Cultural Anthropology

Anthropological Approaches to the Study of Religions

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Religion is at its heart a cultural system.  It is a system of symbols formulating a concept of a general order of existence for mankind, which establish powerful motivations adding an aura of reality to those things beyond normal human comprehension.

It was once generally believed that religious practices and beliefs, in general, were universal to all cultures at some point in their development, and that there was a clear distinction between ‘primitive’ and ‘modern’ religions, and that modern religion evolved from primitive religious practices.  Anthropologists of today, however, reject this view, which is viewed by many as European primitivism, and consider the influences of political and economic forces on religion.

Religious practices and beliefs have also been seen to serve social functions, thus undercutting the validity of the cross cultural, or universal belief, approach.

We humans like to believe that we are active participants in an orderly universe.  When we are faced with suffering, moral dilemmas, or events that defy comprehension, we seek an answer, often in religion or supernatural belief.  Religion, in an anthropological sense, gives meaning to the philosophy of an often obscure universe.

The anthropologist Clifford Geertz, in Religion as a Cultural System, defines religion as “A system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.”   Melford Spiro, in Religion: Problems of Definition and Explanation, offers a definition of religion as “an institution consisting of culturally patterned interaction with culturally postulated superhuman beings.”  These two anthropologists, along with many others, have attempted to put religion practices and beliefs into scientifically acceptable terms.

The problem with developing an understanding of religion is, as can be seen by these two views, is the very definition of religion itself.  Across the multitude of cultures on earth, religious systems vary widely, from the simple individualistic to complex ecclesiastical forms.  The common thread, however, is that all religions reflect in some manner the culture or society in which they developed.  They are shaped and influenced by the political, economic, and environmental factors existing at the time of their development, with cross cultural similarities being more or less incidental.  For example, primitive societies tend to individualistic (dream quests) or shamanistic (religious practitioner acting on behalf of a supplicant), while more advanced societies have communal (elaborate practices and beliefs adhered to by groups arranged hierarchically) or ecclesiastical (complex systems which incorporate elements of all the others) religious systems.

Religion, like culture and social practices, evolves. Even those religions that we view as traditionalist or fundamentalist have, over time, evolved, and reflect the political and economic realities of the day.  Ludwig Feurbach, in 1841, was the first to point out that every religion is created by the human community that worships it.  Building on Feurbach’s anthropological principle, Emile Durkheim, in 1912, wrote that religion is “a projection of the social values of a society,” or “a means of making symbolic statements about society in a language that makes

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