Cultural Anthropology

Explaining the Anthropology of Religion



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In today's world, there are roughly one hundred ninety-three independent countries recognized by the United Nations plus a handful of unrecognized states. Each of these countries then has many individual populations of people each with their own unique culture; making it very easily possible to bring the number of different cultures in the world into the thousands. Each of these societies has something very important in common, though. Every single civilization in the entire world, without fail, has some notion of religion that is a huge part of their way of life.
Defining what religion is, however, has plagued anthropology for quite some time. This is due to the problem of racism and bigotry that many Western scholars unfortunately had until the early 1900's. Franz Boas, the father of American anthropology, opened everyone's eyes about judging a culture on it's own terms rather than some other's- all anthropologists did before him was compare primitive cultures to Western, evolved ones (calling a society primitive is very looked down upon these days). For a long time religion was seen as the belief in a paranormal world populated by one or more invisible beings more powerful than humans. This definition automatically makes it seem that any non-Western religion is simply imaginary and make-believe; which is wrong and racist. Like Boas taught us all, in order to really understand a religion that is not one's own, one must begin with what is considered to be supernatural and natural by the religion's own standards.
In response to this conflict, the highly noted religious anthropologist, John Bowen, proposed that we must approach any specific religion very broadly and then get more specific as we understand more about the details. He defines religion as the "ideas and practices that postulate reality beyond that which is immediately available to the senses". Religion is not only about beliefs but also about practices. Almost more so about practices because, unlike most Christians who only bother with their faith on Sundays, religion is a way of life. Some languages do not even have a word for "religion" because it is so ingrained in their daily activities.
Anthropologist A.F.C. Wallace did well in explaining the "minimal categories of religious behavior", the major ones being:
1. Prayer
2. Physiological exercise (drugs, sensory deprivation, self-inflicted pain, and deprivation of food)
3. Exhortation (the belief that some people are closer to the higher powers than others are)
4. Mana (transfer of power from inanimate objects to humans)
5. Taboo
6. Feasts
7. Sacrifice

The study of religion is often a very difficult one to not be biased on- one of the quickest ways to make somebody angry, for example, is to bring up a religious argument. It is an anthropologist's job, however, to not make any preconceived judgments on any specific religion, culture, or society he or she may be studying; even if concepts like sorcery and witchcraft are involved (which commonly are). We are not here to say what is right or what is wrong, we are here to simply state what is.

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More about this author: Carlyle O'Toole

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