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Anthropology of Religion

Anthropology of Religion


No known society is without religion. Anthropologists study this species-wide phenomenon as a human trait or institution, an element of culture, seeking a deep understanding of all, not just the "world," religions and their local significance. From this breadth, anthropologists of religion ask: What is religion? Are there any common elements? How did it originate? Intentionally nontheological, the anthropology of religion is less concerned with, for example, whether ancestor spirits of the New Guinea Maring people really interact with the living people than with how that perception influences culture. Despite the intention of objectivity, a strong thread of philosophical naturalism permeates the field from E. B. Tylor, James Fraser, and Emile Durkheim to Raymond Firth and Stewart Guthrie. Important exceptions include Edward Evans-Pritchard, Victor Turner, and Roy Rappaport.


See also Anthropology; Naturalism


Bibliography

guthrie, stewart elliott. faces in the clouds: a new theory of religion. oxford: oxford university press, 1993.

rappaport, roy a. ritual and religion in the making of humanity. cambridge, uk: cambridge university press, 1999.

paul k. wason

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Anthropology of religion

Anthropology of religion. In the co-ordinating of anthropology as a discipline in the later 19th cent., the study was concerned with what were thought to be ‘primitive’ religions, i.e. those which were believed to be closer to an original state, cruder and simpler than developed, historical religions. Few anthropologists today think that the religions of non-westernized small-scale societies are different in kind from religions of the great traditions. Instead, they tend to be impressed by the fact that similar beliefs, rituals, myths, etc., can be found in both contexts. Religion is seen as a major part of the ways in which individuals and societies organize and sustain their lives. Anthropologists tend to focus on such issues as kinship organization, myth, ritual and symbols, magic and witchcraft. During the first half-century, anthropologists of religion developed both structuralism and functionalism. But structure/function has ceased to dominate analysis, and in recent years there has been a return to the social and individual construction of meaning and significant space.

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