Lesson Objectives:

  • identify and describe anthropological theories of religion
  • describe the role of ritual in social cohesion
  • evaluate the relationship between religion and power
  • analyze the role of religious symbol-making and meaning

Religion has played a significant role in shaping human social experiences and interpretations of reality. There are many different approaches to religion and religious phenomena.  The apologetic approach offers an internal interpretation of religion from the perspective of the believers.  Others aim to ‘debunk’ ideas religious ideas and beliefs. From an academic perspective, scholars can take a socio-historical approach that correlates the social and historical circumstances that give rise to religious movements and/or a social analytical approach to identify the role of religion in society and individual experiences. This section will introduce key anthropological approaches to religion as a social institution comprised of a system of symbols and meanings that shape and are shaped by society.

Religious Evolution – 19th century

In early anthropology, anthropologists aimed to identify the development of religion among humans by constructing evolutionary models that situated specific religious systems along a linear trajectory. E.B. Tylor (1832-1917) was among the first anthropologists to interrogate beliefs systems and he employed a functionalist evolutionary perspective to interpreting different religious systems. According to Tylor, humans created religion to answer questions about life and death, and he organized different religions from ‘primitive’ animism to ‘advanced ‘monotheism’ (Segal in Hinnells 2005). In his book, The Golden Bough (1890), James George Frazer also relied on a functionalist evolutionary perspective to distinguish the difference between magic and religion.

One of the most notable bodies of research within the functionalist approach to religion comes from French sociologist, Emile Durkheim (1858-1917). In his book, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912), Durkeim argued that religion is not an external force outside of society, but it is society. His framework is based on a dichotomy between the sacred and the profane; while the profane represents the daily and mundane, the sacred is set apart and forbidden. He defined religion as ‘a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, which unite one single moral community into a ‘church’.  According to him, the beliefs and practices do not come from an outside force, but they come from within the collective moral force of a society and have been set apart to imbue authority to the belief system. He argues that society needs religion in order to maintain moral and social order, enforce values and norms, and bond the community. People establish social bonds through shared beliefs and practices, and this allows people to sacrifice their ego, or individualism, to the common good of the group. Durkheim describes deity, or ‘God’ as the embodiment of a society; the traits and characteristics are projected onto what he refers to as a ‘mirror in the sky,’ society looking up at itself.

At that time, anthropologists relied on second-hand information from missionaries and naturalists to develop their conclusions. In the early 20th century, E.E. Evans-Pritchard criticized functional evolutionary models of religion for failing to address the unique social contexts that shape each religious system. While some scholars have continued to address religion from an evolutionary perspective (Bellah 1964), Evans-Pritchard set the stage for an anthropological approach to religion as a system of symbols and meanings.

Religion as a Cultural System

In the 20th century, anthropologists addressed religion from an interpretive analytical framework that aimed to develop a better understanding of the symbols and meanings that comprise religion as a cultural system. In the his book, The Interpretation of Cultures (1966/73), Clifford Geertz defined religion as

‘a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive and long-lasting moods and motivations in people by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.

From his perspective, religion provides frameworks for life that shape human behavior by offering a blueprint to understand deep questions that science and reason fail to answer and providing webs of meaning to appease insecurities. Religion can relive  anxiety about life after death, and offer interpretive frameworks on how to organize and structure reality. Compare the different interpretive religious frameworks regarding homosexuality presented in the two documentaries  Be Like Others and   The Bible Tells Me So.

Victor Turner focus on symbolic practice in his theoretical framework that addressed ritual and rites of passage. Turner expanded Arthur Van Gennup’s (1909) three-phase model for ritual transition: separation – transition – incorporation. According to Van Gennup, disorder induced by social change is managed through the symbolic performance of transition within rites of passage. Prior to the change, the individual (or group of individuals) is separated from the group. They then partake in a transitional performance where they leave their former position or identity. When they rejoin the group, they assume their new identity or position. Van Gennup describes the middle, or transitional, phase as the liminal period that is characterized as ‘anti-structure’ because the individual or group in transition are outside of the social order.

A common example of Van Gennup’s three-phase rite of passage is the custom of sequestering and veiling a ‘bride’ prior to and during a marriage ceremony. In some American weddings, the bride is ‘hidden’ or separated from the group prior to the commencement of the ceremony that facilitates the social transitioning from ‘daughter’ to ‘wife’. During the transition, the veil disguises the identity during the time when the individual is no longer who they were, but not quite who they are about to become. At the end of the ceremony, the veil is lifted and the individual rejoins the group with a new identity and a new social position. This performance is rooted in a historical era when women were considered property and the wedding symbolically represented the transmission of property from father to husband. In liberalized societies, this performace has been modified to symbolically represent love.

Victor Turner expanded Van Gennup’s notion of liminality, which he characterized as betwixt and between (1967) and he focused his attention on the significant role of ‘anti-structure’ during the liminal phase.  According to Turner, the liminal phase results in communitas, which is unstructured community where the members experiencing liminality are temporarily equal until they reaggregate back into society and assume their social positioning. During communitas, people participate in activities and behaviors and cross social boundaries that are otherwise forbidden within the pre-existing social structure.

Religion as Authority

Religion has also been challenged as an authoritarian system. In his short essay, The Future of an Illusion (1927), Sigmund Freud described religion as a fictive illusion that positions ‘God’ as the parent after the child realizes the shortcomings of the mother and father.

Freud’s take on religion echoes earlier works by turn of the 19th century anarchists such as Mikhail Bakunin (1814-1876) who argued that religion was a fiction that partnered with the authoritarian state by serving as a coping mechanism for inequality which prevented people from initiating change. In his book, God and the State, Bakunin wrote:

 “the idea of God implies the abdication of human reason and justice; it is the most decisive negation of human liberty, and necessarily ends in the enslavement of mankind, in theory and practice.”

Along the same lines,  Karl Marx (1818-1883) characterized religion as the ‘the opiate of the masses’ meaning that like an opiate, religion fails to address the causes of suffering and oppression, it simply makes it more tolerable. Marx’s metaphor is derived from Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1844) as well as the Marquis de Sade (1797) who referred to religion as ‘this opium you feed your people.’  These critics point out that religion prevents social change and serves the needs of oppressors because suffering and oppression is often correlated with righteousness, such as the biblical story of Job, and that power is associated with sin and corruption. The majority of critical religious analysis targets Christianity because the historical writing emerged from the euro-centric ‘post-enlightment’ period when science began to challenge the authority of the church.

Today, critics continue to shed light on the ways that power structures have used religion as a means of controlling, marginalizing and even exterminating populations of people. The documentary, Constantine’s Sword  (2008), addresses the relationship between the Catholic Church, political power, and anti-semitism throughout history.

Liberation Theology

In the middle of the 20th century, the emergence of liberation theology in Latin America challenged representations of religion as an oppressive apparatus and shed light on the role of religion as a means to empowerment. In the 1960s, Marxism integrated with Catholicism when a growing number of priests increasingly witnessed abject poverty and exploitation of the poor and asked: What would Jesus do? Several activists priest, such as Jon Sobrino, challenged the church to target issues of inequality and oppression. Sobrino’s writings, such as Jesus the Liberator (1991), Christ the Liberator (1999), The True Church and the Poor (1984), and Spirituality of Liberation (1990) emphasized the emancipatory aspects of Christian scriptures.

At the same time that Christianity was being recast as emancipatory in Latin America, Islam offered liberation theology for African-Americans in the United States, and feminist spirituality gained momentum as part of a critical analysis to patriarchy in world religions. From an interpretive perspective, liberation theology enabled a social community to liberate themselves from religious hegemonies and reclaim symbols and meanings as part of a cultural framework that expressed the experiences and values of the community.

Reading: Geertz, Clifford. 1993. ‘‘Religion as a Cultural System’’ . In: The interpretation of cultures: selected essays, Geertz, Clifford, pp.87-125. Fontana Press.

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Discussion: Research a religious cultural expression (symbol or representation – this can include an image, story, song, or other symbolic form that communicates meaning. ) Analyze the expression using the material presented in this module and the readings. What type of meanings are conveyed? How is the expression part of a system?  How do the meanings reflect the unique socio-historical circumstances experienced by the religious community? Include a link to the image or representation.