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Anthropology and Religion

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Anthropology and Religion

Religion is define as any set of attitudes, beliefs, and practices pertaining to supernatural power, whether that power be forces, gods, spirits, ghosts, or demons. In our society, we divide phenomena into the natural and the supernatural, but not all languages or cultures make such a neat distinction. Moreover, what is considered supernatural – powers believed to be not human or not subject to the laws of nature – varies from society to society. Some of the variations are determined by what a society regards as natural.

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For example, some illnesses commonly found in our society are believed to result from natural action of bacteria and viruses. In other societies and even among some people in our own society, illness is thought to result from supernatural forces, and thus it forms a part of religious belief (Ember, 1997:481).

In many cultures, what we would consider religious is embedded in other aspects of everyday life. That is, it is often difficult to separate the religious or economic or political from other aspects of culture.

Such cultures have little or no specialization of any kind; there are no full-time priests, no purely religious activities. So the various aspects of culture we distinguish are not separate and easily recognized in many societies, as they are in complex societies such as our own. However, it is sometimes difficult even for us to agree whether a particular custom of ours is religious or not (Ember, 1997:484).

Whatever the beliefs or rituals, religion may satisfy psychological needs common to all people, social scientists believe that religion springs from society and serves social rather than psychological needs. Durkheim pointed out that living in society makes human feel pushed and pulled by powerful forces. There forces direct their behavior, pushing them to do what is considered right. These are the forces of public opinion, custom, and law. Because they are largely invisible and unexplained, people would feel them as mysterious forces and therefore come to believe in gods and spirits. He also suggested that religion arises out of the experience of living in social groups; religious belief and practice affirm a person’s place in society, enhance feelings of community, and give people confidence. Durkheim proposed that society is really the object of worship in religion (Mc Gee, 2000:97).

Guy Swanson on the other hand, suggested that the belief in spirits derives from the existences of sovereign groups in a society. These are the groups that have independent jurisdiction or decision-making powers over some sphere of life – the family, the clan, the village, the state. Such groups are not mortal, they persist beyond the lifetime of their individual members. According to him, the spirits or gods that people invent personify or represent the powerful decision-making groups in their community and/or society. Just like sovereign groups in a society, the spirits or gods are immortal and have purposes and goals that supersede those of an individual (Mc Gee, 2000:101).

Following Malinowski, many anthropologists take the view that religions are adaptive because they reduce the anxieties and uncertainties that afflict all people. We do not really know that religion is the only means of reducing anxiety and uncertainty, or even that individuals or societies have to reduce their anxiety and uncertainty. Still, it seems likely that certain religious beliefs and practices have directly adaptive consequences.

For example, the Hindu belief in the sacred cow has seemed to many to be the very opposite of a useful or adaptive custom. Their religion does not permit Hindus to slaughter cows. Marvin Harris suggested that the Hindu use of cows may have beneficial consequences that some other use of cows would not have. Harris pointed out that there may be a sound economic reason for not slaughtering cattle in India. The cows and the males they produce provide resources that could not easily be provided otherwise. At the same time, their wandering around to forage is no strain on the food-producing economy (Harris, 1974:25).

According to Edward Tylor, religion originated in peoples speculation about dreams, trances and death. The dead, the distant, those in the next house, animals – all seem real in dreams and trances. Tylor thought that the lifelike appearances of these imagined persons and animals suggests a dual existence for all things – a physical, visible body and a psychic, invisible soul. In sleep, the soul can leave the body and appear to other people; at death, the soul permanently leaves the body. Because the dead appear in dreams, people come to believe that the souls of the dead are still around. He believed that the belief in soul was the earliest form of religion – he referred to this belief in soul as animism.

On the other hand, according to Marx and Barkow, religion reinforces the position of the elites. Marx believed that it was a tool of domination and therefore a ‘slave religion’. He emphasized that any belief system that teaches acceptance and forbearance such as Christianity or religion per se pointed out that in order to achieve supernatural reward after death may be in effect supporting existing inequalities. Hinduism, for example which held belief in transmigration of the soul and accumulated karmic burden, also potentially serves to support existing political system. Religion, may succeed in spreading the belief that they are morally superior or even supernaturally more powerful than are those who rule.

The long history of religion includes periods of strong resistance to change as well as periods of radical change. Anthropologists have been especially interested in the founding of new religions or sects. The appearance of new religions is one of the things that may happen when cultures are disrupted by contact with dominant societies. Various terms have been suggested for these religious movements – cargo cults, nativistic movements, messianic movements, millenarian cults. Wallace suggested that they are all examples of revitalization movements, efforts to save a culture by infusing it with a new purpose and new life.

Beliefs are not only the elements of religions that vary from society to society. There is also variation in how people interact with the supernatural. The manner of approach to the supernatural varies from supplication, requests, prayers, etc. to manipulation. And societies vary in the kinds of religious practitioners they have. Wallace identified a number of ways used by people the world over, though not necessarily all together, including; prayer, physiological experience, simulation, feasts and sacrifices. Prayers can be spontaneous or memorized, private or public, silent or spoken. The Lugbars do not say the words or a prayer aloud, for doing so would be too powerful; they simply think about the things that are bothering them. The gods knows all languages. Furthermore, possession trances are especially likely in societies that depend on agriculture and have social stratification, slavery, and more complex political hierarchies. Non-possession trances are most likely to occur in food-collecting societies. Societies with moderate levels of social complexity have both possession and non-possession.

Voodoo employs simulation, or the imitation of things. Dolls are made in the likeness of an enemy and then are maltreated in hopes that the original enemy will experience pain and even death. Simulation is often employed during divination, or getting the supernatural to provide guidance. Many people in our society have their fortunes read in crystal balls, tea leaves, Ouija boards, or cards. Or they many choose a course of action by a toss of a coin or a throw of dice. All are variations of method used in other cultures.

There are wide variations in religious beliefs. Societies vary in the number and kinds of supernatural entities in which they believe. There may be impersonal supernatural forces, supernatural beings of nonhuman origin and supernatural beings of human origin. The religious belief system of a society may include any or all such entities.

Faced with ignorance, pain and injustice people frequently explain events by claiming intervention by the gods. Such intervention has also been sought by people who hope it will help them achieve their own ends. The gods are likely to punish the immoral behaviors or people in societies that have considerable differences in wealth.

Reference Cited

Ember, M. and C. Ember. (1997). Anthropology. Upper Saddle, New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Harris, M. (1974). Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches: The Riddles of Culture. New York: Random House.

Mc Gee, R. (2000). Anthropological Theory: An Introductory History. Mountain View, California: Mayfield Publishing.

Cite this Anthropology and Religion

Anthropology and Religion. (2016, Jul 01). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/anthropology-and-religion/

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