In the late 19th century, anthropology emerged as an academic discipline against a background of intellectual foment and rapid advances in the sciences. During this formative time, religion was the subject of many travelogues, popular books, and scholarly studies. Nineteenth-century European colonial expansion, and the scholarship it engendered, exposed the Western world to a large number of different religious belief systems, which challenged many Western assumptions about religion, and which would eventually contribute to significant changes in Western Christianity. New approaches to Biblical studies, such as Higher Criticism, embraced this new scientific and cultural knowledge, but there were religious reactions against the social and intellectual changes taking place as a result of this new knowledge. The Holiness/Pentecostal movement and the rise of fundamentalist Christianity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were types of revitalization movements that developed strong anti-intellectual traditions that resisted the objective, scholarly study of religion, the theory of evolution, and the materialistic naturalism of the scientific worldview.
A number of 19th-century scholarly studies about religion were concerned with understanding the origin of religion and concerned with the development of religious practices, which paralleled a similar concern in the biological sciences with the origin of life and with evolutionary change. Later, more anthropological studies would lose interest in the question of origins and become more concerned with social aspects of religion, or with the symbolic nature of religious systems.
In the mid-19th century, F. Max Müller, who studied Indian religions, proposed that religion began when people personified the forces of nature. From his perspective, such personifications were a mistake, or “disease,” of language, which meant that religion was little more than a cognitive mistake or delusion. He called this view naturism. All human beings have had to deal with forces of nature that terrified them, such as tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, and so on, and all human beings in primitive societies have been subject to the same mistakes of language. So, naturism provided an explanation for the universal presence of religion in all human societies.
Edward Tylor, in Primitive Culture, suggested that it was a belief in spirits that led to the origin of religion. Death is a universal human experience, and, according to Tylor, the belief in spirits began when people, faced with explaining the difference between “living” and “dead,” hypothesized the existence of a “spirit” that was present in life and absent in death. He called this idea animism. Once human spirits were hypothesized, it was only a short intuitive leap to hypothesize other spiritual beings. For Tylor, elaboration on the belief in spirits explains the origin of religion.
Another scholar, R. R. Marett, in The Threshold of Religion, proposed that a belief in a powerful impersonal force, which pervaded the entire universe, preceded animism, and was, therefore, the beginning of the development of religion. He called this belief in a powerful, impersonal force, animatism.
Emile Durkheim offered a more sociological perspective on the origin of religion in The Elementary Forms ofthe Religious Life. He saw religion as a collective behavior that began when people categorized themselves after the patterns of nature, and then abstracted those categories into symbols, and, finally, worshipped those symbols with specific rites. Essentially, a society worshipped an abstraction of itself. He believed this system to be the earliest form of religion and called it totemism.
Cultural anthropology eventually moved away from trying to explain the origin of religion in human societies but has retained the concepts of naturism, animism, animatism, and totemism to describe various aspects of religious belief systems. The underlying assumption of those four concepts, however, that disturbed religious people in the Western world during the late 19th century was that the supernatural did not exist and that only the natural world was real. Many religious leaders and scholars during that time saw the rise of materialistic naturalism in the sciences, humanities, and in popular thinking as an assault on faith, and as an attack on the institutional legitimacy of religion.
Cultural anthropologists have since developed a number of explanations of religion that have avoided the question of origins, but all have retained some form of materialistic naturalism as a foundational assumption. Marxist explanations depicted religion and religious belief as fictions that supported the status quo and that maintained class differences. Functionalists, like Bronislaw Malinowski, A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, and E. E. Evans-Pritchard, explained religion as providing explanations that satisfied human needs or maintained social structure. Cultural material explanations, like those of Marvin Harris and Roy A. Rappaport, saw religion as doctrine and ritual that supported cultural adaptations to the environment and acted as feedback mechanisms to keep complex ecological systems stable over time. Finally, symbolic anthropologists, such as Clifford Geertz, viewed religion as a system of symbols that ascribe meaning to the universe and to existence.
Because of the naturalistic assumption of these theories, the intellectual divide between anthropologists who study religion and religionists who study religion is at least as great today as it has ever been. This situation presents many epistemological and practical problems for the ethnographer doing research.
Anthropologists doing fieldwork frequently encounter explanations and views that differ markedly from the materialist explanations and views characteristic of a Western scientific perspective. This creates a representational dilemma for the researcher. Robert Shanafelt points out that we cannot simply ignore the truth value of what our informants tell us, as if it did not concern us, because whether or not our informants are correct determines whether or not our explanations of their beliefs and behaviors make sense. Consequently, he says that it should be an anthropological concern whether or not the supernatural exists. So, while anthropologists may accurately depict their informant’s claims and experiences concerning the supernatural as true within the informant’s own religious system, that depiction is simultaneously, either implicitly or explicitly, painted as false by the naturalistic assumptions in anthropology. Thus, the anthropologist’s work becomes a negative judgment of the informant’s worldview. Also, invoking cultural relativism in our approach does little to help; either we suspend our value judgments, or we do not. We cannot have it both ways.
There is no easy resolution to this difficulty. Clearly, the naturalistic assumption in anthropology and in the sciences is supported by an incredible amount of empirical data. Equally clear is the fact that many religious people reject that assumption in favor of some supernatural explanation. So, how does the anthropologist respect and value perspectives that he or she believes to be false?
On December 4, 1998, at the 97th meeting of the American Anthropological Association in Philadelphia, there was a session titled, “The Spirit Hypothesis: Scientific and Participant Validation.” Papers were presented by Antonia C. Mills, David J. Hufford, Michael J. Harner, and Yves Marton, who was the session organizer. Helmut Wautischer chaired the session, and Edith Turner was the discussant. Mills’ paper argued that anthropology, and other disciplines, knew too little about “soul-stuff…to discount nonwestern conceptions as invalid.” Hufford discussed the “spirit hypothesis” and why it was desirable to systematically investigate it in anthropology, regardless of whether or not the spirit hypothesis was true, false, or indeterminate. Harner pointed out that the spirit hypothesis was not falsifiable, in the Popperian sense, and that the scientific view—that spirits do not exist—was also not a falsifiable position. Harner also argued that spirit encounters are empirical facts to shamans, based on their own experiences, and not just matters of faith. Finally, Marton explored how religious leaders and spiritual leaders, compared to anthropologists, differently interpret evidence.
That session was so well attended that every square foot of floor space had someone occupying it. After the chairs filled up, people sat on the floor and overflowed into the hallway, and so many questions followed the discussion that the session ran over its allotted time.
A number of questions and discussion also concerned “people of faith” in anthropology. The importance of this session is that it has generated much subsequent discussion and research. This session highlighted what remains an important problem in anthropology.
In spite of the materialistic and naturalistic assumption that divides anthropology and religion, some aspects of anthropological research have proven useful in religious studies. Anthropological archaeology, linguistic anthropology, and cultural anthropology have all made contributions to studies of the world’s sacred texts. Likewise, cultural and linguistic studies have produced many missionaries that are more sensitive to the cultural differences of the people they proselytize. Also, courses whose content is largely anthropological can be found in religion departments at a lot of faith-based colleges and universities. Such courses are offered to a number of different majors: intercultural studies, missiology, pastoral ministry, theology, and Bible majors, to name a few. Apparently, in many areas not directly associated with the supernatural, there is plenty of room for anthropology to inform religious studies.
The study of religion will continue to be important to anthropology, and, no doubt, the results will also continue to be of interest to religious and spiritual leaders, whether or not they accept the anthropological view.
- Durkheim, E. (1915). The elementary forms of the religious life (J. W. Swain, Trans.). London: George Allen & Unwin.
- Harner, M. J. (1998, December). Science, shamanism, and spirits. Paper presented at the 97th Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association, Philadelphia, PA.
- Hufford, D. J. (1998, December). The priority of local observation and local interpretation in evaluating “the spirit hypothesis” Paper presented at the 97th Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association, Philadelphia, PA.
- Tylor, E. (1873). Primitive culture: Researches into the development of mythology, philosophy, religion, language, art, and custom (2nd ed.). London: John Murray.