In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Religion

  • Introduction
  • Textbooks
  • Approaches to Defining Religion
  • Origins
  • Functions

Anthropology Religion
Andrew Buckser
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 June 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 June 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0060


Religion represents an ideal subject for anthropologists. It is, on the one hand, a human universal—all groups of people develop complexes of symbols, rituals, and beliefs that connect their own experience to the essential nature of the universe. They do this, however, in a bewildering variety of ways. Religions may involve one god, or no gods, or thousands of gods; they may favor simple family rituals or elaborate state festivals; they may value individual transcendence, community ceremonialism, Dionysian ecstasy, or any number of other conceptions of ultimate good. The anthropology of religion explores how these different forms of religion come to be, how they change, and what they mean for the nature of human experience. Religion has stood at the center of anthropological research since the discipline began in the mid-19th century, and its development has reflected trends in the discipline generally. The early studies of James Frazer, E. B. Tylor, Émile Durkheim, and others tended to focus on classifying religions and developing models of religious evolution. Later studies turned to smaller-scale ethnography, examining the ways that individual religious systems functioned within their particular social environments. More recently, anthropologists have focused on dynamics of power and identity in religion, with particular focus on the ways that religion intersects with conceptions of gender, ethnicity, and nation. They have also looked increasingly at religious change and the influence of modern and postmodern social forms on religious life. This article outlines the scope of the anthropological literature on religion, drawing both on classic and more-recent studies. We begin with discussions of the nature, origin, and function of religion then turn to four main areas of anthropological work: religious symbolism, including ritual and myth; techniques of managing and manipulating the sacred, including magic, healing, and witchcraft; dynamics of religion, including religious change and secularization; and religion’s connection to personal identity, including gender, ethnicity, and the question of religious conversion.


The entries in this section represent the upsurge in strong textbooks in the anthropology of religion since the early 1990s. Lessa and Vogt 1972, once the standard reader in the field, remains a valuable archive of classic articles. Lambek 2008 includes some of the same articles, as well as examples of more-recent scholarship. Hicks 2010 and Moro 2012 offer more-accessible selections of articles and excerpts, organized around themes with useful introductions. Morris 2006, Bowen 2010, and Bowie 2006 take a different approach, each providing a thoughtful synthetic account by a single author. Scupin 2008 organizes its presentation around different religious traditions, rather than topical subjects.

  • Bowen, John R. 2010. Religions in practice: An approach to the anthropology of religion. 5th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

    An excellent comprehensive introduction to the anthropology of religion, written by a leading scholar in the field. Bowen sets theoretical ideas in the context of ethnographic examples, emphasizing religion as a lived activity, not merely a set of beliefs or ideas. First published in 1997 (Boston: Allyn & Bacon).

  • Bowie, Fiona. 2006. The anthropology of religion: An introduction. 2d ed. Oxford: Blackwell.

    This engaging introduction to the anthropology of religion, first published in 1999, focuses particularly on the experiential and personal dimensions of religious action.

  • Hicks, David, ed. 2010. Ritual and belief: Readings in the anthropology of religion. 3d ed. Lanham, MD: AltaMira.

    An excellent reader in religion across cultures that includes both classic theoretical articles and ethnographies of new religious movements. First published in 1999 (Boston: McGraw-Hill College).

  • Lambek, Michael, ed. 2008. A reader in the anthropology of religion. 2d ed. Blackwell Anthologies in Social and Cultural Anthropology 2. Oxford: Blackwell.

    A sound collection of significant articles in the history of the anthropology of religion, this volume (first published in 2001) provides an excellent introduction to the field for the advanced student.

  • Lessa, William A., and Evon Z. Vogt, eds. 1972. Reader in comparative religion: An anthropological approach. 3d ed. New York: Harper & Row.

    Long a standard textbook in the anthropology of religion, first published in 1958 (Evanston, IL: Row, Peterson), this collection of articles and excerpts can seem rather dated and stiff to current students. As a resource for classic theory in the field, however, it still has no equal.

  • Moro, Pamela A., ed. 2012. Magic, witchcraft, and religion: A reader in the anthropology of religion. 9th ed. Dubuque, IA: McGraw-Hill.

    This is the latest edition of a very popular collection of readings on the anthropology of religion. The selection is excellent, and the chosen articles are both readable and interesting. Previous editions were compiled by Moro and James E. Myers.

  • Morris, Brian. 2006. Religion and anthropology: A critical introduction. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    A readable and masterful review of non-Western religious traditions, from an anthropological perspective, including Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, shamanism, African and Afro-Caribbean religions, and the New Age.

  • Scupin, Raymond, ed. 2008. Religion and culture: An anthropological focus. 2d ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

    Scupin approaches the field by focusing on different religious traditions, ranging from aboriginal and African religions to the Western world religions and the New Age.

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