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11.S: Conclusion and Exercises

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  • 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.


    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 culture?
    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 natural 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 its meaning.

    Filial piety: a tradition requiring that the young provide care for the elderly and in some cases ancestral spirits.

    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 crisis.

    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 participates 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.


    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 teaching with The University of LaVerne and the Los Angeles Community College District in the fields of 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)

    2. O. Soffer, J. M. Adovasio, and D. C. Hyland “The ‘Venus’ Figurines: Textiles, Basketry, Gender, and Status in the Upper Paleolithic” Current Anthropology 41 n. 4 (2000):511-537.

    3. James Frazer, The Golden Bough (New York: Macmillan and Company, 1958[1890]),vii.

    4. Edward B. Tylor, Primitive Culture (London: John Murray, 1871).

    5. Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, tr. Joseph R. Swain (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1965[1915]), 62.

    6. Jack David Eller, Introducing Anthropology of Religion (New York: Rouledge, 2007), 9.

    7. Ibid.

    8. Marcel Mauss, A General Theory of Magic (London, Routledge, 1972[1902]), 24.

    9. Bronislaw Malinowski, Culture (New York: MacMillan Publishing, 1931).

    10. Bronislaw Malinowski, “Rational Mastery by Man of his Surroundings,” in Magic, Science, & Religion (New York: 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).

    13. Ibid.

    14. Kenneth D. Allan, Explorations in Classic Sociological Theory: Seeing the Social World, (Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press, 2005).

    15. Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger (London: Routledge, 1966).

    16. Karl Marx, Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970[1844]).

    17. Charles Rycroft, A Critical Dictionary of Psychoanalysis (London: Puffin Press, 1995).

    18. Sigmund Freud, Totem and Taboo (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1950).

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

    20. Clifford Geertz, “Religion as a Cultural System,” in The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays, ed. Clifford Geertz, 87-125 (London: Fontana Press, 1993), 90-91.

    21. Sam D. Gill, Sacred Words: A Study of Navajo Religion and Prayer (Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing, 1981), 52.

    22. Gen. 1:21 NASB

    23. Gen. 1:27 NASB

    24. Bronislaw Malinowski, Magic, Science and Religion and Other Essays (Westport, CT Greenwood Press, 1984[1926]), 199

    25. The quote comes from Aram Oroi, “Press the button, mama!:”Mana and Christianity on Makira in the Solomon 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)

    26. Roger M. Keesing, “Rethinking ‘Mana’” Journal of Anthropological Research 40 no. 1 (1984):137-156.

    27. Alex Golub, “The History of Mana.”

    28. Jack David Eller, Introducing Anthropology of Religion.

    29. Thomas M. Kiefer, The Tausūg: Violence and Law in a Philippine Moslem Society (New York: Holt Rinehart, 1972).

    30. Charles Ikels, Filial Piety: Practice and Discourse in Contemporary East Asia (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004.)

    31. “Madagascar’s Dance with the Dead,” BBC,

    32. Edward B. Tylor, Primitive Culture.

    33. Edward B. Tylor, “The Limits of Savage Religion” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 21(1892): 283–301.

    34. Pew Research Center, “The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010-2050,” April 2, 2015

    35. The characterization of Hinduism as polytheistic is contested. The deities in Hinduism can be viewed as a manifestation of Brahman, the most significant supernatural force.

    36. Andrew Skilton, A Concise History of Buddhism (New York: Barnes and Noble Publishing, 2000).

    37. Victor Turner, “Symbols in African Ritual” Science 179 (1972): 1100-05.

    38. Arnold Van Gennep, The Rites of Passage (Hove, UK: Psychology Press, 1960).

    39. Eliot Dismore Chapple and Carleton Stevens Coon, Principles of Anthropology (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1953).

    40. Anthony F.C. Wallace, “Revitalization Movements” American Anthropologist 58 (1956): 264-281.

    41. Victor W. Turner, “Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in Rites de Passage,” The Proceedings of the New American Ethnological Society, 1964.

    42. Casey Golomski, “Rites of Passage: 1900’s to Present: Africa,” in Cultural Sociology of the Middle East, Asia, & Africa: An Encyclopedia (Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 2012).

    43. For more information see Marc Tabani, “The Carnival of Custom: Land Dives, Millenarian Parades and Other Spectacular Ritualizations in Vanuatu” Oceania 80 no. 3 (2010): 309–329.

    44. Paul Raffaele, “In John They Trust,” Smithsonian Magazine,

    45. Victor W. Turner, “Religious Specialists,” International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, 13(1972): 437-444.

    46. Piers Vitebsky, “Shamanism,” Indigenous Religions: A Companion, ed. Graham Harvey(New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2000).

    47. Waldemar G. Bogoras, The Chukchi of Northeastern Asia American Anthropologist 3 no. 1(1901):80-108.

    48. Rick Strassman, DMT: The Spirit Molecule (South Paris, ME: Park Street Press, 2000).

    49. Avencio Villarejo, Asi es la selva (Lima, Peru: Centro de Estudios Teologicos de la Amazonia, 1988).

    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 73(2000): 35-49.

    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.

    55. Ibid.