Anthropology of religion

Anthropology of religion is the study of religion in relation to other social institutions, and the comparison of religious beliefs and practices across cultures.[1]


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

Anthropology circa 1940 assumed that religion is in complete continuity with magical thinking,[a][3] and that it is a cultural product.[b][4] The complete continuity between magic and religion has been a postulate of modern anthropology at least since early 1930s.[c][6] 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."[7] In 1841, Ludwig Feuerbach was the first to employ this concept as the basis for a systematic critique of religion.[8] A prominent precursor in the formulation of this projection principle was Giambattista Vico,[9] 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."[10]

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";[11] in short, "religion is society worshiping itself".[12][13]

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.[14] 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.[15]

Definition of religion

One major problem in the anthropology of religion is the definition of religion itself.[16] 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 Clifford 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."[17]

Today, religious anthropologists debate, and 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.[16]

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.[18]

  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

See also


  1. ^ In 1944, Ernst Cassirer wrote:

    It seems to be one of the postulates of modern anthropology that there is complete continuity between magic and religion. [note 35: See, for instance, RR Marett, Faith, Hope, and Charity in Primitive Religion, the Gifford Lectures (Macmillan, 1932), Lecture II, pp. 21 ff.] ... We have no empirical evidence at all that there ever was an age of magic that has been followed and superseded by an age of religion.[3]

  2. ^ T. M. Manickam wrote:

    Religious anthropology suggests that every religion is a product of the cultural evolution, more or less coherent, of one race or people; and this cultural product is further enriched by its interaction and cross-fertilization with other peoples and their cultures, in whose vicinity the former originated and evolved.[4]

  3. ^ R. R. Marett wrote:

    In conclusion, a word must be said on a rather trite subject. Many leading anthropologists, including the author of The Golden Bough, would wholly or in the main refuse the title of religion to these almost inarticulate ceremonies of very humble folk. I am afraid, however, that I cannot follow them. Nay, I would not leave out a whole continent from a survey of the religions of mankind in order to humour the most distinguished of my friends. Now clearly if these observances are not to be regarded as religious, like a wedding in church, so neither can they be classed as civil, like its drab equivalent at a registry office. They are mysteries, and are therefore at least generically akin to religion. Moreover, they are held in the highest public esteem as of infinite worth whether in themselves or for their effects. To label them, then, with the opprobrious name of magic as if they were on a par with the mummeries that enable certain knaves to batten on the nerves of fools is quite unscientific; for it mixes up two things which the student of human culture must keep rigidly apart, namely, a normal development of the social life and one of its morbid by-products. Hence for me they belong to religion, but of course to rudimentary religion—to an early phase of the same world-wide institution that we know by that name among ourselves. I am bound to postulate the strictest continuity between these stages of what I have here undertaken to interpret as a natural growth.[5]



  1. ^ Adams 2017; Eller 2007, p. 2.
  2. ^ Walbridge 1998.
  3. ^ a b Cassirer 2006, pp. 122–123.
  4. ^ a b Manickam 1977, p. 6.
  5. ^ Marett 1932.
  6. ^ Cassirer 2006, pp. 122–123; Marett 1932.
  7. ^ Guthrie 2000, pp. 225–226; Harvey 1996, p. 67; Pandian 1997.
  8. ^ Feuerbach 1841; Harvey 1995, p. 4; Mackey 2000; Nelson 1990.
  9. ^ Cotrupi 2000, p. 21; Harvey 1995, p. 4.
  10. ^ Harvey 1995, p. 4.
  11. ^ Durkheim 1912; Bowie 1999, pp. 15, 143.
  12. ^ Nelson 1990.
  13. ^ Durkheim, p.266 in the 1963 edition
  14. ^ Eller 2007, p. 22; Weber 2002.
  15. ^ Eller 2007, p. 4.
  16. ^ a b Eller 2007, p. 7.
  17. ^ Geertz 1966, p. 4.
  18. ^ Rathman, Jessica. "Anthony Francis Clarke Wallace". Archived from the original on 27 November 2003. Retrieved 22 November 2017.


Adams, Charles Joseph (2017). "Classification of Religions". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 22 November 2017.
Bowie, Fiona (1999). The Anthropology of Religion: An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell.
Cassirer, Ernst (2006) [1944]. Lukay, Maureen (ed.). An Essay On Man: An Introduction to a Philosophy of Human Culture. Hamburg: Meiner. ISBN 978-3-7873-1423-2.
Cotrupi, Caterina Nella (2000). Northrop Frye and the Poetics of Process. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. ISBN 978-0-8020-8141-4.
Durkheim, Émile (1912). The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life.
Eller, J. D. (2007). Introducing Anthropology of Religion. New York: Routledge. ISBN 978-0-203-94624-4.
Feuerbach, Ludwig (1841). The Essence of Christianity.
Geertz, Clifford (1966). "Religion as a Cultural System". In Banton, Michael (ed.). Anthropological Approaches to the Study of Religion. London: Tavistock (published 2006). pp. 1–46. ISBN 978-0-415-33021-3.
Guthrie, Stewart Elliott (2000). "Projection". In Braun, Willi; McCutcheon, Russell T. (eds.). Guide to the Study of Religion. London: Cassell. ISBN 978-0-304-70176-6.
Harvey, Van A. (1995). Feuerbach and the Interpretation of Religion. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press (published 1997). ISBN 978-0-521-58630-6.
 ———  (1996). "Projection: A Metaphor in Search of a Theory?". In Philips, D. Z. (ed.). Can Religion Be Explained Away?. Claremont Studies in the Philosophy of Religion. London: Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 66–82. doi:10.1007/978-1-349-24858-2_4. ISBN 978-1-349-24860-5.
Mackey, James Patrick (2000). The Critique of Theological Reason. Cambridge University Press.
Manickam, T. M. (1977). Dharma According to Manu and Moses. Bangalore: Dharmaram Publications.
Marett, Robert Ranulph (1932). Faith, Hope and, Charity in Primitive Religion. New York: Macmillan Company. Retrieved 21 November 2017.
Nelson, John K. (1990). A Field Statement on the Anthropology of Religion. Berkeley, California: University of California, Berkeley. Archived from the original on 2 March 2007. Retrieved 21 November 2017.
Pandian, Jacob (1997). "The Sacred Integration of the Cultural Self: An Anthropological Approach to the Study of Religion". In Glazier, Stephen D. (ed.). Anthropology of Religion: A Handbook. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger.
Walbridge, John (1998). "Explaining Away the Greek Gods in Islam". Journal of the History of Ideas. 59 (3): 389–403. doi:10.1353/jhi.1998.0030. ISSN 1086-3222.
Weber, Max (2002). Baehr, Peter R.; Wells, Gordon C. (eds.). The Protestant Ethic and the "Spirit" of Capitalism and Other Writings. Translated by Baehr, Peter R.; Wells, Gordon C. New York: Penguin Books. ISBN 978-0-14-043921-2.

External links


Animism (from Latin anima, "breath, spirit, life") is the religious belief that objects, places and creatures all possess a distinct spiritual essence. Potentially, animism perceives all things—animals, plants, rocks, rivers, weather systems, human handiwork and perhaps even words—as animated and alive. Animism is used in the anthropology of religion as a term for the belief system of many indigenous peoples, especially in contrast to the relatively more recent development of organised religions.Although each culture has its own different mythologies and rituals, "animism" is said to describe the most common, foundational thread of indigenous peoples' "spiritual" or "supernatural" perspectives. The animistic perspective is so widely held and inherent to most indigenous peoples that they often do not even have a word in their languages that corresponds to "animism" (or even "religion"); the term is an anthropological construct.

Largely due to such ethnolinguistic and cultural discrepancies, opinion has differed on whether animism refers to an ancestral mode of experience common to indigenous peoples around the world, or to a full-fledged religion in its own right. The currently accepted definition of animism was only developed in the late 19th century (1871) by Sir Edward Tylor, who created it as "one of anthropology's earliest concepts, if not the first".Animism encompasses the beliefs that all material phenomena have agency, that there exists no hard and fast distinction between the spiritual and physical (or material) world and that soul or spirit or sentience exists not only in humans, but also in other animals, plants, rocks, geographic features such as mountains or rivers or other entities of the natural environment, including thunder, wind and shadows. Animism may further attribute souls to abstract concepts such as words, true names or metaphors in mythology. Some members of the non-tribal world also consider themselves animists (such as author Daniel Quinn, sculptor Lawson Oyekan and many contemporary Pagans).

Anthropological Perspectives on Religion

Anthropological Perspectives on Religion (Anpere), is an open access journal founded in 2006 by Swedish anthropologists Pierre Wiktorin and André Möller. The journal's focus is anthropology of religion.

Apotropaic magic

Apotropaic magic (from Greek αποτρέπειν "to ward off" from από- "away" and τρέπειν "to turn") is a type of magic intended to turn away harm or evil influences, as in deflecting misfortune or averting the evil eye. Apotropaic observances may also be practiced out of vague superstition or out of tradition, as in good luck charms (perhaps some token on a charm bracelet), amulets, or gestures such as crossed fingers or knocking on wood. The Greeks made offerings to the "averting gods" (ἀποτρόπαιοι θεοί, apotropaioi theoi), chthonic deities and heroes who grant safety and deflect evil.

Archaeology of religion and ritual

The archaeology of religion and ritual is a growing field of study within archaeology that applies ideas from religious studies, theory and methods, anthropological theory, and archaeological and historical methods and theories to the study of religion and ritual in past human societies from a material perspective.


The term charisma () has two senses:

compelling attractiveness or charm that can inspire devotion in others

a divinely conferred power or talentIn discussing sense 1, scholars in sociology, political science, psychology, and management reserve the term for a type of leadership seen as extraordinary; in these fields, the term "charisma" is used to describe a particular type of leader who uses "values-based, symbolic, and emotion-laden leader signaling".In some theological usages, the term appears as charism, with a meaning the same as sense 2.Since the advent of Dungeons & Dragons in 1974, the word charisma has also been used as a "mental attribute" within the context of tabletop and video gaming, alongside intelligence and wisdom, where it designates strength of personality, persuasiveness, personal magnetism, and leadership ability.


Evocation is the act of calling upon or summoning a spirit, demon, god or other supernatural agent, in the Western mystery tradition. Comparable practices exist in many religions and magical traditions and may employ the use of mind-altering substances with and without uttered word formulas.


A fetish (derived from the French fétiche; which comes from the Portuguese feitiço; and this in turn from Latin facticius, "artificial" and facere, "to make") is an object believed to have supernatural powers, or in particular, a human-made object that has power over others. Essentially, fetishism is the emic attribution of inherent value or powers to an object.


An invocation (from the Latin verb invocare "to call on, invoke, to give") may take the form of:

Supplication, prayer or spell.

A form of possession.

Command or conjuration.

Self-identification with certain spirits.These forms are described below, but are not mutually exclusive.

See also Theurgy.

Law of contagion

The law of contagion is a magical law that suggests that once two people or objects have been in contact a magical link persists between them unless or until a formal cleansing, consecration, exorcism, or other act of banishing breaks the non-material bond. The first description of the law of contagion appeared in The Golden Bough by James George Frazer. Bonewits and Bonewits have noted parallels in quantum physics.

Malaysian folk religion

Malaysian folk religion refers to the animistic and polytheistic beliefs and practices that are still held by many in the Islamic-majority country of Malaysia. Malaysian folk faith is practiced either openly or covertly depending on the type of rituals performed.

Some forms of belief are not recognised by the government as a religion for statistical purposes although such practices are not outlawed. There is a deep interaction between the Chinese folk religion of the large Malaysian Chinese population, and the indigenous Malaysian folk religion.


Mana, in Austronesian languages, means "power", "effectiveness", and "prestige". In most cases, this power and its source are understood to be supernatural and inexplicable. Its semantics are language-dependent. The concept is significant in Polynesian culture and is part of contemporary Pacific Islander culture; it came to the attention of Western anthropologists through reports from island missionaries. Its study was included in cultural anthropology—specifically, the anthropology of religion. Links were seen between mana and earlier phases of Western religion: animism at first, followed by pre-animism.

Myth and ritual

Myth and ritual are two central components of religious practice. Although myth and ritual are commonly united as parts of religion, the exact relationship between them has been a matter of controversy among scholars. One of the approaches to this problem is "the myth and ritual, or myth-ritualist, theory," held notably by the so-called Cambridge Ritualists, which holds that "myth does not stand by itself but is tied to ritual." This theory is still disputed; many scholars now believe that myth and ritual share common paradigms, but not that one developed from the other.

Prehistoric religion

Prehistoric religions are the religious beliefs and practices of prehistoric peoples. The term may cover Paleolithic religion, Mesolithic religion, Neolithic religion and Bronze Age religions.


The Rajamandala (or Raja-mandala meaning "circle of kings"; मण्डल, mandala is a Sanskrit word that means "circle") was formulated by the Indian author Kautilya in his work on politics, the Arthashastra (written between 4th century BC and 2nd century AD). It describes circles of friendly and enemy states surrounding the king's (raja) state.

Rite of passage

A rite of passage is a ceremony or ritual of the passage which occurs when an individual leaves one group to enter another. It involves a significant change of status in society. In cultural anthropology the term is the Anglicisation of rite de passage, a French term innovated by the ethnographer Arnold van Gennep in his work Les rites de passage, "The Rites of Passage". The term is now fully adopted into anthropology as well as into the literature and popular cultures of many modern languages.

Sympathetic magic

Sympathetic magic, also known as imitative magic, is a type of magic based on imitation or correspondence.


A totem (Ojibwe doodem) is a spirit being, sacred object, or symbol that serves as an emblem of a group of people, such as a family, clan, lineage, or tribe.

While the term totem is derived from the North American Ojibwe language, belief in tutelary spirits and deities is not limited to indigenous peoples of the Americas but common to a number of cultures worldwide. However, the traditional people of those cultures have words for their guardian spirits in their own languages, and do not call these spirits or symbols "totems".

Contemporary neoshamanic, New Age, and mythopoetic men's movements not otherwise involved in the practice of a tribal religion have been known to use "totem" terminology for the personal identification with a tutelary spirit or guide, however this is generally seen by the originating cultures as cultural misappropriation.

Transpersonal anthropology

Transpersonal anthropology is a subdiscipline of cultural anthropology and transpersonal studies. It studies the relationship between altered states of consciousness and culture.


The word zoomorphism derives from the Greek ζωον (zōon), meaning "animal", and μορφη (morphē), meaning "shape" or "form". It can mean:

Art that imagines humans as non-human animals

Art that portrays one species of animal like another species of animal

Art that creates patterns using animal imagery, or animal style

Deities depicted in animal form, such as exist in ancient Egyptian religion

Therianthropy: the ability to shapeshift into animal form

Attributing animal form or other animal characteristics to anything other than an animal; similar to but broader than anthropomorphism

The tendency of viewing human behaviour in terms of the behaviour of animals, contrary to anthropomorphism, which views animal or non-animal behaviour in human terms

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