Anthropology of Religion

views updated May 29 2018

Anthropology of Religion

Since the early 1900s anthropologists have been conducting field research to retrieve, record, classify, and interpret religious beliefs and practices. Early anthropological study of religion was guided by social theory that was informed by evolutionary biology. Thus anthropologists were concerned with the origins of religion and stages in the development of human thought. Social theorists believed that religious ideas preceded scientific thought and practice. In their conception religious beliefs and institutions would give way to the forces of modernization, rational thought, and secularization. However, at the close of the twentieth century anthropologists find that religious beliefs and practices abound throughout the globe in industrial and preindustrial societies. In many modern and modernizing social contexts religious beliefs and practices underlie political and social unrest and development.

Anthropologists are no longer primarily concerned with origins and stages in human thought. An emphasis in contemporary anthropology is on the adaptive functions of religious institutions and on symbols and meanings as they relate to social structure and organization. Anthropological methods emphasize an objective stance by the investigator. In their field research, anthropologists do not evaluate the validity of the beliefs and practices they observe, but seek to provide an insider's explanation of the religious beliefs and practices they observe and record. Anthropologists working in the postcolonial context have been examining the relationship between subject and object in anthropological research and writing as a result of local responses to anthropological texts. Increasingly, anthropologists find members of the groups they study investigating and interpreting their own religious life.

Anthropological approaches to religion have been influenced by Émile Durkheim, Max Weber, and Karl Marx. Durkheim and members of his school focused on small-scale societies. They analyzed cosmology embodied in religious ideas and systems. In religion they found the articulation of a coherent worldview that meaningfully ordered human life. They provided detailed analysis of concepts of time, space, and person in the universe embodied in religious thought. They also sought to understand the functions of religious precepts and tenets in structuring social institutions and everyday social transactions.

Weber conducted a comparative study of world religions. His work directed attention to symbols and the problem of meaning framed in religious cosmology and practice. His discussion of religion embodies analytic constructs used by anthropologists to describe and interpret the actions of religious leaders and believers. Weber also provided models for analyzing religious authority and the making of religious institutions, and he emphasized the relationship between religious thought and practice and the development of economic systems. Weber's work on Protestantism and the emergence of capitalism in America articulates his argument on the importance of religious values in the development of material culture. His emphasis on the significance of religion in shaping industrial capitalism was contested by Marx.

For Karl Marx, religion constitutes a system of beliefs that orients individual to otherworldly concerns and masks the harsh realities of uneven economic development under capitalism. According to Marx, religion provides the basis for individual and group subordination and capitulation to power and authority. In his schema, religion provides the ideological justification for unjust economic distribution and the privileges of the wealthy. However, Marx's position on religion does not entirely accord with the empirical record. In several contexts with prevailing severe social, political, and economic injustice, religion provides the ideological foundation for challenging and resisting authority. One example is the black struggle on American soil for freedom and civil rights in which religious ideas and institutions provided the ideological and material foundations for collective action that challenged and reversed racial discrimination, legal segregation, and economic injustice. Contemporary analysts are inclined to look for the potential in religion to work as a conservative or revolutionary force; religion is one of many interrelated structural factors that influence social order and movements for social change.

Following Durkheim and Weber, social anthropologists conceive of religion as culture. Religion is a pattern of beliefs, values, and actions that are acquired by members of a group. Religion constitutes an ordered system of meanings, beliefs, and values that define the place of human beings in the world. The human capacity to acquire and use symbolic thought in everyday transactions is an essential element of culture. Each social group embodies its own symbolic system that individual members learn. The human ability to create meaningful symbols underlies religious thought and expression. In ethnographic writing, anthropologists seek to describe cosmology and ritual action. Anthropologists are concerned with examining the relationship between religion and other social institutions.

The anthropological enterprise has added greatly to knowledge of variety and complexity of religious expression. The field today faces the challenges of globalization and rapid social change. Anthropologists no longer conduct field work in remote settings untouched by wider social and technological developments. Human solidarity has been greatly influenced by emergent computer technologies, the worldwide expansion of capitalism, and the massive movement of people seeking work in a global economy. Anthropologists working in the United States are refining their theories and research practices to interpret religious innovation created by an atmosphere of religious freedom and tolerance, plurality reflecting diverse religious bodies, interfaith dialogue, questions about the relationship between rational authority and faith statements, and the breakdown of gender and race discrimination that characterize the American religious landscape. Anthropologists seeking to interpret American religious life are using traditional analytical and practical tools established in their discipline as well as forging interdisciplinary study and collaborative work that includes local people in representing their own religion.

See alsoGlobalization; Psychology of Religion; Religious Studies; Ritual; Sociology of Religion.


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Glazier, Stephen D., ed. Anthropology of Religion: AHandbook. 1997.

Lessa, William A., and Evon Z. Vogt. Reader in Comparative Religion: An Anthropological Approach. 1979.

Morris, Brian. Anthropological Studies of Religion: An Introductory Text. 1987.

Frances Kostarelos

Anthropology of religion

views updated May 23 2018

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.

Anthropology of Religion

views updated May 21 2018

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


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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