What Does Religion Do?:

  • One important function of religion cross-culturally is to provide an explanation of how things came to be and why things happen as they do

Back to Morgan:

  • Recall his evolutionary scheme: savage, barbarian, civilized
  • This was also applied to religion
  • Animism -> polytheism -> monotheism (Tylor)
  • Magic -> religion -> science (Frazer)
  • Structural functionalism (Durkheim)

o Religion always takes place in a social context

o Maintain and protect the social order

o God is a reflection of society

o “God is society writ large” - Durkheim


  • In modern society, science offers an alternative and powerful framework for understand reality

What is Religion?:

  • Beliefs and practices about spirit beings and supranormal and superhuman forces and their relationship to everyday life
  • Beliefs:

o Ideas about spirit world

o Creation of universe and first humans

o World view

  • The way we look at the world and the way we think it should be
  • Ex: conservative world view
  • Also world views based on religion (Islamic, Christian, etc)
  • Connecting their beliefs and practices dealing with the supernatural with the happenings of our everyday lives
  • Religious belief system influence the way we see the world
  • Practices:

o Sacred rituals

o Religious speech

o Practical and symbolic action

The Raven and the First Man:

  • Bill Reid - 1980
  • UBC Museum of Anthropology
  • Creation story/myth
  • Legend of the first hyda

Spirit Beings and Forces:

  • Animism and Animatism:

o Animism: belief in souls that animate living and non-living things

  • People, rivers, trees, rocks - all have soul like natures

o Animatism: belief in generalized, pervasive spiritual power

  • Holy place possesses animatism
  • Idea that God is everywhere
  • Gods and Heroes:

o Spirit beings in human form

  • Polytheism - belief in many gods

n Ex: ancient Rome and Greece (God of war, love, etc)

  • Monotheism - belief in one god

n Many variations

n Ex: Judaism, Islam, Christianity

n Catholicism?

  • Important Mortal Heroes - ex: saints

o Sufism - pirs

o Christianity - saints

o Some Hindus and Muslims in India worship Sai Baba of Shirdi (holy person that took on the status of almost a god)

o Role models for us

  • Ancestors, Ghosts, and Demons:

o Ancestor worship - pay respect to your deceased ancestors

o Spirits of deceased - coming back in the form of ghosts

o Demons: negative/not so nice spirit of the deceased (do harm to the living)

  • Totems and Taboos:

o Totemism - people believe they are descendants of spirit beings

o Secret societies

o Ritual restrictions and prohibitions

  • Ex: Judaism: kosher (chew cud, hooves, scales, fins)
  • Ex: Hinduism: vegetarian - favored way of eating
  • Ex: Catholicism: no meat during lent

Religious Practitioners:

  • Mediums, Diviners, and Healers:

o Mediums: persons having special gifts to make contact with the spirit world

  • Going between the two worlds

o Diviners: persons with the power to predict the future through messages and omens

  • Ex: reading tea leaves, taro cards

o Healers: religious practitioners who acquire spirit power to diagnose and cure illness

  • Shamans and Priests:

o More authoritative

o Shamans: religious practitioners believed to make contact with the spirit world through prayer, ritual, and trance

  • Ex: pope

o Priests: full-time religious practitioners who lead a religious organization and officiate at rituals, but are not expected to communicate directly with spirit world

Religious Practice:

  • Rituals: activities, ceremonies, and behaviours that are demonstrations of belief

o Rituals put belief into action

o Usually involve visual and performing arts

  • Religious rituals - ex: baptism, bar mitzvah

Sacred and Secular Rituals:

  • Sacred rituals:

o Dedicated to spirit realm and expression of religious faith

  • Secular rituals:

o May be important culturally

o Ex: hockey night in Canada

  • Rites of renewal:

o May have both sacred and secular elements

Prayer and Sacrifice:

  • Prayer:

o Religious speech or thought to transmit messages to spirit beings

o Comes in many different forms - individual, group, silent, aloud, songs, etc

o Mental way of worshiping

  • Sacrifice:

o Offerings that honour spirit beings by giving up something important

  • Blood sacrifice

o Ex: fasting - can focus more on prayer, not food

Rites of Passage:

  • Rituals to celebrate socially significant transitions in an individuals life cycle

o Puberty rites

  • Religious rites at puberty - ex: bar mitzvah

o Funerary rites

  • Ex: put coins on the eyes so that when they are crossing into the other world they can pay
  • Ex: Viking funeral - burn and float in the ocean

Healing or Curing:

  • Cultural beliefs about:

o Illness and health

o Causes of disease

o Strategies for treatment

  • Religious healing

o Illnesses believed to be caused by spirit beings or forces

o Ritual diagnosis

  • Praying, etc

o Spirit possession

Magic and Witchcraft:

  • Imitative magic

o Also called sympathetic magic

o Like causes like

o Ex: voodoo doll

  • Contagious magic

o Touching something is going to cause something to happen

o Ex: communion, Jesus turning water to wine

  • Witches

o Mostly associated with women

o A woman too powerful for her own good

The Origins and Functions of Religious:

  • Explaining the World:

o Gain sense of order and control

o Religion tries to explain why bad things happen to good people

o Helps us make sense of a world that is very nonsensical

  • Ex: Tsunami, Holocaust, Earthquake, etc

o Legitimate social or political system

  • Solace, Healing, and Emotional Release:

o Psychological support

o Catharsis (emotional release) - helps work through something and come out in one piece

  • Social Cohesion:

o Unite communities through rituals

o Justify existing social order

  • Cosmology
  • Social Control:

o Formal and informal mechanisms

o Ritual role reversals

  • Economic Adaptations:

o Management of environment and resources

  • Ex: Rapaport - killing the pigs not for fun/food, but because there were too many to manage

Religion and Culture Change:

  • Syncretism

Revitalization movements:












  • Cargo cults:

o Melanesian revitalization movements

o Early 20th century

o Imitative magic

Role of Founders in Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam:

  • Began in revitalization movements
  • Founders: individuals with divine inspiration

o Buddhism: Siddartha Geutama - 6th century BCE o Christianity: Jesus - 1st century CE

o Islam: Muhammad - 6th century CE

  • After death of founders, disciples spread faith to others
  • Eventually, religious doctrines standardized

Religion and Globalization:

  • Proselytism:

o Attempt to convert a person or group from one religion to another

o Buddhism, Christianity, Islam

  • Fundamentalism:

o Commitment to defend traditional religious beliefs

o Christian

o Islamic

Professor's Research:

  • Hyderabad (Rangareddy) and Andhra Pradesh - cities
  • South Asia (South, Central India)
  • Goddesses (Hinduism) - characteristics their share: fair skin
  • Village goddesses vs. classical goddesses
  • Focus: looking at a non-Hindu festival called Bonalu (means meals) - the idea of offering meals to a goddess
  • How did the festival go from a small family village level festival to a major festival in the center city (hundreds of thousands of people)

o Rural -> urban migration (when they come to the cities they bring their rituals with)

  • Village goddess - (amma = mother)

o Ammoru

  • Carves out of a tree trunk, no body

o Maiasamma

  • No body or face - roadside shrine

o Mutalayamma - Professor studied this one (Hyderabad)

  • Original goddess' image replaced
  • Pulled them out of a well - made offerings to the stone
  • Eyes - human appearance
  • Silk wrapped around stone
  • First stage in this piece of stone becoming a goddess of worship
  • Now associated with Sheba (pitchfork symbol) - classical god

Anthropomorphism: the goddess in the form of a tree and a protector in the form of a stone

o Tree (mother), stone (brothers - "potturaja") - symbols of nature

  • Story of the goddess born in a graveyard

o If we don't worship her, for her power, small pox and paralysis will come

o Also worship for the well-being of children, fertility and householders

o "God is society writ large" - pray for nature, production (farming), procreation, freedom from disease

  • Not asking for money, etc - praying for basic things/needs
  • God is a reflection of the people and their needs
  • Village goddesses vs. classical (Hindu) goddesses

o Village:

  • Non-vegetarian
  • Meat
  • Want blood
  • Love liquor
  • Always single
  • Want them to pray in a vernacular language
  • No priest

o Classical (Hindu):

  • Vegetarian
  • Fruit
  • No-blood
  • No liquor
  • Consort - pair up
  • Sanskrit language
  • Priest
  • Toddy tappers:

o Toddy = sap of the palm tree

o Drain the sap of the tree by tapping it, but not to the point of killing the tree

o Make liquor out of the sap (Arack)

  • Women wear "pots" on their heads - the offerings to the goddesses

o Yellow and red

o Leaves

o Cooling substances - offering the goddess cooling foods to make the goddess happy

o Offering these things to hope the goddess keeps you free of small pox

o Marking the steps on the way up to the temple - yellow and red markings

o Sacrifice animals on the way up too (Goats, chickens, etc)


  • Classicization: take a folk idea and link it to the greater tradition (classical tradition)
  • Catholic church has adapted to a Christian church
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