Discussion PromptPlease write a minimum of three paragraphs (paragraphs should be 4-8 sentences in length) for your first post (original post: this cannot be divided into multiple posts– the 7 points is based solely on the first submission, whether blank, partial, or full: make it count!) describe the difference between souls and ghosts, and the various perceptions of death that exist cross-culturally. Reflect on the video, “Nzambi” by Vice, in addition to descriptions of other practices and beliefs and practices relating to death (treatment of the body, relationship to the soul and ghosts).What is the purpose, or function, of these beliefs in various societies?If we see them across cultures, but they vary greatly, what sorts of generalizations can be make about these beliefs and practices in regards to all human societies?Considering your own beliefs and practices associated with these topics, what similarities do you see when looking at the case studies covered this week? What differences? Write three thoughtful replies to three original posts that stood out to you. Point DistributionRefer to the Module 2 discussion forum for guidelines for discussion posts. 7 Points- Your original post- responses should include insight related to the prompt and include specific details, such as case studies or cultural examples, for support. 3 Points- Thoughtful, topic-related replies to classmates. Avoid, “I agree”-type statements and discuss why you agree and elaborate, to show you understand the course materials.Grading Rubric: Please use the gear at the top of the page to review the Discussion Grading Rubric. module 2 discussion forum that was mentioned above:1) Engaging, meaningfully, with classmates regarding the content of the course.Learning more than you knew before entering discussion, this happens by reading and considering classmates’ post content and working to consider what you learned while completing the readings, videos, Quiz and Topic Assignment. Did classmates see some of the content differently? What stood out to you? Why? You may use some personal reflection here!Personal knowledge can be used (for discussion only), if you can accurately and clearly show its relationship to course materials for the module; this means you must use terms and concepts throughout your post. I encourage the use of personal knowledge, but only when it is used to further show comprehension of what we are learning in the module.A post that is filled with opinion (what you believe is right or wrong, good or bad, better or worse, etc.), lacks course terms/concepts, or is unable to show the value of the module’s content in relation to personal knowledge should be avoided. Remember, you will be using cultural relativism (Links to an external site.) throughout the course, which includes your work on discussion. This means refraining from judging another culture based on your own culture/biases. We will take that to also mean not judging another religion/culture based on our religion, as well. For example, if you follow a particular religion, then hold off on using your religion as a basis for understanding/judging the cultures we study and their religious views. Instead, focus on the emic categories (Links to an external site.) (the perspective of those in a culture we are studying) and try to get to the heart of the meanings to those you are learning about in this course. Your first post must be completed by noon of the due date or it will automatically lose 20% of the total possible points; late posting means fewer classmates, if any, will be able to read and interact with your post, thus it isn’t fostering discussion and isn’t meeting the basic goal of the assessment. Discussion is the most valuable place to learn when you are in an online course. This is the point of the college experience! Learning. Growing. Becoming someone who can think critically and logically about the world around them. Use one another as resources for enhanced learning. 2) Showing deeper understanding of terms and concepts, rather than reiterating superficial information from the textbook. If your post is written as a rephrasing of the topic assignment content (which everyone has completed) or a general summary of the textbook (which everyone has read), then it isn’t terribly engaging.Instead, think on the terms and concepts and case studies that really stood out to you. Discuss those. Discuss why they stood out. Discuss how a particular concept or term or case study relates to your own personal knowledge. Make the post yours. By making it yours, you help your classmates learn and you make your post engaging to them. 3) Reflecting on the material (in your original post) and your classmates posts (in replies) and how the information you’re gathering, through the course materials or classmates’ posts, have added to your knowledge or challenged you to think about something we are learning in a new way. An example of reflecting for this module’s content, while writing your original/first post, might include recognizing your ethnocentric (Links to an external site.) perspectives as you read/learned. For example, the first chapter discusses cannibalism. It’s easy to judge a culture that participates in this act based on the fact that our culture sees it as bad (ethnocentrism), but as a student of anthropology, it is imperative to understand how cannibalism is practiced, in what circumstances, and why, within the culture we are studying (by using cultural relativism).Your goal isn’t to have an opinion on the practice or belief, but to understand the meaning of the practice or belief to those being studied and remain aware of how your biases impact your perspective as you learn. If your culture has biased your perspective, then state that fact. We are all ethnocentric. This course is going to challenge you to become more aware of the way your culture biases your perspective of others. 4) Using course terms and concepts to show comprehension. Showing you understand means being able to explain the relationship between case studies (examples) of various cultures covered in class to those course terms (usually bolded words in the textbook) and concepts (usually headings or subheadings in the textbook). Most of the course terms and concepts are pretty straight forward. However, students sometimes misuse terms or concepts because of their general understanding (what we call, “casual” or “everyday” meanings), rather than the anthropological understanding of the term or concept. Your score is based on your comprehension using the anthropological understanding. Be sure to revisit the textbook and understand the terms and concepts you use before employing them in your work. The better you know them by the end of the module, the easier it will be to draw on that information later for exams or future modules (some terms and concepts return repeatedly in the semester). Note: Grades are based on your ability to convey what you’ve learned in your own words, without quotes. Verbatim content will not earn points, but may result in a loss of points (no quotes, please!). This is where you explore what you’ve learned- make the posts your own!The Anthropology of Religion, Magic, and
This concise and accessible textbook introduces students to the
anthropological study of religion. Stein and Stein examine religious expression
from a cross-cultural perspective and expose students to the varying
complexity of world religions. The chapters incorporate key theoretical
concepts and a rich range of ethnographic material.
The fourth edition of The Anthropology of Religion, Magic, and Witchcraft
increased coverage of new religious movements, fundamentalism, and
religion and conflict/violence;
fresh case study material with examples drawn from around the globe;
further resources via a comprehensive companion website.
This is an essential guide for students encountering anthropology of religion
for the first time.
Rebecca L. Stein is Professor of Anthropology and Department Chair at Los
Angeles Valley College, USA.
Philip L. Stein is Professor of Anthropology (Emeritus) at Los Angeles Pierce
College, USA. He is a fellow of the American Anthropological Association and
a past president of the Society for Anthropology in Community Colleges.
The Anthropology of Religion, Magic,
and Witchcraft
Fourth Edition
Rebecca L. Stein and Philip L. Stein
Fourth edition published 2017
by Routledge
2 Park Square, Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon OX14 4RN
and by Routledge
711 Third Avenue, New York, NY 10017
Routledge is an imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group, an informa business
© 2017 Rebecca L. Stein and Philip L. Stein
The right of Rebecca L. Stein and Philip L. Stein to be identified as authors of this work has
been asserted by them in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and
Patents Act 1988.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reprinted or reproduced or utilized in any
form or by any electronic, mechanical, or other means, now known or hereafter invented,
including photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system,
without permission in writing from the publishers.
Trademark notice: Product or corporate names may be trademarks or registered trademarks,
and are used only for identification and explanation without intent to infringe.
First published 2005 by Prentice Hall
Third edition published 2011 by Prentice Hall
British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data
Names: Stein, Rebecca L., 1970- author. | Stein, Philip L., author.
Title: The anthropology of religion, magic, and witchcraft / Rebecca L.
Stein, Philip L. Stein.
Description: Fourth edition. | Abingdon, Oxon; New York, NY :
Routledge, 2017. | Includes bibliographical references and index.
Identifiers: LCCN 2016050966 (print) | LCCN 2017007888 (ebook) |
ISBN 9781138719972 (hardback : alk. paper) | ISBN 9781138692527
(pbk. : alk. paper) | ISBN 9781315532172 (e-book)
Subjects: LCSH: Religion. | Anthropology of religion. | Religion and
Classification: LCC GN470. S73 2017 (print) | LCC GN470 (ebook) |
DDC 306.6—dc23
LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2016050966
ISBN: 978-1-138-71997-2 (hbk)
ISBN: 978-1-138-69252-7 (pbk)
ISBN: 978-1-315-53217-2 (ebk)
Typeset in Sabon
by Keystroke, Neville Lodge, Tettenhall, Wolverhampton
Visit the companion website:
For Elijah
1 The anthropological study of religion
The anthropological perspective
The holistic approach
The study of human societies
The Fore of New Guinea: an ethnographic example
Two ways of viewing culture
Cultural relativism
Box 1.1 Karen McCarthy Brown and Vodou
The concept of culture
The study of religion
Attempts at defining religion
The domain of religion
Theoretical approaches to the study of religion
Box 1.2 Malinowski and the Trobriand Islands
Box 1.3 Evans-Pritchard and the Azande
The biological basis of religious behavior
Study questions
Suggested readings
Suggested websites
2 Mythology
The nature of myths
Stories of the supernatural
The nature of oral texts
Box 2.1 Genesis
Box 2.2 The gender-neutral Christian Bible
Understanding myths
Approaches to the analysis of myths
Box 2.3 The Gururumba creation story
Common themes in myths
Box 2.4 The power of storytelling
Box 2.5 The Navaho creation story: Diné Bahane’
Study questions
Suggested readings
Suggested websites
3 Religious symbols
What is a symbol?
Religious symbols
Box 3.1 Religious toys and games
Sacred art
The sarcophagus of Lord Pakal
The meaning of color
Sacred time and sacred space
The meaning of time
Box 3.2 The end of time
Sacred time and space in Australia
The symbolism of music and dance
The symbolism of music
The symbolism of dance
Study questions
Suggested readings
Suggested websites
4 Ritual
The basics of ritual performance
Prescriptive and situational rituals
Periodic and occasional rituals
A classification of rituals
A survey of rituals
Technological rituals
Social rites of intensification
Therapy rituals and healing
Revitalization rituals
Rites of passage
Alterations of the human body
Box 4.1 The Hajj
The Huichol pilgrimage
Religious obligations
Jewish food laws
Box 4.2 Menstrual tabus
Study questions
Suggested readings
Suggested websites
5 Altered states of consciousness
The nature of altered states of consciousness
Entering an altered state of consciousness
The biological basis of altered states of consciousness
Box 5.1 Altered states in Upper Paleolithic art
Ethnographic examples of altered states of consciousness
San healing rituals
The Sun Dance of the Cheyenne
The Holiness Churches
Drug-induced altered states of consciousness
Hallucinogenic snuff among the Yanomamö
Tobacco in South America
Peyote in the Native American Church
Marijuana among the Rastafarians
Study questions
Suggested readings
Suggested websites
6 Religious specialists
Defining shamanism
Siberian shamanism
Korean shamanism
Pentecostal healers as shamans
Box 6.1 Clown doctors as shamans
Zuni priests
Okinawan priestesses
Eastern Orthodox priests
Other specialists
Healers and diviners
Box 6.2 African healers meet Western medicine
Study questions
Suggested readings
Suggested websites
7 Magic and divination
The nature of magic
Magic and religion
Rules of magic
Magic in society
Magic in the Trobriand Islands
Magic among the Azande
Sorcery among the Fore
Wiccan magic
Forms of divination
A survey of divination techniques
Box 7.1 I Ching: The Book of Changes
Box 7.2 Spiritualism and séances
Fore divination
Oracles of the Azande
Divination in Ancient Greece: the oracle at Delphi
Magical behavior and the human mind
Magical thinking
Why magic works
Study questions
Suggested readings
Suggested websites
8 Souls, ghosts, and death
Souls and ancestors
Variation in the concept of the soul
Box 8.1 How do you get to heaven?
Souls, death, and the afterlife
Examples of concepts of the soul
Box 8.2 Determining death
Bodies and souls
The living dead: vampires and zombies
Death rituals
Funeral rituals
Disposal of the body
U.S. death rituals in the nineteenth century
U.S. funeral rituals today
Days of death
Box 8.3 Roadside memorials
Study questions
Suggested readings
Suggested websites
9 Gods and spirits
The Dani view of the supernatural
Guardian spirits and the Native American vision quest
Christian angels and demons
Box 9.1 Christian demonic exorcism in the United States
Types of gods
Gods and society
Box 9.2 Games and gods
The gods of the Yoruba
The gods of the Ifugao
Monotheism: conceptions of god in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam
Study questions
Suggested readings
Suggested websites
10 Witchcraft
The concept of witchcraft in small-scale societies
Witchcraft among the Azande
Witchcraft among the Navaho
Witchcraft reflects human culture
Witchcraft and AIDS
Euro-American witchcraft beliefs
The connection with pagan religions
The Witchcraze in Europe
The Witchcraze in England and the United States
Box 10.1: The evil eye
Modern-day witch hunts
Box 10.2 Satanism
Study questions
Suggested readings
Suggested websites
11 The search for new meaning
Adaptation and change
Mechanisms of culture change
Haitian Vodou
Revitalization movements
The origins of revitalization movements
Types of revitalization movements
Cargo cults
Box 11.1 The John Frum cult
The Ghost Dance of 1890
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormonism)
Neo-Paganism and revival
The Wiccan movement
High demand religions
The “cult” question
Characteristics of high demand religions
Examples of high demand religions
UFO religions
Study questions
Suggested readings
Suggested websites
12 Religion, conflict, and peace
Religion and conflict
Role of religion in conflict and violence
Box 12.1 Nationalism as religion
Characteristics of fundamentalist groups
Case studies of religion and conflict
The Iranian Revolution
Box 12.2 The veil in Islam
The Arab Spring
The Hobby Lobby case in the United States
Religion, terrorism, and peace
Religious conflict and terrorism
Religion and peace
Study questions
Suggested readings
Suggested websites
1 Map showing location of societies discussed in text: Western Hemisphere
2 Map showing location of societies discussed in text: Eastern Hemisphere
1.1 Holism
1.2 Brain scans. Courtesy of Andrew Newberg
3.1 Navaho blanket with swastika. Arizona State Museum, University of
Arizona, Helga Teiwes, photographer
3.2 The pentagram
3.3 Some Christian symbols
3.4 The mayan cosmos. D. Donne BryantDDB Stock Photography, LLC
3.5 Yin-yang
4.1 Alterations of the human body. 4.1a © Bettman/CORBIS All Rights
Reserved; 4.1b © Westend61 GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo; 4.1c © Robert
Estall photo agency / Alamy Stock Photo
4.2 Our Lady of Guadalupe. The Granger Collection, New York
5.1 Mayan carving. 5.1a © The Trustees of the British Museum; 5.1b © The
Trustees of the British Museum
5.2 San healing ceremony. © Peter Johnson/CORBIS All Rights Reserved
6.1 Shaman. Photo by Tao Zhang/Nur Photo. Sipa USA via AP
6.2 Okinawan priestesses. © Chris Willson / Alamy Stock Photo
7.1 Divination. © Earl and Nazima Kowall/CORBIS All Rights Reserved
7.2 Painting of the Pythia. Bpk, Berlin/Antikensammlung, Staatliche
Museen/Johannes Laurentius/Art Resource, NY
8.1 The Wheel of Life. © Getty Images/Time Life Pictures
8.2 Vampire burial. Courtesy of the Slavia Project and the Slavia Field School
in Mortuary Archaeology, Drawsko, Poland
8.3 The Day of the Dead. © Danny Lehman/CORBIS All Rights Reserved
9.1 The Greek pantheon
9.2 Venus of Willendorf. INTERFOTO / Alamy Stock Photo
9.3 The Hindu goddess Kali. © Earl and Nazima Kowall/CORBIS All Rights
10.1 Execution of English witches. The Granger Collection, New York
11.1 Vodou altar. AP Photo/Lynsey Addiaro
11.2 Wiccan ritual. © Jim Cartier/Science Photo Library
11.3 Mass wedding of the Unification Church. CORBIS-NY
12.1 Hobby Lobby. Mark Wilson/Getty Images
12.2 Terrorist attacks in Paris. Patrick Kovarik/Getty Images
1.1 Culture areas of the world
1.2 Food-getting strategies
2.1 Forms of narrative
2.2 The monomyth in cinema: a sampling of common features
4.1 A classification of rituals
4.2 Causes and treatment of supernatural illnesses
4.3 Characteristics of liminality
5.1 Characteristics of altered states of consciousness
5.2 Factors bringing about an altered state of consciousness
5.3 Drugs that produce an altered state of consciousness
7.1 A classification of methods of divination with examples
9.1 The supernatural world of the Dani
9.2 The Roman gods and goddesses of agriculture
9.3 Some of the Yoruba orisha
11.1 The lwa of Haitian Vodou
Although courses in the anthropology of religion are usually upper-division
courses taught at four-year institutions to anthropology majors, the course is
increasingly being taught at the lower-division level, especially at community
colleges. Here the emphasis is not on the training of majors, of whom there
are few, but on meeting a general education requirement in the social sciences
or humanities. Most significantly, this course is probably the only
anthropology course that such students will take. Therefore the instructor has
the obligation not only to discuss the topics of religion, but also to teach the
student about the nature of anthropology and to present its basic principles.
We had great difficulty in finding a textbook that is appropriate for this
type of course. Three types of books exist. First is the reader, which often
includes articles that are too advanced for the introductory student. A major
problem is the inconsistency of terminology and concepts as the student
moves from article to article. The second is the general textbook on the
anthropology of religion; but these appear to be written for upper-division
students who have already been introduced to the field and often heavily
emphasize theory. Third, there are abundant books on the more familiar
world religions but few that discuss religions in small-scale societies, where
much of the anthropological studies have been conducted. Our goal in writing
this text has been to introduce the beginning student to the basic concepts
involved in the anthropological study of religion, including an introduction to
ethnographical information from a wide range of societies and a basic
introduction to the field of anthropology.
One of the most difficult decisions we have had to make in writing this text
is the organization and order of presentation of topics. The range of topics is
large, and they overlap in myriad ways—everyone has his or her own
approach. We have attempted to present the material beginning with basic
concepts and proceeding to the more complex. For example, we begin with
myth, symbolism, and ritual before moving on to magic and witchcraft later
in the text.
We have attempted to include a number of ethnographic examples with a
good geographical distribution. Societies discussed in the text are included in
Table 1.1, “Culture areas of the world,” and the locations of many of these are
shown on the maps at the front of the book. Of course, many topics are
associated with classic ethnographic studies, which have been included. We
have also attempted to balance the presentation of a wide variety of cultures
with the inclusion of certain key societies that reappear as examples of several
topics throughout the text, to give students some continuity and a deeper
understanding of a small group of societies. These societies include the
Navaho of North America, the Yanomamö of South America, the Azande and
Yoruba of Africa, the Murngin of Australia, and the Trobriand Islanders off
the coast of New Guinea.
The writing of a manuscript is a major and complex undertaking. It is a
thrill to see the book in print, but when reading it in book form and using it in
class, the authors often see things that could have been done a little
differently, as well as having ideas for new avenues to explore. We have
continued to make a number of changes in this fourth edition. Some of these
changes are minor: a little reorganization, an expansion or contraction of a
particular topic, the introduction of a new example or elimination of an old
one, and a little rewording to make the point a little clearer. Other changes are
more substantial. For example, we have added a new Chapter 12 in which we
discuss fundamentalism, formerly in Chapter 11, and new material on religion
and conflict, violence and peace. We have added small sections on apotropaic
features found in archaeological context, vampire beliefs in New English, big
gods, and witchcraft in Soweto, South Africa. We have also added four new
boxes on “The Power of Storytelling,” “Spiritualism and Séances,”
“Nationalism as Religion,” and “The Veil in Islam.”
To assist the student in learning the material, we have divided each chapter
into several sections with different levels of headings. Terms that appear in
the Glossary have been set in bold. Each chapter concludes with a summary,
study questions, suggested reading, and suggested websites. Additional
materials for students and instructors are available on the companion website
We want to take this opportunity to thank the many faculty members who
have aided us in the writing of this text by reviewing the manuscript and
offering advice and suggestions.
Katherine Bradford, Los Angeles Mission College
Nicola Denzey, Bowdoin College
Charles O. Ellenbaum, College of DuPage
Karen Fjelstad, Cabrillo College
Wendy Fonarow, Glendale College
Arthur Gribben, Los Angeles Mission College
Amy Harper, Central Oregon Community College
Barbara Hornum, Drexel University
William Jankowiak, University of Nevada, Las Vegas
Theresa Kintz, Wilkes University
Debra L. Klein, Gavilan College
Christopher Kovats-Bernat, Muhlenberg College
Lilly M. Langer, Florida International University
Phillip Naftaly, Adirondack Community College
Lesley Northup, Florida International University
Robin O’Brian, Elmira College
Lisa Raskind, Los Angeles Valley College
Cheryle Ross, Rio Hondo College
Terry N. Simmons, Paradise Valley Community College
As well as the many anonymous reviewers for both Prentice Hall and
We would like to thank everyone at Routledge for their assistance and
support in the writing of this book. We also want to thank our students for
their assistance. After all, this book was written for them. The text was
originally based on our lecture notes for an anthropology of religion course
which developed over many years with student dialogue. The manuscript was
then used as a textbook, which provided an opportunity for student feedback.
Finally, we wish to thank our respective spouses, Robert Frankle and Carol
Stein, for their patience and support, and assistance.
Map 1 Map showing location of societies discussed in text: Western Hemisphere
Map 2 Map showing location of societies discussed in text: Eastern Hemisphere
Chapter 1
The anthropological study of religion
Human beings pose questions about nearly everything in the world, including
themselves. The most fundamental of these questions are answered by a
people’s religious beliefs and practices, which are the subject of this book. We
will examine the religious lives of a broad range of human communities from
an anthropological perspective.
The term anthropological perspective means many things. It is a theoretical
orientation that will be discussed later in the chapter. It is also an approach
that compares human societies throughout the world—contemporary and
historical, industrial and tribal. Many college courses and textbooks focus on
the best-known religions, those that are practiced by millions upon millions of
people and are often referred to as the “world’s great religions”—Judaism,
Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, among others. This book will
expand the subject matter to include and focus on lesser-known religious
systems, especially those that are found in small-scale, traditional
communities. As we do this, we want to look for commonalities as well as to
celebrate diversity.
This book will not simply describe a series of religious systems. We will
approach the study of religion by looking at particular topics that are usually
included in the anthropological definition of religion and providing examples
to illustrate these topics from the anthropological literature. We obviously are
unable to present the thousands of religious systems that exist or have existed
in the world, but we can provide a sample.
The anthropological perspective
The subject of this book is religion as seen from an anthropological
perspective. What does this mean? The term anthropology refers to the study
of humanity. However, anthropology shares this subject matter with many
other disciplines—sociology, psychology, history, and political science, to
name a few. So how is anthropology different from these other disciplines?
One way in which anthropology differs from other subjects is that
anthropology is an integrated study of humanity. Anthropologists study
human societies as systematic sums of their parts, as integrated wholes. We
call this approach holism. For example, many disciplines study marriage. The
anthropologist believes that a true understanding of marriage requires an
understanding of all aspects of the society. Marriage is profoundly influenced
by politics and law, economics, ethics, and theology; in turn, marriage
influences history, literature, art, and music. The same is true of religious
practices and beliefs.
The holistic nature of anthropology is seen in the various divisions of the
field. Traditional anthropologists speak of four-fields anthropology. These four
fields are physical anthropology, archaeology, linguistic anthropology, and
cultural anthropology. Today, with the rapid increase and complexity of
anthropological studies, anthropologists are becoming more and more
specialized and focused on particular topics. The often-simplistic concept of
anthropology as being composed of the integrated study of these four fields is
rapidly breaking down, but a review of these four fields will acquaint those
who are studying anthropology for the first time with the essential nature of
the discipline.
Physical anthropology is the study of human biology and evolution.
Physical anthropologists are interested in genetics and genomics; evolutionary
theory; the biology and behavior of the primates, the group of animals that
includes monkeys, apes, and humans; and paleontology, the study of the fossil
record. Anthropologists with a biological orientation discuss the evolutionary
origins and the neurobiology of religious experience.
Archaeology is the study of people who are known only from their
physical and cultural remains; it gives us insight into the lives of now extinct
societies. Evidence of religious expression can be seen in the ruins of ancient
temples and in the art and writings of people who lived in societies that have
faded into history.
The field of linguistic anthropology is devoted to the study of language,
which, according to many anthropologists, is a unique feature of humans.
Much of religious practice is linguistic in nature, involving the recitation of
words, and the religious beliefs of a people are expressed in their myths and
Cultural anthropology is the study of contemporary human societies and
makes up the largest area of anthropological study. Cultural anthropologists
study a people’s social organization, economics and technology, political
organization, marriage and family life, child-rearing practices, and so forth.
The study of religion is a subject within the general field of cultural
anthropology. However, we will be drawing on all four subfields in our
examination of religion.
The holistic approach
Studying a society holistically is a very daunting task. It requires a great deal
of time—time to observe human behavior and time to interview members of a
society. Because of the necessity of having to limit the scope of a research
project, anthropologists are noted for their long-term studies of small, remote
communities. However, as isolated small communities become increasingly
incorporated into larger political units, anthropologists are turning more and
more to the study of larger, more complex societies. Yet even within a more
complex society, anthropologists maintain a limited focus. For example,
within an urban setting, anthropologists study specific companies, hospitals,
neighborhoods, gangs, clubs, and churches. Anthropological studies take place
over long periods of time and usually require the anthropologist to live within
the community and to participate to a degree in the lives of the people under
study, while at the same time making objective observations. This technique
of study is referred to as participant observation.
Students of anthropology are initially introduced to small communities
such as foraging bands, small horticultural villages, and groups of pastoral
nomads. They become familiar with the lives of the Trobriand Islanders off
the coast of New Guinea, the Navaho of the American Southwest, the
Yanomamö of northern South America, the Murngin of northern Australia,
and the San of southern Africa. Some people refer to these societies as being
“primitive,” but primitive is a pejorative term, one laden with negative
connotations such as inferior and “less than.” A better term is small-scale.
When we say small-scale, we refer to relatively small communities, villages,
and bands that practice foraging, herding, or technologically simple
We will also be examining aspects of what are often referred to as the
“world’s great religions.” Like the term primitive, the term great involves a
value judgment. These familiar religions include Judaism, Christianity, Islam,
and Buddhism. They are similar in that the origins of these religions are based
on the lives of a particular individual or founder, such as Moses, Christ,
Mohammad, and the Buddha. These religions have spread into thousands of
different societies, and their adherents number in the millions. The small-scale
societies that are more traditionally studied by anthropologists, by contrast,
are usually not based on the lives of particular prophets or founders. They
tend to be limited to one or a few societies, and their adherents might number
only a few hundred or a few thousand.
If they involve only a very small number of people, then why study these
small-scale religions? Among the many questions that anthropologists ask
about humanity are the following: Are there characteristics that are found in
all human societies, what we might call human universals? And when we
look at universals, or at least at very widespread features, what are the ranges
of variation? Returning to the example of marriage, we could ask the
following questions: Is marriage found in all human societies? And what are
the various forms that marriage takes? We might ask similar questions about
religion. To answer these questions, anthropologists go out into the field,
study particular communities, and write reports describing these
communities. Questions of universality and variability can be answered on
the basis of descriptions of hundreds of human societies.
In addition, the goal of anthropology is to study the broad range of human
beliefs and behaviors, to discover what it means to be human. This is best
accomplished by examining religious and other cultural phenomena in a wide
variety of cultures of different sizes and structures, including our own. It is
often said that the aim of anthropology is to make the strange familiar and the
familiar strange. Only through cross-cultural comparisons is this possible.
The study of human societies
Ethnography is the descriptive study of human societies. People who study
human societies and write ethnographies about them are cultural
anthropologists; they are sometimes referred to as ethnographers.
However, not all descriptions of human societies are written by
ethnographers. For example, an archaeologist is someone who studies the
physical and cultural remains of societies that existed in the past and are
known today only from their ruins, burials, and garbage. Yet archaeologists
can, to a limited degree, reconstruct the lives of people who lived in ancient
societies. Sometimes the only descriptions we have of people’s lives are those
written in diaries and reports by explorers and colonial administrators.
Although these descriptions are far from complete and objective, they do
provide us with some information.
Although we will visit a few societies that are known solely from their
archaeological remains, most of the examples in this book are from societies
that exist today or have existed in the recent past. Many of the societies we
will discuss were first visited and described by anthropologists in the early to
mid-1900s. Although these societies have changed over time, as all groups do,
and although many of these societies have passed out of existence,
anthropologists speak of them in the ethnographic present; that is, we
discuss these groups in the present tense as they were first described by
Throughout this book we will be presenting examples from the
ethnographic literature. These communities are found throughout the world,
including some very remote areas. To better understand their nature and
distribution, we can organize these societies into culture areas. A culture area
is a geographical area in which societies tend to share many cultural traits.
This happens because these groups face similar challenges from the
environment and often come up with similar solutions and because cultural
traits that develop in one group easily spread to other nearby groups.
Each human society—and even subgroups within the society—exhibits
unique characteristics. The common traits that define a culture area tend to lie
in the realm of subsistence activities and technology, a common response to
the challenges from the environment, although some similarity in other facets
of the society, including religion, may also be found. For example, the
California culture area, whose boundaries are somewhat different from the
present-day political unit, includes a group of communities that exploit
acorns. Acorns require processing that involves many steps and much
equipment, but they provide a food resource that is plentiful and nutritious
and that can be stored. These features permit the development of permanent
and semipermanent communities, unlike those developed by most
foragers.1Table 1.1 lists the major culture areas of the world along with the
names of representative groups. All of the groups used as examples in this
book are included. Many are located on the maps at the front of this book.
Table 1.1 Culture areas of the world
Culture area
Arctic Coast
Great BasinPlateau
Societies discussed
in text
North America
Hunting of sea mammals and caribou,
fishing; shelters made of snow blocks,
semisubterranean sod houses, summer tents
Inuit, Yup’ik
made of skins; dog-drawn sledges, tailored
skin clothing; settlement in small family
Hunting caribou, fishing; conical skin tents,
bark or skin canoes, snowshoes, toboggans;
highly nomadic bands with chiefs.
Acorn collecting, fishing, hunting of small
Paiute, Shoshoni game; small brush windbreaks, elaborate
basketry; band organization.
Acorn collecting, fishing, hunting of small
game; simple brush dwellings,
semisubterranean lodges; basketry;
Chumash, Pomo
multiplicity of small contrasting tribes,
semipermanent villages.
Salmon and deep-sea fishing, hunting and
collecting; large rectangular plank
dwellings with gabled roofs, large canoes,
lack pottery, elaborate development of
decorative art; permanent villages, chiefs,
elaborate system of rank.
Hunting of bison, some horticulture; tipi
dwellings; transport by dog, later horse;
Cheyenne, Crow,
absence of basketry and pottery, hide
Kiowa, Lakota, utensils; large bands, competitive military
and social societies, warfare important.
Horticulture, hunting; multiple-family
Iroquois, Seneca dwellings of bark (longhouses); matrilineal
clans, village chiefs.
Similar to Eastern Woodland with
Mesoamerican influence.
Intensive cultivation of beans, maize, and
Apache, Hopi,
squash; pueblos consisting of great
Navaho, Akimel multifamily terraced apartments, singleSouthwest
O’odham, Tewa
family dwellings with more nomadic
Yaqui, Zuni
groups; highly developed pottery and loom
weaving; village as largest political unit.
Intensive agriculture; state societies with
developed technology including
Aztec, Huichol,
monumental stone architecture, stone
sculpture, system of writing, woven
textiles, metallurgy; fully developed
dynastic empires, social classes.
South America
Siriono, Yahgan Hunting, fishing, and gathering; family as
basic social unit.
Slash-and-burn horticulture; villages often
consist of one communal dwelling located
Jivaro, Mehinaku,
on rivers; bark canoes and dugouts, clubs
Tropical Forest
and shields, bows and arrows, blow guns,
bark cloth, hammock, tobacco; village
settlements under chiefs, warfare strongly
developed with cannibalism present.
Intensive farming, hunting and fishing; pole
and thatch houses arranged in streets and
around plazas surrounded by palisade;
Circumhammocks, poisoned arrows, loom weaving
Arawak, Carib
of domesticated cotton, highly developed
ceramics, gold and copper worked; large
villages, social classes, chiefs, extreme
development of warfare.
Intensive irrigation agriculture; paved
roads, monumental architecture, highly
Araucanian, Inca
developed ceramics, weaving, and
metallurgy; large cities, divine ruler over
large empires.
Agriculture and sheep herding; marginal
Near Eastern culture, towns and cities;
Livestock herding (horse and camel) and
tent shelters; intensive fruit and cereal
cultivation, camels, sheep, goat herding,
stone and plaster dwellings; Islam.
Flood-irrigated agriculture (wheat and
barley); early civilization.
Agriculture and cattle herding; urban
Fulani, Hausa
centers, dynastic rule and empires; Islam
and animism.
Eastern Sudan
East Horn
East African
Guinea Coast
Central Asian
East Asian
Dinka, Nuer
Cattle herders and scattered agriculturalists;
Islam and animism.
Agriculture and cattle herding; Coptic
Cattle herding, dairying, hoe agriculture;
Bunyoro, Maasai,
iron work, age grades, warfare, ancestor
Swazi, Zulu
Marginal Indonesian culture; wet rice
irrigation agriculture.
Hunting and gathering; nomadic bands,
Ju/’hoansi San
brush shelters.
Hoe agriculture, root crops and maize; large
Beng, Bushongo,
dynastic kingdoms, city and towns, market
Dogon, Fon,
centers, judicial systems, craft guilds,
Kpelle, Yoruba
artistic development.
Yam and banana cultivation; double-court
Azande, Kongo,
kingdoms, markets, native courts; iron and
brass work; Pygmies: hunting and
gathering, trade with agriculturalists.
Cereal irrigation agriculture, plow, herding;
Horse domesticated for transportation,
milk, hides; Islam.
Fishing, hunting, reindeer domestication;
Tungus, Tuva,
conical skin dwellings; tailored skin
Intensive agriculture including wet rice and
Chinese, Japanese, animal husbandry; ancient civilizations;
urban centers and industrialization; several
religious systems including Shinto and
Wet and dry rice agriculture, water buffalo;
Southeast Asia Balinese, Hmong,
bamboo houses; Hinduism, Buddhism,
Plow agriculture, wheat and barley; caste
Mixed agriculture and animal husbandry;
Basques, Viking urbanization and industrialization; mainly
Irrigation and terracing, wet rice
Berawan, Dyaks,
agriculture, water buffalo; large
Ifugao, Tana
multifamily dwellings on piles, betel
chewing, elaborate textiles, blow guns;
Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, animism.
Hunting and gathering economy; simple
Murngin, Yir
windbreaks, spears and spear-throwers,
bark containers; independent bands, highly
elaborate kin organization; totemism.
Yams and taro horticulture, fishing;
Asmat, Buka,
elaborate ceremonial houses, high
Dani, Fore,
development of wood carving, canoes,
bows and arrows; isolated hamlets under
local chief, regional specialization in
economic production, trading voyages;
chronic petty warfare.
Yams and taro horticulture, fishing,
collection of breadfruit and coconut; expert
Palau, Truk
navigation in sailing canoes; intertribal
Taro, yams, coconut, breadfruit cultivation,
fishing; large thatched dwellings, tapa
Maori, Samoan, cloth, kava, tattooing, sculpture in wood
and stone, outrigger canoes with sails;
hereditary social classes and divine chiefs;
Nayar, Toda
mana, tabu.
Table 1.2 Food-getting strategies
Food getting
Pastoralists Horticulturalists
Nuer, Maasai
Aztec, Korean,
Farming with
Farming with
technology (e.g.,
simple hand
High population
density, small
density, large
to medium density, medium
community size
community community community size
Settlement Nomadic or Nomadic or sedentary, may
patterns seminomadic semi-nomadic
move after
several years
No full-time
Few full-time Few full-time
Many full-time
specialists, specialists, some
some partspecialists
some part-time
Besides geographical distribution, there are other ways in which
anthropologists organize societies. One commonly used scheme is to organize
societies in terms of their subsistence strategy, focusing on how they make a
living (Table 1.2). Commonly used categories are foragers, horticulturalists,
pastoralists, and agriculturalists. Of course, these are not precisely delineated
categories but divisions of a continuum. Foragers are peoples without any
form of plant or animal domestication. They tend to live in small, isolated
groups that are found today primarily in areas that are difficult to farm.
Horticulturalists are peoples who garden in the absence of fertilization,
irrigation, and other advanced technologies. Pastoralists are peoples whose
primary livelihood comes from the herding of domesticated animals. Peoples
who plow, fertilize, and irrigate their crops are termed agriculturalists. The
latter develop relatively large communities with more complex technologies.
Societies that have the same subsistence strategy generally have other features
in common, such as settlement patterns, population density, and the presence
of specialists.
The Fore of New Guinea: an ethnographic example
In the preceding sections of this chapter we learned about some basic concepts
of anthropology, such as holism, and we were introduced to the concept of
ethnography. Now let us turn our attention to a particular example to
illustrate these ideas.
The holistic approach sees human behavior as a complex set of interacting
behaviors and ideas. In examining a society, we might begin with a particular
problem that interests us, but we soon realize that to truly understand this
problem, we have to look at many other aspects of the society.
An example of this was a study of the Fore, a group of about 14,000
horticulturalists living in the eastern highlands of New Guinea (Melanesia
culture area). The problem that brought the Fore to the attention of the
Western world was a medical one. The solution to the problem brought the
Nobel Prize in Medicine to one of the investigators.
When the Australian government first contacted the Fore in the 1950s, a
significant number of individuals were found to be suffering from a particular
illness. The illness was having a major impact on the population: about 200
people were dying of the illness each year, the victims being primarily women
and children.
This illness is characterized by a variety of symptoms, but the most obvious
ones are jerking movements and shaking, which make planned motor activity
difficult. The course of the illness is about nine months. At the end the victim
can no longer stand or sit up and can no longer eat or drink water and soon
dies. The Fore call this illness kuru, which means “to tremble with fear” in the
Fore language.
The medical team that was sent in to deal with the disease sought the cause.
Because it appeared to be largely confined to the Fore, the team thought it
might be genetic or due to a toxin in the environment. However, kuru was
finally determined to be the result of an infectious agent called a prion. The
major question was how the kuru prion was passed from one person to
another. Was it passed on through contaminated water, through the air, or
through sexual activity? The answer to the puzzle was proposed by
anthropologists: cannibalism.
It was the custom of the Fore to eat the body as part of the funeral rituals—
one aspect of their religious practices. The body of the deceased was carried
down to an abandoned field, where kin dismembered and cooked it. Close
relatives then consumed the pieces. Because cooking does not destroy the
prions, some of them entered the bloodstream through cuts and open sores
and eventually entered the brain, where, many years later, the person began
to show symptoms of the disease. Because women and children, who have
lower social status, were more likely to eat the brain, they were the most
likely to develop the disease.
The modern medical community now had an explanation for what caused
the disease and knew how it was transmitted from one individual to another.
The government had a “cure” to the epidemic: eliminate the practice of
cannibalism. As a result, cannibalism stopped, and kuru eventually
disappeared, although this took some time because the disease has a long
incubation period. However, the Fore themselves did not understand this
explanation and stopped eating the bodies of their dead only because not to do
so would mean spending time in jail. The Fore did not accept the scientific
explanation of the disease. Think about how difficult it would be for the
doctors to convince the Fore that kuru was caused by tiny prions that no one
could see. One might as well be talking about tiny evil spirits that also cannot
be seen.
The Fore knew the cause of kuru, at least in their world. It was the result of
sorcery. Sorcery is the evil form of magic, which we will discuss in Chapter 7.
The sorcerer, the person who practices sorcery, would steal something that
was once a part of or in contact with the victim, such as a piece of clothing or
a lock of hair. The material was then made into a bundle along with some
leaves, bark, and stones and was bound up into a package. After reciting a
spell, the sorcerer would place the bundle into muddy ground, and as the
bundle rotted, the victim would develop the symptoms of the disease. This
belief influenced everyday behavior, as individuals were careful to hide things
that could be retrieved and used by a sorcerer.
In spite of this caution, people still developed kuru. In this case, a
divination ritual was used to reveal the identity of the sorcerer causing the
illness. As we will see in Chapter 7, many people use such techniques to reveal
things that are difficult or impossible to discover by other means. Once the
sorcerer was identified, the Fore had many options to counter the activity of
the evildoer. A person with kuru might also have consulted a healer.
The fact that kuru struck primarily women had significant social
consequences. Many men lost wives through kuru, and the shortage of
women meant that many men were unable to find wives. In addition, men
with children who had lost their wives had to perform many domestic chores
normally reserved for women, including farming.
Figure 1.1 Holism. A complete understanding of the disease kuru among the Fore of New
Guinea requires an understanding of the relationship of kuru to other aspects of Fore
culture, some of which are shown in this diagram.
The ethnography of the Fore and the description of kuru illustrate the
concept of holism (Figure 1.1). From the Western point of view, we begin with
a medical problem: a disease. Then we see how this fatal disease affects
various aspects of the society because of the death of women of childbearing
age. This includes marriage, the family, the raising of children, farming, and
so forth. Also, we see how the society attempts to explain and deal with the
disease through religion. A description of kuru among the Fore as only a
medical problem fails to provide us with a complete understanding of that
Two ways of viewing culture
We can ask the question: What causes kuru among the Fore? From our
viewpoint a complete answer to that question includes both biological factors
(the disease-causing organism) and cultural factors (the practice of
cannibalism). However, the Fore themselves would give another answer to
this question: Kuru is caused by sorcery. Another aspect to the holistic
approach is to consider both insider and outsider perspectives.
An anthropologist—or any scholar, for that matter—cannot be completely
neutral and objective when describing a culture. Observation, recording, and
analysis involve processing data in one’s mind. One’s own cultural
background, education, training, and other factors will act as a filter or lens
that colors what are thought of as objective observations. Physicians, using a
medical model, searched for the cause of kuru through techniques learned in
medical school that are based on a set of postulates developed through the
scientific method. Although the physicians were able to discover the
biological cause of kuru, the disease-causing protein, they were unable to
discover the mode of transmission. Medical science identifies a series of
transmission pathways, and none of them offered a valid explanation. It took
anthropologists, viewing the situation from a holistic, anthropological
viewpoint, to make the connection between kuru and cannibalism, although
this had to be confirmed through a set of procedures mandated by the
scientific method.
The physician and the anthropologist are outsiders looking in. They see
Fore culture in terms of Western philosophy and theory. They speak of the
Fore using words that categorize experience in a particular way. This is
referred to as an etic perspective. There are advantages to an etic perspective.
Just as a friend or therapist might see patterns to a person’s life that the
person might overlook, an outside analyst might see patterns of behaviors or
beliefs in a culture that the members of that group might be unaware of.
Another advantage is that the anthropologist can apply a consistent form of
analysis to many different societies that are being studied. This permits
anthropologists to make comparisons between societies and perhaps to
discover some universal principles about human behavior.
Yet the Fore see their world from an altogether different perspective, using
linguistic categories and basic assumptions about their world that differ
profoundly from ours. To the Fore, sorcery is the ultimate cause of kuru, and
this makes sense in their culture. An emic perspective is one that attempts to
see the world through the eyes of the people being studied. Of course, the big
question is, how successful can we really be at this?
Cultural relativism
How do you feel about the Fore practice of cannibalism? In the course of
looking at different societies, anthropologists often observe behaviors that
seem strange and sometimes disturbing. We have grown up in a particular
society, and the behaviors and ideas of our own society seem to us to be
natural and correct. It is also natural to use our own society as the basis for
interpreting and judging other societies. This tendency is called
Anthropologists realize, however, that a true understanding of other
peoples cannot develop through ethnocentric interpretations. Thinking of
other people as primitive, superstitious, and immoral only colors our
observations and prevents us from reaching any kind of true understanding
about human behavior and thought. Anthropologists attempt to remain
neutral and to accept the ways of life of other communities as appropriate for
those who live in these communities. Anthropologists attempt to describe and
understand people’s customs and ideas but do not judge them. This approach
is known as cultural relativism. The goal is to study what people believe, not
whether or not what they believe is true.
For example, funeral rituals differ from other rituals in one major respect:
there is a dead body. All societies have ways of disposing of the corpse in one
way or another. Burial is quite common, but there are a number of variables
such as where the grave is located, what the body is buried in, what objects
are buried with the body, and so on. Bodies can also be placed in trees to
decay, and later the bones may be cleaned and buried. Bodies can be
cremated, and the remains kept in a container, buried, or scattered at sea.
Among the Yanomamö of Venezuela and Brazil, the cremated remains are
ground into a powder. At various times after a person’s death, the family
gathers together and prepares a banana stew into which some of the cremated
ashes are mixed. Then they drink the mixture. And, of course, as we saw with
the Fore, there is the custom of eating the body.
The practice of drinking cremated remains or eating human flesh would
probably horrify most North Americans, and its practice in U.S. society would
probably lead to some type of reaction on the part of the society—most likely
psychiatric confinement. On the other hand, the Yanomamö are horrified by
the U.S. practice of burial because it leads to the decay of the body in the
ground. They believe that the finest expression of love is for close relatives to
provide a final resting place for their loved ones within their own bodies. Is
this practice wrong, immoral, or dangerous? The answer to this question, of
course, lies within the cultural practices of the group and how that group
defines correct and appropriate behaviors.
We may wonder if it is at all possible for someone from one society to truly
get to know and understand people living in another society. Beginning with
the Renaissance, scholars based their knowledge on the ideals of rationality,
objectivity, and reason. Science was seen as the means for the discovery of
knowledge, truth, and progress. This way of approaching an understanding of
the world is termed modernity. It was thought that through modernity order
could be created out of chaos. Based on the principles of modernity, scholars
believed that it was possible to gain a true understanding of all peoples and all
Beginning in the 1980s, the postmodern movement had a broad academic
impact across many disciplines. In stark contrast to the ideas of modernity,
postmodernism denies the possibility of acquiring, or even the existence of
“true” knowledge about the world. All knowledge is seen as being a human
“construction” that we must try to “deconstruct.” The postmodern movement
emphasizes the limitations of science, that the whole is more than the sum of
the parts, that there are multiple viewpoints and truths, and the importance of
being aware of our own viewpoints and biases. In contrast to modernity’s
emphasis on order, postmodernism sees contradictions and instabilities as
being inherent in any social group or practice.
The value of postmodernism for anthropology has been to reinforce the
idea of multiple ways of seeing the world—that there is no one right way to
think or to do things. This is an extension of the concept of cultural relativism.
Postmodernism serves as a reminder of how the ethnographer herself can
influence the fieldwork situation. As a result, ethnographers are more selfconscious and more aware of their own positions and biases (Box 1.1). Every
person sees the world through the lens of his or her own culture. We cannot
remove the lens, but we can become more aware of it.
Postmodernism, taken to its logical extreme, says that it is impossible for a
person from one culture to understand someone from another culture. Perhaps
it is even impossible for any one person to truly understand any other person.
Given all this, could anthropology as a discipline even exist? Most
anthropologists have taken a middle ground approach—appreciating the
lessons of postmodernism while attempting to avoid this extreme point of
Box 1.1 Karen McCarthy Brown and Vodou
Karen McCarthy Brown first met Mama Lola in 1978. On the basis of a
dozen years of research and writing, Brown would write the classic
ethnography Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn.2 This book was
at the forefront of many important trends in anthropology. It was
centered on the experiences of a single individual and was influenced by
feminist and postmodern ideologies. In the book, Brown speaks candidly
of her own experiences doing participant observation research and how
she became involved in the religion of Vodou to a degree that perhaps
even goes beyond that standard—becoming a Vodou priestess herself.
(The Vodou religion will be discussed in Chapter 11.)
The book focuses on the life and practices of Mama Lola, a Haitian
immigrant living in New York City. Among the themes of the book is the
persecution experienced by Haitians in the United States and the
difficulties they face in trying to practice their religion. Brown continues
to focus on religious practices that take place outside of standard
religious institutions. This kind of activity has become a major part of
religious life in modern urban cultures. This is especially true in the
United States, where religious pluralism is on the rise, partly owing to
recent immigration patterns.
Universal human rights
Some anthropologists, however, question the approach of complete neutrality
represented by cultural relativism and the approach of complete subjectivity
of postmodernism and ask: Are there any basic human rights and universal
standards of behavior? This is an area of debate, one that often focuses on the
religious practices of other peoples that may include such customs as physical
alterations of the genitalia or cannibalism.
Cultural relativism is one of the basic concepts necessary to anthropology,
and it should not be put aside lightly. Our first approach to any cultural
practice should be to try to understand it in context—to understand the
meaning it has for people in that culture. After doing so, however, is it
possible to say, “I understand this practice and why this culture does it, but it
is still wrong”? The difficulty in this is knowing where to draw the line, and
strict criteria must be used. One such set of criteria was proposed by Robert
I shall first define [maladaptation] as the failure of a population or its culture to survive
because of the inadequacy or harmfulness of one or more of its beliefs or institutions.
Second, maladaptation will be said to exist when enough members of a population are
sufficiently dissatisfied with one or more of their social institutions or cultural beliefs
that the viability of their society is threatened. Finally, it will be considered to be
maladaptive when a population maintains beliefs or practices that so seriously impair
the physical or mental health of its members that they cannot adequately meet their
own needs or maintain their social and cultural system.3
It is important to note that the criteria are based on the survival of the society
and its ability to function—not on an outsider’s perception of morality.
Edgerton includes as an example the high levels of stress and fear related to
witchcraft beliefs in some cultures, a topic to which we will return in Chapter
The Aztec practice of cannibalism is another example. The prehistoric
Aztecs were an agricultural society located in the Mesoamerica culture area.
In Aztec society a small elite used religious and military power to conquer
neighboring groups. They took tribute in the form of gold and other valuables
from the people they conquered. Both slaves and captured prisoners of war
were sacrificed and eaten. The benefits of the conquest went almost
exclusively to the elite. One analytical approach to the practice of cannibalism
by the Aztecs argues that it was an adaptation to a protein-poor environment.
A culturally relativistic approach would also point out that the sacrifices were
done to please the Aztec gods. Edgerton argues against both of these
Edgerton points out that sacrifice and cannibalism were conducted with
very little ritual preparation—bodies were rolled down steeply sloped temple
steps to be butchered below. The bodies were dealt with in much the same
way as a side of beef might be. Human flesh was considered a delicacy and
greatly desired, to such an extent that wars were fought with the primary goal
of gaining human captives for sacrifice.
The negative impacts were not only on the neighboring groups. The Aztec
elite did not share the wealth with the commoners. Even commoners who
served in the army did not do so as equals. While the nobles wore helmets,
armor, and shields, the commoners had none of this equipment. As Edgerton
writes, “The splendors of Aztec culture cannot be denied, but they were
achieved at great cost by the many largely for the benefit of the ruling few.”4
Despite this questioning, cultural relativism remains of utmost importance
to anthropologists. Our first approach should always be to try to understand a
culture’s beliefs and behaviors in context, to learn what meaning the world
has through their eyes.
The concept of culture
In the previous examples of the Aztec and the Fore, we observed a number of
specific behaviors and beliefs. For example, an anthropologist living among
the Fore for a period of time would, of course, record descriptions of Fore life
in much more detail and cover many other aspects of their lives—marriage
and family, child rearing, hunting and farming, trade, technology, political
organization, folklore, and so on. It is obvious that the body of behaviors and
beliefs of the Fore are quite different from ours. These behaviors and beliefs
make up Fore culture.
In anthropology the term culture is used as a technical term. It does not
refer to the arts or the “finer things of life.” Although the term is widely used
and discussed, finding a definition that is acceptable to all anthropologists is a
difficult task.
The British anthropologist Edward B. Tylor (1832–1917) first used the term
culture in its anthropological sense. In 1871, Tylor wrote, “Culture … is that
complex whole, which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, customs,
and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of
society.”5 In this definition Tylor recognized that culture is a “complex
whole,” which is a reference to the holistic concept. And he noted that culture
includes customs that people acquire by growing up in a particular society;
that is, culture is learned.
When we look at a group of social insects, such as ants, we see a society in
which individuals behave in certain stereotypic ways. When we look at a
group of humans, we also see certain behaviors that appear to be stereotyped,
repetitive, or customary. Yet besides the much greater complexity of human
behavior, there is a major difference between ant and human behavior. Ant
behavior is innate; that is, it is coded in the genes—it is a part of the ant’s
biological heredity. Although some aspects of human behavior are likely to be
innate, the preponderance of human behavior is learned, handed down from
one generation to the next, and is shared by a group of people. Culture is seen
in the way people dress, how they greet one another, how they go about their
chores, and how they worship their gods. For example, the actions that are
performed in a ritual are actions that are learned from someone else, perhaps
a parent or a priest, and thus they are passed down from one generation to the
One of the consequences of the social transmission of culture is that human
behavior is complex and variable. Unlike biological inheritance, in which
change occurs slowly through the mechanisms of biological evolution, learned
behavioral patterns can change very rapidly in response to changing
conditions. Also, the human species, which is very homogenous biologically,
exhibits a great many different cultures.
Another important feature of culture is that it is based on the use of
symbols. Symbols are shared understandings about the meaning of certain
words, attributes, or objects, such as the color red symbolizing stop in traffic
signals. The connection between the two is arbitrary; there is no obvious,
natural, or necessary connection. For example, in most Western societies black
is the color associated with mourning. However in other cultures, the color
associated with mourning may be white, red, or even green.
Culture is learned primarily through symbols. Language can be thought of
as a string of symbols, and we learn, communicate, and even think through
the use of these symbols. Symbols are obviously an important area of
discussion for the study of religion. The Christian cross, for example,
symbolizes not just the religion itself, but a particular philosophy and history.
Chapter 3 discusses the nature of symbols and their role in religious practice.
Viewing the world
The idea of culture involves much more than describing human activity.
People also have different belief systems and different perceptions and
understandings of their world and their lives.
Culture gives meaning to reality. We live in a real, physical world, yet this
world is translated through the human mind onto a different plane. We look
out a window and see a mountain rising above us. To the geologist the
mountain is a structure made of rock formed through natural processes. To
the hydrologist concerned with bringing water to a desert town, the mountain
is the place where snowfields are found. To the biologist it is the home of a
great many plants and animals, many of them perhaps endangered.
To many people, however, a mountain is much more than a physical thing.
The mountain might be the home of the gods or the place where the souls of
the dead congregate after death. Mountains figure prominently in many
Biblical stories; for example, Mount Sinai was where Moses received the Ten
Commandments, and Mount Ararat was where Noah’s ark came to rest.
Psalm 121 reads: “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh
my help.”6 Other sacred mountains include Mount Olympus, where the gods
of ancient Greece lived, and the four sacred mountains of the Navaho world.
We may label these images as being part of the imagination of a people, yet to
the people the sacredness of a mountaintop may be as real as the presence of
rocks, snow, or plants.
The study of religion
The beginning point of any discourse is to define the object of study—in this
instance, religion. Yet the task of defining this term is a challenging one
indeed. We must avoid using a definition that is too narrow or one that is too
vague. Many definitions that have been proposed have been so narrow that
they apply only to some cultures and only to some of the phenomena that
anthropologists traditionally place within the domain of religion. Such
definitions often are ethnocentric, including only those ideas that are
considered “religious” for that culture. In such definitions many topics, such
as magic and witchcraft, are often excluded. On the other hand, a definition
that is too inclusive and vague loses much of its meaning and usefulness.
In spite of the difficulties of defining religion, anthropology is a social
science, and the methodology of science requires that we define our terms. We
need to use an operant definition. This is one in which we define our terms
so that they are observable and measurable and therefore can be studied. So
what would a good operant definition of religion be? We can start by looking
at the various ways in which scholars have attempted to define the term.
Attempts at defining religion
Many definitions of religion share many of the elements that we included in
our definition of culture. Perhaps we can define a religion as a system of
beliefs and behaviors, based on a system of symbols. But how can we
distinguish religious beliefs and behaviors from other aspects of culture? After
all, we can recognize, for example, particular beliefs, behaviors, and symbols
that define political or economic processes.
Analytic definitions focus on the way religion manifests itself or is
expressed in a culture. An example would be defining religions by stating that
religious practices generally include rituals.
Ninian Smart, for example, stated what he felt were the six dimensions of
religion.7 These comprise the following:
the institutional dimension (organization and leadership);
the narrative dimension (myths, creation stories, worldview);
the ritual dimension (rites of passage and other important ritual
the social dimension (religion being a group activity that binds people
the ethical dimension (customs, moral rules);
the experiential dimension (religion involving experiences of a sacred
reality that is beyond ordinary experience).
Functional definitions focus on what religion does either socially or
psychologically. For example, rituals would be seen as a means to bring a
group together and bring individuals comfort. Theorists who have used a
more functional definition of religion include Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and
anthropologists Émile Durkheim and Clifford Geertz. Geertz wrote:
A religion is: (1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and
long-lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general
order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that
(5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.8
One of the problems with functional definitions is that they could apply
equally well to beliefs and behaviors that are not religious in nature. Others
feel that functional approaches are reductionist, reducing religion to a few
feelings and behaviors that are not, in and of themselves, religious. For both
these reasons, it can be difficult to separate religious and nonreligious systems
using a functional definition. This does not mean that the social and
psychological functions are not important. They are, and functionalism as a
theoretical approach to studying religion (discussed further below) has much
to offer. As a definition, however, it alone is not sufficient.
An essentialist definition of religion looks at what is the essential nature
of religion. It emphasizes the fact that religion is the domain of the
extraordinary—things beyond the commonplace and the natural. On the basis
of this idea we would say that a religion is a system of beliefs and behaviors
that deals with the relationship between humans and the sacred supernatural.
The term supernatural refers to things that are “above the natural.”
Supernatural entities and actions transcend the normal world of cause and
effect as we know it. In the supernatural world, wondrous things occur.
Supernatural beings defy the basic laws of nature. In the supernatural world,
objects move faster than light, heavy objects fly, and creatures become
However, not all supernatural phenomena are thought to be religious.
Consider the folktale in which the handsome prince is turned into a frog. This
is surely a supernatural occurrence—handsome princes do not turn into frogs
in the natural world—but this occurrence is hardly a religious one. To address
this problem, we add the term sacred to the definition of religion. Sacred
denotes an attitude wherein the subject is entitled to reverence and respect.
Many theorists have defined religion in terms of the supernatural as the
core religious beliefs of any religious system. In 1871, Edward Burnett Tylor
defined religion as animism, a belief in spirit beings (gods, souls, ghosts,
demons, etc.). Much later, Melford Spiro defined religion as an “institution
consisting of culturally patterned interactions with culturally postulated
superhuman beings.”9
The problem with an essentialist definition is that such definitions often
become too specific, focusing narrowly on spirit beings for example, or risk
being too vague if they only reference the supernatural. As with other
definitions we have looked at, essentialist definitions by themselves may not
be enough but do point to areas of great importance in religion.
A true understanding of the breadth of religious practices among the
world’s societies will become clear as you progress through this text. We
encourage you to keep an open mind and settle on your own definition as you
gain more knowledge and understanding. However, as was discussed
previously, as an endeavor in the social sciences, this text needs an operant
definition in order to proceed.
One would like to have a simple definition of the term religion. However,
the search for a simple, yet useful definition remains elusive. Religion is a
concept constructed by the human mind that includes a particular set of
human beliefs and practices. As a cultural construct it is strongly influenced
by culture and by philosophical and theoretical backgrounds. The practices
that are included under the rubric of religion vary from scholar to scholar, and
definitions that focus upon religious systems found in large, urban societies
differ considerably from those found in small-scale societies. Each definition
previously explored offers clues to important elements of religion, but each by
itself is incomplete.
Perhaps it is best to think of religion as a set of cultural beliefs and practices
that usually include some or all of a basic set of characteristics. While not an
exhaustive list, it will provide us with an operant definition as we move ahead
with our studies of religious systems. These characteristics are as follows:
a belief in anthropomorphic supernatural beings, such as spirits and
a focus on the sacred supernatural, where sacred refers to a feeling of
reverence and awe;
the presence of supernatural power or energy that is found in
supernatural beings as well as physical beings and objects;
the performance of ritual activities that involve the manipulation of
sacred objects to communicate with supernatural beings and/or to
influence or control events;
an articulation of a worldview and moral code through narratives and
other means;
provides for the creation and maintenance of social bonds and
mechanisms of social control within a community;
provides explanations for the unknown and a sense of control for the
The domain of religion
The discussion of definitions highlights the contrasting concepts of etic and
emic. The very concept of religion as a separate cultural category is a Western
one. Western cultures are divided into very distinct cultural domains, such as
economics, politics, technology, and, of course, religion. As we move through
our day, we move from one domain to another, yet the domains do not
overlap, or they overlap to a small degree. For example, when we go to work,
we might punch a clock or sign in, for “work” is a distinct segment of our life,
which we can define in terms of location, activity, relationships to coworkers,
and so forth. Religion as a domain may be restricted to very specific activities
held in special places during specific times—a Sunday morning church service,
for example. When we use the term religion, we might immediately picture
such things as special buildings dedicated to religious activities (churches,
temples, and mosques) and full-time specialists who perform religious rituals
(priests and rabbis).
Our analysis of religion becomes more difficult when we turn our attention
to more traditional societies. If we analyzed small-scale religious systems by
applying the definitions and concepts that have been developed in Western
cultures, we would likely find that certain elements that we consider to be
vital parts of our religious systems simply do not exist—in our terms. For some
people it follows from this that other religious systems are “defective,”
“incomplete,” “primitive,” “false,” or “full of superstitions.” Clearly, this leads
us into highly ethnocentric conclusions that cloud our ability to understand
the religious systems of other peoples.
When we study traditional societies using an emic (insider) approach, there
might be no equivalent term to our concept of religion. Religion is not
separated out from other dimensions of life but is fully integrated into the
fabric of beliefs and behavior. As Wilfred Cantwell Smith wrote, “To the
believer, they are parts of the universe; to the observer, they are parts of a
Theoretical approaches to the study of religion
Just as there are many definitions of religion, there are also many approaches
to the study of religious phenomena. Here we will describe five approaches
that anthropologists have used to study religion: evolutionary, Marxist,
functional, interpretive, and psychosocial.
The evolutionary approach
The evolutionary approach was centered on the questions of when and how
religion began. This viewpoint developed in the late 1800s when the focus was
on the concepts of science, logic, and monotheism as the pinnacles of human
achievement. Scholars of the time emphasized empiricism, or observing and
measuring, saying that the only real knowledge is scientific knowledge; any
knowledge beyond that is impossible.
The latter half of the nineteenth century saw the rise of the concept of a
general evolution of culture. It was thought that religion naturally evolved
from the simple to the complex and that this evolution was a natural
consequence of human nature. An interest in the religion of “primitive”
peoples arose from the supposition that “primitive” peoples represented an
early stage of cultural evolution and that one could learn about and
understand the historical roots of the religion of “civilized” societies by
studying living “primitive” peoples.
Edward B. Tylor used this approach in his book Primitive Culture (1871).11
He concluded that all religions had a belief in spiritual beings. Whereas the
religions of “civilized” peoples included beliefs in gods and souls, those of
“primitive” peoples focused on the belief in spirits and ghosts. He termed this
early belief system animism.
Tylor thought that the belief in spirit beings was the natural and universal
conclusion reached by all peoples through the observation of sleep and
dreams, possession, and death, during which the soul is thought to leave the
body, temporarily or permanently. Because other animals are also living, they
must also have souls that leave the body when the animal dies. All living
things are animated by souls, as are nonliving things such as waterfalls and
In attempting to find a common thread in all religious systems, Tylor failed
to discover the great variability among the world’s religious systems. This was
in part because Tylor did not go into the field to become immersed in the
complexity of a particular culture. Instead, he relied on reports of explorers,
missionaries, and colonial administrators who described, often in simplistic
and biased ways, the peoples they encountered in their travels.
Robert R. Marett developed the concept of a simpler, more basic, and more
ancient supernatural force that he labeled animatism.12 Marett thought that
the idea of animatism simply grew out of human emotional reaction to the
power of nature. This belief in an impersonal supernatural power is well
articulated in the religions of Polynesia and Melanesia, where it is referred to
as mana. In Chapter 7 we will discuss the ideas of another scholar from the
evolutionary school, James Frazer, who wrote extensively about magic, a
category that he considered to be separate from religion. Frazer saw a natural
progression in cultures from magic to religion to science.13
The evolutionary approach has many critics. Many of the ideas found in
this school of thought are ethnocentric—for example, Tylor’s idea that the
religion of “primitive” peoples focused on spirits and ghosts while more
“civilized” peoples focused on gods. In addition, any ideas about the origin of
a cultural practice are, of course, highly speculative. Although the idea of
cultural progression, with Western societies being more “evolved” than
smaller-scale traditional ones, is no longer used in anthropology, the general
question of the origins of religion has remained a concern.
However, many contemporary anthropologists use an evolutionary
approach. After all, the history of human society has witnessed progressive
changes through time from foraging to horticultural to agricultural and,
finally, industrial societies. Scholars look for correlations between these
changes and various aspects of a society, including religious system. For
example, foraging societies are often characterized by shamanic practices with
part-time religious practitioners while on the other hand, state societies are
characterized by full-time religious specialists who may be members of a
highly organized priesthood.
The Marxist approach
Another influential theorist of the 1800s was Karl Marx. Like many of this era,
Marx was critical of religion. However, Marx did not criticize the logic of
religion as others had done. He felt that religion reflected society so that any
criticism of religion must therefore also be a criticism of society. Indeed the
Marxist approach to religion cannot be understood without the framework of
his approach to society. He saw religion as a human construction, more
specifically as a construction of those in power.
Marx felt that religion did not reflect the true consciousness of people but a
false consciousness designed to divert people’s attention from the miseries of
their lives. This misery was seen as being the result of exploitation of the
masses by those in power under the capitalist system. Of course, religion
existed before capitalism. Marx’s basic view is that religion is a natural
consequence of the human experience of distress. In the past, this may have
arisen as a result of the human struggle with nature. However, Marx’s focus is
on the capitalist system in which this struggle has shifted to human conflict
with other humans. Religion is seen both as a means of compensation and as a
way of getting people to go along with a capitalist culture that is not in their
best interests. For example, he felt that religion teaches people to be obedient
to authority as a condition for achieving future happiness through salvation:
Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest
against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a
heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the
people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for
their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusion about its condition is the
demand to give up a condition which needs illusions.14
Critics of Marx point out that there usually is no single, dominant ideology in
a society; instead, there are different ideologies that correspond to different
subcultures and different classes.
The functional approach
In contrast to the evolutionary and Marxist schools, the functional approach
asks the question: What does religion do? What role do religions play in a
society? For example, a religion might enforce social cohesion by bringing
members together for rituals and providing a foundation for shared beliefs.
Religions might also function on the individual level to relieve individual
anxiety by providing explanations and meaning.
Émile Durkheim, for example, saw society as problematic.15 Although
sanctions exist to keep people in line, Durkheim thought that these were not
enough. He believed that the key lies in the collective conscious, a system of
beliefs that act to contain natural selfishness of individuals and to promote
social cooperation. Collective representations, or symbols, are a reflection of
the collective conscious. During rituals, these collective representations are
displayed, resulting in a reattachment to the value system of the group.
Both Durkheim and Alfred R. Radcliffe-Brown saw society as being like an
organism in which the parts act to maintain the whole.16 Radcliffe-Brown also
thought that for society to survive, certain feelings need to be encouraged in
people’s minds. He thought that anything of great social value is seen as
possessing supernatural power; the greater the value, the more powerful it is.
Rituals, then, function to express the basic sentiments of a society and to pass
these ideas down from generation to generation. Religion, in general, is seen
as an integrative force in society.
Box 1.2 Malinowski and the Trobriand Islands
Bronislaw Malinowski was born into the nobility in Krakow, Poland, in
1884. He studied mathematics and physical sciences and received his
Ph.D. from the University of Krakow in 1908. However, illness prevented
him from continuing his research, and while recovering, he read The
Golden Bough by James Frazer, a classic anthropological work that
describes magical beliefs in cultures around the world. Malinowski later
wrote in 1926, “no sooner had I begun to read this great work than I
became immersed in it and enslaved by it.”17 Reading this book changed
his life. From then on, Malinowski devoted himself to the study of
anthropology, and he traveled to England to study at the London School
of Economics.
In 1914, Malinowski joined an expedition to the Pacific. He would not
return to Europe until 1920 because, being a Polish subject, he was
considered to be an enemy alien by the British during World War I.
However, during the war he was allowed to continue his research in the
Pacific and to spend the time between expeditions in Australia. Because
of these circumstances, Malinowski spent a greater amount of time
conducting field research than had ever been done before. This included
a total of twenty-six months spent in the Trobriand Islands, located off
the coast of New Guinea.
During his stay in the Trobriand Islands, Malinowski completed the
most detailed anthropological study that had been done up to that time,
and the Trobriand Islands remains one of the most fully described of any
small-scale society. Unlike other anthropologists of his day, Malinowski
participated in the life of the society he was studying. He pitched his tent
in the middle of the village and learned the language. Malinowski was a
pioneer of the participant observation method that became a hallmark of
the field of anthropology.
Malinowski became a major figure in the development of British
anthropology and influenced nearly everyone who trained in the field
during the 1920s and 1930s. Among his pioneering contributions was the
concept of functionalism. He thought that culture does something—that
social institutions exist to fulfill the needs of, and serve the interests of,
members of a society.
Radcliffe-Brown’s approach to function was in terms of a part contributing
to the maintenance of the whole society. Another important theorist in the
functional school, Bronislaw Malinowski, had a different approach (Box 1.2).
Malinowski looked at religion and other features of a society in terms of their
purpose in meeting basic human needs. For example, in his analysis of magic,
Malinowski stressed that magic is a logical system that people turn to in times
of uncertainty or emotional stress. Magic functions to provide control and
certainty in an otherwise uncertain world.
The functional approach is still used today and will be referred to in future
chapters. Researchers have recognized many phenomena that we will address
as contributing to the health and maintenance of the society or the individuals
in that group. In general, religious phenomena function to provide answers
and explanations and to provide a course of action.
The functional school is not without its critics. Some see functionalism as
committing the error of reification (treating something abstract as if it were
concrete and alive). Can we really talk about social institutions having needs
and purposes in the same way that humans do? Functionalism is also seen by
some as being tautological (a circular argument) because it argues that we
know that something must be functional because it exists; it exists because it
is functional. Does every institution and cultural practice have a function?
Historians of religion argue that analyzing religion in terms of functionality
implies that religion is purely illusory, existing only to fulfill those functions.
For instance, some functionalists see religion as just a crutch for the masses or
a power play by the ruling class. Instead, historians of religion emphasize a
powerful and lived experience of a sacred reality.
Others argue that while the functional approach is useful, more care needs
to be taken in terms of which possible functions are logically valid. For
example, Melford Spiro states that when arguing that a certain function is the
cause of a religious behavior, it is necessary for individuals to both recognize
and seek to satisfy that functional requirement. He argues that an unintended
functional consequence (recognized only by outsiders) could not possibly be
its cause.
The interpretive approach
Clifford Geertz was an American anthropologist who popularized the
metaphor that culture is a text to be read and in which anthropologists can
read meaning.18 Part of his inspiration for this interpretive approach was the
work of the sociologist Max Weber and his concept of verstehen (i.e.,
understanding the other’s point of view).19 This Weberian approach was
opposed to the more popular functionalist approach of the time. Geertz
emphasized that the task of anthropologists was not to discover laws or study
origins and causes but instead to make sense of cultural systems by studying
meaning. Anthropologists need to seek to interpret the culturally specific
“webs of significance” that people both create and are caught up in.
Interpretive anthropology can discover and interpret these webs of meaning
through detailed ethnographic descriptions.
Religion specifically is described as a cluster of symbols that together make
up a whole and provides a charter for a culture’s ideas, values, and way of life.
The set of symbols provides ways to interpret the world. Geertz described
symbols as playing a double role. They are both “models of” and “models for”
in that they both represent the way things are while also directing human
activity. Geertz argued that religious symbols establish very powerful moods
and feelings and help explain human existence by giving it an ultimate
meaning. These symbols claim to connect humans to a reality that in some
ways is “more real” than everyday life, thus giving religion a special status
above and beyond regular life.
Geertz felt that the study of religion needed to take place in two stages. The
first stage is an analysis of the systems of meaning that are embodied within
religious symbols. The second stage involves relating these systems to social
structures and psychological processes. Critics point out that in reality he
devoted much more time to the first stage than to the second.
The psychosocial approach
The psychosocial approach to the study of religion is concerned with the
relationship between culture and personality and the connection between the
society and the individual. One example is the work of Sigmund Freud.20
Freud’s model of the mind and his concept of defense mechanisms have been
used both by Freud himself and by his followers to explain religious
phenomena. For example, defense mechanisms are psychological maneuvers
by which we distort reality in ways that help us to avoid conflict and reduce
anxiety. The most important of these for our discussion is projection, in which
the subject is transposed and the emotion is projected. So “I hate X” becomes
“You hate X.” Psychosocial anthropologists believe that individual emotions
also get projected at the cultural level.
The best example of this is studies that look cross-culturally for correlations
between various beliefs and behaviors. One example of this approach uses this
methodology to hypothesize a connection between the characteristics of
parents and the characteristics of supernatural beings. Childhood experiences
are dominated by powerful figures—parents. Children build up parental
images that stay with them throughout life. In adult life these parental images
are projected onto spirit beings. For example, if parents are generally
nurturing, the expectation is that the gods would be considered to be
nurturing as well. However, correlation does not equal causation, and this and
several other issues challenge the correlational approach.
Box 1.3 Evans-Pritchard and the Azande
E. E. Evans-Pritchard was born in Sussex, England, in 1902. After
receiving his master’s degree in Anthropology from Oxford University,
he went on to study at the University of London, where he became one
of Malinowski’s first students. He conducted several field expeditions to
Central, East, and North Africa from 1926 until the beginning of World
War II. During the war he left teaching and research to join the military.
After the war he returned to academia and ultimately held the position
of chair of Social Anthropology at Oxford University.
Evans-Pritchard is best known for his work with the Azande of
southern Sudan, which was then the British colony of Anglo-Egyptian
Sudan. Between 1926 and 1930 he made three different visits and spent a
total of twenty months among the Azande. Following his work with the
Azande, he went on to study the Nuer. He had found the Azande to be
friendly, but his work with the Nuer was much more difficult. In the
early days of his research in particular, they were hostile and
uncommunicative, and he was frequently ill.
The Azande are known today as the classic anthropological example
of witchcraft in a small-scale society. Evans-Pritchard’s early articles on
the subject were greatly influenced by the functional perspective of his
teacher, Malinowski. For example, Evans-Pritchard believed that
witchcraft beliefs provided explanations for events and helped to uphold
moral standards (see Chapter 10). Ultimately, however, he was not
satisfied with this type of explanation alone. He emphasized the
importance of looking at beliefs and behaviors from an insider
perspective and wanted to show how even seemingly irrational beliefs
were in fact logical and coherent from the emic perspective.
E. E. Evans-Pritchard, Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande (Oxford,
England: Clarendon, 1937).
The biological basis of religious behavior
What we perceive and think of as our reality is actually a creation of our
brain. Our awareness of what is “out there” is based upon input from a series
of receptors such as our eyes, nose, and tongue. The stimuli that are picked up
by these receptors enter the brain, where they undergo processing before they
enter our consciousness. For example, the clear, detailed, three-dimensional,
colored world revealed through sight is an illusion created by our brain from a
hodgepodge of electrical impulses produced by the photoreceptors in the
retina of our eyes. Color is a complete illusion of something that does not exist
in the real world, but is our brain’s way of representing differences in the
wavelength of electromagnetic energy.
And not all of the information that enters our brain from the outside enters
our consciousness. For example, there was a patient who was blind because of
a series of strokes that completely destroyed the visual cortex of his brain; his
eyes and optic nerves, however, remained healthy. Information entering the
brain from his eyes was used by his brain to permit him to walk down a
hallway full of objects on the floor without stepping on them. His brain knew
where the objects were even though his consciousness did not.21
This then brings up the question: Does our brain create realities that are
indistinguishable from “reality,” whatever that means? An important part of
religion is religious experiences, which range from feeling good to
hallucinations and revelations. Could, for example, seeing a ghost, having an
out-of-body experience, or being visited by an angel be examples of braincreated realities? The answer is yes.
Figure 1.2 shows a pair of brain scans that compare brains at rest with
brains of individuals in deep meditation. The bright areas are regions that are
active during particular mental activities. In the meditating brain, we see an
increase in activity in the frontal lobe, indicative of increased concentration,
and a decrease in activity in the parietal lobe. This latter area is in the region
associated with people’s orientation of their bodies in time and space.
Changes in activity in this area may be related to the development of out-ofbody experiences or to a sense of blurring of the boundaries between self and
other. In another interesting area of research, it has been found that patients
suffering from temporal lobe epilepsy, when the functioning of the brain goes
haywire, report their seizures as intense religious experiences.
Figure 1.2 Brain scans. Single photon emission computer tomography (SPECT) images of the
brain of a Tibetan Buddhist showing baseline image at rest and in deep meditation. Top
images show increased activity in frontal lobe in area associated with focusing attention and
concentration. Bottom images show decreased activity in parietal lobe in area responsible
for sense of orientation in space and time.
It is tempting to associate religious feelings and experiences with a
particular point within the structure of the brain—a God module perhaps.
However, most neuro-scientists who are interested in these issues see religious
experiences as more complex, involving changes in many different regions of
the brain.
Considering biological influences is a part of anthropology’s holistic
approach. It is something we will consider as we discuss phenomena such as
altered states of consciousness and near-death experiences.
Beliefs in spirit beings
Another aspect of the biological basis for religion is the impact of the way the
human mind works. An interesting application of this is a phenomenon that
appears to be common to all human religious systems, concepts of
supernatural anthropomorphic causal agents within their environment. (The
term anthropomorphic refers to things that are not human but have
humanlike characteristics and behave in humanlike ways.) This is the core of
the concept of animism, the belief in spirit beings, which was introduced
earlier in this chapter.
One explanation for the development of a belief in spirit beings is based on
the concept of theory of mind. Theory of mind refers to the idea that people
know, or think they know, what is going on in other people’s minds. People
recognize and often identify with perceived feelings, desires, fears, and other
emotions in other human beings. The presence of a theory of mind is thought
to be what makes us human, although evidence suggests that there may be
some development of theory of mind in other animals, albeit on a very limited
scale. This is what allows people to explain other peoples’ behavior and to
predict what others will do in a particular situation. Thus a theory of mind is
essential for the development of complex social patterns.
Many scholars believe that the human brain actually extends the theory of
mind into the minds of animals and other living and nonliving entities. It is
this extension that leads to anthropomorphism and attribution of humanlike
qualities to animals. The idea that nonhuman entities and forces possess
“minds,” that they have intensions, emotions, and interact with the human
world, is the basis for the development of a belief in spirit beings.
If anthropomorphic supernatural beings interact with the human world,
then things do not happen simply because they follow the rules of nature. This
explains why things occur that lie outside rational analysis. And this also
provides the means, through ritual, to influence and perhaps to control nature.
The evolution of religion
With the emerging interest in biology and religion, new explanations for the
origin of religion have been proposed that look at the question from the
perspective of biological evolution. If humans have a biological mechanism for
religion, why did it evolve?
Evolutionary explanations are actually not all that different from the
functional, needs-fulfillment explanations we discussed earlier. Some
evolutionary scientists have suggested that religion evolved as a way to fulfill
social needs such as encouraging cooperation between individuals, reinforcing
kinship ties, and imposing order and stability on society. Others have focused
on emotional needs and have argued that as humans became more intelligent
and self-aware, anxiety would have been a natural response. Once we are
aware that we exist, we become aware that we will die and therefore begin to
worry about dying. The evolution of greater awareness and consciousness
would create a dysfunctional, anxiety-ridden species if religion had not
evolved as an adaptation to cope with this by providing explanations of and
meanings for both life and death.
Other theorists have focused on the nature of human cognition as an
explanation for the origin of religious beliefs and experiences. (Cognition is a
general term for processes of the human brain that include perception,
learning, memory, concept formation, and problem solving.) Religion is seen
not as existing to serve a purpose but rather as an accidental by-product of the
way the human brain works.
The human brain appears to have two different and innate ways of
interpreting the world. One has to do with physical things like rocks, the other
with psychological things, such as people. We interpret a rock moving
through space and a person moving through space very differently. To a
person we attribute such things as intentions, beliefs, goals, and morality or
lack thereof. These two systems seem to be biological adaptations that help us
to deal with objects and with people. However, these systems go awry in ways
that provide the foundation for religion.
For example, we are dualists; we see mind and body as two separate and
distinct entities. Despite what psychologists know about how the brain works,
we intuitively feel that we merely occupy our bodies, not that we actually are
our bodies. This provides the foundation for a belief in both bodies without

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