It is widely known that all societies known to anthropologists possess some sort of belief systems which can roughly be termed as religion or religious beliefs. Since, these beliefs vary cross culturally anthropological definition of religion is quite broad. Religion is its widest sense religion is any set of attitudes (acts and actions), beliefs and practices related to supernatural power and forces. These power calls for an array of forces including gods, spirits, ghosts or demons.


The anthropological approach to religion has two predominant traditions: the intellectualist and the symbolist, each of which may be further subdivided. Following Tylor (1871), who argued that early religion arose from people's beliefs in spirits of godlike beings (see animism), the first is called "intellectualist" because religion is seen as a system of explanation. People, it was claimed, invoked beliefs in spirits or gods in order to explain natural events and phenomena in the world about them. The symbolist approach, derived from Durkheim (1915), sees religion as                making symbolic statements about the social order, not as explaining nature. Beliefs, rituals, or myths may reinforce ideas about authority but are not peoples' attempts to explain why authority is there in the first place. Hence, for the symbolists, religion does not attempt to solve intellectual or empirical problems. Tylor's intellectualist definition grew out of his theory of cultural evolution and the development of human reason. He saw magic, science, and religion as manifestations of the human intellect and, though different from one another, as likely to coexist in all human cultures. Magic was a form of mistaken science. Whereas scientific assumption could be shown to be true or false through empirical tests, magic tried to solve problems through associations of ideas that simply seemed to fit with each other: he gave as an example the Greek view that the yellow of a gold ring could draw out the yellow of jaundice and so cure it. Magic and science were, however, similar to each other in seeking causal connections in an ordered nature, and differed from religion with its belief in spiritual beings, rather than an impersonal power, as having an effect on the world. FRAZER (1890) broadly followed Tylor's distinction between magic, religion, and science but saw them, in this order, as making up an evolutionary continuum. Much later, Lévi-Strauss (1966, 1969b, 1973, 1978) was to revert in part to Tylor's insight and to demonstrate through detailed analyses of myths, ART, and custom, that magic, science, and religion were indeed to be regarded together as premised on the inherent human capacity for logical classification.
Durkheim's major study The elementary forms of the religious life (1915) did not concern itself with the truth or falsity of religious beliefs, but instead insisted that the many religions throughout the world and history were based on a human need and so could not be regarded as illusory. He found inadequate Tylor's definition of religion as belief in godlike entities and argued that a broader concept was required, namely that of the SACRED. All things classified by humans were either sacred or profane. The critical feature of the sacred was that it united worshipers in a single moral community.          
Religion, therefore, had its basis in a social group, not individual psyches. The sacred had continuing rather than occasional effects on such groups because it derived from an early form of social differentiation, namely that of exogamous CLANS, each of which was symbolized by a specific animal or plant totem. These objects were not intrinsically sacred but drew their sacredness by virtue of a special ongoing relationship with what they symbolized.
Anthropology had for a long time followed the convention of making a distinction between the world religions and others supposedly not so globally comprehensive. A related but not isomorphic distinction is that between religions premised on a belief in a High God, perhaps the only permitted spiritual being, and Polytheism (many gods), sometimes expressed as a pantheon or assembly of gods, not necessarily hierarchically arranged. These distinctions are of limited usefulness. In what sense are the Semitic religions more globally comprehensive than, say, Hinduism and Buddhism? Each caters broadly for major areas of the world, but with significant minorities everywhere; similarly, since Taoism is practiced by vast numbers of people in China (Feuchtwang 1992), can it not be regarded as numerically if not geographically of equal significance? More importantly, we find influences of different religions on each other as a result of conquest and contact, making demarcation more a feature of the claims of a religion's priesthood than of worshipers' belief and practice.          
As regards religions defined as based on a central belief in a High God, both Buddhism, for the reasons already given, and Hinduism, with its hierarchy of major and minor gods and of lowly spirits, cannot be covered by such a rigid criterion. Given the role of Satan in the Semitic religions, especially in those Manichaean or dualistic versions that cast the Devil's evil as a force of potentially equal strength to that of God's goodness, we have to ask whether Satan is not really another deity, albeit of a negative kind, and whether these religions are not really duo-theistic rather than simply examples of monotheism.            
A more useful, though still shaky, distinction is between those religions that acknowledge dependence on written texts or scriptures that are held to be important and, in some cases, final arbiters of moral authority, and those that do not rely on written texts. Sacred texts presuppose a clergy able to read and interpret them and so set up a hierarchy of priests and worshipers who may sometimes only have access to their god(s) through such priests. Religious fundamentalists (L. Caplan 1987) argue that worshipers have strayed from a "true" understanding of the texts, which must therefore be followed strictly in order to restore people to their religion.          
Those religions that do not have written texts, sometimes called "animistic," "pantheistic," and "polytheistic" and most commonly found in Africa (Parkin 1991), Amazonia (J. Kaplan 1975), Papua New Guinea (Gell 1975), Aboriginal Australia (Berndt 1974), and parts of Malaysia (S. Howell 1984), may nevertheless have beliefs in a High God, though he or she tends to be of limited significance and is sometimes refracted as an immanent divine force in lesser spirits and objects of the environment, as among the Nuer of Sudan (Evans-Pritchard 1956). Priestly hierarchies are not absent in such nontextual religions, but less formal relations may obtain between priest and worshiper, who may also pray directly to ancestors or speak and negotiate with spirits through a medium or shaman. Such distinctions between textual and nontextual, and world and local, religions are shaky because, throughout the world, it is the interpenetration of the two that is the lived experience of most people, as Kapferer (1983) showed in an account of the interrelationship between demons and Buddhism in Sri Lanka. In all religions, too, sacrifice and offerings to godlike entities or spirits (even in Buddhism the nat spirits receive offerings) are a feature, sometimes taking more the form of PRAYERS and homage than the preferment of goods and immolation of animals.

Major theories in brief:

Major theories of religion and their brief subject matters are as follows:


Basic needs theories – religion has been seen as a response to social needs like solidarity, value consensus, harmony and integration.
Durkheim: Elementary forms of religious life
  • Sacred profane distinction as the basis for social integration
  • Totemic clans are symbolic representatives of society hence worshipping totem is worshipping society and maintaining harmony
  • ‘Collective conscience’ is formulated through religion through shared values and moral beliefs – religion fosters collective conscience.
  • Religion is linked with life crises such as major life stages like birth, puberty, marriage and death. These crises are surrounded with religious rituals
  • Religion helps relieving anxiety with the uncontrollability of the world by people – fishing and canoe preparation rituals of Trobriand Islanders as Malinowski explains
  • Human actions are guided by norms and values – religion is crystallised forms of such norms and values.
  • Religion functions to create provision of meaning to events that people do not expect or feel ought not happen.


  • Generally sees religion as a distortion of meaning or a form of mystification.
  • Marx argued that through religion people conceive their real world as something foreign.
  • It is not simply the effects of oppression, rather it is an instrument of that oppression.
  • Religion is a mechanism of social control to maintain existing class vis-a-vis power relationships.

Gender studies and feminists:

  • Inclined with Marixist perspective which sees religion as a system of social control and reinforcement of existing power relationships, but it adds to this the dimensions of patriarchy. It sees religion as a product of patriarchy.
  • Simone de Beauvoir in Second Sex provides radical feminist perspective for the existence of religion. For her, religion acts for women in similar ways to those in which Marx suggested reigion could act for oppressed classes. For her men use religion to control over women.

Rational choice theorists:

  • Stark and Bainbridge (1985) believes that religion helps meeting universal human needs. In other words people do what they believe could bring rewards and avoid what they believe entail costs. Religion, therefore, bridges a critical gap between what people want and what they get or can get. Therefore, even though people want an eaternal life or reincarnation and there is not evidence of its possibility therefore, people embrace religion.

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