An Anthropology of Religion


Religion, or religiosity, refers to a set of beliefs and practices that people hold in common with other members of a particular cultural group. Religions tend to change slowly within a culture or at least retain old features as they incorporate new ones. They may be associated with a particular geographical area or with particular groups of people such as the Jewish, Christian, Hindu, Muslim, or Chinese traditions, although the concept is also used to encompass traditions that do not have a name but which anthropologists have observed to have similar characteristics.

A number of anthropologists have tried to explain religion by looking at primitive societies. For example, the French Abbe Bergier (1718-90) interpreted belief in spirits as an early form of animism, and Swiss anthropologist Johann Jakob Bachofen (1815-87), with his work Das Mutterrecht (“The Mother Right”), unraveled some puzzles about ancient law, mythology, and art by arguing that many cultures were matriarchal.

The great 19th-century European industrial upheavals stimulated social theorists such as Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, and Max Weber to examine the relationship between society and religion. They all agreed that religion is a powerful force in society that rationalizes individual suffering, enhances self-importance, and knits social values into a cohesive whole. Marx thought that, in capitalism, the class structure of society is reflected in religion, which serves as the opium of the workers to soothe their economic disappointments and frustration.

More recently, there has been a growing trend to abandon the search for tidy explanations of religious phenomena. Instead, anthropologists have turned to functional and structural explanations of religion.