You are on page 1of 9

ANTHROPOLOGICAL APPROACH TO THE STUDY OF RELIGION INTRODUCTION Anthropological approach to religion mainly explores the origin and growth

of religion in whole sense. This approach focuses the essential phenomenon religion, which can be examined outside of a particular ethnographic context. This paper emphasizes the theories and elements of anthropological approach to religion that was brought out by the anthropologists using by the means of primitive culture and notions. It focuses specifically on theorists who developed comprehensive approach to religion rather than those who examined specific aspects of religion or religious experiences. This paper discusses origin and nature of anthropological approach to religion and how it was developed by the anthropologists like William James, Herbert Spencer, James G. Frazer, etc. This study follows the descriptive and analytical method. 1. ANTHROPOLOGY: AN ATTEMPT TO STUDY The Universal Dictionary of the English language defines anthropology in its widest sense, the science of man in his physical and psychological aspects (often used specifically to denote the study of primitive customs, myths, and religion). 1The Oxford Advanced Dictionary defines anthropology is the study of human race, especially of its origins, development, customs and beliefs. Anthropology is the science of man, in the modern acceptation of the term, treated more particularly of mans origin and place in the animal kingdom, his/her developments as an individual and as a race (phylogeny) . In the study of religion anthropology is the discipline that has proved most effective in investigating primal religion in particular 2. In whole sense, this term is mainly using the study of human phenomenon as the integral part of culture. The claims of anthropology to be recognized as the separate science were for sometime successfully opposed on the ground that the phenomena bearing on the history of mankind were already fully dealt with under the sciences of biology, physiology, religion, psychology, theology, ethics, philology, ethnology etc. 3 1.1 Back Ground of Anthropological Approach to Religion Anthropological approach in wider level came out for the study of religion after the Post Enlightenment period. But more over that, the basic idea of this approach mainly is used by the ancient Greek ethnographers. Eighteenth century thought that emphasized the diversity of culture, religion, ethnicity, etc. The philosophical enlightenment also played a significant role in anthropological theories of religion.

Henry Cecil Wyld ed., The Universal Dictionary of the English Language. London: Wordsworth Edition Ltd., 1989, 40. 2 Eric J. Lott. Approaching a Religious Tradition, in Religious Traditions of India, edited by P. S. Daniel (Calcutta: Indian Theological Library, 1988), 20. 3 Robert Munro, Anthropology, Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, edited by James Hastings, vol 1 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1925), 561.

The idea of evolution was the basic foundation of the study of history and religion in broader sense. Anthropology widely was accepted after the publication of Charles Darwins Origin of Species (1859), in the general acceptance by the scientific human of the theory of organic evolution.4 Darwins theory of evolution by natural selection was highly influential not only in relation to the study of biology but also on a broader level to research on human culture.5 Although the theorists from the west were selected different aspects of culture or religion to emphasize all the evolutionary theories shared significant common features. Some grounds for anthropological suggestion may be seen in the readiness with which the early races of mankind identified the obscure forces of nature with supernatural spirits who were believed to have control over human destinies, and were, therefore, worshipped as gods or demons, and in the prevalence among savages of magic and fetishism.6 1.2. Methodological Foundations of Anthropology of Religion Anthropological traditional concentration on non-literate societies has shaped its approach to religious practice and belief in general. Anthropologists emphasize the cultural circumstances of world religions on the basis of spirit cults to ancestor worship. The contemporary anthropology of religion stems from diverse theoretical persuasions: Emile Durkheims view of religions, social facts which brackets issues of truth versus error; Max Webers ideal types of sweeping process behind religious, economic and beaurocratic reformisms; Marxist and Freudian explorations of ideological and expressive behavior.7 Many anthropologists attempt to find the meaning of phenomenological and hermeneutic interpretations of religious life and sacred symbols or semiotic analysis of communication codes; they apply complex models of social interaction, ritual speech, mythical order and transgression, cosmological archetypes and historical forces of scapegoating, sacrifice, oppression and revolution. Anthropologists explore the sacred values across domains of illness and cure, aesthetics, law, politics, economy, philosophy, sexuality, ethics, warfare, play, sport and the many kinds of classifications and performances that both organize and challenge cultural systems of knowledge and affect.8 This study of religion makes the cultural significance of the primitive life style. 2. SCHOLARS OF ANTHROPOLOGICAL APPROACH TO RELIGION 2.1 William James (1842-1910) William James, American psychologist and philosopher, was the oldest son of Henry James Sr, born in New York City on January 11, 1842. James was a voracious
4 5

Ibid. Seth D. Kunin, Anthropological and Sociological Theories, in A Companion to Religious Studies and Theology, edited by Helen K. Bond (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2003), 56. 6 Munro, op. cit., 571. 7 James A. Boon, Anthropology, Ethnology and Religion, Encyclopedia of Religion in Second Edition, edited by Lindsay Jones, vol 1 (Michigan: Thomason Gale, 2005), 378. 8 Ibid.

reader of philosophy and was particularly concerned with science and materialism. He started to teach anatomy and psychology at the university. After the teaching he contributed many writings for the psychology. He treated the psychological elements to bring out the meaning of religious structure and culture. He died in Chocorua, New Hampshire, on August 26, 1910. 2.1.1 Religious Experience: James framed the varieties in terms of two questions, the first having to do with the nature and origin of religion and the second with its meaning and significance. The central function of religion, in James view, consists in the healing of the self through a connection with the high powers. According to him, all religions consist of two parts: uneasiness and its solution.9 At the moment of salvation, the individual becomes conscious that this higher part (oneself) is conterminous with and continuous with a more of the same quality, which is operative in the universe outside of him. In his famous work, The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), James defines religion in terms of religious experience, that is, the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider divine. 10 Paulose Mar Gregorios pointed out that evolutionism in religion is not confined to the Survival Theory of Religion as William James calls the above notion. It is more truly the notion that evolution progress has been going on in the realm of religion just as in other areas of human thought and life, and that western Christianity is at the apex of this line of evolution.11 2.1.2 Philosophy of religion: James did important work in philosophy of religion. In his Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh and interpreted them according to his pragmatic leanings. Some of the important claims he makes in this regard:12

Religious genius (experience) should be the primary topic in the study of religion, rather than religious institutionssince institutions are merely the social descendant of genius. The intense, even pathological varieties of experience (religious or otherwise) should be sought by psychologists, because they represent the closest thing to a microscope of the mindthat is, they show us in drastically enlarged form the normal processes of things. In order to usefully interpret the realm of common, shared experience and history, we must each make certain "over-beliefs" in things which, while they cannot be proven on the basis of experience, help us to live fuller and better lives.

2.2 Edward B. Tylor (1832 1917)


Jacques Barzun, James, William, Encyclopedia of Religion in Second Edition, edited by Lindsay Jones, vol 7 (Michigan: Thomason Gale, 2005), 4776. 10 Ibid. 11 Paulos Mar Gregorios, Religion and Dialogue, (Kottayam: Mar Gregorios Foundation, 2003), 3. 12 The investigation of mystical experience was constant throughout the life of James, leading him to experiment with chloral hydrate (1870), amyl nitrite (1875), nitrous oxide (1882), and even peyote (1896). This idea helped him to bring out the religious notions on the basis of psychological elements.

Sir Edward Burnett Tylor, an English Anthropologist, was born on October 2, 1832 in London, England. E. B. Tylor is credited with sparking interest in anthropological science in England as a result of his extensive researches. In 1883, Tylor became the head of the University Museum at Oxford and was a Professor of Anthropology from 1896 until 1909. Modern scholarship pointed out that he was one of the beginners to apply evolutionary concepts in the area of religious studies, and considered him as the pioneer of the anthropological approach to study of religion.13 His initial study on religion came out after the publication of Darwins Origin of Species. 2.2.1 Religion and Primitive Culture: Tylors ideology is best described in his most famous work, the two-volume Primitive Culture. The first volume, The Origins of Culture, deals with various aspects of ethnography including social evolution, linguistics, and myth. The second volume, titled Religion in Primitive Culture, deals mainly with his interpretation of animism. On the first page of Primitive Culture, Tylor provides an all-inclusive definition which is one of his most widely recognized contributions to anthropology: Culture, or civilization, taken in its broad, ethnographic sense, is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society. Tylor asserted that the human mind and its capabilities are the same globally, irrespective of a particular societys stage in social evolution. Jacques Waardenburgs comment on Tylors theory provides some insights of anthropological thinking which made great change in the area of study of religion. On an evolutionist basis, Tylor used a comparative method and applied his theory of the recurrence and survival of elements of an older cultural stage in a later stage but without properly functioning in the setting of that stage. The result was that he could indeed present a survey of the total history of man and his culture, going back from the present to the past. Most influential on the study of religion, however, would be his theory of animism: that the belief in the soul, and not that in the ghost, is at the origin of the belief in spirits, which belief developed with the necessary variations into religious conceptions and actions.14 Tylor proposed the term animism for the study of the deep-lying doctrine of spiritual beings, which embodies the very essence of spiritualistic as opposed to materialistic philosophy. Animism is the ground work of the philosophy of religion, from that of savages up to that of civilized men. And although it may at first sight seem to afford but a bare and meagre definition of a minimum of religion, it will be found practically sufficient; for where the root is the branches will generally be produced.15

13 14

Lott, op. cit., 20. Ibid., 21. 15 Mar Gregorios, op. cit., 11.

2.2.2 Theory of Survival: Another term ascribed to Tylor was his theory of survivals. Tylor asserted that when a society evolves, certain customs are retained that are unnecessary in the new society, like outworn and useless baggage.16 His definition of survivals are processes, customs, and opinions, and so forth, which have been carried on by force of habit into a new state of society different from that in which they had their original home, and they thus remain as proofs and examples of an older condition of culture out of which a newer has been evolved. This can include outdated practices, such as the phenomenon of European bloodletting, which lasted long after the medical practices on which it was based had faded from use and been replaced by more modern techniques. 2.3 Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) Herbert Spencer, an English philosopher, was born at Derby on the 27th of April 1820. During 1837-46 he was employed as an engineer on the London & Birmingham railway; 1848-53 as sub-editor of the Economist. From about this time to 1860 he contributed a large number of articles to the Westminster Review, which contain the first sketches of his philosophic doctrines. He also published two larger works, Social Statics in 1850, and Principles of Psychology in 1855. In 1860 he sent out the syllabus of his Synthetic Philosophy in ten volumes, and in spite of frequent ill health had the satisfaction of completing it in 1896 with the third volume of the Principles of Sociology. He died on the 8th of December 1903. 2.3.1 Insights from Sociology: In the Principles of Sociology Spencer's most influential ideas have been that of the social organism, of the origination of religion out of the worship of ancestral ghosts, of the natural antagonism between nutrition and reproduction, industrialism and warfare, he emphasized this view from the balance of evidence fund among primitives. Waardenburg claims that he investigated the cult of ancestral spirits contended that, like the fear of the living is supposed to be the root of political control, the fear of the dead would be that of religious control. 17 He tended to plot Greco-Roman and Hindu polytheisms, the cruder monotheism of Jews and Muslims, and the relative refinements of Catholicism Protestantism on an ascending scale, envisaging his own agnostic, scientific position as the pinnacle in the history of religious consciousness. 2.3.2 Complexity of Society: Spencer used the complexity, the more complex societies being more advanced evolutionarily than the less complex. 18 Thus his evolutionary arguments are equally problematic in respect of universal, biological and cultural development. Spencer chose complexity (assuming British Society was the most complex), while other thinkers were emphasized technology. Different societies have

Wilson D. Wallis, The Doctrine of Survivals, The Journal of American Folklore 49/193 (Jul. Sep 1936): 273.

Jacques Waardenburg, Classical Approaches to the Study of Religion Aims, Methods and Theories of Reasearch (Netherland: Mounton & Co., 1973.), 198. 18 Kunin, op. cit., 57.

different values, choose different paths of change and in their own self-perception choose different measures of development.19 2.4 James G. Frazer (1854-1941) James Frazer was born in Glasgow in 1854 where he got his primary education. Frazers reputation underwent a wide shift in valuation during the course of the twentieth century. Anthropologists in the early part of the century, for example Malionowski, praised his work and saw it as a significant building block in the development of anthropology as an academic discipline. In his classic work, The Golden Bough (1922) Frazer argued that religious activities and attitudes were preceded by the practice of magic.20 2.4.1 Idea of Magic: Frazers understanding of magic is closer to Tylors than to the more individually oriented practices discussed by Durkheim. Like Tylor, Frazer saw magic as essentially rational. He suggested that magic was based on two interrelated laws: the law of similarity and the law of contagion. 21 The law of similarity is based on the principle that like produces like. For example, action in relation to one object will produce a similar result in a similar object (usually the second object is more significant than the first). The law of contagion suggests that objects which have a relation to each other, or which have once been connected, retain that connection even after they have been divided. This principle is seen in the common practice of using a persons hair or fingernails to cause some effect in that person. 2.4.2 Religion and Science: Religion is the next stage in social development, and although in some senses it is seen as a progressive move from magic. Religion take the place of magic when it is no longer perceived that the world is governed by laws and, equally that magic does not work to manipulate these laws or forces. With the rejection of law that accompanies the demise of magic, law is replaced by personal capricious forcesthat is, supernatural beings. These beings or gods were believed be able to be propitiated and conciliated. Frazer argued that religion consisted of two elements: the theoretical and practical. The theoretical was the belief that the world was controlled by higher powers that acted on the basis of caprice and will; the practical were those elements designed to conciliate or propitiate these powers- rituals and other practices associated with religion. 22 As society further evolves, Frazer suggests that religion is overtaken by science. The scientific mode of thought emerges due to the intellectual problems associated with the belief in supernatural forces. 2.5 Wilhelm Schmidt (1868-1954) Schmidt was an Austrian linguist, anthropologist, and ethnologist, born in Hrde, Germany in 1868. He entered the Society of the Divine Word in 1890 and was ordained as a Roman Catholic priest in 1892. He studied linguistics at the universities of Berlin
19 20

Ibid., 61. Lott. Opcit .21. 21 Kunin, op. cit., 62. 22 Ibid., 63.

and Vienna. His early work in linguistics was on the Mon-Khmer languages of Southeast Asia, which led him to hypothesize the existence of a broader Austric group of languages, connected to the Austronesian language group. 2.5.1 Primitive Monotheism: From 1912 on, Schmidt began to publish his 12volume Der Ursprung der Gottesidee, 'The Origin of the Idea of God', and developed his theory of primitive monotheism, the belief that primitive religion among almost all tribal peoples began with an essentially monotheistic concept of a high god usually a sky god who was a benevolent creator. Schmidt theorized that human beings created a God who was the First Cause of all things and Ruler of Heaven and Earth before men and women began to worship a number of gods. He traced the concept of pure monotheism by reconstructing the hypothetical history of this monotheism by means of the theory of culture cycles. In this way he explained animism, polytheism and magic as later imaginary accretion which could impose themselves on the original monotheistic belief and spread out according to the laws of the culture consequently. 23 According to Schmidt, the oldest culture of humanity was that of the hunter-gatherers, remnants which are found in the Arctic American area and in South- eastern Australia. Primary culture arose in a given geographical area and then spread through migration. 2.5.2 Growth of Religion: Rev. Wilhelm Schmidt has provided us with a valuable book entitled The Origin and Growth of Religion , which has as its basic thesis the concept of a monotheistic faith being the first religion practiced by men. Schmidt offers many powerful arguments showing the original belief in one God and shows the inadequacies of theories that are often evolutionary. He shows that the evolutionists often have almost no evidence for their theories, or they use only selective evidence to support their opinions. Such theories as animism, ghost-worship, totemism and magics being the origin of mans belief in God are all refuted, and this is done by constantly referring to evidence found from studies of primitive peoples. For example, when discussing the faults with the theory of magics being the source of religion, Schmidt says, But the way the problem has been handled hitherto by Evolutionists quite innocent of historical research involved yet another weighty defect, which historical inquiry is able to get rid of.24

3. TRENDS AND PROSPECTS OF ANTHROPOLOGY OF RELIGION Anthropologists have adapted insights from socio-linguistics, philosophies of translation, literary theory, rhetoric, structuralism and post- structuralism, performance of studies, folklore, political theory, gender analysis, and other areas of argument the generality and specificity, and sometimes the obscurity, of their descriptions and comparisons. 25 Certain rituals serve purposes analogues to western psychotherapies. Durkheims Elementary Forms of Religious Life continued his earlier emphases on varieties of the division of

Joseph Henninger, Schmidt, Wihelm The Encyclopedia of Religion edited by Mercia Eliade, vol 13 (New York: Mac Millan Publishing Co., 1987), 113. 24 Wilhelm Schmidt, The Origin and Growth of Religion (New York: Cooper Square, 1971), 158. 25 Boon, op. cit., 378.

labor, on categories implicit in ritual objects, cosmography, and mythic tales; and on the compartmentalized tasks and specialized knowledge that enrich every social order. Another major source of social theory is Max Webers work on emergent charismatic figures. Ninian Smart in The Religious Experience of Mankind exemplifies this view when he says, Neither can we know how man first experienced the holy. It may have been that men, in becoming aware of themselves through the power of speech and in discovering their capacity to change the world also felt a sense of rapture from the natural world about them.26 CONCLUSION Anthropological approach to religion is widely accepted by the western scholarship for analyzing primitivism, monotheism and origin and growth of religion. In the area of study of religion, anthropology mainly helped to bring out the notions which are related to the science and ethnology. This formative factor of anthropology of religion was influenced by the scholars like E. B. Tylor, Herbert Spencer, James G. Frazer, etc. Some of them are quite considerable here: 1) Evolutionism was widely accepted by the all anthropologists who played a significant role to identify the origin of religion. This was established by the publication of Darwins Origin of Species (1859) in broader sense. 2) Ideology, ritualism, mythical expressions, magic, etc were revaluated by the anthropologists and they clarified the emergence of primitive monotheism and polytheism in all religions. 3) According to anthropologists, Culture, civilization, ethnography, linguistics and social status also were the considerable factors of the origin of religion. 4) In primitive societies, a survival was an element to make human conscious into the higher forms of religion (animism, animatisms and supernatural beliefs). This approach to religion categorizes the sociological and psychological elements of human being in the area of study of religion. The theme of anthropological approach mainly distinguishes the primitive and modern cultures as religious system.

BIBLIOGRAPHY Barzun, Jacques. James, William, Encyclopedia of Religion in Second Edition. Edited by Lindsay Jones. Vol 7 (Michigan: Thomason Gale, 2005): 4775-4776. Boon, James A. Anthropology, Ethnology and Religion, Encyclopedia of Religion in Second Edition. Edited by Lindsay Jones. Vol 1 (Michigan: Thomason Gale, 2005): 378-388.

Ninian Smart, The Religious Experience of Mankind (Glasgow: Collins, 1978), 78

Gregorios, Paulos Mar. Religion and Dialogue. Kottayam: Mar Gregorios Foundation, 2003. Kunin, Seth D. Anthropological and Sociological Theories. In A Companion to Religious Studies and Theology. Edited by Helen K. Bond. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2003. Lott, Eric J. Approaching a Religious Tradition. In Religious Traditions of India. Edited by P. S. Daniel. Calcutta: Indian Theological Library, 1988. Munro, Robert. Anthropology, Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics. Edited by James Hastings. Vol 1 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1925): 561-573. Schmidt, Wilhelm. The Origin and Growth of Religion. New York: Cooper Square, 1971. Sharpe, Eric J. Comparative Religion A History. London: Gerald Duckworth & Co.,1975. Smart, Ninian. The Religious Experience of Mankind. Glasgow: Collins, 1978. Waardenburg, Jacques. Classical Approaches to the Study of Religion Aims, Methods and Theories of Research. Netherlands: Mounton & Co., 1973.