Towards an anthropological definition of religion

Religion has already for a long period been a topic of anthropological study. It is sir Edward Burnett Tylor (1832 - 1917), who is considered as the founding father of the anthropological study of religion. He saw religion as a way to understand the unexplainable (Kottak 260). Nowadays the phenomena religion is seen as a cultural universal (van Beek 1982: 3)(Kottak: 260)(Morris: 1). But the concept religion certainly is not. In the nineteenth century French encyclopaedists introduced the concept, that etymological can be traced back to the Latin `religare´, meaning to tie back (Encarta World English Dictionary 1999: 1587). The anthropologist, in contrast with for instance theologians, do not ask whether there is divine truth in religion, but looks at the content of the religion (van Baal & van Beek 1985: 1). The view on religion is very well typified by the definitions used for the concept. Max Weber refused to define religion (Morris: 69) and that might indeed be the wisest thing to do. But I will take the risk of burning my fingers by looking at some anthropological definitions. 

In classical anthropology the definitions tend to focus on religion in `traditional´ societies. In this they put emphasis on the interaction with supernatural entities (Spiro 96)(van Beek)(Kottak). Although subject of debate, religion in my view is very well possible without any supernatural beings, as Durkheim has debated in the case of Buddhism. The most important point of Durkheim is that religion can be seen as something sacred or as he puts it:


a unified set of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden, - beliefs and practices which unite [into] one single moral community, all those who adhere to them (Durkheim [1915] 1964: 37 cited in Morris 1987).


What also is worth noting is that he takes religion as being both believe and practice. Furthermore Durkheim sees religion specific as something collective, while magic would be typified by individual practice. With his emphasis on a community as the basis of religion, that what often is referred to as shamanism would for instance not be considered a religion .


Another definition is by Clifford Geertz. He defines religion as 


(1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic (Geertz 1985: 4).


A little remark I can not keep to myself is that implicitly Geertz suggest that the religious experience is not true (an aura of factuality, it seems to be realistic), while in my view anthropologists shouldn't do any pronouncement about its truth, but need to be able to see it as the truth of the people studied. Like Durkheim who states: All [religions] are true in their own fashion. It is the task of the anthropologist to understand these fashions. Van Baal & van Beek add as a critical point to Geertz´ definition that it lacks specificity. It wouldn't contain a `directly observable, formal characteristic which is universally applicable as a means of identifying the religious´ (van Baal & van Beek 1985: 3) So it doesn't leave the anthropologist much to study, as I would interpret it. Hereafter they define religion themselves as:


all explicit and implicit notions and ideas, accepted as true, which relate to a reality which cannot be verified empirically (van Baal & van Beek 1985: 3)


So I must have misinterpreted their critics because here Geertz' symbols, moods, motivations and conceptions have been reduced to only notions and ideas. But there is also a similarity between the two definitions. In contrast with Durkheim both Geertz and van Baal & van Beek take non-empirically perceivable objects (notions and ideas; a system) as the core of religion instead of also having an eye for the practice. To me it seems to be this aspect can not be lacking in a definition, especially one of social scientists. Not only what is believed but also what is done marks the difference between religions. Some people might refer to their religion as mainly being the actions they are taking while others might emphasis the beliefs. So a definition should at least leave it open whether believe or action is taken as the core of the religion. In my point of view an anthropological definition of a phenomena should somehow give a handle 

Above this a definition in my point of view should embrace the dimensions in which religion is expressed. A lot of times it are these dimensions that are referred to as religion. Further essential to me seems the relation with something spiritual, in the broadest sense, being a quality of a human individual or an entity on its own.  So summing up a definition in the line of the given arguments should have eye for the cognitive as well as the performative nature of religion. It should somehow incorporate the dimensions in which it is expressed and take awareness of the fact that it has something to do with the spiritual. With these ingredients one come to something like:

A set of beliefs and/or actions to regulate and approach reality, expressed in: (a) doctrine, (b) philosophy, (c) myth, (d) symbol (e) ethic, (f) ritual, (g) matter, (h) experience and (i) social organisation, in some way related to spiritual qualities, phenomena or entities. 

Hopefully this definition will be, next to a theoretical frame, a tool for doing empirical research with all the handles that where included in the package. Having this job done I would propose to give some attention to the social aspect of religion. Radcliffe-Brown states:


"We should see religious beliefs and observances as a part of a complex system by which human begins live together in an orderly fashion. We should look, he maintains, at the social functions of religion, that is, the contribution that it makes to the formation and maintenance of a social order" (I presume Morris I intended human beings instead of begins) (Morris 127)

In my point of view, to accentuate a point made before, religion is not something that can be studied, at least not by social scientist. She can only see expressions of religion, or to be more precise - but maybe a little confusing - the way she sees a human expression as the expression of what she refers to as religion. So only the expressions, of which certainly a limited number are included in the definition, can be studied. The point of she refers to as religion is that sometimes, because religion is not empirically perceptible, it is not clear whether an expression is religious. The field of ethics can supply us with a good example of this. In Yolanda van Ede´s work the nuns are forbidden to talk about bad things occurring in the monastery. One could look at this as a religious ethic: you should not talk about the bad things, but in the way described it maybe has more significance to look at it as socio-political ethic. For the sake of the monastery there should be given a good image to the outside world, and there doesn't seem to be much religious about that. 

This example shows that religion is very much intermingled with secular life. Religion is next to striving for spiritual goals also used for all kind of worldly goals. "Elementary" forms of religion are focused on mundane, worldly concerns: health, rainmaking, prosperity or as Weber puts it: "religious or magical behaviour or thinking must not be set apart from the range of everyday purposive conduct, particularly since even the ends of religious and magical acts are predominantly economic" (Sociology of religion 1965: 1)


Guido Verboom


With thanks to Geert Mommersteeg, Utrecht University


Selected Bibliography


Baal, J. v. and W. E. A. v. Beek
(1985). Symbols for communication an introduction to the anthropological study of religion. Assen, Van Gorcum.
Ede, Y. v.
(1999). House of birds: A historical ethnography of a Tibetan Buddhist nunnery in Nepal, Dissertation, University of Amsterdam.
Geertz, C.
(1985). Religion as a cultural system. Anthropological approaches to the study of religion. M. Banton. London, Tavistock: XLIII, 176.
Gellner, D. N.
(1992). Monk, householder, and Tantric priest : Newar Buddhism and its hierarchy of ritual. Cambridge ; New York, Cambridge University Press.
Morris, B.
(1987). Anthropological studies of religion : an introductory text. Cambridge Cambridgeshire ; New York, Cambridge University Press.
Samuel, G.
(1993). Civilized shamans : Buddhism in Tibetan societies. Washington DC, Smithsonian Institution Press.
Spiro, M. E.
(1970). Buddhism and society; a great tradition and its Burmese vicissitudes. New York,, Harper & Row.
Weber, M.
(1966). The sociology of religion. London, Methuen.



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