- the anthropological study of religion is holistic, universalistic, ethnographic, contextual, comparative
- religion is a universal phenomenon
- can't rank religions by superiority
- phenomenological approach: reporting facts without judgement or bias
- reporting observed phenomena as sociological fact (do not decide if true or false, right or wrong;
just describe phenomena)
- situated knowledge
Lecture Two: Conceptualising Religion in Anthropology
We'll look at how anthropologists have looked at religion and elements common in most religions
-is religion a cultural universal?
- if so, can we have a universal definition of religion?
- what different approaches have anthropologists adopted to conceptualise religion?
- what are their strengths and weaknesses?
- what elements are common to all religions?
- the process of defining religion has its own history
- the very attempt to define religion entails the construction of a distinct category based on Eurocentric in-
- isolating a social phenomenon and calling it religion
- not every culture makes this distinction or have a word for religion
- defining religion is an exercise in translation
Vulgate: Latin translation of the Bible
- Latin religio from Greek threskiae enters the western discourse
- difficult to find a word for religion in many other religions
- if we say it's a universal phenomenon, should we be able to find a word for it in every religion?
different approaches anthropologists have adopted: intellectualist, symbolist, functionalist
- "the belief in Spiritual Beings."
- a simple definition
- interested in the way people make sense of their worlds
- speculated that primitive people thought dreams were another self, the soul (Anima)
- referred to this kind of belief as Animism
Animism -> polytheism -> monotheism - Victorian evolutionarist who thought all trajectories travelled the same path (towards monotheistic, Chris-
- Tylor's definition begs the question: what are Spiritual Beings?
- there are cultures that have spiritual beings that are not very important in shaping morals, values, etc.
Emile Durkheim's definition:
- "A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say things set
apart and forbidden - beliefs and practices which united into one single moral community called a CHurch,
all those who adhere to them."
- doesn't say anything about the supernatural or gods; simply a system of beliefs
- a system is comprised of different components (building blocks of religion)
- Durkheim makes a distinction between the profane and the sacred
- the profane are things that are subject to prohibitions
- the sacred are things that are revered
- a conventional agreement that things are sacred or taboo
- ex. pork is profane in some religions but in general western society we haven't assigned the pig to either
profane or sacred
- unites all the people into a community; sociological function of religion
- doesn't take into account that it often doesn't unite the people in the community
- schism, rupture, breakaways; can be a source of tremendous division
- 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
- symbolist movement
- what do we mean by symbols?
- could be anything, but convention must have come to some sort of agreement that something
stands for something else
- when symbols come into the domain of religion they can be very powerful
- this definition doesn't tell us how symbols come about or who has the power to define something as
- contestations within religions about what symbols are meaningful and legitimate (ex. Christiani-
- in almost all religions, you have power relations
- this definition ignores power relationships within religions
- this definition could apply to any number of other things
- science? science could be called a belief system with its own symbols
- speaks to demarcating religion as a separate social sphere
- a good definition with its own weaknesses - hunting as a religions activity in the Ndembu
- begin and end hunting with a rite
- you can turn a whole range of secular things into a religious sphere
- ex. what goes on in a court room; the proceedings are like a rite
another symbolist definiton:
- Melford Spiro defines religion as "an institution consisting of culturally patterned interaction with cultur-
ally postulated superhuman beings."
- other kinds of symbolic definitions
Robin Horton's critique of the symbolist approach:
- criticises the symbolist approach: "defining religion as structural symbolism comes to much the same
thing as defining the substance of "linen" in terms of its occasional use as a flag: the symbolic function is
as incidental to the nature of the first as it is to the second."
- saying religion is just about symbols is confusing symbols for the things they are supposed to convey
- defines religion as "an extension of the field of people' social relationships beyond the confines of purely
human society," in which human beings see themselves as being in a dependent relationship vis-a-vis
their "non-human alters".
- combines both the intellectualist and Durkheimian approaches
- deals with social relationships; focuses on nature of the relationship and that it goes beyond the human
- highlighting the approaches: intellectualist, symbolist, functionalist
- know who used each and what they said about it
- each attempt to define religion has added insight, but it's difficult to find something that is universal and
to integrate all the different components found in religions around the world
Religion as an "autonomous essence"
- Asad: Religion as an essence apart from politics, the economy, etc is a recent invention. This perspec-
tive is associated with the separation of Church and politics
- elsewhere, political power and religious authority are fused
- seeing religion and politics as reigning over different domains is very recent (product of Reformation and
- also Eurocentric: in South Africa for example, the chief is also high priest
- leads to the difficulty defining religion
- "there cannot be a universal definition of religion, not only because its constituent elements and relation-
ships are historically specific, but because that definition s itself the historical product of discursive pro-
How do we study religion if we can't define it?
- Asad suggests: "the anthropological student of particular religions should therefore begin from this point,
in a sense unpacking the comprehensive concept which he or she translates as "religion" into heteroge-
neous elements according to its historical character." - demarcating certain realms as religious could lead us to call things we wouldn't otherwise religious
- you want to look at a specific religion's different components
- why does he emphasize the historical character?
- combine this aspect with the phenomenological approach and you'll have a good perspective
- consider the historical context of religious components
- anthropologists might not agree on defining religions or approaches to studying them
7 Common Characteristics of Most Religions
1) composed of stories
- particular kinds of narrative; myths, oral, written
- creation myths most common
2) makes a case for the existence of non-empirical beings, powers, states, places, and qualities
- things you cannot see or measure
3) makes use of symbols and symbolism
- multi-vocal symbols
4) includes rituals
- what do rituals in secular realms mean?
5) has clerics (office holders)
- priests (mostly in centralized societies), shamans (shamans are part-time office holders)
6) makes use of altered states of consciousness
- spirit possession, trances, speaking in tongues, induced by substances
- not everyone enters these states
7) changes over time
- Azad's emphasis on historical character
- inculturation, incorporation of indigenous cultures' practices
September 28, 2011
Symbols and Classification
"A symbol, then, is a blaze or landmark, something that connects the unknown with the known."
Victor Turner, anthropologist
- Geertz says religion is a system of symbols; we'll revisit this
- many anthropologists agree
- emerged in 60s/70s in wake of functionalism (which was never a big part of American anthropology)
- functionalism couldn't explain social change; emphasizes stasis
- emphasis on use of symbols in ritual
- introduce students to the study of symbol in anthropology