Anthropology of Religion Online

March 1, 2009 - anthropology / ethnography

Doug Padgett writes on the “General Characteristics of Contemporary Anthropology of Religion.” here.

1. Contemporary anthropology of religion sympathizes with the “practicalities” (William James’s word) of religious experience: religion on the ground, in the populace, and the tensions felt there between official, institutional notions and the polytheistic, even inclusive atmosphere of majority religious life. This is partially a result of anthropology’s historical emphasis on “non-literate,” “primitive” religious life, i.e., religion that does not resemble Western European Christianity and/or Judaism in any apparent way. Anthropology of religion thus tends to emphasize the local particularities of religious life–spirit worship, saint cults, possession–as opposed to the idealizations of religious specialists, world renunciants, or sophisticated religious ethics and scholasticism

2. Contemporary anthropology of religion is methodologically and theoretically diverse. Because anthropological subdisciplines share common intellectual roots, there are as many ways of doing anthropology of religion as there are of doing any other sort. Followers of Durkheim, Weber, Marxists, Freudians, structuralists, structural-functionalists, and those influenced by more recent theorists, have found–and still find–their own ways of interpreting religion.

3. Contemporary anthropology of religion attempts to overcome the prejudicial, Western-biased understandings of religion found in flawed but still valuable works such as those by Evans-Pritchard, Malinowski, Tylor, and Levi-Strauss. In the sixties, their concrete and totalizing definitions of religion began to be replaced by more fluid, contingent working definitions. Clifford Geertz, for example, understand religion to be a system of symbols that are uniquely realistic to practitioners in various ways. Melford Spiro, on the other hand, as an answer to Durkheim specifically, convincingly reduced religion to those acts and experiences that involve dealings with the superhuman. Both of these have been under fire for some years, though both maintain their utility

4. Finally, and most anthropologically, I believe, contemporary anthropology of religion emphasizes place. Place is what, in fact, sets anthropology of religion apart from “religious studies” and is also, perhaps, the greatest contribution of the anthropology of religion to contemporary religious studies. Anthropologists of religion in anthropology and in religious studies have consistently articulated a deep knowledge of place as an antidote to the sometimes facile, superficial approach of “comparative religion.”