All societies have spiritual beliefs
and practices that anthropologists refer
to as RELIGION. Yet because of great
diversity of these “beliefs/ practices”,
defining religion is surprisingly difficult.
Most definitions focus on the
supernatural , but Westerners make a
clear distinction between natural and
The problem is that some religions
explicitly DENY that supernatural
beings exist, and others do not
distinguish them from Westerners call
the natural. Even in US, the difference
may be problematic. Is God’s
presence in the world supernatural to
the devout, OR is it simply part of the
natural order of the world?
Because different societies
perceive reality in different ways,
there is no agreed upon way to
distinguish the natural from the
supernatural. But our problems are
even greater than this. Religions
around the world show enormous
“religion ranges almost endlessly- into
every geographical area, into every temporal
period, into so many uses of the human body,
mind, imagination, social instinct, artistic
genius, and all the rest that no library could
contain all the studies that the full range of
religion, actual and potential, would require”.
In studying religion cross-culturally,
anthropologists pay attention to the social
nature and roles of religion as well as to the
nature, content, and meaning to people of
religious doctrines, acts, events, settings,
practitioners, and organizations. We also
consider such verbal manifestations of
religious beliefs as prayers, chants, myths,
texts, and statements about ethics and
Religion, by either definition
offered here, exists in all human
societies. IT IS A CULTURAL
UNIVERSAL. However, we’ll see that it
isn’t always easy to distinguish the
supernatural from the natural and that
DIFFERENT SOCIETIES conceptualize
divinity, supernatural entities, and
ultimate realities VERY DIFFERENTLY.
anthropologist Anthony F. C. Wallace
defined religion as “belief and ritual
concerned with supernatural beings,
powers, and forces”. The supernatural is
the extraordinary realm outside the
observable world. It is nonempirical and
inexplicable in ordinary terms.
focuses on bodies of people who gather
together regularly for worship. These
congregants or adherents subscribe to and
internalize a common system of meaning. They
accept (adhere to or believe in) a set of
doctrines involving the relationship between the
individual and divinity, the supernatural, or
whatever is taken to be the ultimate nature of
reality (Reese, 1999)
The anthropologist Clifford Geertz
defined 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”.
Theologian Antoine Vergote also
emphasized the "CULTURAL REALITY" of
religion, which he defined as "the entirety of
the linguistic expressions, emotions and,
actions and signs that refer to a supernatural
being"; he took the term "supernatural"
simply to mean whatever transcends the
powers of nature or human agency.
bubbling up of
intensity generated by
notion, using the term
spirit, a feeling of
great social solidarity,
The word religion derives from the Latin
“to tie, to bind,” but it is not necessary for all
members of a given religion to meet together as a
common body. Subgroups meet regularly at local
They may attend occasional meetings with
adherents representing a wider region and they
may form an imagined community with people of
similar faith throughout the world.
1) Religions are composed of sacred stories or
narratives that members believed are important.
2) Religions make extensive use of symbols and
3) All propose the existence of (supernatural) beings,
powers, states, places and qualities that cannot be
measured by any agreed upon scientific means.
4) All include rituals and specific means of addressing
5) All societies include individuals who are
particularly expert in the practice of religion.
Religion have many functions in a society. It
Meaning and order in people’s lives
May reduce social anxiety
Give people sense of control over their
Can promote and reinforce the status quo or,
in some situations can be means of changing
To explain important aspects of the physical
and social environment and to give meaning.
By defining the place of the
individual in society and thru the
establishment of moral codes,
religion provide us with,
Many religious practices are aimed at ensuring
success in human activities. Prayers, sacrifice and
magic are done in the hope that that they will aid a
particular person or community.
Rituals are performed to call on supernatural beings
and to control forces that appear to be unpredictable.
Example: You are likely to pray for passing an exam
if you have not studied very well, and you may even
bring your lucky charm during the examination day
The practice of “magical death” in many parts of
Melanesia, a sorcerer ritually imitates throwing a
magical stick in the direction of the intended
victim with an expression of passionate hatred
on his face, is often very effective because of its
Anthropologist Walter Cannon, concluded that
death was usually caused by the victims extreme
terror which led to despair, appetite loss, and
vulnerability to heart attack.
Baseball player George Gmelch has noted to
use magic for the least predictable aspects of the
game like hitting, pitching, and talking to his
Religion is closely connected with the
survival of society and generally works to
preserve the social order. Through religion,
beliefs about good and evil are reinforce by
supernatural means of social control.
Sacred stories and rituals provide a
rationale for the present social order and
give social values religious authority.
Religious rituals also intensifies social solidarity
by creating an atmosphere in which people
experience their common identity in emotionally
Finally, religion is an important educational
institution for transmitting cultural values
No one knows for sure! There are suggestions
of religion in Neanderthal burials and on
European cave walls, where painted stick figures
may represent shamans, early religious specialists.
Nevertheless, any statement about when, where,
why, and how religion arose, or any description of
its original nature, can be only speculative.
Although such speculations are inconclusive,
however, many have revealed important functions
and effects of religious behaviour. Several theories
will be examined now.
Englishman Sir Edward Burnett Tylor, the founder of
the anthropology of religion
Religion was born, as people tried to understand
conditions and events they could not explain by
reference to daily experience.
Tylor concluded that attempts to explain dreams and
trances led early humans to believe that two entities
inhabit the body, one active during the day and the
other—a double or soul— active during sleep and
Besides animism—and sometimes coexisting with
it in the same society—is a view of the supernatural
as a domain of impersonal power, or force, which
people can control under certain conditions. (You’d
be right to think of Star Wars:) Such a conception
of the supernatural is particularly prominent in
Melanesia, the area of the South Pacific that
includes Papua New Guinea and adjacent islands.
Melanesians believed in mana, a sacred
impersonal force existing in the universe.
Mana can reside in people, animals, plants, and
Melanesians attributed success to mana,
which people could acquire or manipulate in
different ways, such as through magic.
Objects with mana could change someone’s
For example, a charm or amulet belonging
to a successful hunter might transmit the
hunter’s mana to the next person who held
or wore it. A woman might put a rock in her
garden, see her yields improve dramatically,
and attribute the change to the force
contained in the rock.
So charged with mana were the highest chiefs
that contact with them was dangerous to the
commoners. The mana of chiefs flowed out of
their bodies wherever they went. It could infect
the ground, making it dangerous for others to
walk in the chief’s footsteps.
Contact between chief and commoners was
dangerous because mana could have an effect
like an electric shock.
Because high chiefs had so much mana, their
bodies and possessions were taboo (set apart
as sacred and off-limits to ordinary people).
Magic refers to supernatural techniques intended to
accomplish specific aims. These techniques include spells,
formulas, and incantations used with deities or with
IMITATIVE MAGIC- magicians use imitative
magic to produce a desired effect by imitating
it. If magicians wish to injure or kill someone,
they may imitate that effect on an image of
the victim. Sticking pins in “voodoo dolls” is
CONTAGIOUS MAGIC- with contagious
magic, whatever is done to an object is
believed to affect a person who once had
contact with it. Sometimes practitioners of
contagious magic use body products from
prospective victims—their nails or hair, for
example. The spell performed on the body
product is believed to reach the person
eventually and work the desired result.
Religion and magic don’t just explain things.
They serve emotional needs as well as
cognitive (e.g., psychological) ones. For
example, supernatural beliefs and practices
can help reduce anxiety. Religion helps
people face death and endure life crises.
Magical techniques can dispel doubts that
arise when outcomes are beyond human
When people face uncertainty and danger, according to
Malinowski, they turn to MAGIC. Malinowski found
that the Trobriand Islanders used magic when sailing, a
hazardous activity. He proposed that because people
can’t control matters such as wind, weather, and the
fish supply, they turn to magic.
Magic is particularly evident in baseball, where George
Gmelch (1978, 2001) describes a series of rituals,
taboos, and sacred objects. Like Trobriand sailing
magic, these behaviors serve to reduce psychological
stress, creating an illusion of magical control when real
control is lacking. Examples of pitchers’ magic include
tugging one’s cap between pitches, touching the resin
bag after each bad pitch, and talking to the ball.
Several features distinguish rituals from other kinds of
behaviour. Rituals are formal—stylized, repetitive, and
stereotyped. People perform them in special (sacred)
places and at set times. Rituals include liturgical orders—
sequences of words and actions invented prior to the
current performance of the ritual in which they occur.
These features link rituals to plays, but there are
important differences. Plays have audiences rather than
participants. Actors merely portray something, but ritual
performers—who make up congregations—are in
earnest. Rituals convey information about the participants
and their traditions. Repeated year after year, generation
after generation, rituals translate enduring messages,
values, and sentiments into action.
Magic and religion, as Malinowski noted, can reduce
anxiety and allay fears. Ironically, beliefs and rituals also
can create anxiety and a sense of insecurity and danger.
Anxiety may arise because a rite exists. Indeed,
participation in a collective ritual may build up stress,
whose common reduction, through the completion of the
ritual, enhances the solidarity of the participants.
Rites of passage, such as the collective circumcision of
teenagers, can be very stressful. The traditional vision
quests of Native Americans, particularly the Plains Indians,
illustrate rites of passage (customs associated with the
transition from one place or stage of life to another),
which are found throughout the world.
The rites of passage of contemporary
societies include confirmations, baptisms,
bar and bat mitzvahs, and fraternity hazing.
Passage rites involve changes in social
status, such as from boyhood to manhood
and from nonmember to sorority sister.
More generally, a rite of passage may mark
any change in place, condition, social
position, or age.
This may also include birth, puberty,
marriage and death etc.
SEPARATION- the person of group is ritually
detached form the former status.
LIMINAL PHASE- the person has been
detached from the old status but has not yet
attached to a new one, the person is in “limbo”,
neither here nor there. The liminal stage
mediates between separation and the third
REINCORPORATION- in which the passage
from one status to another is symbolically
completed. The person takes on the rights and
obligations of his or her new social status.
Absence of Property
Absence of status
-Normal Social Structure-
• Obedience only to Superior
Passage rites often are collective. Several individuals—
boys being circumcised, fraternity or sorority initiates,
men at military boot camps, football players in
summer training camps, women becoming nuns—
pass through the rites together as a group.
Most notable is a social aspect of collective liminality
called communitas, an intense community spirit, a
feeling of great social solidarity, equality, and
togetherness. People experiencing liminality together
form a community of equals. The social distinctions
that have existed before or will exist afterward are
forgotten temporarily. Liminal people experience the
same treatment and conditions and must act alike.
Rites of Australian aborigines
TOTEM- an object, animal species, or
feature of the natural world that is
associated with a particular descent
Members of each totemic group
believed themselves to be descendants
of their totem.
In contemporary nations, too, totems continue to
mark groups, such as states and universities,
professional teams, and political parties.
Totems are sacred emblems symbolizing