Anthropology and the Study of Religion


  • Describes the development of several Western approaches to studying religion, and show how these ultimately led to the anthropological perspective
  • Introduce the four-field approach of contemporary American anthropology, and demonstrate how each of these fields can contribute to an understanding of religiosity.
  • Introduce several core evolutionary principles, and consider how these can help us to comprehend the emergence of religiosity.
  • Describe the biocultural approach to the study of religiosity, and demonstrate how using both humanistic and scientific approaches can enable us to more accurately assess the manifestations of religiosity and the role these manifestations play in human life

  • Doesn’t religion cause most of the conflict in this world?

  • Religious wars

  • Cultural anthropology / Ritual and religion


  • Anthropology – The scholarly discipline that studies humans
  • Archaeology – The field of anthropology that reconstructs cultures of the past, primarily by studying the material evidence left by a culture
  • Behavioral component – Culture in action; culture as expressed through human activity
  • Bio cultural approach – An anthropological perspective which recognizes that humans are biological organisms whose primary means of adapting to their environment is culture
  • Biological anthropology – The field of anthropology that studies human evolution and variation
  • Cognates – Words that have similar sounds and meanings in different languages
  • Comparative – The use of descriptions of different cultures to determine the basic principles of culture
  • Cross-cultural – The comparative perspective of anthropology
  • Cultural anthropology – The field of anthropology that focuses on those aspects of human life that we learn from other members of our society and in turn pass on to others
  • We will never understand religion if we regard it as simply a belief systemspirits or issues of ultimate meaning,

Documentaries on religion:

  • Religulous – Bill Maher’s take on the current state of world religion

(Focuses on all and contrasts them all)

  • Girl Rising – Tells the stories of nine girls from different parts of the world who face arranged marriages 
  • Breaking Amish – Follows five young adults who find the courage to leave their restrictive Amish communities

(Culture change for these five individuals, as they leave their own religious community.)

  • Baraka – A collection of expertly photographed scenes of human life and religion
  • Channel 4’s The Family – Looks at different families in their household (How the documentary was made – lots of information on the channel 4 website. For example, the production house it was made in, putting in vide, microphones etc)

Documentaries in response to religion (conflicts, refugee etc)

  • 5 broken cameras – A documentary on a Palestinian farmer’s chronicle of his nonviolent resistance to the actions of the Israeli army
  • Until when – Set during the current Intifada, this documentary follows four Palestinian families living in Dheisheh Refugee Camp near Bethlehem.
  • Death in Gaza – The harrowing documentary that portrays the horror of the Israeli conflict and the resulting death of its director, James Miller
  • Budrus – Follows a Palestinian who unites Fatah, Hamas and Israelies in an unarmed movement to save his village from destruction.

Many anthropologists travel to other countries to learn about such aspects of cultural life as family structures, political organisations, economic systems, the settling of disputes and religion.

In practice, most anthropologists focus on just one or a few aspects of what it means to be human. But they also integrate other perspectives into their work. They may make use of cultural, archaeological, linguistic, or biological data, and they also draw upon insights from other disciplines.


While all cultures have religion, the behaviours these religions justify are astonishingly diverse and seem to challenge the notion that there could be any elements common to every religion.

Religion has effects on many aspects of our lives, including the personal, the social, the political, the economic and even the artistic and the culinary.

Religions can induce people to lead better lives, and they can also inspire their followers to disobey laws, deny medical care to their own children, and even commit suicide and murder.

Religions influence healing practices, define families, and shape political policies. They have provided the rationales for war and have given birth to international peace movements.

Some of the greatest art and literature in history have been motivated by religion, and some of the most terrible deeds that humans have ever done have been justified by religion. The effects of religion are so extensive that some scholars regard religion as the very foundation of culture.

How is religion able to exert such a wide range of influences on peoples and cultures? Perhaps the easiest and most obvious answer is that religion deals with essential issues such as right and wrong, life and death.

We will never understand religion if we regard it as simply a belief system about spirits or issues of ultimate meaning, as just a mechanism of social control, or as a means to allay fear


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