Talk:Anthropology of religion

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Anti-science POV in this article (Feb 2003 edits)[edit]

"the belief of scientists is that the scientific method, if practised properly, will divine the truth"

The above statement is not true. For a start, divine is an emotive word that attempts to connect science with superstition. More importantly, scientists do not, if they are scrupulous, 'believe' that their results are 'the truth'. Science is a way of speculating about how nature works, and then testing those speculations by prediction and experiment. The best we can say about the body of scientific knowledge is that it hasn't been proved wrong yet: any claim that it represents 'truth' is not part of science. -- Heron


In the context of the present article, "divine" is an appropriate designation for the purpose of the scientific method. Moreover, finding the "truth" (i.e., objective facts) is often the purpose of engaging in the scientific method. That having been said, I did not intend to question the validity of the scientific method, nor did I intend to make any value statements about the philosophy of science, and I think that the pejorative reference to "scientism" in the present article is an inappropriate attempt to do just that. Such treatment *might* be appropriate in the context of an article on the philosophy of science, but it has no place in an article on the anthropology of religion. -- NetEsq 00:03 Feb 3, 2003 (UTC)


Early Muslim philosophy in fact did not make any clear distinction between the two, and there is much evidence that the scientific method itself originated in methods internal to Islam - in particular the system of isnah (citation) and ijtihad (independent thought by jurists to resolve questions of fiqh (jurisprudence)).

When belief in science is taken to extremes, it becomes scientism, which can be considered akin to religious belief. Scientism involves the acceptance of not just methodological but also moral guidance from science, e.g. technological singularity, which some believe is inevitable and therefore work to make it happen.


The following section belongs in another article, perhaps one on ethics. -- NetEsq 00:07 Feb 3, 2003 (UTC)


Some means of 'proof' or divining certainty outside the frame of religious authority itself, e.g. folk mathematics or tarot, seems to be present in most cultures even with such authorities. Also the ethical codes of some groups, e.g. stonemasons, doctors, have persisted through many religious eras to the modern day. It is therefore clear that some degree of lateral decision-making and negotiation (e.g. among professions) persists even in very hierarchical societies with a very strong reliance on such authority. The relationship between religion and these powerful professions is also an important study of the anthropology of religion in culture.


The article looks more objective now, without what I saw (perhaps over-sensitively, being a scientist) as the anti-science comments, and without my equally biased attempt to counter them. -- Heron

The anti-science comments (and they were very anti-science) were added by another anonymous user, and they had no place in the article. First and foremosts, anthropologists are scientists, as evidenced by their traditional antipathy to religion and creation science; the anthropology of religion is an attempt to study religious beliefs and practices using the scientific method rather than an attempt to legitimize pseudo-science.-- NetEsq

Second round of edits (Mar 2003)[edit]

(Moved from my NetEsq's Talk Page)

Hi, I know you have put a lot of work into the Anthropology of Religion article. With all due respect, a lot of it is wrong, and I wanted to give you a heads up before I started making massive changes. But to illustrate, let me use the opening paragraph:

Specifically, anthropology defines religion as a reaction to, and an explanation for, the supernatural, with the concept of the supernatural being culturally relative. Noticeably absent from the anthropological concept of religion are terms like "faith" and "morality." Rather, the anthropological study of religion is much more akin to the study of metaphysics.

The first sentence is false, although some anthropologists may have proposed this. But most anthropologists use either a Marxian, Durkheimian, or Weberian approach to religion and none of these three see religion as a reaction to or explanation of the supernatural. Anthropologists are very much interested in accounting for faith, and all Durkheimians are concerned with morality. The anthropological approach is in the view of virtually all philosophers and anthropologists diametrically opposed to metaphysics. Slrubenstein


Greetings, Slrubenstein. Contrary to popular belief, I am not particularly defensive about my contributions to Wikipedia, but I appreciate your heads up. Your scholarship is beyond reproach, and thus it is incumbent upon me to provide authoritative references to support my assertions. Unfortunately, most of my assertions are drawn from classes that I took many years ago, and I would be hard-pressed to find authoritative references without conducting a great deal of original research. Even so, my assertions are an accurate depiction of material that is currently being taught in undergraduate and graduate college courses in cultural anthropology, including cultural anthropology, the anthropology of religion, and various courses on the cultures of Native Americans, Africans, and peoples of the Pacific. To wit:

religion: a framework of beliefs relating to supernatural or superhuman beings or forces that transcend the everyday material world.

(Online Anthropology Glossary.)

Religion is what men do, say and think in that order concerning the supernatural.

(Arthur Darby Nock, lecture notes at Harvard University, cited by Elizabeth K. Nottingham Religion: A Sociological View. (1971): 13.)

On this note, I am familiar with the work of Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, and Max Weber, and the apologists of these noteworthy social scientists. But -- with all due respect -- these people did most of whatever field work they did in the 19th Century, and cultural anthropology (a faddish discipline at best) has moved on since then.

If I were to narrate the history of significant anthropological thought on religion, I would begin with E.B. Tylor's assertion that dreaming and death were the motivating forces for creating religion -- i.e., religion purportedly began as an attempt to explain perplexing experiences that defied explanation by ordinary principles of causation. As an operational definition, I can't think of anything more canonical and less ethnocentric. -- NetEsq 19:51 Mar 19, 2003 (UTC)

Netesq, I appreciate your response. Let me begin with two general comments: I think it is strange that someone who wants to contribute heavily to an article on "anthropology of religion" identifies cultural anthropology as "faddish" which to me sounds dismissive. The article previously had various claims about religion including a discussion of science and religion to which I had no objection except that it was not appropriate to an article on "anthropology of religion;" in other words, my objections are for the most part not with the claims themselves but with their being in an article on anthropology.
By the way, thank you for your compliment about my scholarship. I have no doubt that you are drawing on your memory of actual classes -- I just don't think this is the best way to research an encyclopedia article. It isn't how I would go about research an article on "genetics" or "legal approaches to abortion," for example -- the same should hold true for studies of religion.
Specific points: you quote an online anthropology dictionary entry for religion. What can I say? I teach anthropology 101 and have looked at most major textbooks currently used; I also read current scholarly journals on anthropology and read recently published books by anthropologists. This simply is not a current definition most anthropologists would agree with. Honest!
Arthur Darby Nock is a professor of religion, not an anthropologist. Quote him in an article on "religious studies" or "religion" in general -- but his view is just not a reflection of what anthropologists of religion are doing.
Finally, you are quite right that the four names I mention worked mostly in the 19th century. But you are simply wrong that most anthropologists have moved on. It is true that few if any anthropologists today take anything these four guys wrote at face value -- but if you read almost any scholarly book or article published in the last five years, it is very likely that one of them will be mentioned explicitly; certainly, at least three of them will be discussed in any graduate level course on religion in an anthropology department. (Simmel and Nietzsche are also influencial, but not nearly as influencial as the other four).
You are quite right that Tylor is important, but he is canonical only in a very limited sense. Specifically, any good lecture on the anthropology of religion will or should mention his views and his contribution to the emergence of anthropology in the 19th century. But no anthropologist to my knowledge uses his definition of religion, or his theory of the origin of religion; indeed, all anthropologists to my knowledge explicitly reject it. Feel free to add more from Tylor, as long as the article does not mislead people into thinking that he has anything to do with the anthropology of religion today (or really for the past 50 or 60 years). Slrubenstein
<< I think it is strange that someone who wants to contribute heavily to an article on "anthropology of religion" identifies cultural anthropology as "faddish" which to me sounds dismissive. >>

I am not the first person to make this assertion, certainly not the most noteworthy, and I did not mean it to sound dismissive. In fact, the first time I saw the term faddish used in this context was in a text that I read for a graduate level course in anthropology. (I think the text was entitled Culture Theory or World View.) I think this term was meant to speak to the fact that there is a great deal of diversity in cultural anthropology, a great deal of infighting between different schools of thought in cultural anthropology, and that the discipline of cultural anthropology (when taken as a whole) tends to embrace, popularize, and dismiss new and different theories with a greater frequency than most other disciplines.

<< I teach anthropology 101 and have looked at most major textbooks currently used; I also read current scholarly journals on anthropology and read recently published books by anthropologists. This simply is not a current definition most anthropologists would agree with. Honest! >>

As I have stated on more than one occasion, I have the greatest respect for your scholarship. It is reflected in your thoughtful, considered, and well-annotated responses, and I have no problem deferring to your revisions for this article, but I do so in lieu of conducting the extensive research which I believe would be required to support my own position. In other words, I don't entirely agree with your position, but there's a good chance that my own research would prove that you are right and I am wrong.

I did a quick search on Google to see what contemporary commentary might exist in re E.B. Tylor and the anthropology of religion, and I found an excellent overview by Benson Saler published in 1997. Correct me if I am wrong, but the criticism of Evans-Pritchard, Durkheim, and Malinowski did not center on Tylor's operational definition of religion, but on his assertion that modern religion evolved from animism. -- NetEsq 21:51 Mar 19, 2003 (UTC)


You are quite right that anthropologists in the 20s-40s dismissed Tylor's evolutionism, not his definition of religion per se -- but as far as I know, they just ignored his definition of religion. In Malinowski's Coral Gardens book, and Evans Pritchard's book on the Azande, they just open up whole new approaches to religion and pretty much ignore Tylor. I am glad you didn't mean "fadish" to be dismissive -- and I agree with you when you say that anthropology is heterogenous and divided. But for me, this is all the more reason to avoide blanket statements about anthropology or about the things anthropologists study (in this case, religion). Also, I didn't mean to sound defensive, nor was I trying to attack you. I know you respect my research, I was just trying to encourage you to do more research. You seem very interested in all this so let me make some suggestions: first, various books by Michael Taussig, and by Jean and or John Comaroff, reflect some major currents in recent work on religion (look at the titles and decide for yourself what you find interesting -- but these people have been very influencial recently). Also, here are some relatively recent articles I think you might find interesting and good sources if you want to do more research for this article. I have taken the liberty of including hte abstracts. i know this will irritate some as it thus takes up a lot of space, but the abstracts themselves provide concrete illustration of the things anthropologists are looking at right now:
Robert W. Hefner
1998 “MULTIPLE MODERNITIES: Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism in a Globalizing Age” Annu. Rev. Anthropol. 1998. 27:83-104.
The late twentieth century has seen far-reaching changes inthe translocal cultural regimes known as world religions. This review examines the politics and meanings of recent changesin three such religions: Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism.It highlights the nature of the forces reshaping religious meanings and authority, the processes promoting conversion and standardization, and the implications of these religiousre figurations for our understanding of late modernity itself. Though modernity is multiple and every tradition unique, this review suggests that all contemporary religions confront a similar structural predicament, related to the globalization of mass societies and the porous pluralism of late modernity.


Charles F. Keyes
2002 WEBER AND ANTHROPOLOGY Annu. Rev. Anthropol.31: 233-255
This article is about the influence of the work of the German sociologist Max Weber (1864––1920) on English-speaking anthropologists. Although Weber does not figure prominently in the history of anthropology, his work has, nonetheless, had a profound influence on anthropological methodology and theoretical thinking on the relationship between religion and political economy. The "interpretive anthropology" first developed by Geertz has roots in Weber's "interpretive sociology." Bourdieu's "theory of practice" is also strongly Weberian in character. The anthropological study of religion, and particularly the debate over the foundations of this field between Geertz and Asad, is reconsidered in light of Weber's sociology of religion His comparative study of the ethics of the world's religions and particularly the "Weber thesis" about the relationship between religion and the development of bourgeois capitalism are shown to have been the foundation for a large body of anthropological research on religion and political economy in societies in which the major world religions have been long established. The essay ends with a suggestion that Weber's work on politics and meaning merits reexamination in light of contemporary anthropological interest, derived from Foucault, in power and knowledge.


Jon P. Mitchell
1997 “A Moment with Christ: The Importance of Feelings in the Analysis of Belief” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Vol. 3, No. 1. (Mar., 1997), pp. 79-94.
This article considers an uncanny feeling experienced during fieldwork in Malta, and examines indigenous explanations of this and other similar feelings. In Malta, explanations of such strange or uncanny experiences vary, but religious explanations present themselves as particularly convincing. The religious indoctrination process involves the creation of powerful feelings, which are sedimented as memories in the body of the believer and serve as a reference point for subsequent strange experiences. I therefore argue that feelings are both produced by, and give meaning, to religious belief. It has become de rigeur to criticize the 'logocentrism' of anthropology and to favour and anthropology of the body. I suggest that such an approach should also incorporate the anthropology of feelings, but that this need not entail a shift in ethnographic writing.
Gregory Starrett
1995 “The Political Economy of Religious Commodities in Cairo”American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 97, No. 1. (Mar., 1995), pp. 51-68.
Anthropology's rediscovery of material culture has emphasized the centrality of objects and their production in constituting human experience. In Egypt, the design, mass production and marketing of different classes of religious objects - from prayer beads and bumper stickers to children's board games and jigsaw puzzles - not only construct boundaries between social groups but create alternative ways of understanding and participating in the Islamic tradition. This article explores the distribution and consumption of Islamic paraphernalia, examining how the development of a mass market in religious consumer goods, brought on in part by Egypt's shifting place in the global market, has transformed the urban religious consciousness.
Sarah Franklin
1995 “Science as Culture, Cultures of Science” Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 24. (1995), pp. 163-184.
Although controversial, science studies has emerged in the 1990s as a significant culture area within anthropology. Various histories inform the cultural analysis of science, both outside and within anthropology. A shift from the study of gender to the study of science, the influence of postcolonial critiques of the discipline, and the impact of cultural studies are discussed in terms of their influence upon the cultural analysis of science. New ethnographic methods, the question of "ethnosciences" and multiculturalism, and the implosion of informatics and biomedicine all comprise fields of recent scholarship in the anthropology of science. Debates over modernism and postmodernism, globalization and environment, and the status of the natural inform many of these discussions. The work of Escobar, Hess, Haraway, Martin, Rabinow, Rapp, and Strathern are used to highlight new directions within anthropology concerning both cultures of science and science as culture.
David Riches
1994 “Shamanism: The Key to Religion” Man, New Series, Vol. 29, No. 2. (Jun., 1994), pp. 381-405.
The article lays out in schematic fashion a composite of socio-intellectual processes, arguabley evident in respect of all cosmologies, which might appropriately be labelled 'religous'. It does so by applying deductive reasoning to shamanism, the prevalent religion in societies whose social structures are ssimple and in whose cosmologies religious process is conspicuous; here the Canadian Inuit (Eskimo) provide the ethnographic focus. The article assumes that religious process finds its basis in fundamental contradictions concerning the conditions of social existence, namely in the antithesis between social structure and communitas. Cosmology is generated as this contradiction is contemplated by, respectively, laypeople and specialist, both with their own interests in view. The argument also considers such central cultural and analytical isues as the existence of distinctive notions of the human person, and the pertinence for the study of religion of, variously, 'secondary elaborations', systems of classification, and religious edicts; and it joins with Barth in emphasizing the salience of the specialist in 'cosmology-making'.
P. Steven Sangren
1991 “Dialectics of Alienation: Individuals and Collectivities in Chinese Religion” Man, New Series, Vol. 26, No. 1. (Mar., 1991), pp. 67-86.
This article analyzes religious activities of private worship and public testimony in Taiwan as processes of social and self production. Durkheimian understandings of the genesis and efficacy of collective representations are enhanced by a Marxian appreciation of alienation. 'Alienation' here applies to representations of productive power that invert the real productive relations between producer and product so that the product appears to produce the producer. In the context of Chinese religious activities, two forms of alienation are conjoined in the supernatural power (ling) attributed to territorial-cult gods. First, in the idiom of divine interventions that defend community boundaries, the collectivity's powers of self production (and reproduction) are attributed to the god. Secondly, in a structurally analogous mythology of miracles performed on behalf of individuals, the person's powers of self-production are also attributed to divinity. Each of these representational tropes invokes the other in a rhetoric of reciprocal authentication that constitutes an important arena of cultural production of, simultaneously, individual subjects and social collectivities.
Susan Starr Sered
1990 “Women, Religion, and Modernization: Tradition and Transformation among Elderly Jews in Israel”American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 92, No. 2. (Jun., 1990), pp. 306-318.
Modernization affects the religious lives of women in diverse and dramatic ways. On the one hand, women may find increased arenas for religious involvement, both inside and outside of traditional religious frameworks. Simultaneously, women's rituals and beliefs are often especially vulnerable to attacks from the forces of modernization. This paper focuses on the experience of elderly Jewish women of Asian origin who now live in modern Israel. The author suggests that the very nature of women's religion - domestic, personal, hidden, and flexible - explains its tenacity and creativity in the face of modernization. These findings are examined within a broad, cross-cultural context.
I would argue that a fully developed article on the anthropology of religion would provide an account that would prepare readers for these abstracts, among other things. I don't mean to beat a dead horse, but I think all these abstracts -- and I promise you, I was not selective beyond looking for articles with "anthropology" and "religion" in the title or abstract -- show that the anthropology of religion is concerned with the social functions of religion or the way religion reflects political and economic forces, and is not concerned with responses to the supernatural (although you can argue that the article on Malta is an exception) and definitely not metaphysical. Slrubenstein

<< I am glad you didn't mean "fadish" to be dismissive -- and I agree with you when you say that anthropology is heterogenous and divided. But for me, this is all the more reason to avoide blanket statements about anthropology or about the things anthropologists study (in this case, religion). >>

I agree that it's best to avoid blanket statements about anthropology. To that end, your version of the article provides a vast improvement in the scope of the article's coverage. At the same time, it seems self-evident to me that cultural anthropology as a discipline embraces the principle of participant observation and that any anthropological study of religion would provide an insider perspective that would best be described as culturally relative metaphysics. The work of Colin Turnbull comes to mind as being somewhat archetypical, albeit extremely controversial.

BTW, is the reading list above anything like the reading list that you give your Anthro 101 students? <grin> -- NetEsq 23:14 Mar 19, 2003 (UTC)

I agree with you completely about participant-observation -- it is a main reason Malinowski, Evans Pritchard, and most of the people cited above don't use Tylor's definition of religion (which still doesn't mean it isn't important, historically). I wouldn't call Turnbull archetypical, although it is certainly important (there is a good recent biography of him that I haven't read); Bateson's Naven may be the archetypical analysis of a ritual, although Malinowski and Evans Pritchard's work certainly is too. And Victor Turner is really essential (though kind of Durkheimian). Levi-Strauss's stuff on myth is very important, as is Roy Rappaport's stuff on ritual. As for readings -- boy do they complain! Slrubenstein

Section removed (2008)[edit]

I removed the following section:

Approaches

Anthropological approaches to religion reflect a more general tension within anthropology: the discipline defines itself as a science in that all anthropologists base their interpretations and explanations on empirical evidence (and many anthropologists are concerned with developing universal models of human behavior), and the discipline also defines itself in terms of the seriousness with which it takes local beliefs and practices (see cultural relativism), and its commitment to understanding different cultures in their own terms through participant observation. Thus, although many Westerners (including some anthropologists) have rejected “religion” out of hand as being unscientific, virtually all anthropologists assume that there must be good reasons for the endurance and importance of religion and, by implication, assume that religious beliefs and practices are in some sense “reasonable.” [citation needed] "It has never been difficult to make a case for the significance of religion in human life. Religion has been found in all societies studied by anthropologists."[1] In order to determine the reasons for the importance of religion, however, anthropologists generally move beyond the literal claims of any religion to look at its metaphorical meaning or latent social functions.

While there is good information in this section, it seems either misplaced or poorly written or a combination of the two. There seems to be two threads running here--1) the conflict between the absolutist empiricism that anthropology, as a science, tends to be a part of, and the social relativity/equality that anthropology views all competing ideas and cultures and 2) the reasonableness of religion itself and the arguments for its persistence. As I see it, these two topics are not linked and ought to be elaborated on seperately or integraed into other sections. Furthermore, I think the statement "Thus, although many Westerners (including some anthropologists) have rejected “religion” out of hand as being unscientific" is unsupported, false, and generally biased.Reaper Man (talk) 22:06, 26 October 2008 (UTC)

Edits to refs, quotes, links and cn tags (Mar 2007)[edit]

I added some more generalized links to the External Links section, and reordered the links so that they start from general and move to more specific. I added an external link to the Anthony F. C. Wallace reference as there does not appear to be a Wiki bio written about him. I also removed the "citation needed" marks and placed a quote supporting the general assumptions that the anthropological study of religion is important to the understanding of a given culture. I referenced my citation using "ref" tags and placed a full biliographical citation at the bottom of page, including URLS to a bio of the author, the publisher, the table of contents of the book, and the specific page from which I got the quote. Feedback is always appreciated. Tanstaafl28 13:26, 19 May 2007 (UTC)

  1. ^ Swatos, William H., Encyclopedia of Religion and Society, Altamira Press, 1998. http://hirr.hartsem.edu/ency/Anthropology.htm/