Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

Table of Contents | Cover Page  |  Editors  |  Contributors  |  Introduction  |  Web Version

Anthropological studies of religion had their beginnings in the late nineteenth century with the seminal works of Max Müller, W. Robertson Smith, Edward B. Tylor, and Sir James G. Frazer. These scholars, of course, were not the first to take an interest in the comparative study of religion, nor were they the first to speculate on the religions of preliterate and tribal peoples. What set these men apart is that they were the first to suggest that tribal religions might be amenable to study following the rules of the scientific method, and the first to posit specific methodological procedures for the comparative analysis of religious beliefs and practices.

All four of these scholars have been characterized as "armchair theorists" and dilettantes (although Müller was an expert in Sanskrit, Smith had a command of Semitic languages, Tylor had spent time studying the antiquities of Mexico, and Frazer had a strong background in classics). Additionally, all four scholars conducted their research from the center of the far-flung British empire and thereby had access to a wider range of comparative data than had been previously available.

Müller, Smith, Tylor, and Frazer formulated theories that have been characterized as "intellectualistic" (Evans-Pritchard 1965). They were primarily interested in human thought. All sought to understand religious belief and practice at its most fundamental, basic level. Frazer argued, for example, that human thought is best understood as a progression from magic, to religion, to science. Magic—which Frazer contended was based either on the principle of contagion or on "sympathy" (the idea that if two objects are associated they will continue to influence one another even after they are separated) or the notion of imitation (the idea that like influences like)—was said to be the earliest form. In more advanced societies, Frazer contended, magic eventually is replaced by religion, and both are finally replaced by science.

The nineteenth-century anthropologists—like other social scientists of their day—derived assumptions about religion from the Judeo-Christian heritage and from their own religious experiences within that tradition. Müller and Frazer were agnostics, while Tylor and Smith considered themselves devout Christians. Another source of bias is that "armchair anthropologists" such as Tylor and Frazer tested their theories on the basis of the highly suspect reports provided by missionaries and European travelers. It was the rare Western observer who was able to report on non-Western religions objectively and with firsthand data. Indeed, evolutionary models current at the time would have precluded such objective reportage. Given such substantial constraints, it is amazing that the nineteenth-century interpretations of tribal religions are as sympathetic and insightful as they sometimes are. Despite their evolutionary assumptions and their overwhelming Eurocentric biases, Müller, Smith, Tylor, and Frazer made valuable contributions to the study of religion and can profitably be read today.

It is not surprising that many of the leading minds of the nineteenth century would turn their attention to religion. It has never been difficult to make a case for the significance of religion in human life. Religion has been found in all societies studied by anthropologists. It is highly visible and, in the words of Raymond T. Firth (1995:214), represents "a massive output of human enterprise." Religious beliefs and image are an enduring tribute to humankind's nearly infinite resourcefulness and adaptability in coping with the problems of daily life. As William W. Howells (1948:16) astutely observed, "Man's life is hard, very hard. And he knows it, poor soul; that is the thing. He knows that he is forever confronted with the Four Horsemen—death, famine, disease, and the malice of other men."

Defining the Scope of Religion

Despite a keen and enduring interest in religion, there is no single, uniform anthropological theory of religion or a common methodology for the study of religious beliefs and rituals. Researchers in the area cannot agree as to exactly how "religion" should be defined or what the term religion should encompass. Efforts at defining religion—ranging from Tylor's 1871 definition of religion as "the belief in spirit beings" to the more complex definitions offered by Clifford Geertz and Melford E. Spiro—have met with considerable resistance (Morris 1987, Klass 1995, Saler 1993). Nevertheless, Geertz's definition by far has been the most influential anthropological definition of religion in the twentieth century.

Geertz (1973:90) defined religion as (1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men [and women] 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.

Although his definition may be useful in elaborating what religion is like conceptually and what it does psychologically and socially, Geertz has been criticized for failing to explain specifically how a researcher might identify religion when encountered in the field. A major stumbling block to all definitions of religion, of course, is that religion is not a "thing" but an abstraction.

Other twentieth-century definitions of religion (e.g., Spiro, Jacob Pandian, E. E. Evans-Pritchard) follow Émile Durkheim (1912) in positing a rigid dichotomy between the so-called supernatural and natural, or sacred and profane orders. These alternative definitions have proved no more satisfactory than Geertz's because distinctions between supernatural and natural are seldom obvious and may vary dramatically from individual to individual and from society to society.

In the later twentieth century, debate has arisen concerning the scope of the anthropology of religion. Do anthropologists of religion only study religions in tribal settings? Is it exclusively the study of non-Western religions? Is it to be limited to the study of religion among oppressed and marginalized people? The focus of anthropological study has shifted from the study of tribal to modern religions. A number of well-received studies have analyzed religion in developing societies, Europe, and the United States. Many of the leading contemporary exponents of anthropology of religion —Geertz, Spiro, Vincent Crapanzano, Victor Turner, James W. Fernandez, Sherry B. Ortner, Mary Douglas, James Boon, and Stanley J. Tambiah—have devoted the bulk of their attentions to local variants of major world religions (Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, and Christianity) and/or the impact of world religions in developing countries (Java, Indonesia, Morocco, Sri Lanka, South Africa, Nepal, and Burma) instead of the religions of isolated tribal groups. Contemporary ethnographers concentrate on examining religious diversity in complex societies rather than providing further documentation for uniformity in tribal religions.

An unresolved issue facing the anthropology of religion is the nature and problem of religious belief itself. "Belief" is the central focus of Protestant Christianity but is clearly of less concern in tribal religions, in which questions of orthodoxy seldom arise. There has been protracted debate among scholars as to whether it is possible for a nonbeliever to make definitive pronouncements concerning the religious beliefs of others. Can a religion be understood fully only from the perspective of the believer? While a number of leading psychologists and sociologists of religion are themselves adherents to the faiths they study, the overwhelming majority of anthropologists are skeptics. Most anthropologists are materialists and reductionists. They would find themselves in strong agreement with Firth (1995:215), who contends that "there is truth in every religion. But it is a human not a divine truth." Belief presents special problems for anthropologists because conversion is seldom an option for outsiders. Nevertheless, a number of anthropologists have insisted that religions can be grasped only from "within." Ethnographers who conduct research among pentecostalists and fundamentalists are often themselves members of these groups, and many younger anthropologists who specialize in new religious movements such as neo- and core shamanism are themselves avid practitioners.

The hallmark of twentieth-century anthropology has been the advocacy of firsthand, participant observation and/or fieldwork. This has altered the character and scope of research on religion and forced anthropologists to become more modest in their goals and less sweeping in their generalizations. Contemporary anthropological assertions are more likely to concern the manifestation of a particular belief in a particular place and time rather than speculate on "religion" in the abstract. Researchers focus on a single aspect of a religion (a specific myth, a specific ritual, or an aspect of a ritual such as divination, sacrifice, spirit possession, and so on) but refuse to examine an entire religious complex. This has had both positive and negative consequences for the anthropological study of religion. Twentieth-century anthropologists of religion have been left with the choice of "saying more with less authority" or "saying less with more authority." Most have chosen the latter path. This is a far cry from the imperious stance taken by Müller, Tylor, and Frazer, and cannot help but have far-reaching consequences for the anthropological study of religion in the next century.

The Study of Ritual and Myth

Theories developed in other subfields of anthropology (linguistics, economics, kinship, ecology) have been applied—with varying degrees of success—to the anthropological study of religion. As a result, religions have been analyzed from a variety of perspectives: functional, psychological, ecological, structural, cross-cultural, cognitive, and symbolic. Of these new perspectives, variants of functionalism have been the most enduring, but cognitive and symbolic studies are likely to dominate in the next century.

A number of promising studies have focused on ritual and ritual forms. From this perspective, rituals are seen as the fundamental unit of religious expression and the building blocks for all religions. Earlier studies (Durkheim 1912, Radcliffe-Brown 1961) underscored the role of ritual in mirroring the defining central features of society and culture, worldviews, identities, political forms, and social arrangements. More recently, scholars have argued that ritual not only mirrors these defining features but challenges them as well. Greater attention has been given to so-called ritual inversions and to what Max Gluckman has termed "rituals of rebellion."

In the nineteenth century, scholars such as Lady Jane Harrison argued valiantly for the primacy of ritual over myth. All mythology, they argued, has its roots in ritual activity. The myth-ritual debate raged for more than 60 years until 1942, when Clyde Kluckhohn offered a satisfactory compromise by recounting multiple instances in which a myth clearly began as a ritual and other instances in which a ritual clearly began as a myth.

Anthropological studies of ritual distinguish between calendrical and crisis rituals and between individual and collective rites (Durkheim 1912, Radcliffe-Brown 1961). For Durkheim, rituals both reflect and support the moral framework underlying social arrangements. Radcliffe-Brown improved on Durkheim's theory by attempting to explain why some rituals are chosen over others. Ultimately, Radcliffe-Brown suggested, rituals directly related to the collective and material well-being of a society are elevated to having spiritual, "ritual value" as well.

Perhaps the most influential study of the ritual process was provided by Arnold van Gennep in The Rites of Passage (1908), where he argued for the significance of rites of transition, which he categorized as an immutable tripartite sequence: separation, liminality, and reaggregation. Victor Turner's The Ritual Process (1969) advanced van Gennep's concept of "liminality" by advocating its applicability for the study of ritual in both tribal (Ndembu) and modern European societies. Roy A. Rappaport's Pigs for the Ancestors (1968) skillfully demonstrated how rituals regulate environmental relations. Rappaport's is the best known study linking religious ritual and ecology (Reynolds and Tanner 1995).

Within the anthropological tradition, myth has been understood primarily as an encapsulation of sacred truth. Functional theorists such as Bronislaw Malinowski (1926) argued that myth promotes social cohesion and serves as a "charter" for human behavior. Myth, in short, legitimates human activities. Other theorists have treated mythology separately from religion. The twentieth-century study of mythology has received its greatest proponent in the seminal work of the French structural anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, who finds in myth a key to the underlying structures of the human mind. Myth, for Lévi-Strauss, reveals how the mind functions.

Anthropologists have long noted that religions are highly dynamic, and the role of religion in fostering social change has been extensively explored. An interest in religious change is discernable in the evolutionary theories of Tylor and Frazer as well as the twentieth-century diffussionist studies of Leslie Spier and A. L. Kroeber. Anthony F. C. Wallace (1966) identified a five-stage progression to account for attitudinal and organizational changes that occur within religious movements: prophetic, utopian, messianic, millennial, or millenarian. Wallace is best known for his conception of "revitalization movements" and his application of this concept to the Plains Indian Ghost Dance and cargo cults in Melanesia.

Cognitive, Biological, and Symbolic Approaches

Much recent work in the anthropology of religion focuses on symbols and cognition, as exemplified in the writings of Geertz, Turner, Fernandez, Boon, Ortner, and Douglas. Still other approaches focus on biological and experiential models of religion (Laughlin et al. 1993). Cognitive and neurological sciences have produced great insights into the biology of behavior, and many of these insights have been extended to the study of religion. Organizations such as the Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness are devoted to the rigorous, scientific exploration of religious experience, including the religious use of hallucinogens, altered states of xconsciousness, shamanism, trance states, and the cross-cultural study of spirit possession. Naturalistic theories of religion have experienced a revival in the writings of Stewart E. Guthrie (1993) and Pascal Boyer (1994).

Other scholars (Morris 1987, Horton 1993, Klass 1995, Saler 1993, Pals 1995) have devoted attention to the reassessment of previous research. They have argued that contemporary anthropologists of religion are constrained by inadequate and outmoded categories and conceptions. Their frustration is eloquently expressed by Morton Klass (1995:xi), who laments that anthropologists of religion continue to embrace "theoretical perceptions and assumptions that have long since been jettisoned in most other areas of anthropological concern and activity." Not all anthropologists would agree. Such critical assessments often fail to do justice to the tremendous amount that can be learned from the excellent textbooks of Lowie (1924), Norbeck (1974), Wallace (1966), Radin (1937), and de Waal Malefijt (1968) as well as more recent texts by Pandian (1991) and Child and Child (1993).

In conclusion, functional, cognitive, and symbolic approaches have dominated the anthropological study of religion in the late twentieth century as researchers have become increasingly concerned with the concept of meaning. Biological, neurological, and cognitive approaches undoubtedly will assume greater importance in the next century. Anthropology of religion is no longer confined to the study of religion in tribal societies. Since the late 1970s, a majority of anthropological studies have dealt with religion in the developed or developing world.

Stephen D. Glazier


P. Boyer, The Naturalness of Religious Ideas (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994)

A. B. Child and I. L. Child, Religion and Magic in the Life of Traditional Peoples (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1993)

É. Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (New York: Free Press, 1995 [1912])

E. E. Evans-Pritchard, Theories of Primitive Religion (Oxford: Clarendon, 1965)

R. T. Firth, Religion (New York: Routledge, 1995)

J. G. Frazer, The Golden Bough (New York: Macmillan, 1935 [1890])

C. Geertz, The Interpretation of Culture (New York: Basic Books, 1973)

S. D. Glazier (ed.), Anthropology of Religion (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1997)

S. E. Guthrie, Faces in the Cloud (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993)

R. Horton, Patterns of Thought in Africa and the West (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993)

W. W. Howells, The Heathens (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1948)

M. Klass, Ordered Universes (Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1995)

C. D. Laughlin et al., Brain, Symbol and Experience (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993)

R. H. Lowie, Primitive Religion (New York: Liveright, 1924)

B. Malinowski, Myth in Primitive Psychology (New York: Norton, 1926)

B. Morris, Anthropological Studies of Religion (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987)

E. Norbeck, Religion in Human Life (New York: Holt, 1974)

D. L. Pals, Seven Theories of Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995)

J. Pandian, Culture, Religion, and the Sacred Self (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1991)

A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, Structure and Function in Primitive Society (Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1961)

P. Radin,Primitive Religion (New York: Viking, 1937)

R. A. Rappaport, Pigs for the Ancestors (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1968)

V. Reynolds and R. Tanner, The Social Ecology of Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995)

B. Saler, Conceptualizing Religion (Leiden, Neth.: Brill, 1993)

M. E. Spiro, Culture and Human Nature , new ed. (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 1994)

S. J. Tambiah, Magic, Science, Religion and the Scope of Rationality (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990)

V. Turner, The Ritual Process (Hawthorne, N.Y.: Aldine, 1969)

E. B. Tylor, Primitive Culture (London: Murray, 1873)

A. van Gennep, The Rites of Passage (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960 [1908])

A. de Waal Malefijt, Religion and Culture (New York: Macmillan, 1968)

A. F. C. Wallace, Religion (New York: Random House, 1966).

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