Anthropology of Religion: The Basics
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Anthropology of Religion: The Basics

James S Bielo

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Anthropology of Religion: The Basics

James S Bielo

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Anthropology of Religion: The Basics is an accessible and engaging introductory text organized around key issues that all anthropologists of religion face. This book uses a wide range of historical and ethnographic examples to address not only what is studied by anthropologists of religion, but how such studies are approached. It addresses questions such as:

  • How do human agents interact with gods and spirits?


  • What is the nature of doing religious ethnography?


  • Can the immaterial be embodied in the body, language and material objects?


  • What is the role of ritual, time, and place in religion?


  • Why is charisma important for religious movements?


  • How do global processes interact with religions?


With international case studies from a range of religious traditions, suggestions for further reading, and inventive reflection boxes, Anthropology of Religion: The Basics is an essential read for students approaching the subject for the first time.

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Verlag
Routledge
Jahr
2015
ISBN
9781317542810

Anthropology of Religion

The Basics
Anthropology of Religion: The Basics is an accessible and engaging introductory text organized around key issues that all anthropologists of religion face. This book uses a wide range of historical and ethnographic examples to address not only what is studied by anthropologists of religion, but how such studies are approached. It addresses such questions as:
  • How do human agents interact with gods and spirits?
  • What is the nature of doing religious ethnography?
  • Can the immaterial be embodied in the body, language and material objects?
  • What is the role of ritual, time, and place in religion?
  • Why is charisma important for religious movements?
  • How do global processes interact with religions?
With international case studies from a range of religious traditions, suggestions for further reading, and inventive reflection boxes, Anthropology of Religion: The Basics is an essential read for students approaching the subject for the first time.
James S. Bielo is a Lecturer in the Department of Anthropology at Miami University.
THE BASICS
  • ACTING BELLA MERLIN
  • AMERICAN PHILOSOPHY NANCY STANLICK
  • ANCIENT NEAR EAST DANIEL C. SNELL
  • ANTHROPOLOGY PETER METCALF
  • ARCHAEOLOGY (SECOND EDITION) CLIVE GAMBLE
  • ART HISTORY GRANT POOKE AND DIANA NEWALL
  • ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE KEVIN WARWICK
  • THE BIBLE JOHN BARTON
  • BIOETHICS ALASTAIR V. CAMPBELL
  • BUDDHISM CATHY CANTWELL
  • THE CITY KEVIN ARCHER
  • CONTEMPORARY LITERATURE SUMAN GUPTA
  • CRIMINAL LAW JONATHAN HERRING
  • CRIMINOLOGY (SECOND EDITION) SANDRA WALKLATE
  • DANCE STUDIES JO BUTTERWORTH
  • EASTERN PHILOSOPHY VICTORIA S. HARRISON
  • ECONOMICS (SECOND EDITION) TONY CLEAVER
  • EDUCATION KAY WOOD
  • ENERGY MICHAEL SCHOBERT
  • EUROPEAN UNION (SECOND EDITION) ALEX WARLEIGH-LACK
  • EVOLUTION SHERRIE LYONS
  • FILM STUDIES (SECOND EDITION) AMY VILLAREJO
  • FINANCE (SECOND EDITION) ERIK BANKS
  • FREE WILL MEGHAN GRIFFITH
  • GENDER HILARY LIPS
  • GLOBAL MIGRATION BERNADETTE HANLON AND THOMAS VICINIO
  • HUMAN GENETICS RICKI LEWIS
  • HUMAN GEOGRAPHY ANDREW JONES
  • INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS PETER SUTCH AND JUANITA ELIAS
  • ISLAM (SECOND EDITION) COLIN TURNER
  • JOURNALISM STUDIES MARTIN CONBOY
  • JUDAISM JACOB NEUSNER
  • LANGUAGE (SECOND EDITION) R.L. TRASK
  • LAW GARY SLAPPER AND DAVID KELLY
  • LITERARY THEORY (THIRD EDITION) HANS BERTENS
  • LOGIC J.C. BEALL
  • MANAGEMENT MORGEN WITZEL
  • MARKETING (SECOND EDITION) KARL MOORE AND NIKETH PAREEK
  • MEDIA STUDIES JULIAN MCDOUGALL
  • METAPHYSICS MICHAEL REA
  • THE OLYMPICS ANDY MIAH AND BEATRIZ GARCIA
  • PHILOSOPHY (FIFTH EDITION) NIGEL WARBURTON
  • PHYSICAL GEOGRAPHY JOSEPH HOLDEN
  • POETRY (SECOND EDITION) JEFFREY WAINWRIGHT
  • POLITICS (FIFTH EDITION) STEPHEN TANSEY AND NIGEL JACKSON
  • PUBLIC RELATIONS RON SMITH
  • THE QUR’AN MASSIMO CAMPANINI
  • RACE AND ETHNICITY PETER KIVISTO AND PAUL R. CROLL
  • RELIGION (SECOND EDITION) MALORY NYE
  • RELIGION AND SCIENCE PHILIP CLAYTON
  • RESEARCH METHODS NICHOLAS WALLIMAN
  • ROMAN CATHOLICISM MICHAEL WALSH
  • SEMIOTICS (SECOND EDITION) DANIEL CHANDLER
  • SHAKESPEARE (THIRD EDITION) SEAN MCEVOY
  • SOCIAL WORK MARK DOEL
  • SOCIOLOGY KEN PLUMMER
  • SPECIAL EDUCATIONAL NEEDS JANICE WEARMOUTH
  • SUBCULTURES ROSS HAENFLER
  • TELEVISION STUDIES TOBY MILLER
  • TERRORISM JAMES LUTZ AND BRENDA LUTZ
  • THEATRE STUDIES (SECOND EDITION) ROBERT LEACH
  • WOMEN’S STUDIES BONNIE SMITH
  • WORLD HISTORY PETER N. STEARNS

1 What is “Religion”?

DOI: 10.4324/9781315728407-1
Today’s anthropology of religion explores a wonderfully diverse range of phenomena. We chase and immerse ourselves in everything from the study of globalized religions (like Christianity and Islam) to sectarian movements, indigenous traditions, irreligious and anti-religious groups. To help orient our study of such groups and movements we consider an equally complex set of comparative topics. A partial listing includes magic, witchcraft, ritual, myth, shamanism, sorcery, divination, conversion, spirit possession, healing, prayer, prophecy, pilgrimage, humanitarian outreach, socio-political activism, missionization, religious change, and inter-religious dialogue.
What brings such a diverse collection together? What unites them all as expressions of the same category: “religion”? After all, religion as a human phenomenon cannot be reduced to any particular cultural expression or social form. So, then, what is religion?
This chapter’s title poses a seemingly simple question. Answering that question is a different story entirely. For readers seeking a definitive, succinct answer, please accept my apologies upfront. No such answer is coming. But, my bet and my hope is that by the end of this chapter you will appreciate why a definitive, succinct answer would be unhelpful and misleading. The goal of this chapter is to help you critically reflect on the category “religion”: what its nature might be, why different scholars at different times have advocated different ideas about this, and what value (if any) the category offers. We begin by comparing a series of anthropological definitions. Along the way, we ask what each teaches us about the problem of defining “religion.”

Defining is Theorizing

Why begin with definitions? It is not so we can pin down a final, triumphant understanding of the anthropology of religion’s organizing category. It is also not because this is a requisite discussion, an exercise we absolutely must do. (As we’ll see below, some scholars argue that any attempt to secure a unifying definition is a fool’s errand.) We begin with definitions because how a scholar defines religion reveals important insights about their basic assumptions and commitments in the study of religion. In short, definitions are clues to theoretical orientation.
Why does theory matter so much? Ultimately, theoretical orientation is instrumental in deciding what to study, what research questions matter most, what counts as data, how to collect data, how to analyze data, and how to represent what was studied. Different anthropologists at different points in the discipline’s history have favored certain orientations over others. Some have asked “What are the human origins of religion?” while others have asked “What does religion do for individuals and for societies?” “How do people use religion in everyday life?” “What is the psychological and emotional substance of religious experience?” “How does religion shape, and how is it shaped by, other social institutions?” or “What is unique about religion as a human phenomenon?” These divergent questions reflect different theoretical orientations. Comparing definitions is a good way to begin to grasp the differences and why they matter.
In the Preface we suggested that an anthropological approach to religion overlaps with, but is also distinct from, other social science and humanities disciplines. Ideally, an anthropological approach would do several things. It would be grounded in empirical research, primarily ethnographic and archival. It would be comparative, so that it is cross-culturally useful. It would not be geared toward creating hierarchies or separating “good” from “bad” religion. And, it would enhance broader anthropological aims like holism and cultural relativism. As we begin comparing definitions, ask how well each definition satisfies these ideals.
Below, we compare nine definitions. Our goal is not to decide which definition is ultimately correct, and it is not so we can intervene with our own final, triumphant definition. We follow the lead of Thomas Tweed, an historian and ethnographer of religion, who writes that definitions should be approached as “only more or less useful” (2006: 34). All of these definitions have something to teach us. This posture is helpful for two reasons. First, comparing definitions in this way is intellectually generous: it asks what is valuable about any given approach to the study of religion. Second, this posture encourages self-reflection: we are poised to better understand our own commitments when we consider why we are attracted to some definitions and not others, why we find some productive and others not.

A Primer

To begin, it is useful to observe that some of the most influential thinkers in the study of religion did not actually offer operational definitions. Rather, they articulated a theoretical sensibility, a way of thinking about religion. Consider three classic examples: Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and Max Weber.
Karl Marx (1818–83), a philosopher and early sociologist famous for his critique of industrial capitalism, did not produce a large volume of work about religion. His influence far outstrips the amount of words he penned (see Raines 2002 for a selection of these writings). But, in 1844 he published this widely cited statement in an essay, “Critique of Hegel’s ‘Philosophy of Right’”:
Man makes religion, religion does not make Man 
 Man is the world of Man, the state, society. This state, this society, produce religion, a reversed world consciousness, because they are a reversed world. Religion is the general theory of that world, its encyclopedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its universal ground for consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence because the human essence has no true reality 
 [Religion] is the opium of the people.
From this, two ideas about the nature of religion linger for many anthropologists. First, his opening statement, “Man makes religion,” is both theological and sociological. Marx was arguing against the idea that humans are somehow naturally religious and that religious systems have any origin other than human society. Religion is a human product. Second, Marx understood religion as a form of false consciousness, “a reversed world consciousness,” that distracts people from this-worldly problems (poverty, for example). Religion is a veil, blinding people to life’s pressing realities. Perhaps his most enduring phrase, “the opium of the people,” conveys his normative stance: religion is a drug. All this resonates with Marx’s broader framework of cultural and economic critique: industrial capitalism brutalizes workers and workers do not revolt because they remain blind to the conditions of their domination. Marx wanted to pull the curtain back, to reveal those brutal conditions. Naming religion as part of modern society’s false consciousness was part of this broader critique.
Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), one of psychology’s most recognizable figures, also viewed religion in negative terms. Unlike Marx, Freud did write a lot about religion. Beginning with a short essay in 1907, “Obsessive Actions and Religious Practices,” and continuing in three books—Totem and Taboo (1913), The Future of an Illusion (1927), and Moses and Monotheism (1937)—Freud presented religion as a kind of neurotic behavior and as a grand illusion. Religion lingers in modern life because it satisfies a base psychological need to feel protected from fears (death, for example). Like Marx, Freud’s approach was part of a larger project: psychoanalysis as an attempt to rid people of the psychological baggage that restricted their development into healthy mature adulthood. Naming religion as a dysfunctional hurdle to get over was part of this broader critique.
Max Weber (1864–1920), an extremely influential German sociologist, offers a less skewed posture for the study of religion. Weber’s most extensive case study of modern religion, The Protestant Ethic and the “Spirit” of Capitalism¾ was first published in 1905 (translated into English in 1930). This book explores how theology, morality, labor, social organization, and economic change are deeply entangled. Weber, a more sophisticated analyst of religion than Marx or Freud, also evades a definition. He wrote in a 1922 essay:
Definition can be attempted, if at all, only at the conclusion of the study. The essence of religion is not even our concern, as we make it our task to study the conditions and effects of a particular type of social behavior. The external courses of religious behaviors are so diverse that an understanding of this behavior can only be achieved from the viewpoint of the subjective experiences, ideas, and purposes of the individuals concerned—in short, from the viewpoint of the religious behavior’s “meaning.”
Weber makes some revealing statements here. First, he shifts the focus from “essence” to “conditions and effects.” While some scholars have persisted in trying to articulate what the essence of religion is, others have followed Weber’s lead in exploring the social sources and social consequences of religion. Second, Weber prioritizes “subjective experiences, ideas, and purposes,” or simply, the “meaning” of religion to religious adherents themselves. This suggests that scholars can and should seek to understand the inner life of religious people.
Marx, Freud, and Weber do not provide local (that is, culturally specific) or universal definitions of “religion.” What they do is articulate a sensibility, an approach, a way of studying religion. They are instructive for our analysis below because they begin to demonstrate how approach matters. Marx and Freud employ a hermeneutics of suspicion, which means they interpret religion as obscuring something more fundamental to human reality. For them, it is the scholar’s duty to see beyond religion’s mystifications and identify the more fundamental force (for Marx, it was economic conflict; for Freud, psychic turmoil). Weber was different. He was committed to contextualizing religion in the lived social world (“conditions and effects”), while also wanting to understand religion on its own terms (“meaning”). As we compare definitions, ask what kind of posture toward religion is being suggested. I have divided the nine definitions into two sets. The first four we’ll call “Foundational” because they were articulated early in anthropology’s development as a discipline and because they established certain terms of debate that still thrive.

Foundational Definitions

We begin with two “armchair” scholars, early contributors to what the scope of anthropological inquiry might be: an Englishman E.B. Tylor (1832–1917) and a Scot, James Frazer (1854–1941). Tylor and Frazer are often called armchair anthropologists because their writings relied on others’ reports (explorers and missionaries, for example), not their own ethnographic fieldwork.
In his 1871 volume Religion in Primitive Culture, Tylor penned what might be the first modern anthropological definition of religion. He aimed for simplicity, writing that all human religion is united by “belief in spiritual beings.” This simplicity was not incidental. He sought a common thread to connect Christianity’s monotheism and the animism of tribal societies recorded throughout his collection of archeological, missionary, and traveler accounts. Animism was a term Tylor made popular, meaning the attribution of spiritual will (or essence) to non-human entities (e.g., animals or features of the natural world). Tylor wanted a common thread in order to support his theory of cultural evolutionism_ all human societies were biologically similar but existed in different stages of a hierarchical progression. He saw the study of animism as the study of religious origins. “Belief in spiritual beings” was what linked the earliest form of religion to its evolutionary descendants of polytheism and monotheism.
Despite this theoretical agenda, which no modern anthropologist would support, Tylor articulated two commitments that have lingered in the anthropology of religion: a focus on belief and on the supernatural. By focusing on belief, Tylor focused on the inner psychological life of religious actors, ideas about the nature of life, an...

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