Chapter 3. Theoretical Approaches Toward The Study of Religion

3.1 What is religion?

Before we begin our discussion on the definition of religion, it’s important to understand that anthropologists are not interested in the truth or falsity of any given religion (Guest 61). Due to the very nature of religious phenomena as faith-based and scientifically unprovable, there is no way to examine which religions are “true” or “false” or which types of magic “work” or “do not work.” We are similarly not here to judge which religions are better or worse because, as you already understand, all religions make sense within their own, culturally-specific contexts. So, as we examine the beliefs of the world’s religions, it’s essential that you approach the research with an open mind. Try to separate your own religious beliefs from your study of other religions and do not measure them against your own, culturally-specific standards.

  • Religion often engages with a God/Gods/supernatural beings
  • Religion often defines morality
  • Religion includes community and ritual
  • Religion controls people’s behavior
  • While most religions believe in a God, not all religions do. For example: there are some branches of Buddhism that focus exclusively on the human experience, inward reflection, and the psyche instead of focusing on whether a god exists or not.
  • Religion very often defines morality, but this is not a unique characteristic of religion. For example, our political parties also strive to define morality for the entire nation and, typically, these definitions are not religious.
  • Most religions do build community through ritual practice, but we similarly have countless cultural rituals that are non-religious (for example: gift-giving during birthdays). So, this is not a unique definition of religion.
  • And, like all elements of culture, religion controls our behavior by promising salvation, enlightenment, or good fortune in exchange for “good” acts. But, as you likely already understand, our behaviors are controlled by non-religious forces, too including: the law, family structures, employment/capitalism, gender roles, and more.

3.2 Edward Burnett Tylor

Edward Burnett Tylor was an early British anthropologist who lived from 1832–1917. Born into a religious minority group in England (a Quaker) he grew up to view religions as cultural structures rather than systems of belief and this view prepared him to be one of the world’s first scholars on the matter of religion (Moore 4).

3.3 Why Magic Works

Tylor examined the logic that existed within societies that he considered to be less evolved in order to make sense of their beliefs in their own terms (Kuper 25). He argued that non-European people believed in magic and that they reinforced their own ideas in four ways. It’s important to understand that these four characteristics of magical beliefs are applicable to many societies, such as our own, that Tylor had not fully considered. Today, anthropologists consider the existence of these characteristics in all human societies.

  1. Randomly, the desired results will occur. Causing the believers to think that the magic practiced worked.
  2. Sometimes, the person performing the magic will use deception to convince participants.
  3. People tend to remember positive outcomes more often than the occasions when magic doesn’t work.
  4. When magic doesn’t produce the desired results, believers will blame counter-magic from someone else (Winnick 334).
  • The human mind frequently sees coincidence as evidence of causation. We might assume that two, unrelated events are causing one another (even in cases where the two events are not related).
  • Magic often attempts to cause outcomes that happen naturally. For example, people are unlikely to perform a rain ritual outside of the rainy season. So, when the rain ritual is performed immediately before the rains naturally start, a community might associate the magic with the outcome.
  • As humans, we are very resistant to changing our beliefs! Overcoming the long-held belief that magic exists can be very hard to overcome.
  • Practitioners of magic typically do not ask impossible things of magic. Magical beliefs and practices are usually restrained to the realm of possibility.

3.4 Cultural Evolutionism, Animism, and Diffusionism

In his most famous work, “Primitive Culture” Tylor outlined two key ideas that we will briefly discuss here. Please note that both of Tylor’s ideas are overly-simplistic by the standards of modern religious scholars. While neither fully reflect modern anthropological ideas, they both influenced early anthropological work and carry a small piece of validity that you may still choose to engage with throughout the course.

  • Cultural Evolutionism: The idea that cultures change and adapt over time to meet people’s changing needs (Winick 196).
  • Animism: The belief in spirits beings (Winick 26; Durkheim 27).

3.5 Critiquing Tylor

Let’s critique Tylor’s concepts:

  1. Tylor’s “cultural evolutionism” purported that human cultures inevitably change and evolve over time. We know that it is true that cultures evolve over time, but Tylor’s hypothesis specifically argued that cultures (and religions) evolved in a linear manner. In other words, Tylor was of the view that all religions would evolve from spirit worship, to polytheism, to monotheism (this was, obviously, because he believed in a monotheistic religion and felt that his religion was the most advanced/superior). As we know, religions and cultures do not evolve in any kind of predetermined, linear manner. Furthermore, there is no such thing as a “more” or “less” evolved culture (these are all culturally-specific ideas). So, we do still consider Tylor’s ideas because cultures do evolve and adapt in a variety of directions, but we do not embrace the idea that cultures evolve in a linear manner (Reed 322–323).
  2. Tylor established the idea of “animism” or the idea that all religions share one thing in common: the belief in spirits (Stocking 103). For Tylor, spirits might manifest as human souls, as the power of the Gods/divine, or as the spirits of nature. While this is an interesting argument, we know that some forms of Buddhism do not actually believe in any spirit beings at all (not even the human soul). Furthermore, some people believe in supernatural spirit beings such as the existence of leprechauns, ghosts, or guardian angels but they may not belong to an organized religion that governs these beliefs. So, while the term “animism” is helpful to discuss a common thread across religions, it’s not a universal or exclusive characteristic that can be applied in all cases.

3.7 Robert Marrett and Animatism

R.R. Marrett (1866–1943) was, similar to Tylor, an anthropologist who studied religion and who adopted the evolutionary approach. In Marrett’s view, the first form of religion was a belief in an ever-present and ubiquitous force that gave power to all elements of life (Durkheim 203). Marrett called this concept “mana,” a term used in Polynesia and Melanesia to describe the supernatural forces involved in ritual (Winick 341; McCurdy, Shandy, and Spradley 25).

3.8 Marxism

Karl Marx is best known for writing “The Communist Manifesto” along with Friedrich Engels. “The Communist Manifesto” was published in 1848 and is a critique of the capitalist systems of production that, in the Marxist view, commodifies workers for the benefit of wealthier employers. Marx and Engels’ works examined their understanding of the historical evolution of modern economic systems and highlighted the power imbalances within the capitalist system.

3.9 “The Opium of the People”

Marx once described religion as “the opium of the people” which is a commonly cited and commonly misunderstood quote. Many dictatorial regimes have, historically, misappropriated this Marxist argument to justify a violent crackdown on religion in their countries (Eagleton 128). At the time of Marx’s claim, opium was legal and was widely used to relieve pain. So, he was not arguing that religion was some kind of addictive drug that people behave in an unreasonable manner. Rather, he was arguing that religion was a comfort to people who were suffering (Stein and Stein 18).

3.10 Clifford Geertz and Symbolism

Clifford Geertz was an American, symbolic anthropologist who strove to understand how human societies construct and engage with symbols used to convey layers of meaning in life. Geertz established his own definition of religion as outlined in his book, “The Interpretation of Cultures.”
He defines religion as,

  1. “A system of symbols which acts to
  2. Establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivation in [people] by
  3. Formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and by
  4. Clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that
  5. The moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic. “(97)
  1. Religion is a system of symbols. When we look at our own religions, we can see a variety of symbols that are quite literal and then other symbols which are more powerful and which reflect our ideologies. Consider, for example, when you enter a church you may see a crucifix on the wall. The crucifix represents Christ’s death (this is a literal symbol). However, Jesus’ crucifixion symbolizes a much more important set of values that are central to Christianity including: God’s unending love for humanity and Jesus’ immense suffering to gain humanity’s forgiveness.
  2. These symbols (both large and small) establish certain moods and motivations within us. For example, at the most literal level, you may not feel particularly religious until you enter a beautiful church. Upon seeing the tall structure, stained glass windows with religious symbols on them, and upon hearing the religious hymns, you may start to feel more religious and to reflect on religious concepts. On an ideological level, the symbols of your religion establish motivations in you that change your behavior. To use Christianity example again, you may decide to forgive someone who wronged you based on your understanding that Jesus suffered a great deal and still forgave humanity.
  3. Using symbols, religions establish a general order of existence. For example, nearly all religions promise good outcomes for humans who behave properly. Perhaps your religion promises Heaven, blessings for future generations, or reincarnation into a better life. However the universe is ordered in the context of your own religion, these concepts are presented using religious symbols. For example: artwork and religious texts may reflect the wheel of reincarnation or a soul’s ascent into heaven.
  4. Geertz points out that these symbols and correlating value systems are presented to us as absolute fact. As we’ve discussed before, religion requires faith to exist and it cannot be proven scientifically. As the majority of humanity is assigned a religion immediately at birth, the ideologies of our religions are established as absolute fact in our minds.
  5. Then, because these religious values and principles are established as fact and presented symbolically, the moods and motivations feel like they are uniquely our own and they feel like they are coming, organically and naturally, from our spirits.

3.11 Functionalists on Religion

Functionalists argue that human cultural forms serve a particular function typically aimed at facilitating survival or procreation (but, not limited to these functions). Functionalists ask themselves, “what is the function of this cultural belief or practice?” and then strive to make sense of the practice holistically.

3.12 Émile Durkheim on Functionalism

Another early proponent of functionalism, sociologist Émile Durkheim, argued that religion in human societies serves the function of encouraging good behavior and, thus, facilitating human survival. Writing at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, Durkheim accepted a widespread belief that in ancient human societies, most adults regularly performed similar tasks to other adult members of their groups. Within such societies — where each family met its own needs by engaging in the same activities as its neighbors — Durkheim reasoned that religious beliefs would have served several critical functions for the good of the group:

  • Religion lays out basic rules for behavior, creates a uniform understanding of which behaviors are appropriate and which are not
  • Religion restrains natural selfishness and promotes cooperation (Stein and Stein 18–20).

3.13 Common Characteristics of Religion

In this chapter, we’ve discussed some of the most widely used arguments developed by social scientists throughout the examination of religion, and you are encouraged to embrace the theoretical approach that best speaks to you.

  • Animism: Belief in spirit beings (as discussed above).
  • Enchanted Worldview: Belief in powers or worlds that are not perceived by humans. An “enchanted worldview” is the idea that there is a great deal in the universe that human beings can not fully see; some examples include the existence of ghosts, guardian angels, a karmic law, the presence of magic, and so on. Most religions (not all) embrace an idea that there are elements of reality that are beyond our perception.
  • Ritual: Ceremonial actions that are performed according to a prescribed order.
  • Death Ritual: Funerary practices intended to mark the passing of a person. Death rituals are usually to be the final rite of passage and vary widely across the globe.
  • Magic: Whenever people try to take control of their circumstances by calling upon supernatural powers, anthropologists consider them to be engaging with magic. For example: if you complete a spell in the woods to bring about fertility then you are engaging in magic. At the same time, if you are praying to the Christian God to give you an A on an exam, then you are engaging in magic (in an anthropological sense).
  • Myth: A sacred story that informs a people’s worldview.
  • Meaning: Attempts to create order and control of the natural world in the face of uncertainty. This is arguably the most important element of religion: religions help human beings create a sense of meaning in their lives by creating community, developing a sense of morality, and by answering the questions that are, otherwise, unanswerable.

3.14 Taboos

When we strive to define “religion” we often find ourselves engaging with other magical, superstitious, or cultural beliefs that can shape or alter behavior but that you may not initially believe to be “religious.” Although, as we’ve already discussed, these definitions can sometimes bleed together and the borders between them can be harder and harder to define. The concept of the “taboo” is complex and taboos can sometimes fall in the grey area between religion and secular life.

3.15 “Baseball Magic”

Before continuing, please read and take notes on the following material:


“Anthropology for the 21st Century.” Essentials of Cultural Anthropology: a Toolkit for a Global Age, by Kenneth J. Guest, W. W. Norton and Company, 2020.


This is part of “Beliefs: An Open Invitation to the Anthropology of Magic, Witchcraft, and Religion.” This chapter is written and edited by Amanda Zunner-Keating and Ben Shepard for Los Angeles Valley College, recorded by Amanda Zunner-Keating. Photo by James Lee on Unsplash. Published under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.



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Amanda Zunner-Keating

Amanda Zunner-Keating

Cultural Anthropologist in Los Angeles