This article traces the history of the anthropology of religion from the nineteenth century to the present. It argues that a focus on such questions as rationality and ritual was central to the emergence of the discipline. These themes, along with topics such as witchcraft, belief, language, and the body, have remained of perennial interest. More recently, focus has also been placed on the anthropologies of world religions such as Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism; on religion in relation to globalization and diaspora; and on cognitive approaches to the workings of the human mind.
Emergence of Anthropology of Religion
The comparative study of religion formed a central building block of anthropology as the discipline emerged in the nineteenth century and early twentieth century. In the light of social evolutionary models of human development, religious practice was perceived as providing a powerful index of the mental and moral levels of so-called primitive peoples. James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, first published in 1890, traced magical and religious threads throughout history and weaved them into a pattern depicting the past and future progress of humanity, claiming to discern shifts from magical manipulation toward religious devotion and then ultimately in the direction of purely scientific modes of engaging the world. Inherent in Frazer’s work was also a juxtaposition that has reemerged, albeit in very different form, in contemporary writings (e.g., Cannell, 2006): Christianity as an object of study but also a mode of thought that has itself framed anthropological understandings of religion, temporality, and culture.
The use of religion as a key site for the examination of human rationality permeates E.E. Evans-Pritchard’s Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande (1937). In contrast to Frazer’s evolutionary assumptions and reliance on scattered examples drawn from around the world, Evans-Pritchard focuses on a single African case study, showing interrelations among religious, social, and political aspects of Azande life. The book assesses the logic and consistency of Azande modes of thought, and indicates how they might be translated into the understandings of a Western readership. Evans-Pritchard’s implicit interlocutor was the French ethnologist and philosopher, Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, who had highlighted what he saw as the ‘primitive’ mind’s inability to distinguish the supernatural from reality. While refuting Lévy-Bruhl’s view, Evans- Pritchard’s book also implies a comparison with Christianity: his discussion of Azande explanations of misfortune echoes biblical scholars’ attempts to explain the presence and direction of evil in the world.
A further foundational strand in the anthropological study of religion has been the investigation of the relationship between religion and social order. In such work, the discipline’s Durkheimian inheritance has come to the fore, in particular the view of ritual as expression and promoter of societal unity, alongside the more general assumption that religious ideas provide the key to socially shared categories of understanding. Reflecting on the history of the anthropology of religion, Michael Lambek (2002: p. 4) characterizes contemporary research as drawing on a number of early sources: Franz Boas’s tracing of connections between religion and language; Émile Durkheim’s emphasis on the importance of the social; Karl Marx’s pointing to forms of alienation, mystification, and power; and Max Weber’s analysis of the place of religion in transitions to modernity.
Definitions of Anthropology of Religion
Attempts to produce a sustainable, universal definition of religion have prompted much debate. Not all scholars believe that a definition is possible. Saler (2000: p. ix) asserts that “Religion is a Western folk category that contemporary Western scholars have appropriated.” A similarly skeptical view is maintained by Maurice Bloch, who notes (2010: p. 4): “‘Religion’ is a word that can only refer to a series of historically created situations which, although continually changing, have unique and specific genealogies closely linked to the Abrahamic religions. In other words religion is not a natural kind, by which I mean a category that has a basis other than that given by an arbitrary definition.”
The earliest influential attempt at a definition was provided by British ethnologist Edward Tylor, himself born into a Quaker family. In Primitive Culture, published in1871, Tylor summed up religion as “belief in spiritual things.” His characterization is terse in comparison with Durkheim’s assertion in his book The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, published in 1912, that a religion can be seen as “a unified set of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden – beliefs and practices which unite [into] one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them” (Durkheim, 1912: p. 44). We see here some characteristic Durkheimian juxtapositions, such as the sacred and nonsacred, and belief balanced by practice; but also the claim that religion must be seen as linked to a social formation, a ‘Church.’ This definition of religion as a certain kind of object of study therefore also points toward a specific method of study: the focus is on what can be physically observed, and eschews assessment of the truth value or otherwise of any given religion.
Durkheim’s depiction of social order proved highly influential for the British anthropologist Alfred Radcliffe-Brown, who in the middle years of the century drew on such ideas in developing the notion of ‘structural-functionalism’ – a view of society as made up of, and stabilized by, interlocking and complementary components, including religious institutions. The emphasis on observable reality also informed Bronislaw Malinowski’s stress not on the evolution of religion, but on the importance of fieldwork in discerning the contemporary societal and psychological rationale behind ritual and magic. At the same time, a Durkheimian approach still raised questions as to (1) the worth of assuming that rigid distinctions between sacred and profane existed cross-culturally, (2) the focus on order and stability as a feature of social institutions such as religion, and (3) the universality of any characterization of religion.
In the 1970s, the American anthropologist Clifford Geertz combined a Durkheimian understanding of religion as a collective social act with a more Weberian emphasis on meaning and experience. For Geertz (1973: p. 4), religion was “(1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men [sic] 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’s humanistic, ‘interpretive’ anthropology created intellectual distance from such figures as Claude Lévi-Strauss, whose French ‘structuralism’ focused on very broad cultural meanings divorced from the actions and interpretations of specific people.
A later period of anthropology would express worries over the cross-cultural validity but also the intellectual and cultural politics of the very act of making definitions. The best-known contributor to such debate has been Talal Asad (1993). Brought up in Pakistan, Asad spent some time working with Evans-Pritchard at Oxford before eventually moving to the United States. Influenced by Michel Foucault and Edward Said, he is acutely aware of the power relations involved in representing religion, and focuses on the need to trace ‘genealogies’ of both religious and secular, Western and non-Western, ways of viewing the world. For Asad, Geertz’s (1973: p. 29) definition runs into problems in its attempt to capture a panhuman phenomenon divorced from particular cultural, social, and political contexts. In his view, the very act of defining must be seen as the historical product of ideologically charged, discursive processes. Similarly, the notion of religion as an autonomous activity is regarded as emerging from a unique, Western, post-Reformation history.
What, then, might be the solution to such dilemmas? Bloch (2010) turns to ritual rather than religion in articulating his comparative approach, arguing that the former can be found in all types of society, and is a specific type of modification of the way human beings in general communicate. Saler (2000: p. x) takes a more pragmatic approach, drawing in part on Wittgenstein’s discussions of ‘family resemblances’ to argue that the different instantiations of what is called religion need not all share one feature, or a specific conjunction of features, but may possess certain overlapping similarities. In the following, I adopt another pragmatic, inductive approach, taking the anthropology of religion to be what scholars actually do, no matter what definition of the subject they endorse.
Enduring Themes in Anthropology of Religion
The following highlights some of the most prominent themes in the anthropology of religion that have remained topics of interest throughout the discipline’s history.
Asad’s skepticismas to the utility of belief as an analytical termis not unique. Malcolm Ruel points to “the monumental peculiarity” (1982: p. 100) and historical instability of Christian notions of belief. He notes that both the original Greek verb pisteuo and the Hebrew root mn express ideas of trust or confidence in an agreement, indicating a fundamentally social orientation. The noun pistis then acquires a special twist in the apostolic writings of the New Testament, where it is often used in the sense of being converted, denoting the ‘belief’ held collectively by early Christians as a common conviction in the resurrection of Jesus. Subsequently, the Protestant Reformation hinges on a stress on the inward totality of Christian belief. However, it is difficult to find equivalents to Protestant notions of belief in Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, or Hinduism.
Similar worries are taken up by Rodney Needham in Belief, Language and Experience (1972). Needham discusses the problems involved in discussing the statement “I believe in God” with one of his Indonesian informants, who belongs to an ethnic group called the Penan. As Needham puts the problem: “The Penan had no formal creed, and … they had no other conventional means for expressing belief in their God. Nevertheless, I had been accustomed to say … that they believed in a supreme god..Yet it suddenly appeared that I had no linguistic evidence at all to this effect” (Needham, 1972: pp. 1, 2). One of the issues that Needham touches on is crucial for much comparative ethnography: whereas Western Christianity is premised on the possibility of opting out of religious institutions or indeed denying belief, the kind of religion described by Evans-Pritchard for the Azande or Needham for the Penan is not a matter of choice for informants: it is an integral part of life.
What, however, of contexts where informants themselves maintain a strong and self-conscious sense of ‘belief ’? Joel Robbins (2004, 2007) examines the conversion to Pentecostal Christianity of the Urapmin of Papua New Guinea, and shows how even the apparent assimilation of Christian categories can conceal a more complex relationship to belief than might at first appear. The pigeon word ‘bilip’ is widely used by Urapmin, but it means something specific. For the Urapmin, Christian belief is not about mentally assenting to a set of propositions about divinity, but rather a form of trusting God to do what He promised.
Anthropologists have often emphasized the importance of taking into account embodied, ritual activity. Alexander Henn (2008) notes that while Émile Durkheim emphasized the need to explore functional aspects of ritual in the making of human sociality and institutions, Clifford Geertz encouraged scholars to interpret rituals as akin to texts that could be ‘read’ by informants and analysts, and Victor Turner theorized ritual as a dialectical process, moving between structure and anti-structure, secular and sacred. These approaches Henn characterizes as “normative,” “intelligible” and “dialectic,” respectively (Alexander Henn, 2008: p. 11). They share a tendency to emphasize the capacity of ritual to generate feelings of certainty and continuity. Roy Rappaport has also produced an influential discussion of ritual that sees it as primarily as “the performance of more or less invariant sequences of formal acts” (1999: p. 24). Yet, questions of how informants’ interpretations relate to those of the analyst remain, including debates over how intentionality is linked to ritual.
Many analysts are still influenced by the work of a contemporary of Durkheim, Arnold Van Gennep. Van Gennep argued that ritual has particular significance during critical periods of transition in the life-cycle, such as attainment of adulthood, marriage, and death. In his view, it helps the participant to adjust to his or her change in role while also publicly announcing such a change. Furthermore, such rites follow a strikingly standard pattern across cultures, with the person’s separation from everyday society followed by transition and then incorporation back into the social group, now bearing a changed social status. Turner finds particular inspiration in considering the ‘liminal,’ threshold-like section of rites of passage, arguing that they represent reversals of everyday structure and draw on powerful ritual symbolism, such as that of death, to symbolize the end of the old status. He notes that in Ndembu initiation rites in Zambia, circumcision of boys becomes a metaphor for killing, since it destroys the childhood status of the initiate (Turner, 1967).
Bloch (1992) is also interested in the symbolic and literal violence involved in many rites of passage, but applies a broadly Marxist frame of interpretation, highlighting the coercive powers of ritual. He agrees with Van Gennep concerning the existence of a basic grammar underlying ritual across cultures, and suggests that an irreducible core of the ritual process invokes a violent conquest of the present world by the transcendental, divine realm. Separation rites and rites of incorporation expunge the initiate’s original vitality; but what Bloch calls the rebounding violence of transcendental conquest is contained in the return to everyday life, as the person is transformed from being prey into being a hunter – into a state where the powerful transcendent element inherited from the ritual dominates the person’s identity. For instance, in the Orokaiva ritual involving the initiation of children in Papua New Guinea, participants are told they are dead, and are then taught to play sacred flutes and bullroarers that represent the voices of the spirits. After a time of seclusion, they return to the village, shouting “bite, bite, bite.” They are now transformed beings.
Such analysis emphasizes the political implications of ritual experience in the service of order and hierarchy. More recently, in a number of influential books on the Tshidi of South Africa, Jean Comaroff and John Comaroff (1985) have analyzed ritual that involves complex forms of resistance quite as much as submission. Examining interactions between ‘traditional’ and Christian missionary beliefs and practices in colonial and postcolonial contexts, they show how Zionist churches have provided Tshidi with forms of identity, realized in part through new Christian idioms, which have allowed them to adapt or subvert structures of colonial and capitalist authority.
Anthropologists have worked more and more in urban and Western contexts often associated with deritualization and secularization, and with decreased need for common rites of passage to define accession to social roles. Nonetheless, the transformation and pluralization of ritual forms does not necessarily mean that they are disappearing. Tomas Gerholm’s (1988) ‘postmodern’ view of a Hindu funeral ritual in Trinidad examines fragmentation of meaning and diversity of experience. His piece describes a ritualized tribute paid by the writer V.S. Naipaul to his deceased sister – an improvised response taking place thousands of miles away from the official funeral in the writer’s country of origin, and yet still capable of carrying significance. If Gerholm suggests that it is often difficult to locate the core of ritual practice in postmodern contexts, Catherine Bell’s highly influential approach in Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice (1992) moves the focus away from seeing ritual as an autonomous activity, and proposes instead a notion of ‘ritualization’ that takes into account links with strategic activities in social life in general.
Frazer’s radical move in The Golden Bough was ultimately to juxtapose Christianity with science, and to suggest the incompatibility of the former with the latter. More recent work has taken the opposite step of proposing that Western science has significant parallels with ‘traditional’ religious thinking. Robin Horton’s “African Traditional Thought and Western Science” (1970) argues that African religions link causes and effects in much the same way as scientific practices. Religion in this sense can be seen as deploying spirits as explanatory principles much as a scientist might use atoms or molecules. Horton’s assumption is that religion is fundamentally about explanation, a so-called ‘intellectualist’ stance toward religion that places him in the genealogy of both Tylor and Frazer. The key contrast here is with so-called symbolist approaches, which draw on a Durkheimian inheritance to emphasize how religion, and in particular ritual, should primarily be interpreted as made up of representations of the social order.
Despite such differences of opinion, the basic consensus among anthropologists is that human capacities to think are universally the same the world over. Another book published in the 1960s, Lévi-Strauss’s La Pensée Sauvage (1966: ‘The Savage Mind’), denies that non-Western mental abilities are inherently inferior to those of Western readers, even if attitudes toward abstract thought may differ.
Durkheim’s and Radcliffe-Brown’s functionalist approaches drew on a model of society as equivalent to a body, made up of interlinked and mutually dependent parts. Other authors in the Durkheimian school provided significant perspectives on the physical workings and symbolism of the body. Marcel Mauss, Durkheim’s nephew, developed the notion of ‘habitus,’ the idea that certain elements of culture (habits, tastes, skills) become rooted in the body over time. Within Anglo-Saxon anthropological circles, Mary Douglas’s combination of British empiricism and French structuralism resulted in some highly influential work on the function of the body as social and religious symbol. In Purity and Danger (1966), Douglas (a student of Evans-Pritchard at Oxford, and like him a Roman Catholic) explored Western as well as non-Western contexts. In her view bodies, like societies, can be seen as bounded systems, whose integrity and boundaries often need to be protected. What is considered pure and impure, however, varies cross-culturally, and reflects the social experience of the social group involved. Thus in Hindu society, high-caste Brahmins and low-caste untouchables are often interdependent in economic and social terms, but idioms of purity and pollution regulate their behaviors toward each other in very specific ways – for instance, through preventing them from sharing food. A further implication of this argument is that symbols or actions that defy categories or bridge them may be seen as powerful, and under certain circumstances even sacred, rather than polluting. We see here parallels with the potent middle section of the rite of passage, where initiates are passing ‘in between’ statuses.
Douglas has little to say about the actual physical experiences of having a body that possesses senses and moves through the world. A leading figure in the move toward a more phenomenological view of the body has been the American anthropologist Thomas Csordas (1997), in his studies of healing, language use, and spatial orientation among charismatic Catholics in America. Csordas has presented a sense of the body as both ‘self ’ and ‘not-self, ’ both subject and object, but also the very grounding of the human experience of culture. Important work has also been carried out on the relationship between gendered experience and religious engagement (e.g., Austin-Broos, 1997).
Language mediates much religious activity, ranging from spells to prayers to texts. Some religious language seems not merely to describe reality, but also to have ‘performative’ dimensions, in other words to create material or social change through being articulated by authoritative figures. An early piece by Bloch (1974) explores his interests in the relationships between ritual and authority by arguing that the religious oratory of the Merina of Madagascar is expressed in a language that is so formalized that it is difficult ever to argue against: we might compare it with a Latin Mass, for instance, or with the inauguration speech of a President.
Some of the broader issues relating to religious language are explored by Keane (1997). For him, a fundamental question is: What, if anything, is particular to religious language? He suggests that such language may raise a particular kind of problematic: the effort to know and interact with an ‘otherworld’ tends to demand highly marked uses of linguistic resources. In religious contexts the sources of words, as well as the identity, agency, authority, and presence of nonhuman as well as human participants in an interaction, can be especially problematic.
Witchcraft has proved a resonant subject in part because it invokes many of the themes evident in other areas of the subfield. The witch represents an ‘impure’ challenge to social order as well as to physical well-being, and embodies some of the key anxieties of a given society. Evans-Pritchard’s classic study of the Azande retains much of its power because his argument is rooted in analysis of both social relations and modes of thought. We follow Azande investigating why misfortune appears to strike certain people at certain times, while accusations are linked to tensions in relations among equals. Subsequent work on witchcraft from the 1940s onwards often examined it in the context of changing social relations and periods of communal stress.
Later work has examined the question of rationality and witchcraft under very different social conditions. Tanya Luhrmann’s Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft (1991) examines the role of witchcraft – or Wicca – among middle-class Londoners in the light of theories of the sociology of knowledge as well as of conversion. Luhrmann traces the gradual emergence of commitment to magical ideas among practitioners who have easy access to alternative modes of thought, and who may deploy very different systems of rationality in their work lives.
Some of the most recent work on witchcraft and wider notions of evil and the occult links these again with forms of anxiety rising from shifting and uncertain social, political, and economic circumstances. Meyer (1999) analyzes notions of evil in the context of the emergence of local Christianity and its relation to changing social, political, and economic formations among the Peki Ewe in Ghana. Her main argument is that, for the Ewe, the Devil forms a hybrid figure, expressing people’s obsessions with occult forces as a way to mediate the attractions and discontents of modernity. Writing of the postcolonial period in South Africa but also highlighting resonances with other postrevolutionary societies, Jean Comaroff and John Comaroff (1999) explore occasions when vast wealth appears to concentrate in the hands of just a few citizens, so that the market seems to contain mysterious mechanisms of accumulation and distribution. In such contexts, they argue, disenfranchised people imagine new, magical means to attain otherwise unattainable ends, even as they mistrust those who appear to enrich themselves through illegitimate deployment of the forces of production and reproduction.
Newer Themes in Anthropology of Religion
Despite predictions from secularization theorists that the significance of religion would weaken around the world along with modernization, religion has retained and even increased its profile in many public as well as private contexts. To some degree anthropologists have turned their attention to secularism itself as a particular, historically constructed category. The study of religion has generated new topics and methods as well as building on more established ones.
Anthropologies of ‘World’ Religions
Although most anthropologists feel uneasy with the idea that so-called world religions such as Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism can be regarded as autonomous systems, there has been a move in recent decades for researchers to identify themselves as ethnographers of a particular religion. This development is a result of a number of factors: the shift of fieldwork toward more urban, plural contexts, where self-conscious religious identification is occurring; increasing interest in past encounters between Western missions and colonized peoples; a new focus on the affinities of different religious forms with ‘modernity’; the relative success of Islam and Christianity as missionary forces; and the self-conscious identification of many informants with religions that have transnational, including diasporic, referents.
A major theme in the anthropology of Islam that has recently emerged relates to the emergence of ‘Muslim publics’ that have been energized by migration, challenges to Western hegemony, and access to new media technologies. Eickelman and Anderson (1999: p. 1) refer to the emergence of a new sense of public throughout Muslim-majority states as well as Muslim communities elsewhere. They propose the existence of a distinctly Muslim public sphere located at the intersections of religious, political, and social life, operating outside formal state control. The role of this sphere in the emergence of the ‘Arab Spring’ from the end of 2010 remains to be analyzed. Hirschkind (2006) focuses on the role of the cassette sermon in promoting Islamic revival. His argument that listening to sermons links to ethical self-improvement forms a bridge to another significant theme in the analysis of Islam: the cultivation of piety. Mahmood’s Politics of Piety (2005) focuses on a women’s movement in the mosques of Cairo. While members cultivate embodied practices of personal piety that appear to submit to the patriarchal logic of certain forms of Islam, Mahmood indicates how informants are motivated by dissatisfaction with both secularization and Westernization. At the same time, her analysis critiques secular liberal assumptions concerning the universality of aspects of feminist theory.
Anthropologists have studied examples of Christian worship ever since the early days of the discipline, yet it has received less attention than other religious expressions. One reason may be the ironic one that Christianity is too close to the culture of Western anthropologists, and so it was avoided or perhaps simply not noticed as a valid topic of study. More recently, the emergence of Christianity as an explicit object of study has contributed to and resonated with many current concerns of anthropology, including globalization, reflexivity, and postcolonialism. A particularly fertile strand of research has been a focus on materiality and its relationship with notions of both transcendence and modernity (Keane, 2007).
Globalization and Diaspora
Some of the most effective work in this area has looked at past processes of colonization, where religion has formed part of the tangled encounter between colonizers and colonized, ‘modernity’ and ‘tradition’ (Van der Veer, 1996). More recently, religious communities have taken advantage of, and helped to constitute, the globalization of culture. The years following World War II have seen the reemergence of evangelical forms of Christianity in many parts of the world. Although the term ‘diaspora’ has in the past most often been used to describe the dispersion of Jewish populations away from the land of Israel, in the last two decades in particular it has been taken to refer to the creation of large South-Asian communities in European and North American contexts (Vertovec, 2000), as well as the movement of African migrants in search of both economic mobility and the possibility of ‘reverse mission’ within the secularized West.
Processes of globalization and migration, combined with tourism, have ensured that pilgrimage has become an increasingly visible dimension of religious activity in all faiths, and also one that has attracted more anthropological attention. Victor and Edith Turner’s seminal work, Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture (1978), which deployed a rite-of-passage model to emphasize the idea that sacred shrines should be seen as liminal spaces, has been challenged by Eade and Sallnow’s (1991) argument that such shrines are in fact deeply enmeshed in everyday political and economic processes. Coleman and Eade (2004) place anthropological studies of pilgrimage in the wider frame of analyzing physical and metaphorical aspects of movement.
In recent years, research on religion as a means to understand human thought has received a striking new impetus within cognitive approaches to the field. This work has blended the findings of evolutionary and cognitive psychology with those of anthropology. In contrast to the work of anthropologists who emphasize the historical contingency of any given definition of religion, researchers in this subfield have argued that there is a biological basis to religious activity. An important strand has also focused on how counterintuitive or surprising experiences are recalled and transmitted over time (e.g., Boyer, 2001).
Salazar (2010) discerns two main orientations among cognitive researchers. The ‘adaptationist’ argument states that no human society can survive without language or religion, and so there must be both a language instinct and a religious instinct. The alternative approach is to see religion more as a by-product of evolution. For instance, the so-called Theory of Mind Mechanism can be seen as a cognitive tool enabling humans to interpret a living organism’s movements in terms of its inferred intentions: such construal of what is going on in other people’s brains is clearly an adaptive skill. As a result of this skill, humans have perhaps also become prone to seeing intention in events, to see them as guided by a controlling force, such as a divinity.
Both in the past and the present, the ethnographic study of religion has contributed to numerous mainstream analytical concerns, ranging from classic approaches to rationality, symbolism, and social order to more recent studies of transnationalism, materiality, and both cultural and evolutionary change. The study of religion remains in a vibrant state, even as scholars still wrestle with key questions of whether and how religion can be seen as an autonomous area of activity in its own right.
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