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Anthro 181: Social Anthropology of Religion

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Anthro 181: Social Anthropology of Religion

  1. 1. 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 supernatural.
  2. 2. 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?
  3. 3. 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 variation...
  4. 4. “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”.
  5. 5. 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 morality.
  6. 6. 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.
  7. 7.  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.
  8. 8.  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)
  9. 9.  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”.
  10. 10.  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.
  11. 11. 3. Enacted nature of religion 2.shared 1.collective 5.Meanings it embodies 4. Emotions it generates
  12. 12.  stressed religious “effervescence”, the bubbling up of collective emotional intensity generated by worship.  updated Durkheim’s notion, using the term “communitas”, an intense community spirit, a feeling of great social solidarity, equality, and togetherness.
  13. 13.  The word religion derives from the Latin “religare”— “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 congregation sites.  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.
  14. 14. 1) Religions are composed of sacred stories or narratives that members believed are important. 2) Religions make extensive use of symbols and symbolism. 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 the supernatural. 5) All societies include individuals who are particularly expert in the practice of religion.
  15. 15. Religion have many functions in a society. It may provide:  Meaning and order in people’s lives  May reduce social anxiety  Give people sense of control over their destinies  Can promote and reinforce the status quo or, in some situations can be means of changing existing conditions.
  16. 16.  To explain important aspects of the physical and social environment and to give meaning. 
  17. 17. By defining the place of the individual in society and thru the establishment of moral codes, religion provide us with,
  18. 18.  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 
  19. 19.  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 psychological effects.  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 baseball bat.
  20. 20.  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.
  21. 21.  Religious rituals also intensifies social solidarity by creating an atmosphere in which people experience their common identity in emotionally giving ways.
  22. 22.  Finally, religion is an important educational institution for transmitting cultural values and knowledge.
  23. 23. Religion can also be a catalyst for social change.
  24. 24. (Origin and Early Beginnings)
  25. 25. 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.
  26. 26.  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 trance states.
  27. 27. “Physical Body” “Double or Soul”  Although they never meet, they are vital to each other and keeps balance to the human. When double permanently leaves the body, the person dies. Death is departure of the soul.
  28. 28. Anima (Latin) means “Soul” “ANIMISM” -the earliest form of religion, was a belief in spiritual beings.
  29. 29. Animism (spirits) Polytheism (belief in multiple gods) Monotheism (single, all powerful deity)
  30. 30.  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 objects.
  31. 31.  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 luck.  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.
  32. 32.  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).
  33. 33. Agimat
  34. 34.  Magic refers to supernatural techniques intended to accomplish specific aims. These techniques include spells, formulas, and incantations used with deities or with impersonal forces.  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 an example.
  35. 35. 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.
  36. 36.  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 control.
  37. 37.  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.
  38. 38.  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.
  39. 39.  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.
  40. 40.  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.
  41. 41.  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 stage.  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.
  42. 42. -Liminality-  Transition  Homogeneity  Communitas  Equality  Anonymity  Absence of Property  Absence of status  Total obedience  Sacredness -Normal Social Structure- • State • Heterogeneity • Structure • Inequality • Names • Property • Status • Obedience only to Superior • Secularity
  43. 43.  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.
  44. 44.  Rites of Australian aborigines  TOTEM- an object, animal species, or feature of the natural world that is associated with a particular descent (kinship) group.  Members of each totemic group believed themselves to be descendants of their totem.
  45. 45.  In contemporary nations, too, totems continue to mark groups, such as states and universities, professional teams, and political parties. Totems are sacred emblems symbolizing common identity.