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. Modern anthropology assumes that there is complete continuity between magical thinking and religion, and that every religion is a cultural product, created by the human community that worships it.


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 the Indian subcontinent. He discussed the peoples, customs, and religions of the Indian subcontinent.

Modern anthropology assumes that religion is in complete continuity with magical thinking, that it is a cultural product, and that is a phenomenon of psychological projection. The complete continuity between magic and religion has been a postulate of modern anthropology at least since early 1930s. The perspective of modern anthropology towards religion is the projection idea, a methodological approach which assumes that every religion is created by the human community that worships it, that "creative activity ascribed to God is projected from man." In 1841, Ludwig Feuerbach, was the first to employ this concept as the basis for a systematic critique of religion. A prominent precursor in the formulation of this projection principle was Giambattista Vico,and an early formulation of it is found in ancient Greek writer Xenophanes, which observed that "the gods of Ethiopians were inevitably black with flat noses while those of the Thracians were blond with blue eyes."

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"; in short, "religion is society worshiping itself".

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 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.

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 Geertz, religion is "(1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic" (Geertz 1966). 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.

  1. Individualistic: most basic; simplest. Example: vision quest.
  2. 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. Religious authority acquired through one's own means.
  3. 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.
  4. Ecclesiastical: dominant in agricultural societies and states; are centrally organized and hierarchical in structure, paralleling the organization of states. Typically deprecates competing individualistic and shamanistic cults.

Specific religious practices and beliefs

  • Ancestor worship
  • Apotheosis
  • Apotropaic magic
  • Animism
  • Astrology
  • Authority
  • Charm
  • Contagious magic
  • Cult
  • Demon
  • Divination
  • Esoterica
  • Exorcism
  • Evil
  • Fertility Worship
  • Fetish
  • Food
  • Genius
  • God
  • Goddess Worship
  • Ghost
  • Heresy
  • Icon
  • Intercession
  • Immortality
  • Kachina
  • Magic and religion
  • Mana
  • Manna
  • Masks
  • Miracle
  • Medicine
  • Monotheism
  • Myth
  • Mystery
  • Necromancy
  • Neopaganism
  • New Age
  • Occultism
  • Omen
  • Pain
  • Polytheism
  • Prayer
  • Prophecy
  • Rebirth
  • Religious ecstasy
  • Ritual
  • Sacrifice
  • Shamanism
  • Supernatural
  • Sign
  • Spell
  • Supplication
  • Sympathetic magic
  • Talisman
  • Tarot reading
  • Theism
  • Totemism
  • Western mystery tradition


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