Anthropology of religion

Anthropology of religion

The anthropology of religion involves the study of religious institutions in relation to other social institutions, and the comparison of religious beliefs and practices across cultures.


In the early 11th century, Abū Rayhān Bīrūnī (973-1048), wrote detailed comparative studies on the anthropology of religions and cultures across the Middle East, Mediterranean and especially the Indian subcontinent. Biruni's anthropology of religion was only possible for a scholar deeply immersed in the lore of other nations. [J. T. Walbridge (1998). "Explaining Away the Greek Gods in Islam", "Journal of the History of Ideas" 59 (3): 389-403] He carried out extensive, personal investigations of the peoples, customs, and religions of the Indian subcontinent, and was a pioneer in comparative religion and the anthropology of religion. According to Arthur Jeffery, "It is rare until modern times to find so fair and unprejudiced a statement of the views of other religions, so earnest an attempt to study them in the best sources, and such care to find a method which for this branch of study would be both rigorous and just."cite web|author=William Montgomery Watt|date=2004-04-14|title=BĪRŪNĪ and the study of non-Islamic Religions|url=|accessdate=2008-01-25]

Biruni was aware that statements about a religion would be open to criticism by its adherents, and insisted that a scholar should follow the requirements of a strictly scientific method. According to William Montgomery Watt, Biruni "is admirably objective and unprejudiced in his presentation of facts" but "selects facts in such a way that he makes a strong case for holding that there is a certain unity in the religious experience of the peoples he considers, even though he does not appear to formulate this view explicitly." Biruni's tradition of comparative cross-cultural studies continued in the Muslim world through to Ibn Khaldun's work in the 14th century.Akbar S. Ahmed (1984), "Al-Beruni: The First Anthropologist", "RAIN" 60: 9-10]

In 1841, Ludwig Feuerbach was the first to state the anthropologic principle that every religion is created by the human community that worships it. [Feuerbach, Ludwig (1841) "The Essence of Christianity"] [Mackey, James Patrick (2000) "The Critique of Theological Reason", Cambridge University Press. pp.41-2] John K. Nelson (1990) [ A Field Statement on the Anthropology of Religion] ] In 1912 Émile Durkheim, building on Feuerbach, considered religion "a projection of the social values of society," "a means of making symbolic statements about society," "a symbolic language that makes statements about the social order";Émile Durkheim (1912) "The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life"] [Bowie, Fiona (1999) "The Anthropology of Religion: An Introduction". Oxford: Blackwell. p.15, 143] in short, "religion is society worshiping itself". [Durkheim, p.266 in the 1963 edition]

In the 19th century, cultural anthropology was dominated by an interest in cultural evolution; most anthropologists assumed that there was a simple distinction between “primitive” and “modern” religion and tried to provide accounts of how the former evolved into the latter. In the 20th century most anthropologists rejected this approach. Today the anthropology of religion reflects the influence of, or an engagement with, such theorists as Ludwig Feuerbach, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Émile Durkheim, and Max Weber. They are especially concerned with how religious beliefs and practices may reflect political or economic forces; or the social functions of religious beliefs and practices.


Anthropological approaches to religion reflect a more general tension within anthropology: the discipline defines itself as a science in that all anthropologists base their interpretations and explanations on empirical evidence (and many anthropologists are concerned with developing universal models of human behavior), and the discipline also defines itself in terms of the seriousness with which it takes local beliefs and practices (see cultural relativism), and its commitment to understanding different cultures in their own terms through participant observation. Thus, although many Westerners (including some anthropologists) have rejected “religion” out of hand as being "unscientific", virtually all anthropologists assume that there must be good reasons for the endurance and importance of religion and, by implication, assume that religious beliefs and practices are in some sense “reasonable.” Fact|date=February 2008"It has never been difficult to make a case for the significance of religion in human life. Religion has been found in all societies studied by anthropologists." [ Swatos, William H.] , ["Encyclopedia of Religion and Society"] , [ Altamira Press] , 1998. In order to determine the reasons for the importance of religion, however, anthropologists generally move beyond the literal claims of any religion to look at its metaphorical meaning or latent social functions.

Definition of religion

One major problem in the anthropology of religion is the definition of religion itself. At one time anthropologists believed that certain religious practices and beliefs were more or less universal to all cultures at some point in their development, such as a belief in spirits or ghosts, the use of magic as a means of controlling the supernatural, the use of divination as a means of discovering occult knowledge, and the performance of rituals such as prayer and sacrifice as a means of influencing the outcome of various events through a supernatural agency, sometimes taking the form of shamanism or ancestor worship. According to Clifford Geertz, "religion is a system of symbols, beliefs, and patterns of behaviors by which human beings control that which is beyond their control". Today, anthropologists debate, and many reject, the cross-cultural validity of these categories (often viewing them as examples of European primitivism). Anthropologists have considered various criteria for defining religion – such as a belief in the supernatural or the reliance on ritual – but few claim that these criteria are universally valid.

In Western culture, religion has become more or less synonymous with monotheism and the various moral codes that monotheism prescribes. Moral codes have also evolved in conjunction with Hindu and Buddhist beliefs, independent of monotheism. However, prescriptive moral codes or even normative ethical codes are not a necessary component of religious beliefs or practices any more than they are a necessary component of science and the scientific method.

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

# Individualistic: most basic; simplest. Example: vision quest.
# Shamanistic: part-time religious practitioner, uses religion to heal, to divine, usually on the behalf of a client. The Tillamook have four categories of shaman. Examples of shamans: spiritualists, faith healers, palm readers. One who has acquired religious authority through one's own means.
# Communal: elaborate set of beliefs and practices; group of people arranged in clans by lineage, age group, or some religious societies; people take on roles based on knowledge, and ancestral worship.
# Ecclesiastical: Most complex. Incorporates elements of the previous three.

pecific religious practices and beliefs

See also

* Cultural anthropology
* Symbolic anthropology
* Symbology
* Sociology of religion
*Sacred-profane dichotomy


External links

* Homepage of [ The Society for the Anthropology of Religion] within [ The American Anthropological Association]
* [ Anthropology of Religion Page] M.D. Murphy, University of Alabama
* [ anpere (Anthropological Perspectives on Religion)]
* Andrew Lang, [ Anthropology and Religion] , "The Making of Religion", (Chapter II), Longmans, Green, and C°, London, New York and Bombay, 1900, pp. 39-64.
* [ Anthropology of the African Pygmies religion]

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