiation of children in Papua New Guinea, participants are told they are dead and then taught to play sacred flutes and bullroarers representing the voices of the spirits. After a time of seclusion, they return to the village, shouting “bite, bite, bite.” They are now transformed beings.

This analysis highlights the political implications of ritual experience in the service of order and hierarchy. More recently, in a number of influential books on the Tshidi of South Africa, Jean Comaroff and John Comaroff (1985) have analyzed ritual involving complex forms of resistance quite as much as presentation. Examining the interactions between ‘traditional’ and Christian missionary beliefs and practices in colonial and postcolonial contexts, showing how the Zionist churches have provided Tshidi with forms of identity, realized in part through new Christian expressions, which have enabled them adapt or subvert the structures of colonial and capitalist authority.

Los antropólogos han trabajado más y más en contextos urbanos y occidentales, a menudo asociados con deritualization y secularización y con disminución de la necesidad de ritos de paso común definir adhesión a roles sociales. Sin embargo, la transformación y pluralización de formas rituales no significa necesariamente que están desapareciendo. Vista de ‘posmoderna’ (1988) de Tomas Gerholm de un ritual funerario hindú de Trinidad examina fragmentación del sentido y la diversidad de la experiencia. Su obra describe ritualizada del homenaje por el escritor V.S. Naipaul a su hermana fallecida – una respuesta improvisada que ocurre miles de millas lejos del funeral oficial en el país del escritor de origen y aún todavía capaz de transportar el significado. Si Gerholm sugiere que es a menudo difícil de localizar el núcleo de prácticas rituales en contextos postmodernos, enfoque altamente influyente de Catherine Bell en teoría del Ritual, la práctica Ritual (1992) desplaza el foco a ver el ritual como una actividad autónoma, y en su lugar propone una noción de la ‘ritualización’ que lleva a enlaces cuenta con actividades estratégicas en la vida social en general.


Frazer’s radical move in the golden branch was ultimately to juxtapose Christianity with science and the incompatibility of the former with the latter. More recent work has taken the opposite step of proposing that Western science has significant parallels with ‘traditional’ religious thought. Robin Horton’s (1970) African Traditional Western Thought and Science argues that African religions link causes and effects in much the same way as scientific practices. Religion in this sense can be seen as the implementation of spirits as explanatory principles as much as a scientist can use atoms or molecules. Horton’s assumption is that religion is fundamentally about explanation, a position called “intellectualists” towards religion that places him in the genealogy of Tylor and Frazer. The dominant contrast here is called Symbolist approaches, that a Durkheimian inheritance to accentuate how religion, and in particular ritual, should above all be interpreted as composed of representations of the social order.

Despite these differences of opinion, the basic consensus among anthropologists is that human capacities to think are universally the same as those in the world. Another book published in the 1960s, Lévi-Strauss La Pensée Sauvage (1966: ‘The Mind of the Savage’), denies that non-Western mental capacities are inherently inferior to those of Western readers, although attitudes toward abstract thinking may to differ.

The body

Durkheim and Radcliffe-Brown’s functionalist approaches were based on a model of society as equivalent to a body, composed of interrelated and mutually dependent parts. Other authors in the Durkheimian school provide significant insights into the physical functioning and symbolism of the body. Marcel Mauss, Durkheim’s nephew, developed the notion of ‘habitus’, the idea that certain elements of culture (habits, tastes, abilities) become rooted in the body over time. Within Anglo-Saxon anthropological circles, Mary Douglas’s combination of British empiricism and French structuralism led to a highly influential work on the role of the body as a social and religious symbol. In purity and danger (1966), Douglas (an Evans-Pritchard alumnus at Oxford and like him a Roman Catholic) explores Western as in non-Western contexts. In view of their bodies, like societies, they can be considered limited systems, the integrity and limits of which often need to be protected. However, what is considered pure and impure varies cross-culturally and reflects the social experience of the social group involved. Thus in Hindu society, untouchable high-caste and low-caste Brahmins are often interdependent in economic and social terms, but languages ​​of purity and contamination regulate their behavior towards others in very specific ways – for example, through the prevention of the them to share food. A further implication of this argument is that symbols or actions that challenge categories or bridge them can be seen as powerful and under certain circumstances, even sacred, rather than polluting. Here we see parallels with the powerful central section of the rite of passage, where initiates pass ‘between’ States.

Douglas has little to say about the actual physical experiences of having a body that has senses and moves through the world. A prominent figure in the movement toward a more phenomenological view of the body has been the American anthropologist Thomas Csordas (1997), in his studies of healing, language use, and spatial orientation among Catholic charismatics in America. Csordas presents a sense of the body as ‘self’ and ‘not to be’, both subject and object, but the very ground of the human experience of culture. Important work has also been done on the relationship between gender experience and religious commitment (eg Austin-Broos, 1997).


Language a lot of religious activity media, ranging from spells prayers to texts. Some religious language seems not only to describe reality, but also to have ‘performative’ dimensions, in other words to create material or social change through being articulated by authority figures. An early work by Bloch (1974) explores his interests in the relationship between ritual and authority, arguing that the Religious Oratory of the Merino race of Madagascar is expressed in language that is so formalized that it is always difficult to argue against : we could compare it with a Latin mass, for example, or with the inauguration speech of a president.

Some of the broader themes related to religious language are explored by Keane (1997). For him, it is a fundamental question: What happens, if anything, is particular to religious language? He suggests that this language may pose a certain type of problem: the effort to know and interact with an ‘other’ world tends to demand very marked uses of linguistic resources. In religious contexts the sources of words, as well as the identity, agency, authority, and presence of humans as nonhumans participating in an interaction, can be especially problematic.


Witchcraft has proven to be a resonant theme in part because many of the themes evident in other areas of the subfield it invokes. The witch represents an ‘impure’ challenge to social order as well as physical well-being and incorporates some of the fundamental concerns of a given society. Evans-Pritchard’s classic study of the Azande retains much of its power because its argument is rooted in the analysis of both social relations and modes of thought. We continue Azande investigating why misfortune seems to hit certain people at certain times, while the allegations are linked to tensions in peer relationships. Later works on witchcraft in the 1940s often examine in the context of change in social relationships and periods of common stress.

Later work has examined the question of rationality and witchcraft in very different social conditions. Tanya Luhrmann’s Trends in Witch Art (1991) examines the role of witchcraft – or Wicca – among middle-class Londoners in light of the theories of the sociology of knowledge as well as conversion. Luhrmann tracks the gradual emergence of commitment to magical ideas among professionals who have easy access to alternative modes of thinking and who can implement very different systems of rationality in their working lives.

Some of the more recent works on witchcraft and broader notions of evil and the occult link these again with forms of increased displacement anxiety and social security, politics and economic situation. Meyer (1999) analyzes the notions of evil in the context of the emergence of local Christianity and its relation to changes in the social, political and economic formations among the Peki sheep in Ghana. His main argument is that, for the sheep, the devil forms a hybrid figure, expressing people’s obsessions with hidden forces as a way to mediate interest and unease in the culture of modernity. Post-colonial writing in South Africa but also highlighting resonances with other post-revolutionary societies, Jean Comaroff and John Comaroff (1999) explore occasions when enormous wealth seems to be concentrated in the hands of a few citizens, so the market seems to contain mysterious mechanisms of accumulation and distribution. In such contexts, they argue, marginalized people imagine new, extreme magical means to reach another unattainable form, while being wary of those who appear to be enriched through the illegitimate implementation of the forces of production and reproduction.

Latest Topics in Anthropology of Religion

Despite predictions by theorists of secularization that it would weaken the importance of religion in the world alongside modernization, religion has even preserved and increased its profile in many public and private contexts. To some extent anthropologists have turned their attention to secularism as a particular category, historically constructed. The study of religion has generated new themes and methods, as well as more established buildings.

Anthropologies of religions ‘World’

Aunque la mayoría antropólogos sienten intranquilos con la idea de que las religiones del mundo llamado como el cristianismo, el Islam, el judaísmo, el budismo y el hinduismo pueden considerarse como sistemas autónomos, ha sido un movimiento en las últimas décadas a los investigadores a identificar sí mismos como etnógrafos de una religión particular. Este desarrollo es el resultado de una serie de factores: el cambio de trabajo hacia más contextos urbanos, plurales, donde está ocurriendo la identificación religiosa autoconsciente; creciente interés en los últimos encuentros entre las misiones occidentales y los pueblos colonizados; un nuevo enfoque en las afinidades de las formas religiosas diferentes a la ‘modernidad’; el éxito relativo del Islam y del cristianismo como fuerzas misioneras; y la identificación consciente de muchos informantes con las religiones que tienen transnacionales, incluyendo diaspórica, referentes.

A major theme in the anthropology of Islam that has emerged recently relates to the emergence of ‘Muslim Publics’ who have been energized by migration, challenges to Western hegemony, and access to new media technologies. Eickelman and Anderson (1999: p. 1) refer to the emergence of a new sense of the public throughout Muslim-majority states, as well as Muslim communities elsewhere. They propose the existence of a Muslim who is clearly a public sphere located at the intersections of religious, political and social life, control of the formal state that is not functioning. The role of this sphere in the emergence of the Arab Spring since the end of 2010 remains to be analyzed. Hirschkind (2006) focuses on the role of the cassette sermon in promoting the Islamic revival. His argument that listening to sermon links to ethical self-improvement bridges another important topic in the analysis of Islam: the cultivation of piety. Mahmood’s Policy of Piety (2005) focuses on a women’s movement in Cairo’s mosques. While members cultivate built-in practices of personal piety that seem to present the patriarchal logic of certain forms of Islam, Mahmood indicates how informants are motivated by dissatisfaction with secularization and westernization. At the same time, her analysis criticizes secular liberal assumptions about the universality of aspects of feminist theory. Mahmood’s Policy of Piety (2005) focuses on a women’s movement in Cairo’s mosques. While members cultivate built-in practices of personal piety that seem to present the patriarchal logic of certain forms of Islam, Mahmood indicates how informants are motivated by dissatisfaction with secularization and westernization. At the same time, her analysis criticizes secular liberal assumptions about the universality of aspects of feminist theory. Mahmood’s Policy of Piety (2005) focuses on a women’s movement in Cairo’s mosques. While members cultivate built-in practices of personal piety that seem to present the patriarchal logic of certain forms of Islam, Mahmood indicates how informants are motivated by dissatisfaction with secularization and westernization. At the same time, her analysis criticizes secular liberal assumptions about the universality of aspects of feminist theory.

Anthropologists have studied examples of Christian worship since the discipline’s inception, but it has received less attention than other religious expressions. One of the reasons may be ironic that Christianity is too close to the culture of Western anthropologists, and so it was avoided or perhaps simply not noted as a valid subject of study. More recently, the emergence of Christianity as an explicit object of study has contributed to and resonated with many current concerns of anthropology, including globalization, reflexivity, and postcolonialism. A particularly fertile line of research has been a focus on materiality and its relationship with the notions of transcendence and modernity (Keane, 2007).

Globalization and diaspora

Some of the most effective work in this area has been seen in previous colonization processes, where religion has formed part of the tangled encounter between colonizers and colonized, ‘modernity’ and ‘tradition’ (Van der Veer, 1996). More recently, religious communities have taken advantage of, and helped shape, the globalization of culture. The years after World War II have seen the revival of evangelical forms of Christianity in many parts of the world. Although the term “diaspora” has in the past been most often used to describe the dispersal of the Jewish population from the land of Israel, in the past two decades in particular it has been taken to refer to the creation of large communities in South Asia in Europe and North American contexts (Vertovec, 2000),

Globalization and migration processes, combined with tourism, have ensured that pilgrimage has become an increasingly visible dimension of religious activity in all religions and also that it has attracted more anthropological attention. Victor and Edith Turner’s work, image and pilgrimage in Christian Culture (1978), which implements a rite of passage model to emphasize the idea that sacred altars should be considered as liminal spaces, has been questioned by Eade and de Sallnow’s argument (1991) that such sanctuaries are in fact deeply entangled in everyday political and economic processes. Coleman and Eade (2004) place anthropological studies of the pilgrimage in the broader framework of analyzing physical and metaphorical aspects of the movement.

Cognitive approaches

In recent years, research on religion as a means of understanding human thought has received a surprising new impetus within cognitive approaches to the field. This work has combined the results of evolutionary and cognitive psychology with those of anthropology. In contrast to the work of anthropologists who emphasize the historical contingency of a given definition of religion, researchers in this subfield have argued that there is a biological basis for religious activity. An important chain has also been called experience-centered as counterintuitive or surprising and time-transmitted (eg, Boyer, 2001).

Salazar (2010) discerns two main orientations among cognitive researchers. The adaptationist argument asserts that no human society can survive without language or religion, and therefore there must be a language instinct and a religious instinct. The alternative approach should be seen more as a by-product of the evolution of religion. For example, the putative theory of mind mechanism can be seen as a cognitive tool that enables humans to interpret the movements of a living organism in terms of its inferred intentions: such a construal of what is happening in other people’s brains it is clearly an adaptive ability. As a result of this ability, humans are also likely to see intention at events,


Both in the past and present, the ethnographic study of religion has contributed to numerous major analytical concerns, from classical approaches to rationality, symbolism, and the social order to the most recent studies of transnationalism, materiality, and cultural and evolutionary change. The study of religion remains in a vibrant state, as scholars still struggle with questions of whether and how religion can be viewed as an autonomous area of ​​activity in its own right.

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