Cultural Anthropology

Explaining the Anthropology of Religion



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Prior to delving into the complexities of the anthropology of religion, the terms anthropology and religion need to be defined. Anthropology can be loosely defined as the study of humankind in all its respects i.e. the origins, development, sociocultural, biological, and everything in between these categories of study within the discipline. Religion can be defined as a set of beliefs as a mental enterprise in conjunction with a set of practices and ritual comprising a cosmology or an understanding of reality as well as an ethos regarding moral conduct and behavioral customs. The anthropology of religion can thus be defined as the study of humans within a specific set of behavioral and mental practices pertaining to a particular understanding of reality.

There are several methods in approaching the anthropology of religion. The biological approach looks at the evolution of our cognitive capabilities providing us with the capacity to have religion and a concept of God, which is crucial within the context of most religions. Within this approach there are two focuses: the individual's cognitive evolution and the group's social evolution, particularly in regards to communal rituals and environments. In regards to the individual, we can look at the brain and how we have adapted several cognitive mechanisms we utilize today but in a different form than when we first evolved our mechanisms. We can look at our capabilities of detecting agency and attributing intention as well as our capacity to make inferences from our environment and react. In these respects we can look at our capacities for memory and emotions. In regards to communal development we can take these individual cognitive capacities into account as given and look at group dynamics as well as archaeological evidence to speculate upon religion at the time. We can also look at cultures today who have kept their original religion in tact apart from outside influence.

The socio-cultural approach can take several directions, such as, language within a particular religion of a specific region, the history of a religion in a particular region which could be accompanied by an analysis of any human phenomena; the analysis may document the change in language from one religion to another religion or it may document the change in ritual or practice, it could document how a particular culture adapted to a particular religion and created its own version of a religion. There are many ways to approach the anthropology of religion in respects to the social-cultural dynamic of a religion in a region.

The dominant form of collecting data is usually an ethnography, which largely consists of the researcher, with permission, actively attending, observing, and interacting with the people and religion he or she is studying. The researcher will have to have a firm understanding of the language as well as the people he or she is studying. Of course there is the question of whether a non-native anthropologist to the region can ever really understand the people he or she is studying.

There are many complications regarding the anthropology of religion. It is a broad discipline and a very complex as well as sensitive one. The discipline must respect the people's privacy, integrity, and ethics. When studying a religion it is also necessary to understand the culture; the people's ways of thought and behavior. An anthropologist cannot assume that the people he or she is studying will have a western mentality and way of thought, nor that the religion, say Christianity, will be the same in one country as it is in another. Of course in the process of doing so, we must be as specific as we can as to what kind of Christianity it is, and if there is an Orthodoxy or a standard for which we can compare that religion. The anthropology of religion is indeed a complicated one. Although I have only skimmed the discipline and probably did not do justice to all its complexities, it is a fascinating area of study and one that needs to be done for the betterment and understanding of humanity.

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