PERSPECTIVES: AN OPEN INTRODUCTION TO CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY
Nina Brown, Thomas McIlwraith, Laura Tubelle de González
2020 American Anthropological Association 2300 Clarendon Blvd, Suite 1301 Arlington, VA 22201
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11 11 RELIGION RELIGION
Sashur Henninger-Rener, Pasadena City College firstname.lastname@example.org
Learning Objectives Learning Objectives
• Define religion and explain its significance in human cultures.
• Summarize theories developed by anthropologists to explain the importance of supernatural beliefs in human communities.
• Identify the four elements of religion (cosmology, belief in the supernatural, rules of behavior, and rituals) and explain how each element contributes to religious practices.
• Define rites of passage, rites of intensification, and rites of revitalization and explain the purpose of each type of ritual.
Humans have always wondered about the meaning of the life, the nature of the universe, and the
forces that shape our lives. While it is impossible to know for sure how the people who lived thousands
of years ago answered these kinds of questions, there are some clues. Fifty thousand years ago, human
communities buried the dead with stone tools, shells, animal bones, and other objects, a practice that
suggests they were preparing the deceased for an afterlife, or a world beyond this one. Thirty thousand
years ago, artists entered the Chauvet cave in France and painted dramatic scenes of animals on the
cave walls along with abstract symbols that suggest the images were part of a supernatural belief system,
possibly one focused on ensuring safety or success in hunting (Figure 1).1 A few thousand years later,
collections of small clay sculptures, known as Venus figurines, began appearing across Eurasia. They
seem to express ideas about fertility or motherhood and may have been viewed as magical (Figure 2).2
Figure 1: An image from the Chauvet cave painted about 32,000 years ago. The paintings may have been part of religious ceremonies intended to ensure success in hunting. and 25,000 BC and may have been associated with spiritual beliefs about motherhood or fertility.
Figure 2: The Venus of Willendorf figurine was made between 28,000 and 25,000 BC and may have been associated with spiritual beliefs about motherhood or fertility.
DEFINING RELIGION Because ideas about the supernatural are part of every human culture, understanding these beliefs is
important to anthropologists. However, studying supernatural beliefs is challenging for several reasons.
The first difficulty arises from the challenge of defining the topic itself. The word “religion,” which is
commonly used in the United States to refer to participation in a distinct form of faith such as Chris-
tianity, Islam, or Judaism, is not a universally recognized idea. Many cultures have no word for “reli-
gion” at all and many societies do not make a clear distinction between beliefs or practices that are
“religious,” or “spiritual” and other habits that are an ordinary part of daily life. For instance, leaving an
incense offering in a household shrine dedicated to the spirits of the ancestors may be viewed as a sim-
ple part of the daily routine rather than a “religious” practice. There are societies that believe in super-
natural beings, but do not call them “gods.” Some societies do not see a distinction between the natural
and the supernatural observing, instead, that the spirits share the same physical world as humans. Con-
cepts like “heaven,” “hell,” or even “prayer” do not exist in many societies. The divide between “religion”
and related ideas like “spirituality” or even “magic” is also murky in some cultural contexts.
To study supernatural beliefs, anthropologists must cultivate a perspective of cultural relativism and
strive to understand beliefs from an emic or insider’s perspective. Imposing the definitions or assump-
tions from one culture on another is likely to lead to misunderstandings. One example of this problem
can be found in the early anthropological research of Sir James Frazer who attempted to compose the
first comprehensive study of the world’s major magical and religious belief systems. Frazer was part
of early generation of anthropologists whose work was based on reading and questionnaires mailed to
missionaries and colonial officials rather than travel and participant-observation. As a result, he had
only minimal information about the beliefs he wrote about and he was quick to apply his own opin-
ions. In The Golden Bough (1890) he dismissed many of the spiritual beliefs he documented: “I look upon
[them] not merely as false but as preposterous and absurd.”3 His contemporary, Sir E.B. Tylor, was less
dismissive of unfamiliar belief systems, but he defined religion minimally and, for some, in overly nar-
row terms as “the belief in supernatural beings.” This definition excludes much of what people around
the world actually believe.4 As researchers gained more information about other cultures, their ideas
about religion became more complex. The sociologist Emile Durkheim recognized that religion was not
simply a belief in “supernatural beings,” but a set of practices and social institutions that brought mem-
bers of a community together. Religion, he said, was “a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to
sacred things, that is to say, things set aside and forbidden—beliefs and practices which unite into one
single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.”5
Durkheim’s analysis of religion emphasized the significance of spiritual beliefs for relationships
between people. Subsequent anthropological research in communities around the world has confirmed
that rituals associated with beliefs in the supernatural play a significant role in structuring community
life, providing rules or guidelines for behavior, and bonding members of a community to one another.
Interestingly, religious “beings,” such as gods or spirits, also demonstrate social qualities. Most of the
time, these beings are imagined in familiar terms as entities with personalities, desires, and “agency,” an
ability to make decisions and take action. Supernatural beings, in other words, are not so different from
people.6 In keeping with this idea, religion can be defined as “the means by which human society and
culture is extended to include the nonhuman.”7 This definition is deliberately broad and can be used to
encompass many different kinds of belief systems.
Many religions involve ideas or rituals that could be described as “magical” and the relationship
between religion and magic is complex. In his book A General Theory of Magic (1902), Marcel Mauss sug-
gested that religion and magic were two opposite poles on a spectrum of spiritual beliefs. Magic was at
288 PERSPECTIVES: AN OPEN INTRODUCTION TO CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY
one end of the spectrum; it was private, secret, and individual. Religion was at the opposite end of the
spectrum; it was public and oriented toward bringing the community together.8 Although Mauss’ for-
mulation presented religion and magic as part of the same general way of thinking, many contemporary
anthropologists are convinced that making a distinction between religion and magic is artificial and
usually not particularly useful. With this caution in mind, magic can be defined as practices intended
to bring supernatural forces under one’s personal control. Sorcerers are individuals who seek to use
magic for their own purposes. It is important to remember that both magic and sorcery are labels that
have historically been used by outsiders, including anthropologists, to describe spiritual beliefs with
which they are unfamiliar. Words from the local language are almost always preferable for representing
how people think about themselves.
THEORIES OF RELIGION Sir James Frazer’s effort to interpret religious mythology was the first of many attempts to under-
stand the reasons why cultures develop various kinds of spiritual beliefs. In the early twentieth century,
many anthropologists applied a functional approach to this problem by focusing on the ways religion
addressed human needs. Bronislaw Malinowski (1931), who conducted research in the Trobriand
Islands located near Papua New Guinea, believed that religious beliefs met psychological needs. He
observed that religion “is not born out of speculation or reflection, still less out of illusion or apprehen-
sion, but rather, out of the real tragedies of human life, out of the conflict between human plans and
At the time of Malinowski’s research, the Trobriand Islanders participated in an event called the kula
ring, a tradition that required men to build canoes and sail on long and dangerous journeys between
neighboring islands to exchange ritual items. Malinowski noticed that before these dangerous trips
several complex rituals had to be performed, but ordinary sailing for fishing trips required no special
preparations. What was the difference? Malinowski concluded that the longer trips were not only more
dangerous, but also provoked more anxiety because the men felt they had less control over what might
happen. On long voyages, there were many things that could go wrong, few of which could be planned
for or avoided. He argued that religious rituals provided a way to reduce or control anxiety when antic-
ipating these conditions.10 The use of rituals to reduce anxiety has been documented in many other
settings. George Gmelch (1971) documented forms of “baseball magic” among professional athletes.
Baseball players, for instance, have rituals related to how they eat, dress, and even drive to the ballpark,
rituals they believe contribute to good luck.11
As a functionalist, Malinowski believed that religion provided shared values and behavioral norms
that created solidarity between people. The sociologist Emile Durkheim also believed that religion
played an important role in building connections between people by creating shared definitions of the
sacred and profane. Sacred objects or ideas are set apart from the ordinary and treated with great
respect or care while profane objects or ideas are ordinary and can be treated with disregard or con-
tempt. Sacred things could include a God or gods, a natural phenomenon, an animal or many other
things. Religion, Durkheim concluded, was “a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred
things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden—beliefs and practices that unite, into one single
moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.”12 Once a person or a thing was des-
ignated as sacred, Durkheim believed that celebrating it through ritual was a powerful way to unite
communities around shared values.13 In addition, celebrating the sacred can create an intense emo-
tional experience Durkheim referred to as collective effervescence, a passion or energy that arises
when groups of people share the same thoughts and emotions. The experience of collective efferves-
cence magnifies the emotional impact of an event and can create a sense of awe or wonder.14
Following Durkheim, many anthropologists, including Dame Mary Douglas, have found it useful to
explore the ways in which definitions of sacred and profane structure religious beliefs. In her book
Purity and Danger (1966), Douglas analyzed the way in which cultural ideas about things that were
“dirty” or “impure” influenced religious beliefs. The kosher dietary rules observed by Jews were one
prominent example of the application of this kind of thinking.15
The philosopher and historian Karl Marx famously called religion “the opium of the people.”16 He
viewed religion as an ideology, a way of thinking that attempts to justify inequalities in power and sta-
tus. In his view, religion created an illusion of happiness that helped people cope with the economic
difficulties of life under capitalism. As an institution, Marx believed that the Christian church helped to
legitimize and support the political and economic inequality of the working class by encouraging ordi-
nary people to orient themselves toward the afterlife, where they could expect to receive comfort and
happiness. He argued that the obedience and conformity advocated by religious leaders as a means of
reaching heaven also persuaded people not to fight for better economic or social conditions in their cur-
rent lives. Numerous examples of the use of religion to legitimize or justify power differences have been
documented cross-culturally including the existence of divine rulers, who were believed to be empow-
ered by the Gods themselves, in ancient Egyptian and Incan societies. A glimpse of the legitimizing role
of religion is also seen in the U.S. practice of having elected officials take an oath of office using the
Bible or another holy book.
The psychologist Sigmund Freud believed that religion is the institution that prevents us from acting
upon our deepest and most awful desires. One of his most famous examples is the Oedipal complex,
the story of Oedipus who (unknowingly) had a sexual relationship with his mother and, once he discov-
ered this, ripped out his own eyes in a violent and gory death. One possible interpretation of this story
is that there is an unconscious sexual desire among males for their mothers and among females their
fathers. These desires can never be acknowledged, let alone acted on, because of the damage they would
cause to society.17 In one of his most well-known works, Totem and Taboo, Freud proposes that religious
beliefs provide rules or restrictions that keep the worst anti-social instincts, like the Oedipal complex,
suppressed. He developed the idea of “totemic religions,” belief systems based on the worship of a par-
ticular animal or object, and suggested that the purpose of these religions was to regulate interactions
with socially significant and potentially disruptive objects and relationships.18
One interesting interpretation of religious beliefs that builds on the work of Durkheim, Marx, and
Freud is Marvin Harris’ analysis of the Hindu prohibition against killing cows. In Hinduism, the cow
is honored and treated with respect because of its fertility, gentle nature, and association with some
Hindu deities. In his book Cow, Pigs, Wars, and Witches (1974), Harris suggested that these religious ideas
about the cow were actually based in an economic reality. In India, cows are more valuable alive as a
source of milk or for doing work in the fields than they are dead as meat. For this reason, he argued,
cows were defined as sacred and set apart from other kinds of animals that could be killed and eaten.
The subsequent development of religious explanations for cows’ specialness reinforced and legitimated
the special treatment.19
A symbolic approach to the study of religion developed in the mid-twentieth century and presented
new ways of analyzing supernatural beliefs. Clifford Geertz, one of the anthropologists responsible for
creating the symbolic approach, defined religion as “a system of symbols which acts to establish pow-
erful, persuasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations…. 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.”20 Geertz suggested that religious practices were a way to enact or
290 PERSPECTIVES: AN OPEN INTRODUCTION TO CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY
make visible important cultural ideas. The symbols used in any religion, such as a cross or even a cow,
can be interpreted or “read” by anthropologists to discern important cultural values. At the same time,
religious symbols reinforce values or aspirations in members of the religious community. The Christ-
ian cross, which is associated with both death and resurrection, demonstrates ideas about sacrifice and
putting the needs of others in the community first. The cross also symbolizes deeper ideas about the
nature of life itself: that suffering can have positive outcomes and that there is something beyond the
A symbolic approach to religion treats religious beliefs as a kind of “text” or “performance” that can
be interpreted by outsiders. Like the other theories described in this section, symbolic approaches pre-
sent some risk of misinterpretation. Religious beliefs involve complex combinations of personal and
social values as well as embodied or visceral feelings that cannot always be appreciated or even recog-
nized by outsiders. The persistently large gap between emic (insider) and etic (outsider) explanations for
religious beliefs and practices makes the study of religion one of the most challenging topics in cultural
ELEMENTS OF RELIGION Despite the wide variety of supernatural beliefs found in cultures around the world, most belief sys-
tems do share some common elements. The first of these characteristic is cosmology, an explanation
for the origin or history of the world. Religious cosmologies provide “big picture” explanations for how
human life was created and provide a perspective on the forces or powers at work in the world. A sec-
ond characteristic of religion is a belief in the supernatural, a realm beyond direct human experience.
This belief could include a God or gods, but this is not a requirement. Quite a few religious beliefs,
as discussed below, involve more abstract ideas about supernatural forces. Most religions also share a
third characteristic: rules governing behavior. These rules define proper conduct for individuals and
for society as a whole and are oriented toward bringing individual actions into harmony with spiritual
beliefs. A fourth element is ritual, practices or ceremonies that serve a religious purpose and are usu-
ally supervised by religious specialists. Rituals may be oriented toward the supernatural, such as rituals
designed to please the gods, but at the same time they address the needs of individuals or the commu-
nity as a whole. Funeral rituals, for instance, may be designed to ensure the passage of a deceased person
to the afterlife, but also simultaneously provide emotional comfort to those who are grieving and pro-
vide an outlet for the community to express care and support.
Religious Cosmologies Religious cosmologies are ways of explaining the origin of the universe and the principles or “order”
that governs reality. In its simplest form, a cosmology can be an origin story, an explanation for the his-
tory, present state, and possible futures of the world and the origins of the people, spirits, divinities, and
forces that populate it. The ancient Greeks had an origin story that began with an act of creation from
Chaos, the first thing to exist. The deities Erebus, representing darkness, and Nyx, representing night,
were born from Chaos. Nyx gave birth to Aether (light) and Hemera (day). Hemera and Nyx took turns
exiting the underworld, creating the phenomenon of day and night. Aether and Hemera next created
Gaia (Earth), the mother of all life, who gave birth to the sky, the mountains, the sea, and eventually to a
pantheon of gods. One of these gods, Prometheus, shaped humans out of mud and gave them the gift of
fire. This origin story reflects many significant cultural ideas. One of these is the depiction of a world
organized into a hierarchy with gods at the top and humans obligated to honor them.
Traditional Navajo origin stories provide a different view of the organization of the universe. These
stories suggested that the world is a set of fourteen stacked “plates” or “platters.” Creation began at
the lowest levels and gradually spread to the top. The lower levels contained animals like insects as
well as animal-people and bird-people who lived in their own fully-formed worlds with distinct cul-
tures and societies. At the top level, First Man and First Woman eventually emerged and began making
preparations for other humans, creating a sweat lodge, hoghan (traditional house), and preparing sacred
medicine bundles. During a special ceremony, the first human men and women were formed and they
created those who followed.21 Like the Greek origin story, the Navajo cosmology explains human iden-
tity and emphasizes the debt humans owe to their supernatural ancestors.
The first two chapters of the Biblical Book of Genesis, which is the foundation for both Judaism and
Christianity, describe the creation of the world and all living creatures. The exact words vary in dif-
ferent translations, but describe a God responsible for creating the world and everything in it: “In the
beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” The six-day process began with the division of light
from darkness, land from water, and heaven from earth. On the fifth day, “God created the great sea
monsters and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarmed after their kind, and
every winged bird after its kind; and God saw that it was good.”22 On the sixth day, “God created man in
His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.”23 This cosmol-
ogy differs from the others in describing an act of creation by a single deity, God, but shares with the
Greek and Navajo versions a description of creation that emphasizes the relationship between people
and their creator.
Reading these cosmologies also raises the question of how they should be interpreted. Are these
origin stories regarded as literal truth in the cultures in which they originated? Or, are the stories
metaphorical and symbolic? There is no simple answer to this question. Within any culture, individuals
may disagree about the nature of their own religious traditions. Christians, for instance, differ in the
extent to which they view the contents of the Bible as fact. Cultural relativism requires that anthropol-
ogists avoid making judgments about whether any cultural idea, including religious beliefs, is “correct”
or “true.” Instead, a more useful approach is to try to understand the multiple ways people interpret or
make sense of their religious beliefs. In addition it is important to consider the function a religious cos-
mology has in the wider society. As Bronislaw Malinowski observed, a myth or origin story is not an
“idle tale, but a hard-worked active force.”24
Belief in the Supernatural Another characteristic shared by most religions is a concept of the supernatural, spirits, divinities, or
forces not governed by natural laws. The supernatural can take many forms. Some supernatural entities
are anthropomorphic, having human characteristics. Other supernatural forces are more generalized,
seen in phenomena like the power of the wind. The amount of involvement that supernatural forces or
entities have in the lives of humans varies cross-culturally.
Many cultures are organized around belief in an impersonal supernatural force, a type of religion
known as animatism. The idea of mana is one example. The word itself comes from Oceania and may
originally have meant “powerful wind,” “lightning” or “storm.” Today, it still refers to power, but in a
more general sense. Aram Oroi, a pastor from the Solomon Islands, has compared mana to turning on
292 PERSPECTIVES: AN OPEN INTRODUCTION TO CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY
a flashlight: “You sense something powerful but unseen, and then—click—its power is made manifest in
the world.”25 Traditionally, the ability to accumulate mana in certain locations, or in one’s own body,
was to become potent or successful.26 Certain locations such as mountains or ancient sites (marae) have
particularly strong mana. Likewise, individual behaviors, including sexual or violent acts, were tradi-
tionally viewed as ways to accumulate mana for oneself.
Interestingly, the idea of mana has spread far beyond its original cultural context. In 1993, Richard
Garfield incorporated the idea in the card game Magic: The Gathering. Players of the game, which
has sold millions of copies since its introduction, use mana as a source of power to battle wizards and
magical creatures. Mana is also a source of power in the immensely popular computer game World of
Warcraft.27 These examples do show cultural appropriation, the act of copying an idea from another
culture and in the process distorting its meaning. However, they also demonstrate how compelling
animist ideas about abstract supernatural power are across cultures. Another well-known example of
animatism in popular culture is “the Force” depicted in the George Lucas Star Wars films. The Force
is depicted as flowing through everything and is used by Luke Skywalker as a source of potency and
insight when he destroys the Death Star.
Figure 3: A spirit house in Thailand. The houses provide shelter for local spirits that could trouble humans if they become displeased.
The line between the natural and the supernatural can be blurry. Many people believe that humans
have a supernatural or spiritual element that coexists within their natural bodies. In Christianity, this
element is called the soul. In Hinduism, it is the atman.28 The Tausūg, a group who live in the Philip-
pines, believe that the soul has four parts: a transcendent soul that stays in the spiritual realm even when
a person is alive; a life-soul that is attached to the body, but can move through dreams; the breath, which
is always attached to the body, and the spirit-soul, which is like a person’s shadow.29
Many people believe that the spirit survives after an individual dies, sometimes remaining on Earth
and sometimes departing for a supernatural realm. Spirits, or “ghosts,” who remain on Earth may con-
tinue to play an active role in the lives of their families and communities. Some will be well-intentioned
and others will be malevolent. Almost universally, spirits of the deceased are assumed to be needy and
to make demands on the living. For this reason, many cultures have traditions for the veneration of
the dead, rituals intended to honor the deceased, or to win their favor or cooperation. When treated
properly, ancestor spirits can be messengers to gods, and can act on behalf of the living after receiving
prayers or requests. If they are displeased, ancestor spirits can become aggravated and wreak havoc on
the living through illness and suffering. To avoid these problems, offerings in the form of favorite foods,
drinks, and gifts are made to appease the spirits. In China, as well as in many other countries, filial
piety requires that the living continue to care for the ancestors. 30 In Madagascar, where bad luck and
misfortune can be attributed to spirits of the dead who believe they have been neglected, a body may be
repeatedly exhumed and shown respect by cleaning the bones.31
If humans contain a supernatural spirit, essence, or soul, it is logical to think that non-human entities
may have their own sparks of the divine. Religions based on the idea that plants, animals, inanimate
objects, and even natural phenomena like weather have a spiritual or supernatural element are called
animism. The first anthropological description of animism came from Sir Edward Burnett Tylor, who
believed it was the earliest type of religious practice to develop in human societies. 32 Tylor suggested
that ordinary parts of the human experience, such as dreaming, formed the basis for spiritual beliefs.
When people dream, they may perceive that they have traveled to another place, or may be able to com-
municate with deceased members of their families. This sense of altered consciousness gives rise to
ideas that the world is more than it seems. Tylor suggested that these experiences, combined with a
pressing need to answer questions about the meaning of life, were the basis for all religious systems.33
He also assumed that animist religions evolved into what he viewed as more sophisticated religious sys-
tems involving a God or gods.
Figure 4: The first torii at the entrance to Nikkō Tōshō-gū, Tochigi Prefecture, Japan.
Today, Tylor’s views about the evolution of religion are considered misguided. No belief system is
inherently more sophisticated than another. Several animist religions exist today and have millions of
adherents. One of the most well-known is Shintoism, the traditional religion of Japan. Shintoism rec-
ognizes spirits known as kami that exist in plants, animals, rocks, places and sometimes people. Certain
294 PERSPECTIVES: AN OPEN INTRODUCTION TO CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY
locations have particularly strong connections to the kami, including mountains, forests, waterfalls, and
shrines. Shinto shrines in Japan are marked by torii gates that mark the separation between ordinary
reality and sacred space (Figure 4).
The most powerful non-human spirits are gods, though in practice there is no universal definition of
a “god” that would be recognized by all people. In general, gods are extremely powerful and not part of
nature—not human, or animal. Despite their unnaturalness, many gods have personalities or qualities
that are recognizable and relatable to humans. They are often anthropomorphic, imagined in human
form, or zoomorphic, imagined in animal form. In some religions, gods interact directly with humans
while in others they are more remote.
Anthropologists categorize belief systems organized around a God or gods using the terms monothe-
ism and polytheism. Monotheistic religions recognize a single supreme God. The largest monotheistic
religions in the world today are Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. Together these religions have more
than 3.8 billion adherents worldwide.34 Polytheistic religions include several gods. Hinduism, one of
the world’s largest polytheistic religions with more than 1 billion practitioners, has a pantheon of deities
each with different capabilities and concerns.35
Rules of Behavior Religious beliefs are an important element of social control because these beliefs help to define
acceptable behaviors as well as punishments, including supernatural consequences, for misbehavior.
One well-known example are the ideas expressed in the Ten Commandments, which are incorporated
in the teachings of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism and prohibit behaviors such as theft, murder, adul-
tery, dishonesty, and jealousy while also emphasizing the need for honor and respect between people.
Behavior that violates the commandments brings both social disapproval from other members of the
religious community and potential punishment from God.
Buddhism, the world’s fourth largest religion, demonstrates the strong connection between spiritual
beliefs and rules for everyday behavior. Buddhists follow the teachings of Buddha, who was an ordinary
human who achieved wisdom through study and discipline. There is no God or gods in some forms of
Buddhism. Instead, individuals who practice Buddhism use techniques like meditation to achieve the
insight necessary to lead a meaningful life and ultimately, after many lifetimes, to achieve the goal of
nirvana, release from suffering.
Although Buddhism defies easy categorization into any anthropological category, there is an element
of animatism represented by karma, a moral force in the universe. Individual actions have effects on
one’s karma. Kindness toward others, for instance, yields positive karma while acts that are disapproved
in Buddhist teachings, such as killing an animal, create negative karma. The amount of positive karma a
person builds-up in a lifetime is important because it will determine how the individual will be reborn.
Reincarnation, the idea that a living being can begin another life in a new body after death, is a fea-
ture of several religions. In Buddhism, the form of a human’s reincarnation depends on the quality of
the karma developed during life. Rebirth in a human form is considered good fortune because humans
have the ability to control their own thoughts and behaviors. They can follow the Noble Eightfold Path,
rules based on the teachings of Buddha that emphasize the need for discipline, restraint, humility, and
kindness in every aspect of life. 36
Rituals and Religious Practitioners The most easily observed elements of any religious belief system are rituals. Victor Turner (1972)
defined ritual as “a stereotyped sequence of activities … performed in a sequestered place, and designed
to influence preternatural entities or forces on behalf of the actors’ goals and interests.”37 Rituals have a
concrete purpose or goal, such as a wedding ritual that results in a religiously sanctioned union between
people, but rituals are also symbolic. The objects and activities involved in rituals “stand in for” or mean
more than what they actually are. In a wedding ceremony in the United States, the white color of the
wedding dress is a traditional symbol of purity.
A large amount of anthropological research has focused on identifying and interpreting religious rit-
uals in a wide variety of communities. Although the details of these practices differ in various cultural
settings, it is possible to categorize them into types based on their goals. One type of ritual is a rite of
passage, a ceremony designed to transition individuals between life stages.38 A second type of ritual is
a rite of intensification, actions designed to bring a community together, often following a period of
crisis.39 Revitalization rituals, which also often follow periods of crisis in a community, are ambitious
attempts to resolve serious problems, such as war, famine, or poverty through a spiritual or supernat-
Rites of Passage
In his original description of rites of passage, Arnold Van Gennep (1909) noted that these rituals were
carried out in three distinct stages: separation, liminality, and incorporation. During the first stage,
individuals are removed from their current social identity and begin preparations to enter the next
stage of life. The liminal period that follows is a time in which individuals often undergo tests, trials, or
activities designed to prepare them for their new social roles. In the final stage of incorporation, indi-
viduals return to the community with a new socially recognized status. 41
Rites of passage that transition children into a new status as adults are common around the world. In
Xhosa communities in South Africa, teenage boys were traditionally transitioned to manhood using a
series of acts that moved them through each of the three ritual stages. In the separation stage, the boys
leave their homes and are circumcised; they cannot express distress or signs of pain during the proce-
dure. Following the circumcision, they live in isolation while their wounds heal, a liminal phase during
which they do not talk to anyone other than boys who are also undergoing the rite of passage. This
stressful time helps to build bonds between the boys that will follow them through their lives as adult
men. Before their journey home, the isolated living quarters are burned to the ground, symbolizing the
loss of childhood. When the participants return to their community, the incorporation phase, they are
recognized as men and allowed to learn the secret stories of the community.42
Rites of Intensification
296 PERSPECTIVES: AN OPEN INTRODUCTION TO CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY
Figure 5: Land Diving on Pentecost Island, Vanuatu.
Rites of intensification are also extremely common in communities worldwide. These rituals are used
to bind members of the community together, to create a sense of communitas or unity that encourages
people to see themselves as members of community. One particularly dramatic example of this ritual
is the Nagol land diving ceremony held each spring on the island of Pentecost in Vanuatu in the South
Pacific. Like many rituals, land diving has several goals. One of these is to help ensure a good harvest by
impressing the spirits with a dramatic display of bravery. To accomplish this, men from the community
construct wooden towers sixty to eighty feet high, tie ropes made from tree vines around their ankles,
and jump head-first toward the ground (Figure 5). Preparations for the land diving involve almost every
member of the community. Men spend a month or more working together to build the tower and col-
lect the vines. The women of the community prepare special costumes and dances for the occasion and
everyone takes care of land divers who may be injured during the dive. Both the preparations for the
land diving and the festivities that follow are a powerful rite of intensification. Interestingly, the ritual
is simultaneously a rite of passage; boys can be recognized as men by jumping from high portions of the
tower witnessed by elders of the community.43
Rites of Revitalization
All rites of revitalization originate in difficult or even catastrophic circumstances. One notable exam-
ple is a ritual that developed on the island of Tanna in the South Pacific. During World War II, many
islands in the South Pacific were used by the U.S. military as temporary bases. Tanna was one of these
locations and this formerly isolated community experienced an extremely rapid transformation as the
U.S. military introduced modern conveniences such as electricity and automobiles. In an attempt to
make sense of these developments, the island’s residents developed a variety of theories about the rea-
son for these changes. One possible explanation was that the foreign materials had been given to the
islanders by a powerful deity or ancestral spirit, an entity who eventually acquired the name John Frum.
The name may be based on a common name the islanders would have encountered while the military
base was in operation: “John from America.”
When the war ended and the U.S. military departed, the residents of Tanna experienced a kind of
trauma as the material goods they had enjoyed disappeared and the John Frum ritual began. Each year
on February fifteenth, many of the island’s residents construct copies of U.S. airplanes, runways, or tow-
ers and march in military formation with replicas of military rifles and American blue jeans. The rit-
ual is intended to attract John Frum, and the material wealth he controls, back to the island. Although
the ritual has not yet had its intended transformative effect, the participants continue the ritual. When
asked to explain his continued faith, one village elder explained: “You Christians have been waiting
2,000 years for Jesus to return to Earth, and you haven’t given up hope.”44 This John Frum custom is
sometimes called a cargo cult, a term used to describe rituals that seek to attract material prosperity.
Although the John Frum ritual is focused on commodities, or “cargo,” the term cargo cult is generally
not preferred by anthropologists because it oversimplifies the complex motivations involved in the rit-
ual. The word “cult” also has connotations with fringe or dangerous beliefs and this association also
distorts understanding of the practice.
Since rituals can be extremely complicated and the outcome is of vital importance to the community,
specialist practitioners are often charged with responsibility for supervising the details. In many set-
tings, religious specialists have a high social status and are treated with great respect. Some may become
relatively wealthy by charging for their services while others may be impoverished, sometimes deliber-
ately as a rejection of the material world. There is no universal terminology for religious practitioners,
but there are three important categories: priests, prophets, and shamans.
Priests, who may be of any gender, are full-time religious practitioners. The position of priest
emerges only in societies with substantial occupational specialization. Priests are the intermediaries
between God (or the gods) and humans. Religious traditions vary in terms of the qualifications required
for individuals entering the priesthood. In Christian traditions, it is common for priests to complete
a program of formal higher education. Hindu priests, known as pujari, must learn the sacred language
Sanskrit and spend many years becoming proficient in Hindu ceremonies. They must also follow strict
lifestyle restrictions such as a vegetarian diet. Traditionally, only men from the Brahmin caste were eli-
gible to become pujari, but this is changing. Today, people from other castes, as well as women, are
joining the priesthood. One notable feature of societies that utilize full-time spiritual practitioners is a
separation between ordinary believers and the God or gods. As intermediaries, priests have substantial
authority to set the rules associated with worship practice and to control access to religious rites.45
The term shaman has been used for hundreds of years to refer to a part time religious practitioner.
Shamans carry out religious rituals when needed, but also participate in the normal work of the com-
munity. A shaman’s religious practice depends on an ability to engage in direct communication with the
spirits, gods, or supernatural realm. An important quality of a shaman is the ability to transcend normal
reality in order to communicate with and perhaps even manipulate supernatural forces in an alternate
world. This ability can be inherited or learned.46 Transcending from the ordinary to the spiritual realm
gives shamans the ability to do many things such as locate lost people or animals or heal the sick by
identifying the spiritual cause of illness.
Among the Chukchi, who live in northern Russia, the role of the shaman is thought to be a special
calling, one that may be especially appropriate for people whose personality traits seem abnormal in
the context of the community. Young people who suffer from nervousness, anxiety, or moodiness, for
example may feel a call to take up shamanistic practice.47 There has been some research suggesting that
shamanism may be a culturally accepted way to deal with conditions like schizophrenia.48 If true, this
might be because achieving an altered state of consciousness is essential for shamanic work. Entering an
altered state, which can be achieved through dreams, hallucinogenic drugs, rhythmic music, exhaustion
through dance, or other means, makes it possible for shamans to directly engage with the supernatural
298 PERSPECTIVES: AN OPEN INTRODUCTION TO CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY
Shamans of the upper Amazon in South America have been using ayahuasca, a drink made from plants
that have hallucinogenic effects, for centuries. The effects of ayahuasca start with the nervous system:
One under the control of the narcotic sees unroll before him quite a spectacle: most lovely landscapes,
monstrous animals, vipers which approach and wind down his body or are entwined like rolls of thick
cable, at a few centimeters distance; as well, one sees who are true friends and those who betray him or
who have done him ill; he observes the cause of the illness which he sustains, at the same time being pre-
sented with the most advantageous remedy; he takes part in fantastic hunts; the things which he most
dearly loves or abhors acquire in these moments extraordinary vividness and color, and the scenes in
which his life normally develop adopt the most beautiful and emotional expression.49
Among the Shipibo people of Peru, ayahuasca is thought to be the substance that allows the soul of
a shaman to leave his body in order to retrieve a soul that has been lost or stolen. In many cultures,
soul loss is the predominant explanation for illness. The Shipibo believe that the soul is a separate entity
from the body, one that is capable of leaving and returning at will. Shamans can also steal souls. The
community shaman, under the influence of ayahuasca, is able to find and retrieve a soul, perhaps even
killing the enemy as revenge.50
Anthropologist Scott Hutson (2000) has described similarities between the altered state of conscious-
ness achieved by shamans and the mental states induced during a rave, a large dance party characterized
by loud music with repetitive patterns. In a rave, bright lights, exhausting dance, and sometimes the
use of hallucinogenic drugs, induce similar psychological effects to shamanic trancing. Hutson argues
that through the rave individuals are able to enter altered states of consciousness characterized by a
“self-forgetfulness” and an ability to transcend the ordinary self. The DJ at these events is often called a
“techno-shaman,” an interesting allusion to the guiding role traditional shamans play in their cultures.51
A prophet is a person who claims to have direct communication with the supernatural realm and who
can communicate divine messages to others. Many religious communities originated with prophecies,
including Islam which is based on teachings revealed to the prophet Muhammad by God. In Christian-
ity and Judaism, Moses is an example of a prophet who received direct revelations from God. Another
example of a historically significant prophet is Joseph Smith who founded the Church of Latter Day
Saints, after receiving a prophecy from an angel named Moroni who guided him to the location of a
buried set of golden plates. The information from the golden plates became the basis for the Book of
The major distinction between a priest and the prophet is the source of their authority. A priest gets
his or her authority from the scripture and occupational position in a formally organized religious insti-
tution. A prophet derives authority from his or her direct connection to the divine and ability to con-
vince others of his or her legitimacy through charisma. The kind of insight and guidance prophets offer
can be extremely compelling, particularly in times of social upheaval or suffering.
One prophet who had enormous influence was David Koresh, the leader of the Branch Davidians, a
schism of the Seventh Day Adventist Church. The Branch Davidians were millenarians, people who
believe that major transformations of the world are imminent. David Koresh was extremely charis-
matic; he was handsome and an eloquent speaker. He offered refuge and solace to people in need and in
the process he preached about the coming of an apocalypse, which he believed would be caused by the
intrusion of the United States government on the Branch Davidian’s lifestyle. Koresh was so influential
that when the United States government did eventually try to enter the Branch Davidian compound in
Waco, Texas in 1993 to search for illegal weapons, members of the group resisted and exchanged gunfire
with federal agents. Eventually, under circumstances that are still disputed, a fire erupted in the com-
pound and eighty-six people, including Koresh, were killed.52 Ultimately, the U.S. government helped
to fulfill the apocalyptic vision of the group and David Koresh became a martyr. The Branch Davidians
evolved into a new group, “Branch, Lord our Righteousness,” and today many await Koresh’s return.53
CONCLUSION Religion is of central importance to the lives of people in the majority of the world’s cultures; more
than eight-in-ten people worldwide identify with a religious group.54 However, it is also true that the
number of people who say that they have no religious affiliation is growing. There are now about
as many people in the world who consider themselves religiously “unaffiliated” as there are Roman
Catholics.55 This is an important reminder that religions, like culture itself, are highly dynamic and
subject to constant changes in interpretation and allegiance. Anthropology offers a unique perspective
for the study of religious beliefs, the way people think about the supernatural, and how the values and
behaviors these beliefs inspire contribute to the lives of individuals and communities. No single set of
theories or vocabulary can completely capture the richness of the religious diversity that exists in the
world today, but cultural anthropology provides a toolkit for understanding the emotional, social, and
spiritual contributions that religion makes to the human experience.
Discussion Questions Discussion Questions
1. This chapter describes theories about religion developed by Durkheim, Marx, and Freud. What are the strengths and weaknesses of each theory? Which theory would be the most useful if you were attempting to learn about the religious beliefs of another cul- ture?
2. Rites of passage and rites of intensification are an important part of many religious traditions, but these same rituals also exist in secular (non-religious) contexts. What are some examples of these rituals in your own community? What role do these rituals play in bringing people together?
3. Durkheim argued that a distinction between the sacred and the profane was a key characteristic of religion. Thinking about your own culture, what are some examples of ideas or objects that are considered “sacred”? What are the rules concerning how these objects or ideas should be treated? What are the penalties for people who do not follow these rules?
Animatism: a religious system organized around a belief in an impersonal supernatural force.
Animism: a religious system organized around a belief that plants, animals, inanimate objects, or nat-
ural phenomena have a spiritual or supernatural element.
Anthropomorphic: an object or being that has human characteristics.
Cargo cult: a term sometimes used to describe rituals that seek to attract material prosperity. The term
is generally not preferred by anthropologists.
Collective effervescence: the passion or energy that arises when groups of people share the same
thoughts and emotions.
Cosmology: an explanation for the origin or history of the world.
Cultural appropriation: the act of copying an idea from another culture and in the process distorting
Filial piety: a tradition requiring that the young provide care for the elderly and in some cases ancestral
300 PERSPECTIVES: AN OPEN INTRODUCTION TO CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY
Magic: practices intended to bring supernatural forces under one’s personal control.
Millenarians: people who believe that major transformations of the world are imminent.
Monotheistic: religious systems that recognize a single supreme God.
Polytheistic: religious systems that recognize several gods.
Priests: full-time religious practitioners.
Profane: objects or ideas are ordinary and can be treated with disregard or contempt.
Prophet: a person who claims to have direct communication with the supernatural realm and who can
communicate divine messages to others.
Reincarnation: the idea that a living being can begin another life in a new body after death.
Religion: the extension of human society and culture to include the supernatural.
Revitalization rituals: attempts to resolve serious problems, such as war, famine or poverty through a
spiritual or supernatural intervention.
Rite of intensification: actions designed to bring a community together, often following a period of
Rite of passage: a ceremony designed to transition individuals between life stages.
Sacred: objects or ideas are set apart from the ordinary and treated with great respect or care.
Shaman: a part time religious practitioner who carries out religious rituals when needed, but also par-
ticipates in the normal work of the community.
Sorcerer: an individual who seeks to use magic for his or her own purposes.
Supernatural: describes entities or forces not governed by natural laws.
Zoomorphic: an object or being that has animal characteristics.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sashur Henninger-Rener is an anthropologist with research in the fields of comparative religion and
psychological anthropology. She received a Master of Arts from Columbia University in the City of
New York in Anthropology and has since been researching and teaching. Currently, Sashur is an
instructor at Pasadena City College teaching Cultural and Biological Anthropology. In her free time,
Sashur enjoys traveling the world, visiting archaeological and cultural sites along the way. She and her
husband are actively involved in animal rescuing, hoping to eventually found their own animal rescue
for animals that are waiting to find homes.
1. See Jean Clottes, Cave Art (London: Phaidon, 2010)
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Upper Paleolithic” Current Anthropology 41 n. 4 (2000):511-537.
3. James Frazer, The Golden Bough (New York: Macmillan and Company, 1958),vii.
4. Edward B. Tylor, Primitive Culture (London: John Murray, 1871).
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6. Jack David Eller, Introducing Anthropology of Religion (New York: Routledge, 2007), 9.
8. Marcel Mauss, A General Theory of Magic (London, Routledge, 1972), 24.
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McGraw Hill, 1955).
11. George Gmelch, “Baseball Magic” Transaction 8(1971): 39-41.
12. Emile Durkheim, Elementary Forms of Religious Life (New York: The Free Press, 1912).
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Forge Press, 2005).
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Islands” (paper presented at the Australia and New Zealand Association of Theological Schools Conference held
in Auckland, June/July 2013). His work is cited in Alex Golub, “The History of Mana: How an Austronesian
Concept Became a Video Game Mechanic” The Appendix 2 no. 2 (2014) http://theappendix.net/issues/2014/4/
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27. Alex Golub, “The History of Mana.”
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30. Charles Ikels, Filial Piety: Practice and Discourse in Contemporary East Asia (Stanford: Stanford University Press,
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32. Edward B. Tylor, Primitive Culture.
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34. Pew Research Center, “The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010-2050,” April 2,
35. The characterization of Hinduism as polytheistic is contested. The deities in Hinduism can be viewed as a mani-
festation of Brahman, the most significant supernatural force.
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Africa: An Encyclopedia (Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 2012).
302 PERSPECTIVES: AN OPEN INTRODUCTION TO CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY
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Spectacular Ritualizations in Vanuatu” Oceania 80 no. 3 (2010): 309–329.
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46. Piers Vitebsky, “Shamanism,” Indigenous Religions: A Companion, ed. Graham Harvey(New York: Bloomsbury Aca-
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48. Rick Strassman, DMT: The Spirit Molecule (South Paris, ME: Park Street Press, 2000).
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50. Robert L. Carneiro, “The Amahuaca and the Spirit World” Ethnology 3(1964): 6-11.
51. Scott R. Hutson, “The Rave: Spiritual Healing in Modern Western Subcultures,” Anthropological Quarterly
52. Kenneth G.C. Newport, The Branch Davidians of Waco: The History and Beliefs of an Apocalyptic Movement (London:
Oxford University Press, 2006).
53. John Burnett, “Two Decades Later: Some Branch Davidians Still Believe,” National Public Radio
54. Pew Research Center, “The Global Religious Landscape,” December 18, 2012. http://www.pewforum.org/2012/
- DEFINING RELIGION
- THEORIES OF RELIGION
- ELEMENTS OF RELIGION
- Religious Cosmologies
- Belief in the Supernatural
- Rules of Behavior
- Rituals and Religious Practitioners
- DISCUSSION QUESTIONS
- ABOUT THE AUTHOR