John Lubbock, made an attempt to combine archaeological evidence of prehistoric people, on the one hand, and anthropological evidence of primitive people, on the other, to trace the origin and evolution of religion. In this scheme, development of fetishism, followed by nature worship, and totemism (a system of belief involving the relationship of specific animals to clans), shamanism, anthropomorphism, monotheism (belief in one god), and finally ethical monotheism.
In the late nineteenth century with the influential works of Max Muller, W. Robertson Smith, Edward B. Tylor, Marrett, and Sir James G. Frazer, anthropological study on religion grew at a fast pace. All of them sought to understand religious belief and practices at most fundamental or basic level.
The anthropology of religion owes a great debt to Emile Durkheim who put forward the concept of sacred, profane orders, and the so-called supernatural and natural categories, which have proved to be more beneficial in better understanding the concept of religion. A strong impetus to subsequent application of Durkheimian theory is found among the British structural-functionalists, such as Radcliffe-Brown, E.E. Evans-Pritchard, Meyer Fortes, and Melford Spiro, etc., who also made significant contributions towards understanding religion. They primarily focussed on the religion of tribal groups. Contemporary exponents of anthropology of religion like Clifford Geertz, Melford Spiro, Victor Turner, Sherry Ortner, Mary Douglas and Stanley Tambiah have devoted bulk of their attention to local variants of major world religions – Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, and Christianity and the impact of the world religions in developing countries like Java, Indonesia, Morocco, Sri Lanka, South Africa, Nepal, and Burma, instead of the religions of isolated tribal groups.
The study of the religious notions of primitive people arose within the context of evolutionary theory. Besides their evolutionary assumption about religion, the followers of evolutionary theory show overwhelming Eurocentric biases. Early anthropologists used the data from the studies of primitive societies to speculate about the genesis and functions of religion. Evolutionists believed that religion is a problem solving phenomenon.
- John Lubbock made an early attempt to combine archaeological evidence of prehistoric people and anthropological evidence of primitive people. He outlined an evolutionary scheme, Atheism > Fetishism > Nature Worship > Totemism > Shamanism > Anthropomorphism > Monotheism > Ethical Monotheism.
- E B Tylor in his book Primitive Culture, proposed that Animism is the earliest and most basic religious form, and from that evolved Fetishism > Belief in demons > Polytheism > Monotheism. He defines religion in such a way that all forms of it could be included,namely, as ‘the belief in Spiritual Beings’. He firmly states that religion is a cultural universal, for no known cultures are without such beliefs. Belief in spirits began as an uncritical but nonetheless rational effort to explain such puzzling empirical phenomenon as death, dreams and possessions.
- Herbert Spencer also considered a system similar to Tylor, but felt that Ancestor Worship preceded Animism.his derivation is from ideas as mana (power), mulungu (supreme creator), orenda (magic power), concepts found in the Pacific, Africa, and America, respectively, referring to a supernatural power (a kind of supernatural ‘electricity’) that does not necessarily have the personal connotation of animistic entities and that becomes especially present in certain men, spirits, or natural objects.
- James Frazer in his book The Golden Bough, believes that religion is the result of evolution from the magic stage of human culture.According to Frazer, magic is the primordial form of human thought. In course of time the more intelligent members of the society, in the state of disillusionment, conceived of spiritual beings with powers superior to man, who could be induced by propitiation to alter the course of nature to his advantage. According to Frazer, this was the stage of religion. Later on this was seen to be an illusion and men entered the final, the scientific stage of development.
However, after the evolutionary perspective, psychological approach to religion based on Sigmund Freud’s approaches of psychoanalysis and neurotic symptoms has become a dominant approach to understand religion in anthropology.
Religion is a profound emotional response to various aspects of life and various emotive factors were given to explain the basis of religion.
- Sigmund Freud was a leading figure. His thesis is that religious rituals and beliefs are homologous with neurotic symptoms). According to him, a deep subconscious psychological conflict within social groups is responsible for the development of religion.The basic Freudian premise is that religious practices can be usefully interpreted as expressions of unconscious psychological forces, and this has become, amid much polemic, an established tradition of enquiry.
- Kardiner, who is considered as a neo-Freudian, sought to demonstrate that religious institutions of tribal people are projections of a “basic personality structures,” formed not by the action of an unconsciously remembered historical trauma but by the more observable traumas produced by child-training practices.
- Wilhelm Wundt considered religion as a projection of fear into the environment.
- William James viewed that religion has a strong emotional base, but not associated with any particular emotion.
The psychological approach has been superseded by functionalist approach. The approach of Clifford Geertz to religion is significant, as modern or primitive religion can be understood in an integrated system of thought through symbolism.
Functionalism emphasises on the interrelations between the various elements of a social system. Society is seen as a self-regulating system in which religion, economic organisation, and kinship form parts of an organic whole. Numerous functional aspects of religion include providing explanation or comfort; sanctions on social, economic and political norms and institutions; and aiding ecological adaptation and unifying the social group. It explains the functional significance of religion, and the role it plays in the life of an individual and the society.
- Malinowski in his work on the Trobriand Islanders emphasises on the close relationship between myth and ritual. Malinowski considers religion as a device to secure mental and psychological stability in an individual’s life. As per the idea of psychological functionalism, religious acts fulfilling the psychological need and satisfaction.
- Radcliffe Brown felt that religion is to assure a social solidarity and homogeneity.
- According to Emile Durkheim, religion forms a media through which a society understands the universe, and also people seek justification of the existing social order through religion.
- Evans-Pritchard observes that while emotions, desires, and impulses undoubtedly play a part in religion, the performance of a religious or magical act need not automatically produce the psychological effects.
- Radcliffe-Brown (1922) provides an account of Andamanese religious beliefs and ceremonies. He asserts that the Andaman Islanders’ main supernatural beings are spirits of the dead, associated with the sky, forest, and sea, and nature spirits, which are thought of as personifications of natural phenomena.
- M.N. Srinivas’ (1952) in study of society and religion among the Coorgs integrates social structure with religion which he finds it operating at different levels – local, regional, peninsular and all India. He demonstrates that various rituals organised at family, patrilineal joint family (okka), village and nad level bring in solidarity and unity among different social segments.
Levi-Strauss’ (1958) new “structuralism” has sought to reveal a grammar of the mind, a kind of universal psychology with a genetic base, which gives rise to social structures. He explains that myth is language: to be known, and to be told; it is a part of human speech. Myths reveal common story lines that can be used to understand the limited number of ways in which human beings interpret the world. In Indian context Dumont (1959) takes the structuralist perspective of religion manifested in the worship of village deities. The purity is superior to impurity, and these values have transcended to form the basis of caste system.
Karl Marx has been very critical of religion, and his approach depicts religion and religious belief as fictions that support the status quo and that maintained class differences. Religion reflects false consciousness of people that diverts their attention from the miseries of their lives. Maurice Godelier finds Marx’s view of religion as reflection of the real world in the human mind; the nature is personified unconsciously as objective realities, and it is both transcendent and independent of human mind. In dealing with the nature, he says, there is internal structure of relations in which humans alienate themselves. Godelier argues that the shamans in the simple societies mediate between the nature and society in the imaginary conditions set, and thus shamans acquire power over the equals. The class differentiation and exploitative social relations are inherent in the small societies though such relations are unconsciously accepted as natural. The religion or ritual is basically used for maintaining this kind of social order.
Evans-Pritchard, Victor Turner, Mary Douglas and Clifford Geertz are the important anthropologists that have contributed for our understanding of religion from symbolic perspective. Victor Turner’s work on the Ndembu rituals provides a highly detailed and enormous work on Ndembu religious life which consists of rituals falling under these two categories – Life cycle crisis ritual and ritual of affliction.
According to Mary Douglas, there is an enormous literature on religion in the modern world, but little guidance on how to relate its understandings to the other branches of social thought. She says that symbol has meaning from its relation to other symbols in a pattern, the pattern gives the meaning.
Geertz proposes religion as the part of the cultural system. For him, a symbol means any object, act, event, quality or relation that serves as a vehicle for a conception.