Religion and Anthropology


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Syllabi - Topic: religion and anthropology / sociology - 38 results

Figure 3: A spirit house in Thailand. The houses provide shelter for local spirits that could trouble humans if they become displeased. If humans contain a supernatural spirit, essence, or soul, it is logical to think that non-human entities may have their own sparks of the divine. Religions based on the idea that plants, animals, inanimate objects, and even natural phenomena like weather have a spiritual or supernatural element are called animism.

The first anthropological description of animism came from Sir Edward Burnett Tylor, who believed it was the earliest type of religious practice to develop in human societies. When people dream, they may perceive that they have traveled to another place, or may be able to communicate with deceased members of their families. This sense of altered consciousness gives rise to ideas that the world is more than it seems.


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Tylor suggested that these experiences, combined with a pressing need to answer questions about the meaning of life, were the basis for all religious systems. No belief system is inherently more sophisticated than another. Several animist religions exist today and have millions of adherents. One of the most well-known is Shintoism, the traditional religion of Japan. Shintoism recognizes spirits known as kami that exist in plants, animals, rocks, places and sometimes people. Certain locations have particularly strong connections to the kami, including mountains, forests, waterfalls, and shrines.

Shinto shrines in Japan are marked by torii gates that mark the separation between ordinary reality and sacred space Figure 4. In general, gods are extremely powerful and not part of nature—not human, or animal. Despite their unnaturalness, many gods have personalities or qualities that are recognizable and relatable to humans.

They are often anthropomorphic, imagined in human form, or zoomorphic , imagined in animal form. In some religions, gods interact directly with humans while in others they are more remote. Anthropologists categorize belief systems organized around a God or gods using the terms monotheism and polytheism. Monotheistic religions recognize a single supreme God.

The largest monotheistic religions in the world today are Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. Together these religions have more than 3. Religious beliefs are an important element of social control because these beliefs help to define acceptable behaviors as well as punishments, including supernatural consequences, for misbehavior. One well-known example are the ideas expressed in the Ten Commandments, which are incorporated in the teachings of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism and prohibit behaviors such as theft, murder, adultery, dishonesty, and jealousy while also emphasizing the need for honor and respect between people.

Behavior that violates the commandments brings both social disapproval from other members of the religious community and potential punishment from God. Buddhists follow the teachings of Buddha, who was an ordinary human who achieved wisdom through study and discipline. There is no God or gods in Buddhism. Instead, individuals who practice Buddhism use techniques like meditation to achieve the insight necessary to lead a meaningful life and ultimately, after many lifetimes, to achieve the goal of nirvana , release from suffering.

Although Buddhism defies easy categorization into any anthropological category, there is an element of animatism represented by karma , a moral force in the universe.

Anthropological Approach

Kindness toward others, for instance, yields positive karma while acts that are disapproved in Buddhist teachings, such as killing an animal, create negative karma. The amount of positive karma a person builds-up in a lifetime is important because it will determine how the individual will be reborn. Reincarnation , the idea that a living being can begin another life in a new body after death, is a feature of several religions. Rebirth in a human form is considered good fortune because humans have the ability to control their own thoughts and behaviors.

They can follow the Noble Eightfold Path, rules based on the teachings of Buddha that emphasize the need for discipline, restraint, humility, and kindness in every aspect of life. The most easily observed elements of any religious belief system are rituals. In a wedding ceremony in the United States, the white color of the wedding dress is a traditional symbol of purity.

A large amount of anthropological research has focused on identifying and interpreting religious rituals in a wide variety of communities.

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Although the details of these practices differ in various cultural settings, it is possible to categorize them into types based on their goals. One type of ritual is a rite of passage , a ceremony designed to transition individuals between life stages. In his original description of rites of passage, Arnold Van Gennep noted that these rituals were carried out in three distinct stages: separation, liminality, and incorporation. During the first stage, individuals are removed from their current social identity and begin preparations to enter the next stage of life.

The liminal period that follows is a time in which individuals often undergo tests, trials, or activities designed to prepare them for their new social roles. In the final stage of incorporation, individuals return to the community with a new socially recognized status. Rites of passage that transition children into a new status as adults are common around the world.

In Xhosa communities in South Africa, teenage boys were traditionally transitioned to manhood using a series of acts that moved them through each of the three ritual stages. In the separation stage, the boys leave their homes and are circumcised; they cannot express distress or signs of pain during the procedure. Following the circumcision, they live in isolation while their wounds heal, a liminal phase during which they do not talk to anyone other than boys who are also undergoing the rite of passage.

This stressful time helps to build bonds between the boys that will follow them through their lives as adult men. Before their journey home, the isolated living quarters are burned to the ground, symbolizing the loss of childhood. When the participants return to their community, the incorporation phase, they are recognized as men and allowed to learn the secret stories of the community. Rites of intensification are also extremely common in communities worldwide. These rituals are used to bind members of the community together, to create a sense of communitas or unity that encourages people to see themselves as members of community.

One particularly dramatic example of this ritual is the Nagol land diving ceremony held each spring on the island of Pentecost in Vanuatu in the South Pacific. Like many rituals, land diving has several goals. One of these is to help ensure a good harvest by impressing the spirits with a dramatic display of bravery.

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To accomplish this, men from the community construct wooden towers sixty to eighty feet high, tie ropes made from tree vines around their ankles, and jump head-first toward theground Figure 5. Preparations for the land diving involve almost every member of the community. Men spend a month or more working together to build the tower and collect the vines. The women of the community prepare special costumes and dances for the occasion and everyone takes care of land divers who may be injured during the dive.

Both the preparations for the land diving and the festivities that follow are a powerful rite of intensification. Interestingly, the ritual is simultaneously a rite of passage; boys can be recognized as men by jumping from high portions of the tower witnessed by elders of the community. Figure 5: Land diving on Pentecost Island, Vanatu. All rites of revitalization originate in difficult or even catastrophic circumstances.

One notable example is a ritual that developed on the island of Tanna in the South Pacific.

158: Religion and Anthropology

Tanna was one of these locations and this formerly isolated community experienced an extremely rapid transformation as the U. One possible explanation was that the foreign materials had been given to the islanders by a powerful deity or ancestral spirit, an entity who eventually acquired the name John Frum. When the war ended and the U. The ritual is intended to attract John Frum, and the material wealth he controls, back to the island. Although the ritual has not yet had its intended transformative effect, the participants continue the ritual. Since rituals can be extremely complicated and the outcome is of vital importance to the community, specialist practitioners are often charged with responsibility for supervising the details.

In many settings, religious specialists have a high social status and are treated with great respect. Some may become relatively wealthy by charging for their services while others may be impoverished, sometimes deliberately as a rejection of the material world. There is no universal terminology for religious practitioners, but there are three important categories: priests, prophets, and shamans. Priests , who may be of any gender, are full-time religious practitioners.

The position of priest emerges only in societies with substantial occupational specialization. Priests are the intermediaries between God or the gods and humans. Religious traditions vary in terms of the qualifications required for individuals entering the priesthood. In Christian traditions, it is common for priests to complete a program of formal higher education.

Hindu priests, known as pujari , must learn the sacred language Sanskrit and spend many years becoming proficient in Hindu ceremonies. They must also follow strict lifestyle restrictions such as a vegetarian diet. Traditionally, only men from the Brahmin caste were eligible to become pujari, but this is changing. Today, people from other castes, as well as women, are joining the priesthood.

One notable feature of societies that utilize full-time spiritual practitioners is a separation between ordinary believers and the God or gods. As intermediaries, priests have substantial authority to set the rules associated with worship practice and to control access to religious rites. The term shaman has been used for hundreds of years to refer to a part time religious practitioner.

MSc Social Anthropology (Religion in the Contemporary World)

Shamans carry out religious rituals when needed, but also participate in the normal work of the community. An important quality of a shaman is the ability to transcend normal reality in order to communicate with and perhaps even manipulate supernatural forces in an alternate world. This ability can be inherited or learned. Among the Chukchi, who live in northern Russia, the role of the shaman is thought to be a special calling, one that may be especially appropriate for people whose personality traits seem abnormal in the context of the community.

Young people who suffer from nervousness, anxiety, or moodiness, for example may feel a call to take up shamanistic practice. Entering an altered state, which can be achieved through dreams, hallucinogenic drugs, rhythmic music, exhaustion through dance, or other means, makes it possible for shamans to directly engage with the supernatural realm. Shamans of the upper Amazon in South America have been using ayahuasca , a drink made from plants that have hallucinogenic effects, for centuries.

The effects of ayahuasca start with the nervous system:. One under the control of the narcotic sees unroll before him quite a spectacle: most lovely landscapes, monstrous animals, vipers which approach and wind down his body or are entwined like rolls of thick cable, at a few centimeters distance; as well, one sees who are true friends and those who betray him or who have done him ill; he observes the cause of the illness which he sustains, at the same time being presented with the most advantageous remedy; he takes part in fantastic hunts; the things which he most dearly loves or abhors acquire in these moments extraordinary vividness and color, and the scenes in which his life normally develop adopt the most beautiful and emotional expression.

Among the Shipibo people of Peru, ayahuasca is thought to be the substance that allows the soul of a shaman to leave his body in order to retrieve a soul that has been lost or stolen. In many cultures, soul loss is the predominant explanation for illness. The Shipibo believe that the soul is a separate entity from the body, one that is capable of leaving and returning at will.

Shamans can also steal souls. The community shaman, under the influence of ayahuasca, is able to find and retrieve a soul, perhaps even killing the enemy as revenge. Anthropologist Scott Hutson has described similarities between the altered state of consciousness achieved by shamans and the mental states induced during a rave, a large dance party characterized by loud music with repetitive patterns. In a rave, bright lights, exhausting dance, and sometimes the use of hallucinogenic drugs, induce similar psychological effects to shamanic trancing.

A prophet is a person who claims to have direct communication with the supernatural realm and who can communicate divine messages to others. Many religious communities originated with prophecies, including Islam which is based on teachings revealed to the prophet Muhammad by God. In Christianity and Judaism, Moses is an example of a prophet who received direct revelations from God. Another example of a historically significant prophet is Joseph Smith who founded the Church of Latter Day Saints, after receiving a prophecy from an angel named Moroni who guided him to the location of a buried set of golden plates.

The information from the golden plates became the basis for the Book of Mormon. The major distinction between a priest and the prophet is the source of their authority. A priest gets his or her authority from the scripture and occupational position in a formally organized religious institution. A prophet derives authority from his or her direct connection to the divine and ability to convince others of his or her legitimacy through charisma. The kind of insight and guidance prophets offer can be extremely compelling, particularly in times of social upheaval or suffering.

The Branch Davidians were millenarians , people who believe that major transformations of the world are imminent. David Koresh was extremely charismatic; he was handsome and an eloquent speaker. Koresh was so influential that when the United States government did eventually try to enter the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas in to search for illegal weapons, members of the group resisted and exchanged gunfire with federal agents. Eventually, under circumstances that are still disputed, a fire erupted in the compound and eighty-six people, including Koresh, were killed.

Anthropology offers a unique perspective for the study of religious beliefs, the way people think about the supernatural, and how the values and behaviors these beliefs inspire contribute to the lives of individuals and communities. No single set of theories or vocabulary can completely capture the richness of the religious diversity that exists in the world today, but cultural anthropology provides a toolkit for understanding the emotional, social, and spiritual contributions that religion makes to the human experience. Animatism : a religious system organized around a belief in an impersonal supernatural force.

Animism: a religious system organized around a belief that plants, animals, inanimate objects, or natural phenomena have a spiritual or supernatural element. Anthropomorphic: an object or being that has human characteristics. Cargo cult : a term sometimes used to describe rituals that seek to attract material prosperity. The term is generally not preferred by anthropologists. Collective effervescence: the passion or energy that arises when groups of people share the same thoughts and emotions. Cosmology : an explanation for the origin or history of the world.

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Cultural appropriation : the act of copying an idea from another culture and in the process distorting its meaning. Filial piety : a tradition requiring that the young provide care for the elderly and in some cases ancestral spirits. Millenarians: people who believe that major transformations of the world are imminent. Monotheistic : religious systems that recognize a single supreme God. Polytheistic : religious systems that recognize several gods.

Profane : objects or ideas are ordinary and can be treated with disregard or contempt. Prophet: a person who claims to have direct communication with the supernatural realm and who can communicate divine messages to others. Reincarnation: the idea that a living being can begin another life in a new body after death. Religion : the extension of human society and culture to include the supernatural. Revitalization rituals : attempts to resolve serious problems, such as war, famine or poverty through a spiritual or supernatural intervention. Rite of intensification : actions designed to bring a community together, often following a period of crisis.

Rite of passage : a ceremony designed to transition individuals between life stages. Sacred : objects or ideas are set apart from the ordinary and treated with great respect or care. Shaman : a part time religious practitioner who carries out religious rituals when needed, but also participates in the normal work of the community.

Welcome to Anthropology of Magic, Witchcraft, and Religion!

Sorcerer : an individual who seeks to use magic for his or her own purposes. Supernatural: describes entities or forces not governed by natural laws. Zoomorphic : an object or being that has animal characteristics. 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.

Joel Robbins , 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. 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. They share a tendency to emphasize the capacity of ritual to generate feelings of certainty and continuity. 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. 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, Bloch 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. 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. 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 have analyzed ritual that involves complex forms of resistance quite as much as submission. 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. His piece describes a ritualized tribute paid by the writer V.

Religion in this sense can be seen as deploying spirits as explanatory principles much as a scientist might use atoms or molecules. 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. Other authors in the Durkheimian school provided significant perspectives on the physical workings and symbolism of the body. 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. 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 , in his studies of healing, language use, and spatial orientation among charismatic Catholics in America. Important work has also been carried out on the relationship between gendered experience and religious engagement e.

Language mediates much religious activity, ranging from spells to prayers to texts. An early piece by Bloch 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 For him, a fundamental question is: What, if anything, is particular to religious language? 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.

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 s 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.

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 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.

Writing of the postcolonial period in South Africa but also highlighting resonances with other postrevolutionary societies, Jean Comaroff and John Comaroff 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.

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.

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. Eickelman and Anderson p. 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. Hirschkind focuses on the role of the cassette sermon in promoting Islamic revival.

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