Anthropology of Religion

Doug Padgett

Posted May 1998

What is IT?


Current Trends




"In the anthropology of religion, as in many interpretive pursuits of our postmodern age, there is nowhere left to hide."

James Boon

Introduction and State of the Field

According to Stephen Glazier (1997), one could easily arrive at the impression that in the discipline of anthropology as a whole, anthropology of religion is currently on the run. It is difficult to find programs that take anthropology of religion seriously, where one can do graduate work, where one can find professors for whom religion is a primary concern. But in the post-Cold War era, with rising levels of ethnic and religious conflict, the effects of religion, its impact on our social and political lives, have greater visibility than at any time in the past twenty years. As Glazier and others have suggested, we may in fact be in a sort of Golden Age for the anthropology of religion--but not all the action is taking place inside the discipline of anthropology.

In specific terms, the field is receiving rising interest from outside the academy and a rising level of credibility on the inside. Currently one can study the anthropology of religion at the anthropology departments of, among others, Drew University, Princeton University, Rice University, University of California -Berkeley, and University of Michigan, all of which have one or two established anthropologists who take religion seriously as a category of analysis. But it is also possible to study the anthropology of religion in religious studies at many other places, including Indiana University, University of Chicago, Harvard, and University of California-Santa Barbara. Furthermore, after contending with tremendous resistance, Morton Klass, James Peacock and others have finally succeeded in forming the Anthropology of Religion Section of the American Anthropological Association. Publications on the anthropology of religion are growing, and while a great deal of the output consists of reprints of classic texts, people are also beginning to re-think their theoretical standpoint towards the study of religion in some creative ways (Glazier 1997: 3). While there is no journal that specializes in the publication of articles on the anthropology of religion, many such articles can be found in journals of religion as well as in general anthropology journals.


What is Anthropology of Religion?

There was a time, in the nineteenth century, when anthropologists saw in religion an archaic mode of thought and action that would one day recede in the force of the modern institutions of science, law, politics, and education. Although no anthropologist would say that with such certainty today, problems of definition remain a hindrance to the study of religion. Depending upon how we identify it, what we see as the religious reaches into virtually every corner of human activity. Fundamentally then, the anthropology of religion must quite simply be seen as the application of the weight of anthropological theory and method to the analytical and social quandary of religion or religions--What is it? What are they? What do we speak of when we speak of "religion" and how does that relate to particular religions"? What makes religion? What does it do for us? Other disciplines ask the same or similar questions, but in anthropology the focus of the analysis is generally ethnographic. In comparison, within the history of religion, one may seek to answer the same questions of world religions by looking in the literary record, in myth, and the work of religious professionals. Of course, anthropologists of religion have never shied away from dealing with the broadest range of religious experiences and values, historically and in every sort of society, but they have usually focused their attentions on the immediate concerns of practitioners, which lie in tension with the perceived orthodoxy, the canons, and the doctrines of religious professionals.

Brief History of Anthropology of Religion

E.B. Tylor (1832-1917), of the so-called English School of anthropology, is regarded as the founding father of anthropology of religion. His works are still widely read, especially in religious studies, where he is regarded as a founder of sorts. Tylorís legacy has weakened in recent years and in practical terms, throughout both disciplines, his influence is but a memory. In general this is because his most well-known theory, which applied evolutionary theory to the study of religion, assumed that stages of material "advancement" corresponded with those of a spiritual nature, a concept which has been repeatedly disproved. In his most famous work, he formulated a theory of animism as the earliest, "primitive" stage of religion. Tylor was joined, in both England and France, by a host of fellow travelers, including James Frazer (1854-1941), whose comparative mythologies were so inspiring to later study, and R.R. Marett (1866-1943), who proposed a preanimistic stage of religion.

Despite Tylorís beneficence, perhaps the foundations of contemporary anthropology of religion are best seen as having been built upon the work of the same nineteenth century social thinkers that support virtually all of the social sciences: Durkheim, Weber, Marx, and Freud. Emile Durkheim (1858-1917), later regarded as the first of the French School, viewed religious experiences as "social facts" which bypass empirical truth. His successors included Marcel Mauss and Lucien Levy-Bruhl, both of whom were enormously influential in the analysis of "primitive" religion. Arnold van Gennep (1873-1957), author of Rites de Passage, was another influential member of the French School. Max Weber (1864-1920) emphasized the common links between the social and the economic spheres of human activity. Karl Marx (1818-1883) was concerned by the spiritual alienation arising from socioeconomic deprivation and drew attention to the masking of economic inequality through religious activity and thought. Sigmund Freud (1856-1839) articulated a full and intellectually inspiring reduction of religious experience to biological and social drives. These men broke down barriers to understanding religion, arousing, in the process, deep hostility and an amazing variety of interpretive creativity.

From the American standpoint, the German diffusionists, who countered the English and French evolutionists, have been a vital influence on the anthropology of religion. They held simply that similarities in cultures can usually be ascribed to diffusion from one site of original invention. The German-American Franz Boas worked in this vein and, in numerous studies, insisted upon the primacy of culture over inherent qualities of race, as well as on the most careful of ethnographic fieldwork. Hallmarks of this legacy may be found today in the work of almost any American anthropologist. Boas saw each element of a culture, physical or mental, as part of a cultural whole and thus is usually seen as a functionalist.

Bronislaw Malinowski (1884-1942), another functionalist who also advocated tight, descriptive ethnography, attempted to record--and establish the character of--the native mentality of an island people. He drew on Frazer for his general categorizations of magic, science, and religion and viewed those in the religious vein as being without application. A.A. Radcliffe-Brown (1881-1955) is also associated with the functionalist school for his work establishing the cosmological functions of myths in maintaining natural order.

In his work on theories of primitive religion, E.E. Evans Pritchard (1902-1973), like Boas, gave voice to a backlash against many of the assumptions about religion and religious categorizations found in Tylorís and other works. He was not alone in desiring to break up the classic anthropological dichotomies of primitive/modern, monogamy/promiscuity, white/brown, animist/monotheist that seemed to inform so much ethnography. Criticism of these early works continues to be a characteristic of contemporary anthropology of religion. Nevertheless, the works of many of these same men and women are still being read for the intricacies of their observation and interpretation.

Contemporary anthropology of religion rests upon a variety of figures and movements. The mythic structuralism of Claude Levi-Strauss, though out of a fashion as a totalizing theory, remains a vital point of conversation and an evocative foil for many who still write in a structuralist vein. The theories of Mary Douglas, who structured her generalizations upon ritual and emphasized social relations over Levi-Straussís mental ones, are similarly less used than discussed. Clifford Geertz, the original practitioner of interpretive anthropology, while much criticized, sees religion as a set of symbols and stresses the meaning of those symbols as referents and creators of meaningful life.

In the sixties, a variety of new ideas about religious anthropology arose, some based upon the work of the three named above, some drawing from other disciplines. Geertz began his work on religion as a cultural system. Melford Spiro lashed out at the legacy of Durkheim for setting religion apart from the main of everyday life. Anthropologists began to see religion as sets of symbols or structured systems. Through the work of Douglas and Victor Turner, as well as performance theory, a new emphasis on ritual was established. The essential debate over ritual has generally involved issues of whether ritual reduces or enhances the ambiguity of life. Studies often hinge on psychoanalytic interpretations, involving Freud and Lacan. Work in the line of Durkheim and Weber has continued as well.

Much of the anthropological work conducted in a psycholanalytic vein was concerned with shamanism and, to a lesser degree, tantrism. Shamanism was a major topic of discussion in the late sixties and seventies, as it was seen by some to hold a variety of elemental social or psychological keys to religion and religious phenomena. In 1982, Sudhir Kakar attempted to compare the two as psychotherapeutic devices. Ake Hultkrantz took shamanism studies in another direction with ecological and phenomenological, cross-cultural research. As perhaps an offshoot of shamanism studiesí emphasis on psychoanalysis and alternate states of consciousness, the anthropology of consciousness has developed and grown in recent years. Alone among other forms of the anthropology of religion, this subfield is concerned with the actual mental states of those undergoing religious experiences, and is found only in anthropology and not in religious studies.

The seventies and eighties saw the beginnings of the literary criticism and post-colonial studies revolution in anthropology, greatly affecting the manner in which we think and speak about religion. This trend dovetailed with the continual and painful self-examination into the predilections and prejudices of anthropologists through the last hundred and fifty years. A new brand of historical anthropology has arisen usually involving colonial and post-colonial studies and a review of the history of previous anthropological study in a particular area, focusing on the errors committed in earlier research and the manner in which the studies themselves have reflected back upon the subjects. As they concern religion, such works are more often written by anthropologists in religious studies departments.

Currently, the "lit-crit" revision of the humanities is in full swing in religious studies and anthropology of religion, though not without conflict and contention, particularly in religious studies departments. In a related mode, there is a continued questioning of categories like belief and religion itself, as theorists from a variety of backgrounds attempt to establish the usefulness of the manner in which we speak of religion and culture. The emphasis here, as elsewhere in the social sciences, is on the dynamic, unstable character of all historical phenomena, not only in the present day, but also in the past.

In terms of subject matter, the current emphasis is not on tribal or rural, but on urban religion. Studies attend less to religious texts and more to lived religion as it is experienced in our daily lives. This means including the experiences of white, middle class America, a normative category which had previously been ignored in studies. Anthropologists today are fascinated more than ever before by the religious strange in the culturally familiar--in particular, the study of what might be characterized as ugly and dark--religious racism, sexism, snake-handling.

Today, religion is seen by many anthropologists (and other scholars) on its own terms, as a discrete area of human activity, with defining, if contestable, characteristics. This does not mean that scholars are not critical of religion or do not resort to the same sophisticated theoretical modeling to understand religious phenomenon that they use in other areas. But neither do they dismiss it or reduce it entirely. Anthropologists of religion are highly self-reflexive and highly self critical. Today, more than ever before, scholars are extraordinarily careful when speaking of religion. They are critical of our everyday terminology: ideas like belief and culture and ritual are constantly being reassessed or called into question--to the point, in fact, where one can hardly speak reasonably about "belief" anymore outside of certain Western historical contexts.

General Characteristics of Contemporary Anthropology of Religion

As demonstrated above, anthropology of religion cannot be defined theoretically or, beyond a general concern with religion, even in terms of subject matter--it spans theory and is very frankly interdisciplinary in its broadest manifestations. But contemporary anthropology of religion may be characterized in more specific ways:

1. Contemporary anthropology of religion sympathizes with the "practicalities" (William Jamesís word) of religious experience: religion on the ground, in the populace, and the tensions felt there between official, institutional notions and the polytheistic, even inclusive atmosphere of majority religious life. This is partially a result of anthropologyís historical emphasis on "non-literate," "primitive" religious life, i.e., religion that does not resemble Western European Christianity and/or Judaism in any apparent way. Anthropology of religion thus tends to emphasize the local particularities of religious life--spirit worship, saint cults, possession--as opposed to the idealizations of religious specialists, world renunciants, or sophisticated religious ethics and scholasticism

2. Contemporary anthropology of religion is methodologically and theoretically diverse. Because anthropological subdisciplines share common intellectual roots, there are as many ways of doing anthropology of religion as there are of doing any other sort. Followers of Durkheim, Weber, Marxists, Freudians, structuralists, structural-functionalists, and those influenced by more recent theorists, have found--and still find--their own ways of interpreting religion.

3. Contemporary anthropology of religion attempts to overcome the prejudicial, Western-biased understandings of religion found in flawed but still valuable works such as those by Evans-Pritchard, Malinowski, Tylor, and Levi-Strauss. In the sixties, their concrete and totalizing definitions of religion began to be replaced by more fluid, contingent working definitions. Clifford Geertz, for example, understand religion to be a system of symbols that are uniquely realistic to practitioners in various ways. Melford Spiro, on the other hand, as an answer to Durkheim specifically, convincingly reduced religion to those acts and experiences that involve dealings with the superhuman. Both of these have been under fire for some years, though both maintain their utility

4. Finally, and most anthropologically, I believe, contemporary anthropology of religion emphasizes place. Place is what, in fact, sets anthropology of religion apart from "religious studies" and is also, perhaps, the greatest contribution of the anthropology of religion to contemporary religious studies. Anthropologists of religion in anthropology and in religious studies have consistently articulated a deep knowledge of place as an antidote to the sometimes facile, superficial approach of "comparative religion."


A Highly Selective Bibliography

Introductory Texts and Readers

Klass, Morton.

1995 Ordered Universes: Approaches to the Anthropology of Religion. Boulder, COWestview Press.

Lehmann, Arthur C. and James M. Meyers, eds.

1985 Magic, Witchcraft, and Religion: An Anthropological Study of the Supernatural. Palo Alto: Mayfield.

Lessa, William A., and Evon Z. Vogt, eds.

1979 Reader in Comparative Religion: An Anthropological Approach. 4th ed. New York: Harper and Row.

Case Studies

Brown, Karen McCarthy

1991 Mama Lola. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Evans-Pritchard, E. E.

1940. The Nuer. Clarendon: Oxford University Press.

Geertz, Clifford.

1976 The Religion of Java. Chicago : University of Chicago Press.

Grim, John

1983 The Shaman: Patterns of Siberian and Ojibway Healing. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Hultkrantz, Ake

1967 Spirit Lodge: A North American Shamanistic Seance. In Carl-Martin Edsman, ed. Studies in Shamanism. Stockholm: Almqvist and Wiksell.

Spiro, Melford E.

1982 Buddhism and Society. 2nd ed. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Tambiah, Stanley Jeyaraja

1970 Buddhism and the spirit cults in north-east Thailand. Cambridge: CambridgeUniversity Press.

Turner, Victor

1967 Forest of Symbols. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Turner, Victor and Edith Turner

1978 Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture: Anthropological Perspectives. New York: Columbia University Press.


Asad, Talal

1983 Anthropological Conceptions of Religion: Reflections on Geertz. Man 18:237-259.

Bateson, Gregory, and Mary Catherine Bateson

1987 Angels Fear: Toward an Epistemology of the Sacred. New York: Macmillan.

Berger, Peter

1967 The Sacred Canopy. New York: Basic Books.

Bloch, Maurice and Jonathan Parry, eds.

1982 Death and the Regeneration of Life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Boon, James A.

1982 Other Tribes, Other Scribes: Symbolic Anthropology in the ComparativeStudy of Cultures, Histories, Religions, and Texts. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Boyer, Pascal

1994 The Naturalness of Religious Ideas: A Cognitive Theory of Religion. BerkeleyUniversity of California Press.

Evans-Pritchard, E. E.

1965. Theories of Primitive Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fabian, Johannes.

1981 Six Theses Regarding the Anthropology of African Religious Movements. Religion 11: 109-126.

Geertz, Clifford.

1973 Religion as a Cultural System. In his The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books.

Glazier, Nathan, ed.

1997 Anthropology of Religion: A Handbook. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Kakar, Sudhir

1982 Shamans, Mystics, and Doctors: A Psychological Inquiry into India and Its Healing Traditions. New York, 1982.

Keys, Charles F. and E. Valentine Daniel, eds.

1983 Karma: An Anthropological Inquiry. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Spiro, Melford E.

1966 "Religion: Problems of Definition and Explanation." In Anthropological Approaches to the Study of Religion. Michael P. Baton, ed. 85-125. London: Tavistock Publications.

Taussig, Michael.

1978. Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man: A Study in Terror and HealingChicago: University of Chicago Press.

Taylor, Mark Kline.

1986 Beyond Explanation: Religious Dimensions in Cultural Anthropology. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press.

Turner, Victor

1969 The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. Chicago: Aldine Publishing.

1973a Symbols in African Ritual. Science. 179: 1100-1105.

1973b The Center Out There: the Pilgrim's Goal. In History of Religions 12: 191-230.

Turner, Victor and Edward M. Brunner, eds.

1987 The Anthropology of Experience. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Web Pages

Anthropology of religion section of the American Anthropological Association:

University of Alabama Department of Anthropology: