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.
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  1964: 37 cited in Morris
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:
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
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
"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)
With thanks to Geert Mommersteeg, Utrecht
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