An Anthropological Approach to Religion

An Anthropological Approach to Religion

We live in a world that is infused with religion. It is infused to that extent that sometimes even we don’t recognize. We start our religion by giving names to our children. Somewhere someone is fighting about religion.

There are many religions in the whole world and 100s of belief systems in total.

In anthropology, Religion is a universal institution just like marriage, family, kinship etc. These are such institutions that are available in primitive as well as modern societies.

Religion is such an institution where we relate humans with supernatural power.

The founder of an anthropological study of religion is E. B. Tylor.

Definitions of Religion

Tylor, a British Anthropologist- “Religion is the belief in spiritual power”.

James Frazer, a British Anthropologist- “a propitiation or conciliation of powers superior to man which are believed to direct and control the course of Nature and of Human life”.

Malinowski believed that religion provided “shared values and behavioural norms that created solidarity between people”.

Image source- Sociological Notes

Properties of Religion

  • Belief in the existence of supernatural power
  • Religion has rituals
  • Religion is related to our emotions
  • Absence of arguments and scientism
  • Concept of purity
  • Belief in taboo
  • Have sacred symbols

Functions of Religion

  • Regulate morals
  • Controls society
  • Creation of welfare works
  • Maintain confidence
  • Provides risk-taking power
  • Provide stability to the social structure

Various theories of the origin of religion

Theory of Animism

Tylor has a view that religion develops because of needs and surprising events of life.

Taylor said that in primitive society, people believe that there must be some element in the human body, due to which the person dies. Nobody knows about that element. Tylor called such element the soul (anima).

Soul are of two types-

Free soul and Body soul

The free soul is one that came out of the body and later go back to the body. It is a reason for dreams, visions, and memories. On the other hand, the body soul is responsible for the death of a person.

These souls are out of man’s control. These are predominant among humans. Souls don’t die after the death of an individual.

Image source- Cambridge Encyclopedia of Anthropology

Theory of Animatism or Manism

It was developed by Preuss and Max Muller. Max Muller said that every living matter has a power that is supernatural, this supernatural power is called ‘Mana’. Mana is associated with objects or people.

By making the mana happy, we can accomplish even the impossible task. According to these scholars, religion originated by worshipping this power.

Mana has no structure that is why we cannot grab it. It can come and go in the body at any time. Mana can be good as well as bad. It is a supernatural power but manifests itself in the form of physical power.

Among the Munda and Ho tribes of Jharkhand, the Bonga’ term is used for supernatural power.

Theory of Naturism

This was given by Max Muller. According to him, the primitive man must have seen many natural events which were beyond the power of man. Like rain, earthquake, storms, fruits on the tree etc.

Due to these events, the reverence or fear of nature must have been born in the primitive man and gradually he would have started worshipping nature, after which the concept of religion would have been born.

For example, tribes like Munda, Ho, Maler called sun as Sing Bonga (sing- sun and Bonga- god or spirit)

In the Santhal tribe, Sun God is also considered as the husband of Mother Earth.

Most of the people in Hinduism worship nature.

Sociological theory of Religion

Durkheim gave the concept of purity. According to him, there are two types of events in human life- Holy and Profane. Ordinary events are Profane and events that are extraordinary (like events during the festival) are Holy.

At the time of these holy events, there is a feeling of special reverence and to fulfil the sentiment, they start worshipping. This worship is for the people of the society and later takes the form of religion.

According to him, society is the real deity and we worship the society.

Functional theory

Malinowski, after experimenting in Trobriand Island, said that religion is a means of fulfilling human needs. Since ancient times, human beings started worshipping a particular power to fulfil their need and religion must have originated.

To understand the relationship between religion, science and magic, go through the link.

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