The Anthropology of Religion

The anthropology of religion is the empirical study of religious institutions in relation to other social institutions, comparing religious beliefs and practices across culture. The point of view is one of cultural relativity, not evaluating one kind of religion as more correct or sophisticated than another, but rather, looking how they function within the societies which have them. This type of study is not particularly welcome to those who committed to the idea that their religion is an accurate representation of ultimate reality, to the exclusion of others.

Anthropologist Anthony F.C. Wallace (1923 – ), who has done extensive work with Native American cultures, proposes four categories of religions through which a society progresses.

1. The Individualistic is the most basic, where a person sets out to make contact with supernatural reality through a ritual such as the vision quest.

2. In the Shamanistic, part-time practitioners who have acquired the power to compel particular entities in the spirit world, use their special expertise to heal, divine, curse, or change something in the material world, usually on behalf of a client. They are generally associated with primitive cultures, but have their modern equivalents in tarot readers, seance leaders, and energy healers.

3. Communal religion has an elaborate set of beliefs and practices. People are grouped by lineage, age, or degrees of knowledge.

4. The ecclesiastical form of religion, which is the most complex, is what we generally think of when we hear the word “organized religion”. It incorporates the elements of the previous three, and includes a formally ordained priesthood, sacred objects, set rituals in holy places, a common system of values and beliefs, and a holy scripture including stories which model ideal behavior.

Where does religion come from? Anthropologists see religion as a system that is created by a human community as a projection of its social values. In the words of the French sociologist Emile Durkleim’s (1858 – 1970): “Religion is society worshiping itself.” Religious practices and beliefs have a social function, and reflect political or economical practices. Spiritual awakenings do not occur in a vacuum, but are harbingers of profound changes in the individuals or group involved. Religions are generally conservative and difficult to change, but in times of upheaval, new prophetic voices upset the apple cart of tradition.

Although religion has been rejected by many Westerners as being unscientific, anthropologists assume that there must be solid underlying reasons for the endurance of religion. They try to dig underneath the literal claims of religion to find its metaphorical meaning and latent social function.

Religions reinforce group norms, supporting social solidarity. They establish a coherent world view undergirded by divine power. They help establish social control by defining right and wrong behavior, and passing on stories which provide precedents for admirable acts. Religious beliefs provide shape and meaning to human experience, imposing a sense of order on the chaos of life. They provide understanding and meaning for inexplicable events, help relieve anxieties about sickness, death and the unknown, and give adepts some hope of influencing the course of their lives by appealing to supernatural powers. The performance of rituals creates a sense of the sacred, providing orderliness, meaning, comfort, and feelings of exaltation.

Religions lift some of the burden of decision-making from the shoulders of the faithful by telling them what is right and what is wrong. They fulfil social needs and create a sense of identity and belonging. Religious values seep into the culture at large, affecting even the most profound skeptic. The study of humankind would not be complete without an exploration of the form, function and meaning of religious organizations and traditions.

Sources and resources:
Compendium of websites about the anthropology of religion
Wikipedia entry
Tutorial on the anthropology of religion