An Anthropology of Religion


Religion is an area of life in which most humans feel some degree of inclination to believe in the supernatural. It involves faith in someone or something to worship, a code of moral conduct that is shared by a group of people and their interpretation of the world around them, and an ultimate destiny for human beings and the universe. These beliefs and practices are often intertwined in various ways and are a significant factor in many cultures.

Religions develop and change over time, both in the way that they are practiced and in the way they are viewed by those who participate in them. Some social institutions evolve radically from one era to the next, but religions and religious/spiritual practices more often adapt gradually to changes in culture and context. The study of religion has long been a focus of the academic discipline of anthropology. In addition to the work of a wide range of anthropologists who have studied religious phenomena, recent years have seen the rise of a number of reflexive studies in which scholars have pulled back the lens and examined how the concept of religion is constructed.

The question of what is religion has proved difficult to define. It has been the subject of debate in anthropology since at least the nineteenth century, with thinkers like James H. Hutchinson and Clifford Geertz putting forward their own definitions. These are generally criticized for being too broad or too narrow and fail to capture the essence of religion, which is often understood as a powerful, pervasive set of moods and motivations that bind together a community.

Geertz, in particular, viewed religion as a system of symbols that tries to establish “powerful, pervasive and long-lasting moods and motivations in men” by establishing conceptions of the general order of existence and clothing these conceptions in such an aura of factuality that they appear uniquely realistic. This view is also criticized as being ethnocentric, in that it only includes those religious traditions that place an emphasis on supernatural entities and fails to recognize the importance of non-theistic spiritual traditions such as Buddhism, Jainism, and Daoism.

In the past, most attempts to define religion have been monothetic – they operate on the classical view that a concept can accurately be defined by an exhaustive set of properties. In the last few decades, however, there has been a move towards polythetic approaches that embrace the notion that concepts like religion should be thought of as social taxons that sort forms of life rather than as having an essence or essential property.

The study of religion is a fascinating one, not only because it appears to be universal in scope and experience but also because it offers a window into the most diverse and complex ways that humans organize their lives. The vast majority of the world’s 6.5 billion people belong to some form of religion. Whether we are believers or not, each of us is interested in and fascinated by this massive area of common human endeavor.

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