Anthropology, Ethnology, and Religion
ANTHROPOLOGY, ETHNOLOGY, AND RELIGION
ANTHROPOLOGY, ETHNOLOGY, AND RELIGION . In his classic discussion of "the sick soul" in The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), William James observes that "philosophic theism has always shown a tendency to become pantheistic and monistic, and to consider the world as one unit of absolute fact." In contrast, popular or practical theism has "ever been more or less frankly pluralistic, not to say polytheistic, and shown itself perfectly well satisfied with a universe composed of many original principles." While James ultimately deems the divine principle supreme and the rest subordinate, his immediate sympathies lie with less absolute "practicalities," and he situates analyses of religious experience within the felt tension between theistic monism and the pluralism of actual populations. In many respects the anthropological study of religion has sustained and enlarged upon these sympathies.
Anthropology's traditional concentration on nonliterate societies has shaped its approach to religious practice and belief in general. But ethnological theory has seldom been confined to so-called primitive peoples, tribal groups, or even "marginalized" peoples discredited by a dominant religious establishment. Ethnographers have long addressed religious contexts evolved from what Karl Jaspers called "the Axial Age," marked by world-rejecting beliefs in either a transcendental realm or an abstractly negative realm distinct from the worldly or mundane. Anthropologists encounter the entire range of religious values in ideal and implementation at every scale of society and state and all manner of sect, renunciation, and commodification. Still, when addressing cultural circumstances of world religions, anthropologists often emphasize practitioners' more immediate experience—from spirit cults to ancestor worship to everyday cure and money-mediated expenditure. Such transmundane concerns can qualify those transcendental doctrines or ethical canons (paramount for historians of religion) professed by priests, monks, scribes, and kindred specialists.
The contemporary anthropology of religion stems from diverse theoretical persuasions: Émile Durkheim's view of religious "social facts," which brackets issues of truth versus error; Max Weber's ideal types of sweeping processes behind religious, economic, and bureaucratic reformisms; Marxist and Freudian explorations of ideological and expressive behavior. The task of retranslating works by such seminal figures keeps them salient today. For example, Stephen Kalberg's 2002 translation of Weber's Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904–1905) foregrounds its comparative rhetorical power, and Durkheim's Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912) finds renewed life in Karen Field's spirited rendition (1995); her introduction illuminates how Australian evidence pushed Durkheim's writing toward reflexive interpretations. Steven Lukes's biography of Durkheim (1973) also evokes his dramatic nondogmatism when addressing the Union des Libres Penseurs et de Libres Croyants in 1914: Durkheim urged each party (believers and freethinkers) heuristically to exchange ideals—to act in "organic solidarity" as totemic moieties each to each. Durkheim's impromptu and charismatic speech on this occasion produced effervescent outbursts of applause among customarily staid listeners. Lukes calls this episode "the nearest Durkheim ever came to [Weber's] principle of Verstehen " (p. 515).
What Talal Asad (1993), following Michel Foucault, has called the "genealogies of religion" extend to anthropological approaches to religions as well. Many anthropologists attempt phenomenological and hermeneutic interpretations of religious life and sacred symbols or semiotic analysis of communication codes; they apply complex models of social interaction, ritual speech, mythic order and transgression, cosmological archetypes, and historical forces of scapegoating, sacrifice, oppression, and revolution. Religion appears in mechanisms of socialization and in dialectical processes of change; its manifest and latent patterns underlie both consensus and transformation, both integration and subversion.
Rival definitions of religion characterize anthropological efforts. Such scholars as Melford E. Spiro retain a notion of the superhuman and rebuke Durkheim for diluting religion to whatever is ritually "set apart." Others, such as Clifford Geertz, deflect issues of superhuman, supernatural, or holy content, defining religion generally as a set of powerful symbols conjoined to rhetorics of persuasion that are uniquely realistic to adherents and apparent in their moods, motivation, and conceptions. Some working definitions support Mircea Eliade's sense of a distinctive homo religiosus; others pose religion as a basically compensatory reaction to mundane deprivation, suffering, or violence. Regardless, anthropologists explore sacred values across domains of illness and cure, aesthetics, law, politics, economy, philosophy, sexuality, ethics, warfare, play, sport, and the many kinds of classifications and performances that both organize and challenge cultural systems of knowledge and affect.
Like its topics and boundaries, vexed issues in the anthropology of religion keep expanding. Is the discipline's task explanatory, requiring so-called objectivity, or is it interpretive, inviting multiple, nonaligned empathies? Is one's goal to bundle religious usages into tidy symptoms of basic human drives, or is it to unravel, even transvalue, such usages through informed readings of cultural and historical contexts, ritual activity and speech, priestly texts, and contested commentaries generated in the name of religio? Does evidence of religious activity reduce to neuroscientific bases, or does conveying religious experience enact a reflexivity that keeps trumping its own grasp? And are such alternatives necessarily mutually exclusive?
Even scholars committed to nonpartisan research may question whether comparison can ever be neutral; critical inquiry has intensified into dilemmas of "value-freedom" versus Verstehen in the Weberian sense. Any approach to religion may necessarily entail preconceptions that qualify, under certain definitions, as themselves religious (one kind of reflexivity). On the more practical side, research on active religions is often declared off-limits, either by adherents of those religions or by agents of the governments seeking to control them. For these and other reasons, the discipline's findings and the discipline itself remain controversial. Difficult obstacles and opportunities pervade comparative studies of religions, including "secularism" (Asad, 2003); refusals of so-called religion may demonstrate qualities that some scholars (e.g., Durkheim) might call "religious," rather in the manner of renunciation.
One introductory work informed by a coherent view of religion is James L. Peacock and A. Thomas Kirsch's textbook The Human Direction (1980), which employs Robert N. Bellah's Parsonian framework of evolving roles in religious and political differentiations. Another is John Bowen's Religions in Practice (2002), which uses Pierre Bourdieu's notions of extrastructural, nonformal norms; religions are crossings of cultural boundaries: local, national, and transnational. Scholarly consensus in the anthropology of religions remains inevitably agonistic, a quality captured in William A. Lessa and Evon Z. Vogt's Reader in Comparative Religion (1979). That venerable volume's repeatedly updated vintage and vanguard articles have yielded to such worthy successors as Michael Lambek's Reader in the Anthropology of Religion (2002), with more emphasis on state politics, assertive "fundamentalisms" (Christian, Islamic, etc.), and diverse religious diasporas.
As the anthropology of religion proceeds, it properly intensifies its retrospection. One can better appreciate current trends by reconsidering the emergence of specialized scholarship on so-called primitive religions.
Fallacies in nineteenth-century quests for the origins of religion, taken as a distinct category of human experience, have been often noted. E. E. Evans-Pritchard's succinct Theories of Primitive Religion (1965) enumerates now-rejected studies on the stages of the religious impulse in humans, proposed in different combinations and sequences by successive evolutionist scholars. Besides monotheism we find fetishism, manism, nature-mythism, animism, totemism, dynamism, magism, polytheism, and certain psychological states (p. 104). Although certain such complexes may be real enough—one thinks particularly of shamanism—none demonstrably existed as a distinct stage in a progression either toward religious sagacity or beyond it into "mature" scientific objectivity. Efforts to correlate religious types and socioeconomic levels—for example, the shamans of flexibly structured hunter-gatherer societies versus the priests and prophets of stratified civilizations—have yielded to less monolithic schemes more attentive to evidence of coexisting religious specializations enacted as divination, prophecy, calendrical ceremonies, and many blends of magic, sorcery, and thaumaturgy. For example, contemporary research on shamanic practices by Piers Vitebsky (1995) addresses both the Sora of tribal India and the Sakha (once Yakut) of Siberia. Sora today are abandoning ritual dialogues with the dead, becoming Baptist, and going psychologistic; in contrast, post-Soviet Sakha (sitting on rich mineral deposits) are dressing long-suppressed shamanic ways in New Age merchandizing and global environmentalism. Such transformations and rekindlings of "jungle and tundra shamanism" inflect community/cosmopolitan borderlands and agitate forces of both reformism and commercialism, of both reinvented tradition and the Internet.
In 1962 Claude Lévi-Strauss published a critique of the history of abstracting "totemism," construed broadly as analogies between social divisions and categories of the natural surroundings. His was a particularly spirited critique of the vain pursuit of origins. Evans-Pritchard, again, captures the flavor of prejudicial dichotomies that often, but not inevitably, favored Europeans: "We are rational, primitive peoples [are] prelogical, living in a world of dreams and make-believe, of mystery and awe; we are capitalists, they communists; we are monogamous, they promiscuous; we are monotheists, they fetishists, animists, pre-animists or what have you, and so on" (1965, p. 105). Similar stereotypes could adorn antievolutionist arguments as well, such as Alfred Russel Wallace's Natural Selection and Tropical Nature (1891), in which Wallace's spiritist sympathies inclined him to excuse the human species from evolutionary processes: "Natural selection could only have endowed savage man with a brain a few degrees superior to that of an ape, whereas he actually possesses one very little inferior to that of a philosopher" (p. 202). Wallace thus managed to offend everyone—"savage man," the ape, the philosopher, and the evolutionists alike. His awkward rationalization nicely illustrates the invidious comparisons across types, species, and specialized roles that characterized many nineteenth-century attitudes.
The twentieth century brought vigorous responses to social Darwinism, eugenics movements, and other theories of qualitative divisions in the human species. Franz Boas and his followers in the United States, Durkheimians in France, and some diffusionists and functionalists in Britain and elsewhere exposed false evolutionist schemes of myth, magic, and religion. Scholars today continue to debunk "awe theories" that can be illustrated with A. H. Keane's article "Ethnology" in the Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics (vol. 5, 1912). Keane recapitulates notions of psycholatry, nature worship, the priority of magic, and primitive confusion between the unclean and the holy—common subjects of debate among rivalrous philologists, mythologists, and ethnologists, including F. Max Müller, Andrew Lang, W. Robertson Smith, E. B. Tylor, and James G. Frazer. Keane repeats theories of the concept of independent soul, according to which the soul extends from one's "own person" to one's fellows, then to animals, plants, and finally to the organized world, itemized rather breathlessly as follows: "Such conspicuous and lifelike objects as the raging torrent, the rolling seas, snowy peaks, frowning crests, steep rocky walls, gloomy gorges, dark woods, trees, crags, clouds, storms, lightning, tornadoes, heavenly bodies, until all nature becomes animated and everything personified and endowed with a living soul" (p. 526). Such dubious theories of religious origins and their metaphorical extensions at least reveal symbolic classifications implicit in Europeans' own views of nature and, unfortunately, of human cultures as well.
Anthropologists today are willing to assess neglected intricacies of dated works, despite their errors. Books by early professional anthropologists and the founding figures of Indology, comparative mythology, and folklore up to 1860 (surveyed in Feldman and Richardson, 1972), while riddled with false explanations, also managed to involve readers in the unfamiliar, the inexplicable, even the forbidden. Narrative strategies and discursive devices of bygone scholarship gain fresh resonance in such pathbreaking studies as Michael West's Transcendental Wordplay (2000).
In the anthropology of religion proper, even Evans-Pritchard's sometimes-dismissive historical synopses could reassess aspects of R. R. Marett and A. E. Crawley, as well as Lucien Lévy-Bruhl's controversial ideas of prelogical mentality. In the history of the anthropology of religion, the way has thus been cleared for serious rereading, rather than mere revisionism; a more anthropological attitude toward anthropology's past has emerged (Stocking, 1987). There is evident dissatisfaction with a "use and abuse" self-legitimating history; old stereotypes of disciplinary progress are now shaken, sometimes gently, sometimes violently. Less readily does the field's past divide in positivistic fashion into "before Malinowski" or "before Boas," versus "after." The sustained field research and systematic models of language and social organization established as modern anthropological standards remain definitive developments, but it is not certain that conceptual breakthroughs coordinated data-gathering. The field's history does not conform to a "maturation model," if only because anthropologists of religion—both the bookish and the fieldworking variety—do not exist in isolation from other disciplines and experiences. James G. Frazer's The Golden Bough (1890), for example, was a successor to the work of Gibbon and Ruskin as much as to that of Tylor; ideas of scapegoats and the durability of liturgy-like rites reflected Frazer's endeavors in folklore and religious and cultural history as much as in ethnology.
Less seemingly literary scholars as well—including the Bronislaw Malinowski of Magic, Science and Religion, and Other Essays (1952) and the Robert H. Lowie of the somewhat perfunctory Primitive Religion (1948)—were influenced by diverse disciplines and styles of writing. Lowie cast his last musings on Plains Indian and Pueblo religions more like Ruth Benedict's style of contrastive integration in Patterns of Culture (1934). Lowie's posthumously published essay, "Religion in Human Life" (in Murphy, 1972), expressed wariness of easy secularism in ironic tonalities perhaps redolent of Weber's "Beruf" (cited by Lowie in 1948): "One day it occurred to me that both the Indians and the hardy souls who were trying to convert them to Christianity had some inner strength that I lacked. Nor was I unique in this lack." Lowie next wonders "how many scientists would undergo for their science the years of poverty that the priests and ministers willingly accepted for their religion." His reflexive ruminations implicate the very "science" that he strives to practice: "I have known anthropologists who accorded a benevolent understanding to the Hopi but denied it to Catholics, Mormons, Buddhists or Moham-madans [sic]. This dichotomy of viewpoint strikes me as ridiculous and completely unscientific" (Murphy, 1972, pp. 160–161).
Such intricate sensibilities of complicated scholars are often neglected in standardized histories of "progress" in dominant methods. New-sounding themes may not have been so new after all; old paradigms could be discarded before they were exhausted, along with worthy figures. Durkheim's circle, for example, closed ranks to exclude scholars less committed to the "socio-logic." Durkheimians were in turn neglected after their hybrid expertise in ethnology, sociology, history, and comparative philology (particularly Sanskrit) was overshadowed by the fieldwork imperative, particularly in the United States and among British functionalists. Certain British scholars as well were consequently "marginalized."
An interesting case is R. R. Marett. His nonevolutionist entry, "Primitive Religion," in volume 23 of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1911), is nearly contemporaneous with Keane's article "Ethnology," although conventional histories often imply that scholarship advanced beyond evolutionism monolithically. The Britannica format in effect contrasted "primitive religion" (with cross-references to "Animism," "Fetishism," "Magic," "Mythology," "Prayer," "Ritual," "Sacrifice," and "Totemism") with "higher religion." Marett's discussion, however, does not broach origins; rather it catalogs categories of "the sacred," providing representative examples of what are called its "activity," "exploitation," and "results." Marett adopts a trusted anthropological convention (perhaps traceable to Latin Christendom's methodical incorporation of select practices and lexemes from pagans it aimed to convert) in which modes of the sacred are aligned with exotic counterparts. Sacred can imply "forbidden" (as in the Latin, sacer, whence the English word is derived; as well as in the Polynesian, tabu ), "mysterious" (Siouan, wakan ), "secret" (Aranda, tjurunga ), "potent" (Melanesian, mana ; Huron, orenda ), "animate" (as in the phenomenon labeled animism ), or "ancient" (Aranda, alcheringa, "the Dreaming"). This constellation of North American Indian, Oceanic, and Australian Aboriginal terms indexes, as it were, the variable universality of the sacred.
Under "results," Marett considers what were later called religion's functions, including education, government, maintenance of food supply, reinforcement of kinship and family bonds, enhanced sexuality, and integrated personalities. Marett's "exploitation" covers dimensions of ritual process and ceremonial celebration; he cites cases of acquisition, concentration, induction (including sacrifice), renovation, demission, prophylactic insulation, and "direction," suggestive of an ethos or those "moods" later signaled by Geertz. He even addresses transformative properties of religion that return secular government and aristocratic traditions to a more primitive, democratic spirit. "Everyone," notes Marett, "has his modicum of innate mana " (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1911, vol. 23, p. 67). His "abuse of the sacred" merges religion with individualized resistance; by "activity" Marett intends general motivations and meanings of the sacred: fecundity, transmissibility (parallel to Frazer's notion of contagion), and finally ambiguity and relativity, both apparently construed positively.
Marett clearly anticipates such successors as Victor Turner, who expands Arnold van Gennep's "rites of passage" to include ritual performances that consolidate structure with antistructure and coordinate themes of liminality or periodic involvement with regenerative in-between states. That the views of Marett (whose shortcomings are here de-emphasized) anticipate later theories is obscured by his casual jargon. Like Arthur M. Hocart, he retained interpretive terms borrowed from European or Indo-European religious traditions. Although Marett's "sacraments of simple folk" or Hocart's Hindu, Fiji, and Australian "sacraments" in fact approximate liminal rites for celebrating changes in office or social state, their rubrics ran counter to fashions for more technical-sounding coinages in theory and method.
These few examples illustrate a key development: illusions of a simple heritage of influence and unpoliticized progress—out of darkness into light—of an anthropology of religion are being dispelled. Interest in "primitive religion" stemmed from ideas of exoticism once pervading European conceptualizations of cultural differences that Europeans sought to subjugate. The anthropology of religion, even when centered on fieldwork results and organized by the conviction that ritual and belief have direct social consequences, has never proceeded in a simple developmental line insulated from the broad history of ideas of otherness, charged with philosophical and political implications. Errors and prejudices of past scholarship must be corrected, of course; but the cultural and historical values that sustained that work also deserve anthropological interpretation. A scholar content to denounce predecessors' denunciations of primitive superstition risks committing the very sin decried, effectively dismissing "anthropology-then" as primitive.
Thus, the anthropology of religion grows more mindful of its own involvement in the paradoxes it investigates. Consider, for example, philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein's notations (1979) on his copy of a condensed edition of Frazer's The Golden Bough : "Here, purging magic has itself the character of magic" ("Das Ausschalten der Magie hat hier den Charakter der Magie selbst"). Yet Frazer delivered his own ambivalent suggestions that primitive superstitions underlie civilization's basic tenets (of political authority, private property, and truth) as midnight lectures styled after the strange rites they disclosed. Frazer, not devoid of romantic irony (particularly in Psyche's Task, 1909), was conceivably sensitive to paradoxes that Wittgenstein would later inscribe in somewhat superior fashion in the margins of Frazer's book. Regardless, Wittgenstein's own Philosophical Investigations (1953) may imply that even purging the purging of magic (as when Wittgenstein corrects Frazer) has "the character of magic" as well. The history of scholarship may itself pulse to cyclic rhythms conjoining victims and redemption—rhythms redolent of widely distributed and recurring patterns of ritual practice.
Reassessments of Frazer's immense corpus confirm his self-awareness of such echoes and emulations. Robert Fraser's The Making of the Golden Bough (1990) argues persuasively: "For, if in Robertson Smith a ruthless evangelical honesty contrives to undermine the sanctity of the biblical text, in Frazer the idealistic premises of Humean empiricism turn in on themselves to make doubt itself an impossibility." And he concludes incisively: "To the end Frazer remained sceptical, even of his own sceptism" (p. 209). Such themes, still fertile today, reverberate back to Frazer's earliest work on Plato and on immortality as "the death of death." The late Jean Pouillon formulated a connected insight (possibly in accord with Durkheim's relational sense of sacred/profane distinctions): "C'est l'incroyant qui croit que le croyant croit" ("It is the unbeliever who believes that the believer believes") (Izard and Smith, 1982, p. 2). This kind of paradoxical (and sometimes dialectical) "doubling"—death of death, belief in unbelief—continues to infuse varieties of interpretation at the conjunctions of disciplines that concern us here.
Trends and Prospects
A review by Clifford Geertz (1968) of the anthropological study of religion remains a valuable point of departure for surveying subsequent developments. Geertz discusses psychodynamic frameworks based on Sigmund Freud, on theories of culture and personality following Clyde Kluckhohn, and on socio-psychological components of Malinowski's functionalism. One persistent issue concerns whether beliefs and rites exist to "reduce ambiguity" (a functionalist notion) or to harness it, thus generating sustained worlds of semantic, emotive, and intellectual values. The latter view is held by diverse scholars disenchanted with functionalist assumptions that religion bolsters "society"—equated with a machinelike or an organism-like system of reinforcements that vent pressure built up by anything dysfunctional or indigestible, like so much steam or gas.
Some studies pursue possibilities of universal patterns linking ritual and neurosis (anticipating today's interest in neuroscience). Others seek less to discover whether all peoples harbor, say, an Oedipal complex than whether certain rituals serve purposes analogous to Western psychotherapies. Sudhir Kakar (1982), for example, has compared Muslim and Hindu curative, shamanic, and Tantric techniques to psychotherapeutic devices—demonological constructions resemble Freudian idioms—but India, he stipulates, does not share the West's tradition of introspection. Contextual investigations of parallels between Western and Asian psychodynamics include works by Gananath Obeyesekere and Bruce Kapferer on Sri Lanka, by Robert A. Paul on Nepal and Tibet, and by Sherry Ortner on Nepal. Ideas of Freud, Carl Jung, and such part-Boasians as Ruth Benedict and Paul Radin remain pertinent in analyzing therapeutic narrative and ritual styles coordinated with worldviews of disease and its cure.
A second area reviewed by Geertz—sociological approaches—merges with interpretations of symbolic forms that dominated postwar research. Durkheim's view of religion's social foundation remains central. Durkheim never " explained away" religion as some sort of mass delusion; rather he linked religious rites and ideas to the fact that any society is both divided and coherent, both subcategorized and at least periodically "in unison." Durkheim's Elementary Forms of Religious Life continued his earlier emphases on varieties of the division of labor; on categories implicit in ritual objects, cosmography, and mythic tales; and on the compartmentalized tasks and specialized knowledge that enrich every social order. For Durkheim's school, a "tribe" was "international," composed of segments occasionally congregated in ritual gatherings but for other purposes dispersed. Totemic rites and ceremonies of competitive gift exchange do not simply reinforce something already existent; rather they constitute an additional axis of interrelations. This view of religion and society is less "consensualist" than certain translators, followers, and critics have suggested.
Another major source of social theory is Max Weber's work on emergent charismatic figures. Weberians and compatible anthropologists study religious change; they investigate how routinization, secularization, modernization, and related disenchantments proceed; they question whether particular religions are inimical to certain kinds of economic or political rationalization. Assumptions that modernization is inevitably accompanied by secularization have been shaken by evidence of purifying revivals (Protestant, Buddhist, Islamic, etc.) in societies where market forces and commercialization are intensifying, and by the place of religion in racial and ethnic self-assertions. All boundaries between modernities, postmodernities, and premodernities are being relentlessly questioned. One may recall that for Weber, capitalism (and so-called secularization) developed through a displacement of rationalized techniques from otherworldly monasticism into this-worldly routines. Reform movements and "enlightenments" may reflect less a defeat of the religious sector than the elimination of a distinction between otherworldly and in-worldly roles and institutions.
Some anthropologists question certain implications of both Durkheim and Weber, declaring any conjunction of "religion" and "church" (or churchlike entities) too "corporate" a notion, too tied to politics of legitimation. Like the Hegelian "state" (or its Marxist inversions) these constructions require contesting epistemologically in the manner of Foucault on dispersed "power" or Georges Bataille on radical "expenditure" (dépense ). Some alternative approaches regard religious activity as a subversive strain of individuation or as a decentering or randomizing of values that appear to cohere because of ideological or political forces overlooked by scholars in search of cultural integration. Nevertheless, prominent bodies of work of the postwar generation of such anthropologists as Victor Turner, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Louis Dumont, Clifford Geertz, and Mary Douglas remain indebted to Durkheim and Weber in particular. A subsequent generation has drawn on Antonio Gramsci, Frantz Fanon, and other theorists who stress colonialist and postcolonialist contexts of history's "hegemonies" (Asad, 1993; Taussig, 1987; John and Jean. Comaroff, 1991/1997).
One favored prognosis of the mid-1960s has not materialized: a full-blown anthropological theory of religion, combining historical, psychological, sociological, and semantic or cultural dimensions. The interrelations, contradictions, and dissonance of data, contexts, events, and interpretive methods have multiplied to an extent that may impede any imaginable synthesis (unless in the name of neuroscience). What has emerged instead will be examined below. Some who once anticipated the unified approach deem the present "confusion" a crisis. Others, Geertz foremost among them, mindful of William James's "many original principles," find a pluralist profusion of issues and aims to be warranted by the complexity of religious realities that anthropology desires to illuminate.
Many recent works analyze religious experience as somehow dialectical. Others examine religious life as negotiated through arts of rhetoric or social tropes stressed by such literary theorists as Kenneth Burke. Some investigate religion by focusing on its language-like codes, continual reformulation, even when not caught up in the dynamic trends (e.g., millenarian and messianic movements, cargo cults), or revitalizations that punctuate religious history or a particular group's sense of that history. Just as tradition is now recognized as being continually reinvented, so convictions of timelessness are themselves created as a temporal process. Anthropologists, moreover, are increasingly attentive to dissent and hidden alternatives neglected when scholars take for granted divisions of peoples into "cultures" conceived of as consensual creeds. Circumstances once deemed degraded and therefore marginal to anthropology's central concerns—such as missionary efforts, competing brands of religious authority, covert cults, hybrid creeds (syncretism), and tourism—are being carefully inspected. Religious rivalry, blends, borrowings, and commercialization have shaped the historical and contemporary experience of much of the world's population, including tribespeople and traditional-seeming peoples. Anthropology now addresses radically commoditized spiritisms, multimedia fundamentalisms, religious observances as "show business," and high-tech modes of religious solidarity and schism (Hess, 1991; Harding, 2000; Fardon, 1995; Boon, 1999; Blank, 2001).
What could be called "religion on the move" need not be reactionary or compensatory. In his opus on Bwiti religion and other Fang cults in the Gabon Republic, James W. Fernandez discloses the capacity of an emergent religious culture "to create its own realities" (1982). He also warns against exaggerating the coherence of Bwiti cosmology—its practitioners' intellectual achievement is more subtle (p. 570). Such flexibility of cosmological categories is also demonstrated in Obeyesekere's work (1984) on Sri Lanka's cult of the goddess Pattini. He traces a changing pantheon over space and time, where shifting deities coordinate the specialized roles of priests, monks, and healers, and articulate factions within both Buddhism and Hinduism, between the two, and between Buddhism and Hinduism and outsiders. Obeyesekere elsewhere stresses convoluted connections among H. P. Blavatsky and Henry Steel Olcott's Theosophical Society, Rational Buddhism, and exportable schools of meditative discipline. Mark Juergensmeyer calls such formations "global religions," yet includes Roland Robertson's important caveat: "Antiglobal movements have inexorably become part of the globalization process itself" (Juergensmeyer, 2003, p. 115).
Plays of oppositions in religious identities resemble mythic fields of contrast in Hindu texts illuminated by Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty, whose early works in philology incorporated Lévi-Strauss's views on dialectical variations among neighboring myths and rituals. Studies that once delineated apparently stable cosmologies—such as the Dogon depicted by Marcel Griaule, or the Ngaju Dyaks depicted by Hans Schärer—are being reassessed to detect what led informants or their interrogators to attribute fixity to their categories. Although religion is not timeless, it can be made to seem so, whether by its devotees or by scholars keen on recapturing something original. Other research that contextualized and historicized religious cosmologies includes Alfonso Ortiz's studies of the Tewa Pueblo and Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff's works on the Amazonian Desána. In related developments, the adequacy of notions of belief, couched in pat generalizations such as "People X believe thus and so," have received serious critical scrutiny (Needham, 1972; Izard and Smith, 1982).
Advances in ethnographic knowledge of religion and ritual practice, coupled with consideration of the political and philosophical implications of both collecting and cataloging that knowledge, have continued in every region. Complexities in religious contexts and in power structures behind texts and ceremonies make anthropologists now wary of designating their studies "the religion of" any particular place. Such a title can seem too synthetic or overgeneralized, although works such as Geertz's influential The Religion of Java (1960) deal with political tensions, economic factions, and conflicting theodicies (in Weberian fashion) as much as they deal with religious integration.
Concern with religious transformations has renewed interest in many classic topics: rituals of sacrifice; nostalgia for lost pasts; memory and historical trauma (Holocaust, AIDS, terrorism); utopian visions; charismatic leaders, curers, and performers; life histories of individual practitioners; purity or pollution codes; trickster motifs; clowning and ritual inversions; witchcraft and sorcery; and left-hand and right-hand magic. Following the suggestions of Marcel Mauss, magic, freed from connotations of irrationality or error, becomes something like an enacted subjunctive mood, a "would that it were" outlined in special syllables and objects, a grammatical category "danced out" in speech and materia. Less corporate forms of worship and restriction, such as prayer, private taboos, chant and trance, hallucinogenic quests, religious techniques of the body, and meditation are being investigated either as evidence of deviation (allowable improvisations along culturally constrained lines) or as possibilities of free play that escape surveillance by local authority. Whatever else religion might involve across cultures, it entails speaking or silencing and sometimes writing; persuading, classifying, and acting out; arranging boundaries (periodically permeable), interrelating arts, and formulating logical and ethical codes; manipulating peers, rivals, inferiors, and superiors; possibly suffering, perhaps escaping, and negating as well as affirming. And all such practices may be less naïve or credulous than reflexive and rhetorical. Mauss's "magic," again, implies a "foreignness" at home to itself: "There are magical systems which are perfectly conscious of their diversity and refer to it with special words and metaphors" (1972, p. 60).
Anthropologists have thus adapted insights from sociolinguistics, philosophies of translation, literary theory, rhetoric, structuralism and post-structuralism, performance studies, folklore, political theory, gender analysis, and other areas to augment the generality and specificity, and sometimes the obscurity, of their descriptions and comparisons. Fruitful exchanges between anthropology and literary criticism may blur the boundaries of these pursuits. Marxism, psychoanalysis, semiotics, and deconstruction offer a larger sense of literature than did traditional canonical approaches. Such scholars as Raymond Williams, Julia Kristeva, Michel de Certeau, Tzvetan Todorov, Jonathan Culler, and followers of Walter Benjamin, Jacques Lacan, and Mikhail Bakhtin manage accommodations between theories of literary production and theories of culture. Models of "the text" advanced by Paul Ricoeur have helped change the way scholars look at ritual activity, manuals of religious practice, documents of historical conquest, and even the notion of culture itself. Just as texts are never read neutrally, cultures appear never to be crossed innocently, according to anthropologists who apply the metaphor of reading to what ethnographers do. Intricate properties of "literariness"—nonstop paradox, writing and its philosophical effacement, and continuous intertextuality—are disclosed in many cultural and religious usages, marked by trickster-like play between rules, their transgressions, and other subtle subversions, including profusive "abjection" (Bernstein, 1992). The documentation of cross-cultural encounters at the heart of anthropology may run parallel—stylistically as well as epistemologically—to the history of literary discourse, particularly the novel and genres of satire. Challenges to any positivistic sense of ethnography that downplays such parallels have multiplied in anthropological accounts of religion, aesthetic performance, and varieties of oral and written enactments.
Many methods and issues in the anthropology of religion have converged with scholarship in the history of popular religion, the sociology of marginal religions, and the analysis of systematic differences among orthodoxies, heterodoxies, and heresies. Historians of witchcraft, for example, now resemble anthropologists of the past; and anthropologists are less content with synchronic methods, even as heuristic devices. Ethnographers document not just Kwakiutl, Nuer, and Ndembu, but Quakers, Pentecostals (both Protestant and Catholic), Primitive Baptists, and televangelists. Structuralist techniques for analyzing oral mythologies are turned toward scripture; and approaches from biblical exegesis, typological analysis, and hermeneutics are now adapted by anthropologists to all kinds of cultures and "consumer rites" (Schmidt, 1995) wherever markets flourish. Accordingly, controversies grow "curiouser and curiouser."
Long-term directions of religious change have sometimes turned on the violent suppression of heterodoxies. Moreover, the modern anthropological record is distorted by colonialist and nationalist efforts to consolidate standardized, controllable creeds and confessions. Philological and ethnographic enterprises themselves can be in league with forces of centralization—a theme of many feminist and Marxist accounts; hence the growing concern with alternative forms of religious authority and leadership, often female-mediated ones. Researchers increasingly consider who profits and who suffers when thaumaturgical beliefs lapse. What are the consequences when new forms of knowledge compete with conventions that tie physical, psychic, and spiritual prosperity and well-being to concrete ritual practice in delicate balances of interlocking sympathies, risky equilibriums, sacred and dangerous affinities, and various periodic cycles? In Asia, Africa, the Americas, Oceania, and in Europe as well, many studies of peasantries, regional cultures, and commercial networks stress domestic rituals and local confessions resistant to one or another politico-religious hegemony. Examples include work on popular vestiges of European hermetism revealed by historian Frances A. Yates and on spiritism in both Europe and its colonies. Similarly, anthropologists studying South and Southeast Asia have accentuated spheres of sustained ritual, such as Tantrism, that serve as source-pools of symbols and practice used to set apart rival orthodoxies and competing sects over time (Boon, 1990).
After 1968, provocative works, such as Edward Said's influential Orientalism (1975), implicated comparative studies, including anthropology, with forces of colonialist oppression that continue in the contemporary organization of knowledge and power. Many cultures, religions, and ethnic groups—once scrutinized exclusively by ethnographers from the outside—now produce their own scholars or send select members abroad for anthropological training. Efforts to expand ethnological enfranchisement, to extend "voice" to the once silenced, and to reverse or overthrow interpreter/interpreted inequalities continue, controversially. Some commentators proclaim victory over an earlier anthropology's parasitism, a condition that benefited only the outside observer; others declare continuity with ethnography's traditional task of presenting marginalized peoples and inscribing, across cultures and languages, evidence of the unwritten (preliterate social life, ritual praxis, religious action, and heterodoxy). And subaltern and postcolonial theorists remain wary of lingering divisions into first-, second-, and third-world, where more agency seems to adhere to the first (and to "the West"), including the very style of theoretical critique here at stake.
The fact that areas once subjected to ethnography now often subject themselves to ethnography tends not to quell but to reinvigorate ideological disputes. Some national governments, averse to admitting foreign anthropologists (whose presence, they feel, implies "primitive" subjects) may nevertheless send scholars abroad for training and require them to return to perform research. Obstacles abound for "third-world" scholars who might wish to practice ethnography elsewhere than home, particularly if they desire gainful employment there. This power-saturated situation impedes realization of a fully comparative anthropology, especially in sensitive areas of religion often declared off limits. Homegrown ethnographers, of course, may be "outsiders" to the peasant, tribal, or minority populations they often study, even if they share language and ethnicity. Educated "natives" whose researches are sponsored by a dominant government will likely be regarded with as much suspicion (including class suspicion) as were the colonial agents or the foreign freelance fieldworkers of yore.
Finally, What Arjun Appadurai, James Fergusson, Emily Martin, and others call today's "flows"—virtual border-straddling in transnational sites and spaces—keep blurring distinctions among local, regional, and global connections and sharpening senses of diasporic identities, stateless persons, homeless circumstances, and "fluid" flexibilities of identity and property. Both before and since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, ever-expanding surveillance technologies threaten intrusion; even noble technical measures to protect subjects and respect human rights may impede the informality of encounter (and situational "trust") that the anthropology of religion may require, both ethnographically and theoretically.
Anthropological description and interpretation can only be seen as inherently political. Classic distinctions between foreign observers and observed natives of an area have assumed subtler guises; polities today internalize the division between knower and known. (Actually, certain forms of colonialism prefigured subtle polarities as well—Hannoum, 2001; Boon, 1990.)
Promising Approaches and Possible Futures
Recourses exist for anyone understandably daunted by the plethora of theories, methods, descriptions, and reevaluations of the discipline's findings and legitimacy. One might concentrate on a particular topic, such as death rites, restored to prominence by anthropologists, social historians, ethicists, and others. Research on mortuary practices may avoid drawbacks to defining religion in the abstract. What cultures do to and with their bodies before, during, and after funerals pertains to religious processes of continuity and schism, as relations among the living are rearticulated with reference to the dead (Bloch and Parry, 1982; Huntington and Metcalf, 1991; Panourgia, 1995; Lock, 2002).
Another recourse is to assess histories of representing and contesting religious identities in particular locales or regions or in global expanses. One might explore the burgeoning research on ritual values and contradictions in Papua New Guinea, where some areas were opened to sustained contact only after 1930 (Herdt, 1992; Knauft, 2002). Or one might examine a repeated restudied culture, such as Bali, Indonesia, with rival sectors of sacred authority in convoluted ties with the colonialist, nationalist, and transnationalist history of political and commercial forces in the region, including the military and tourism (Boon, 1990; Howe, 2001). One could track exploding coverage of anthropological approaches to Islam, noting interdisciplinary disputes about responsible treatment in ideologically charged circumstances (Geertz, 2003; Hammoudi, 1993; Bowen, 2002; Rosen, 2002).
Alternatively, one might consider complex projects by key interdisciplinary scholars. Examples include efforts by anthropologists to augment Georges Dumézil's views of the tripartite basis of Indo-European ideals of authority and continuity (Littleton, 1980), and ethnographic work extending R. Gordon Wasson's monumental endeavors on hallucinogenic rites involving fly agaric in both Asia and the New World (La Barre, 1970). Also compelling are efforts to consolidate approaches in religion, medical anthropology, science studies, and issues of alternative modernities and new technologies of subjectivity (by Arthur Kleinman, Byron Good, Veena Das, Nancy Scheper-Hughes, Thomas Csordas, and others), along with renewed attention to religion and the emotions (by Karl Heider, Umi Wikan, and others), including specific cultural and political circumstances of "religion against the self" (Nabokov, 1992). The lifeworks of certain figures—for example, Louis Dumont, Mary Douglas, Victor Turner, Clifford Geertz, and Stanley Tambiah—are themselves immense projects that keep anthropology and religious studies deeply intertwined. Dumont's contributions ranged over South Indian ethnography, the comparative study of hierarchy and reciprocity, and the sources of Western political economy. He set Hindu and European values into controversial juxtaposition and established terms of debates still raging (see Dirks, 2002) concerning notions of caste versus ideological individualism. Dumont's later work (1982) traces a Christian pedigree of so-called modernity (and of the West's own hierarchies) with a critical-comparative scope worthy of Weber—unusual in anthropology after functionalism (Boon, 1999).
Two trends deserve special emphasis. The first is neuroscientific studies, including resurgent interest in the neurophysiological parameters of religious "behavior" and the neuropsychological aspects of religious "cognition." Pascal Boyer's provocative titles—The Naturalness of Religious Ideas (1994), Religion Explained (2001)—have attracted attention to such pursuits. Certain "cognitive theory" (e.g., Konner, 2002) seeks biological constraints; it may seek to clarify phenomena of synesthesia (intersensory sensitivities prevalent in much religious, artistic, and poetic experience) by genetic mutations that create dense neural connections in supposedly specialized brains. Such work hopes to "explain" general and figurative experience (e.g., anyone's synesthesia) by the isolable and clinical (diagnostic "synesthetes"). Refined computerized methods are often advocated to resolve issues that may date back to the Culture and Personality school. This trend's more psychological side (represented by such scholars as Richard Schweder and Bradd Shore) emphasizes religious and cultural diversity along with evolutionary psychology; practitioners anticipate advancing inquiry into "the human mind" in ways foreshadowed by Gregory Bateson, who was intent on how biology and meaning might meet (if they can).
Biology-minded frameworks range from research on "the neurology of joy through brain-reward systems" (Diener and Suh, 2000) to the "affective neuroscience" of Jaak Panksepp. Culturally minded scholars (e.g., Roy D'Andrade, Tanya Luhrman) also recommend paying more than lip service to "bedrock commonalities" of cultures (meaning coevolved neurophysiology). Investigations in this mode speak of "religious acquisition," cognitive schemata, mental models, scripts, memory stores, and similar notions inspired by information theory wedded to ideas of "rationality" (Dan Sperber). Boyer's polemics reproach cultural relativists for shoving universals outside anthropology's proper subject matter; he likens them to chefs interested in differences in diet but not "in the way the gut works" (2001, p. 440). The science Boyer proposes would clarify "gut-workings" (to extend the metaphor) by devising "a different mode of data-gathering" including "constrained experimental studies" into religious symbolism as "rigorously cognitive" (1993, p 42). Again, earlier debates and long-term disciplinary divides are being revitalized, rather like a religious movement.
The second trend of note is the increased attention to reflexivity in interpretation and everyday practice alike. Excruciating self-consciousness about description and translation—fraught with epistemological and political doubts—stamps much contemporary work in anthropology and religion. Ample precedents exist in the scholarship of Bateson, Lévi-Strauss, Ruth Benedict, Clifford Geertz, and even Frazer, Durkheim, and William James (as suggested above). Feminist emphasis on gendered experience and representation has been crucial, along with the linguist turn and various rhetorical twists (Burke, Paul de Man, Richard Rorty) in theories and anti-theories (deconstructions) of interpretive life. Prominent critical writers—Judith Butler, Slavoj Zizek, Homi Bhabha, Henry Gates, and many more—champion awareness of all positionalities in any communicative act or deceptive dodge. Another important nexus of influence has been interdisciplinary historians of religion, such as Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty, Davíd Carrasco, Carolyn Bynum, Catherine Bell, and Bruce Lincoln.
Bell joins those anthropologists who regard ritual practice as itself theoretical and reflexive: a "semantic framework" whose very repetition is "not static, but repetition with a difference" (1992, p. 220). And Lincoln, like many ethnographers, considers "discursive formations" to be agentive rather than merely reactive. Concentrated reflexivity is manifest in Amy Hollywood's work on "sensible ecstasy" stressing "performativity, citationality, and ritualization" in so-called mystical practices; she combines insights from Butler's "Excitable Speech" with issues of "meta-indexicality" as advanced by anthropological linguist Benjamin Lee. This truly is high theory: intense and difficult.
Reflexivity rules in more anecdotal dimensions of anthropology and religion as well. A review article by Judy Rosenthal and Adam Lutzker ("The Unheimlich Man-oeuvre," 2001) nicely indicates this transdisciplinary state of affairs. The piece stages a collaborative dialogue concerning three books about commercialized fundamentalism in U.S. religion and movements of apocalyptic violence internationally (Harding, 2000; Hall et al., 2000; Crapanzano, 2000). Conflicted stances of the authors toward their subjects is matched by ambivalence and anxiety of the reviewers—one is a former member of Jehovah's Witnesses turned superb ethnographer of West African vodou; the other is a "secular leftist" worried about complicitous "dogmatism within the secular project." Attuned, then, equally to "Vodou literalism" and Jerry Falwell's literalism, the reviewers are wary of both secularisms and fundamentalisms. They expect unremitting reflexivity from all concerned, including themselves: "Because I criticize Crapanzano for not putting his subject position in question, it is only fair to put mine on the line" (p. 921).
This passionate review, critically focused on various literalisms, may well pertain to the neuroscientific projects mentioned above, which themselves suggest a resurgent "literalism" in emergent theoretical persuasion. Regardless, taken together, the two trends—neuroscience, intent on "hardwired" universals; and reflexivity, which construes so-called "science" otherwise—confirm that the anthropology of religion remains diverse, possibly boundless, and agonistic. As the discipline (or antidiscipline) strives to become ever more inclusive, it remains devoted to understanding religious differences. Earlier aspirations to contain any culture's "belief" in an ethnographic monograph have faded away. Nor can fieldwork results be insulated from vast issues in phenomenological, existential, hermeneutic, pragmatist, structuralist, deconstructive, politicized, "scientized," or "humanized" study of religious practice and commentary. Bold ideas in the comparative history of religions must heed actual contradictions—what Edmund Leach once termed the "dialectics of practical religion"—lived out in religious hinterlands, beyond the margins of rival orthodoxies, and in religious centers as well.
The anthropology of religion thus inhabits our difficult age—whether we consider it postmodern, new millennial, increasingly terrorist, globalist, or neo-imperial. For such interpretive pursuits in such times, there is nowhere left to hide. What Clifford Geertz has called "The World in Pieces" (2000, p. 218) pertains even to the pieces themselves: the pieces (including religions) are in pieces. As William James foresaw in his postscript to The Varieties of Religious Experience, a sort of polytheism has, in truth, returned upon us—and keeps returning, possibly endlessly, possibly not.
Consciousness, States of; Culture; Evolution, article on Evolutionism; Psychology, article on Psychology of Religion; Shamanism; Sociology, article on Sociology of Religion; Structuralism; Study of Religion.
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James A. Boon (1987 and 2005)