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A HISTORICAL OVERVIEW OF

ANTHROPOLOGICAL THEORIES OF RELIGION


THEORETICAL PARADIGMS

1) THE ORIGIN OF RELIGIONS (Late 1700s – Early 1900s)


Social Evolutionism
Scientific Racism

2) THE FUNCTION OF RELIGIONS (Early 1900s – 1960s)


Functionalism
Structural Functionalism

3) THE MEANINGS OF RELIGIONS AND THEIR


ARTICULATIONS WITH SOCIETY AND THE INDIVIDUAL
(1960s to the Present)
Symbolic and Interpretive Interactionism
Interpretive/Symbolic Anthropology
Feminism
Post Structuralism
WHILE MOST OF EUROPE
WAS IN THE DARK AGES
• Technological,
intellectual, and
aesthetic development
was thriving in China,
India, the Arab World,
and the Italian City
States.
• Land and sea routes
connected the great
cities of these regions to
foster cultural and
economic exchange.
THE EUROPEAN
FEUDAL
ESTATE SYSTEM
 A few major events were
responsible for the rise and
expansion of European
societies after 1400:
 The withdrawal of China
from world trade networks.
 The exploratory voyage of
Vasco Da Gama around the
southern tip of Africa.
 Columbus’ exploratory
voyage to the Western
Hemisphere.
GUTENBERG IS CREDITED WITH INVENTING THE MOVEABLE TYPE
PRINTING PRESS AROUND 1450. THIS HAD A MONUMENTAL IMPACT
ON EUROPEAN CULTURE. BOOKS, NEWSPAPERS, PAMPHLETS, ETC.,
BECAME AVAILABLE AND AFFORDABLE. THIS FOSTERED THE
ESCALATION OF LITERACY AND EDUCATION AMONG COMMON
PEOPLES, WHICH—IN TURN—STIMULATED MORE INDEPENDENT
THOUGHT, AND SOCIAL DIALOGUE, AND DEBATE.
THE “ATLANTIC WORLD”
• By 1500, the “Atlantic
World,” dominated by
Europe, and based in the
trade of sugar, slaves, gold,
and silver was in place.
• Through these lucrative
endeavors, European
societies began to acquire
great wealth and power.
• Spreading Christianity was
an integral aspect of this
European expansion.
1517
THE PROTESTANT REFORMATION
 A movement in Europe that
began with Martin Luther’s
opposition to the corruption of
Catholicism.
 Divided Christianity between
Catholicism and a number of
Protestant denominations.
 Contributed to a sociocultural
milieu in Europe that fostered
science, technology, modern
philosophy, and capitalism.
1648
WESTPHALIA PEACE ACCORD
 Considered to be the
culmination of the Protestant
Reformation.
 Established national
boundaries in Europe.
 Ended the political
dominance of the Holy
Roman Empire.
 Instigated the transformation
in the political organization
of European powers from
feudal states to nation states.
1500s - 1700s
EUROPEAN AGE OF SCIENTIFIC DISCOVERY
• FIRST PHASE:
– EMPIRICISM: Scientific knowledge can be
acquired through observing phenomena.
– MECHANICAL PHILOSOPHY: Nature
follows natural, physical laws.
– CHEMICAL PHILOSOPHY: Matter
functions according to active, vital principles.
– MATHEMATIZATION: Quantitative
methods were applied to the measurement of
physical phenomena.
• SECOND PHASE: The application of empirical
analysis and mechanistic explanations to:
– Human Personality
– Human Development
– Cultures and societies and their development
1700s
THE EUROPEAN ENLIGHTENMENT
• The concept of “self-rule”
replaces the “divine right of
kings” to rule over society.
• Humanistic ideas about
freedom, equality, and the
right to happiness in “this”
life emerge.
• Science develops in
opposition to religion.
• The assertion that “God
hath created all men equal,”
morphs into “nature hath
created all men equal.’
THE EUROPEAN ENLIGHTENMENT
AND “NATURAL RELIGION”
 DEISM: A pure “natural religion.”
 A Creator God made the world, but leaves it to
operate according to natural laws, a parallel set
of moral laws to guide human conduct, and the
promise of an afterlife that rewards good and
punishes evil.
 This was the religion of the very first humans,
and the best hope for humanity is that it be
revived and practiced universally as a
“BROTHERHOOD” by all peoples throughout
the globe.
 Modernity is the sense that the present is discontinuous
with the past, that through social and cultural progress or
decline, life in the present is fundamentally different from
the past.
 This world view contrasts with “tradition,” which is the
sense that the present is continuous with the past.
 However, the sense that the present is discontinuous with
the past is an illusion that—paradoxically--creates
modernity itself.
 What has changed is social memory; we have
disconnected most of our practices and ideas from our
collective memory of their meaning, and what we believe
to be their “origins.”
 The “Western” concept of the “centered subject” was
elemental to earlier phases of modernity.
 With late modernity, the subject is de-centered and
fragmented.
LATE 1700s-1800s
THE INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION
Scientific and
technological
advances are
applied to
agriculture,
transportation,
and industry.
CAPITALISM
• An economic system in which the means
of production--land and capital goods--
are privately owned, and the labor of
workers becomes the property of owners.
• Capital, generated for the most part by
the labor of workers, is monopolized by
owners and invested for individual profit.
• Commodities and services are produced
for the sole purpose of profit in the
marketplace.
• Capitalism collapses if it does not
continually expand.
• Capitalism only functions through
inequality.
MARX’S
CRITIQUE
• MID 1800s: The history of the
world is a history of class
struggle between the “haves” and
“have nots.”
• Every aspect of society is part of
a superstructure determined by its
economic base.
• Religion is part of the
superstructure, and a false
ideology that provides excuses
for the oppressors to maintain the
inequitable status quo.
• Belief in god or gods is an
oppressive by-product of class
struggle and should be dismissed.
LATE 1700s-EARLY 1900s
THE AGE OF IMPERIALISM
• The interstitial relationship of
technology and capitalism
resulted in an exponential
escalation in the production of
goods.
• Raw materials, new markets, and
cheap or slave labor were required
for this escalation of production.
• European powers embarked upon
a second era of imperial expansion
in order to control the material
and human resources of other
societies throughout the globe.
CONSTRUCTING AND
CONTROLLING THE “OTHER”
• Europeans constructed the
OTHER they sought to
dominate; while, in turn,
Europeans shaped their
identities in contrast to the
Other.
• Methods of control included:
– Religious conversion
– Military Force
– Collecting knowledge
about the colonized to
facilitate domination
THE ENLIGHTENMENT TABLE

HUMAN

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OTHERS
/
NOT FULLY
\ \ // HUMAN
 The Origin of Species,
1859.
 "Much light will be shed
on the origin of man (sic)
and his history” (p. 459).
 Darwin’s biological studies
of evolution paralleled an
interest in social evolution
that produced a body of
knowledge that supported
social, economic, and
political policies.
 A theory developed by
Herbert Spencer when
he applied new
scientific discoveries to
the study of society.
 This theory placed the
world’s societies on an
evolutionary scale of
primitive to civilized.
SCIENTIFIC RACISM
• Based on faulty science and
fabricated data.
• Divided humans into different
races based on “biological”
differences.
• These racial categories were then
situated on an evolutionary
hierarchy.
• In actuality, “race” is a social
construction with no biological
foundation.
• However, the concept of race
continues to have profound social
ramifications for people
throughout the global community.
SIR EDWARD B. TYLOR
1832-1917
• A social evolutionist.
• He asserted that the development of
religions from one stage to the next is
universal throughout the world’s cultures:
– ANIMISM: Belief in souls, and that
all things in the world are endowed
with a soul.
– TOTEMISM: Religious practices
centered around animals, plants, or
other aspects of the natural world held
to be ancestral or closely identified
with a group and its individuals.
– POLYTHEISM: Belief in more than
one, or many gods.
– MONOTHEISM: Belief in one god.
TYLOR’S MINIMALIST
DEFINITION OF RELIGION
“BELIEF IN SPIRITUAL BEINGS” – ANIMISM

 Primitive people were rationalists and scientific


philosophers.
 The notion of spirits was not the outcome of irrational
thought.
 Preliterate religious beliefs and practices were not
“ridiculous” or a “rubbish heap of miscellaneous folly.”
 They were essentially consistent and logical, based on
rational thinking and empirical knowledge.
According to Tylor, “ancient savage philosophers”
were impressed by two groups of biological problems:

1) What is it that makes the difference between a living


body and a dead one and what causes sleep, trance,
disease, and death?

2) What are these human shapes which appear in


dreams and visions?

THEIR EXPLANATION:
A spirit or soul, derived from the experience of human
souls or spirits in “dreams and waking hallucinations”
animates lifeless objects such as sticks or stones,
trees, mountains, rivers, etc.
SIR JAMES FRAZER
1854-1941
• A Scottish ethnologist.
• The Golden Bough (1890-1915):
compares the myths, magical
practices, and religions of the world’s
cultures throughout history.
• Frazer developed the social
evolutionary model of:
MAGIC > RELIGION > SCIENCE
• He asserted Australian Aborigines
were the most primitive of all because
they practiced only, what he defined
their spirituality as, magic.
EARLY 20th CENTURY
ANTHROPOLOGY

• Bronislaw Malinowski (1884-1942) and Franz Boas (1858-1942)


developed the method of “participant observation,” and lived
among other cultures for extended periods.
• They were both emphatically opposed to social evolution.
• Anthropology becomes more grounded in cultural relativism.
• Anthropologists stop focusing on the origins of religions to:
– How religions spread through DIFFUSION, the mixing of cultural elements
from one society to another through contact over time.
– What FUNCTIONS religions serve in society.
THE ANTHROPOLOGICAL USE OF
THEORIES OF FUNCTIONALISM
• Social institutions function to
support the structure of society and
social needs.
• Society functions to become
something greater than the sum
total of its institutional parts.
• Stratification and inequity function
to maintain social cohesion.
• CRITIQUE: Functionalism is a
macro approach that focuses on
the status quo, and can not
adequately theorize social conflict
or change.
EMILE DURKHEIM’S (1858-1917)
FUNCTIONALIST THEORY OF RELIGION
RELIGIONS GENERATE SOCIAL COHESION.
– BELIEFS: All religious beliefs presuppose a classification of all things, real
and ideal, into two opposed groups: the sacred and the profane. This
distinction is the foundation of religions, not sacred spirits.
– The SACRED encompasses the social community.
– The PROFANE encompasses the personal and private.
– RITUALS: Rules of conduct that prescribe how people should behave in the
presence of sacred things, and that reinforce social behaviors:
– POSITIVE: The individual renews her/his commitment to the community.
– NEGATIVE: Reinforces taboos to maintain communal order.
– PIACULAR: Performed during a crisis to repair and solidify the community.
The TOTEMIC PRINCIPLE: He focused on Australian aborigines in which each
clan has a sacred, totemic animal or plant. Totemism provides systems of order
and classification. The totem or “god” of the clan IS the CLAN itself.
THUS: For Durkheim, GOD and SOCIETY are the same:
– Both are superior to individuals
– Individuals depend on both
– All must submit to the rules
 He set out to prove that “savages”
were rational and not the “living
fossils” of a social evolutionary
paradigm.
 The Trobrianders hunted and
gardened with empirically-honed
skills.
 They turned to magic when practical
knowledge had reached its limits.
 Religion functions in conjunction
with practicality.
 His model focuses on how social
institutions serve the biological and
psychological needs of individuals.
HOWEVER, IN THE FOLLOWING QUOTE WE SEE THAT
MALINOWSKI FELT A SENSE OF SUPERIORITY:
“YET it must be remembered that what appears to us an
extensive, complicated, and yet well ordered institution is
the outcome of so many doings and pursuits, carried on by
savages, who have no laws or aims or charters definitively
laid down. They have no knowledge of the total outline of any of
their social structure. They know their own motives, know the
purpose of individual actions and the rules which apply to them,
but how, out of these, the whole collective institution shapes, this
is beyond their mental range. Not even the most intelligent native
has any clear idea of…organised social construction, still less of
its sociological function and implications...The integration of all
the details observed, the achievement of a sociological synthesis
of all the various, relevant symptoms, is the task of the
Ethnographer...
-- Bronislaw Malinowski, from his classic ethnography,
Argonauts of the Western Pacific
RADCLIFFE-BROWN’S (1881-1955)
STRUCTURAL FUNCTIONALISM
• Through comparative methods, he
focused on how society functions at the
macro, structural level.
• A society’s “fixed” religious beliefs
and practices (those that remain over
time) maintain social order.
• This was a time when anthropology
was attempting to validate itself as a
science.
• Structural processes can be observed
and documented with greater scientific
validity then the psychologically
oriented processes of Malinowski’s
model of functionalism.
MARY DOUGLAS (1921-2007):
SOCIETIES MAINTAIN ORDER THROUGH
FUNCTIONAL CLASSIFICATIONS,
FOR EXAMPLE WITH RELIGIOUS
MANDATES THAT SPECIFY WHAT IS “PURE”
AND PERMITTED, AND WHAT “POLLUTES”
AND IS TABOO.

VICTOR TURNER (1920-1983):


THE FUNCTION OF RITUALS IS THE VITAL
ROLE THEY PLAY IN MAINTAINING
SOCIAL SOLIDARITY AND COHESION.
SYMBOLIC INTERACTIONISM
The Mead-Blumer Model
• A MICRO PERSPECTIVE: “Truth” and “reality” are determined by the
social context in which they are practiced.
• MEANING, LANGUAGE, and THOUGHT. These three core principles
lead to the construction of personhood and society, and are elemental to the
individual’s socialization into, and interactions with a community
• MEANING: The central element in human behavior. Humans make
meaning and think about and act towards people, creatures, and things based
upon the meanings that humans have given them.
• LANGUAGE: Gives humans the ability to negotiate meaning through a
shared communicative symbolic system. Naming and categorizing assigns
meaning – a basis for human society. By engaging in speech acts with
others humans come to identify meaning, and develop discourse--bodies of
knowledge that guide and dictate social life.
• THOUGHT: Modifies each individual's experience with and interpretation
of symbols and their meanings. Thought, based on language, is an internal
dialogue that requires role taking, performance, imagining different points of
view, etc. The individual then externalizes these processes through
behavior.
DENZIN’S MODEL:
INTERPRETIVE INTERACTIONISM
• Expands upon Mead-Blumer with a late modern “politics of interpretive
interaction”:
– Describe without “fixing” subjects.
– Do not romanticize, obscure, decontextualize, or over theorize
subjects.
• Position self, emotion, sexuality, ideology, violence, and relations of
power at the center of social inquiry.
• Use late modern theories from:
– CULTURAL STUDIES: A focus on social interaction and
meaning making through communication and the media.
– FEMINIST STUDIES: A focus on social interaction as steeped in
gender, class, and experience.
• Develop an “oppositional cultural aesthetic” critical of representations,
and aware of inequitable ideologies embedded in their texts.
INTERPRETIVE/SYMBOLIC
ANTHROPOLOGY
• Focuses on the realm of thought, meaning, and ideas.
• Defines culture in terms of systems of signs and symbols, and
their meanings.
• Humans are suspended in webs of signification that they create
for themselves.
• Religion is a cultural system of meanings that explains:
– “Reality” for its adherents
– The meanings of that “reality”
– How people should think, behave, and interact within that “reality.”
• CRITIQUES:
– Descriptive and does not lend itself to theoretical formulations.
– Applies to the local and not “bigger pictures” of culture.
CLIFFORD GEERTZ
(1926-2006)
• Geertz focused on interpreting
the symbols that give meaning to
peoples’ lives.
• He asserted that anthropologists
must deeply analyze and thickly
describe cultures and their
symbols through the interpretive
model in order to make
difference understandable.
• He argued that religions are too
particularistic with regard to
events, individuals, and groups
to be understood through
functionalist theories.
GEERTZ ON RELIGION AS A
CULTURAL SYSTEM
• Geertz’s definition of culture: "a historically transmitted pattern of meanings
embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic
forms by means of which men (sic) communicate, perpetuate, and develop their
knowledge about and attitudes toward life.”
• Geertz’s theory of religion as a cultural system:
– A symbolic system, religion is a social construct that--through social
interaction--creates reality, and provides people with a blueprint for how to live.
– Generates powerful and lasting moods and motivations in people. The moods
are in and of themselves, and the motivations are directed towards goals.
– Infuses these moods and motivations with the sense that they are uniquely real.
– Provides an overall ordering for existence that gives life meaning, and provides
explanations for why problems and tragedies occur.
– Infuses the overall explanations and ordering for existence with the sense that it
is factual.
– Together, these dynamics seem so powerful to believers that religion becomes
the only sensible explanation for reality. Belief is fortified through ritual, and
then taken into the world to transform it to conform with religion.
 ANDROCENTRISM: The focus on the men of a community, and
the reliance on men’s opinions and explanations of the roles,
functions, and statuses of women in their community.
 In the late 1960s, feminist anthropologists began focusing on
women’s experiences, and women’s roles, statuses, and contributions
to culture and their communities.
 Feminist scholarship developed the concept and study of gender as
a culturally constructed analytical category.
 Currently feminist anthropologists focus on comparative studies
amongst women.
 Feminist approaches to religion and society:
 Critiques of gendered relations of power
 Investigations of pre-Abrahamic Goddess cultures and witchcraft
 How women articulate their agencies with religious structural practices and
processes
STRUCTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY
• Claude Levi-Strauss (he’s currently 100 years old) drew upon structural linguistics to
establish structural anthropology and asserted that people are hard wired to think
about the world in terms of binary opposites—raw and cooked, high and low, inside
and outside, person and animal, life and death, etc.
• Binary structures are universal, every culture can be understood in terms of these
opposites, but their contents and meaning differ from culture to culture.
• Individual objects and symbols are not important, it is the RELATIONSHIPS
between them that generate meaning.
• Religion serves to mediate these oppositions, thereby resolving basic tensions or
contradictions found in cultures.
• Culture and society shape people – a macro approach that gives primacy to structural
processes over the individual.
CRITIQUES:
Structural anthropology is synchronic, concentrating on specific cultural junctures
not contextualized with their histories.
It assumes binary thinking is hard wired, or essential to humans, but does not
provide a scientific framework to prove it.
Marxists: Structural anthropology fails to address economies and class struggles.
Feminists: Levi-Strauss focuses on the exchange of women in an uncritical way to
support his theory.
POST-STRUCTURAL
ANTHROPOLOGY
• Post-structuralism emerged as a critique of structuralism, and the array
of post-structural theories are numerous and eclectic.
• The post-structural moment occurred when it was recognized that
people participate in the creation of knowledge and power, and are not
mere pawns of cultural and social structural practices and processes.
• Post-structuralism asserts that the study of underlying structures is itself
a product of culture, and therefore subject to biases and
misinterpretations.
• To understand culture, it is necessary to study the systems of knowledge
which produce culture.

THREE BASIC PRINCIPLES:


Meaning is always shifting.
Individuals’ perceptions of meaning is always shifting.
Power attempts to fix meaning, but this is impossible.
READING THE VILLAGE FROM DIFFERENT
THEORETICAL ORIENTATIONS OF RELIGION
STUDY GUIDE FOR THE VILLAGE
• From the perspective of Durkheim’s functionalism: What is
sacred and what is profane in the village? Can you identify
their positive, negative, and/or piacular rituals? According to
the “totemic principle” how does the village worships itself?
Can you identify the village’s totem?
• From Geertz’s perspective, how is religion in the village a
cultural system?
• From the feminist perspective, what are the gender roles and
relations in the religious life of the village?
• Do you think the village’s society will be reinforced or
transformed by Ivy’s journey to “the towns,” and the
introduction of medicine to save Lucias’ life?