The Study of Religion in Anthropology


Religion is a social concept that encompasses a wide range of beliefs, practices and institutions. It is often used as a way of sorting cultural types and is perhaps the most widely known of all social taxons. It is also one of the most contested, and some argue that the term has no necessary or sufficient definition. The word itself is derived from the Latin religio, which can mean “scrupulousness”, or “devotion” or “felt obligation”.

While some scholars have proposed substantive and functional definitions for religion, others have sought to avoid them by treating it as a cultural phenomenon that appears in all cultures. This approach has its critics, however, because it treats the notion of religion as a social fact and therefore reduces it to something that can be discovered rather than a concept that is already present in some cultures.

In addition, the social scientists who employ this method of analysis tend to focus on certain kinds of religious behavior and omit other kinds. Thus the study of religion tends to become a study of Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Hinduism. This omission of other forms of life is problematic because it obscures the possibility that there may be other religions, or that there might be a common human nature that is independent of the existence of specific religions.

Other researchers, including the anthropologists Clifford Geertz and Ninian Smart, have taken a more formal approach to religion. Their definitions include a list of secondary traits and attempt to find how these characteristics can be grouped together in a meaningful way. These approaches are helpful because they do not require that religions be defined as beliefs about gods, spirits and cosmological orders. However, they also exclude people who do not believe in such things from the category of religion.

For this reason, there are some scholars who prefer to treat the notion of religion as a taxon that consists only of those behaviors which have been grouped into the category by other social science researchers. This approach reflects the way that other social concepts are treated in some studies: namely, that they can be defined only through the grouping of facts, not by their intrinsic characteristics.

In general, the way that religion is studied in anthropology is by studying particular religions and their cultural contexts, which are then used as paradigms for other religions. This approach is useful, but it can be misleading because it focuses attention on the so-called world religions and neglects other ways that human beings deal with ultimate concerns and the divine. This problem can be mitigated by adding a fourth dimension to the social science model of religion: community. By describing the ways that religions help their adherents to share a common sense of community, it is possible to show that there are some fundamental similarities among different religions and that the idea of community has always been an important element in all societies.