Chapter 16: Spirituality, Religion, and the Supernatural


Religion refers to beliefs and behaviors related to supernatural beings and powers. Notice that this definition doesn’t specify a belief in a god, because not all religions have that belief. Religion is narrower than a worldview, or cosmology, which is a culture’s understanding of how the universe came into being, why it is the way it is, and the place of people in it. It also differs from spirituality, which is a concern with the sacred in an individual manner. All cultures have religion, spirituality, a worldview and magic. Adherents are people who practice a religion.


Religion, magic and spirituality serve a number of functions, including reducing stress, reinforcing group norms and identity, providing sanctions for individual behavior and providing a sense of the world. Anthropologists recognize that religion is tied to a people’s worldview, and as such, that is how is must be studied, as a factor which shapes their views of the universe.


Magic and religion serve the same functions of trying to explain the unexplainable and providing comfort and a coherent view of the world. Magic exists in all cultures, including ours.


There have been numerous attempts at explaining the origins of religion. One of the earliest was Tyler’s view that people needed to explain the differences between the living and the dead and from this came the idea of a soul. He named this approach animism, a belief that a soul or spirit inhabits all living objects, including plants, animals and even minerals. Tyler believed that eventually the idea of a soul became polytheism, or a belief in many deities, which eventually shifted to monotheism, or a belief in one deity. There are still cultures that practice each of these types of religion.


Religion deals with beliefs. Myths are narrative stories that explain the fundamentals of human existence, while doctrine is “direct statements about religious beliefs.” Myths provide explanations, rationales for beliefs, help set cultural standards for correct behavior and express some of the culture’s traditional worldview. Doctrine explicitly defines the supernatural beings, how to relate to them, and what people’s roles are in relation to the supernatural. Doctrine is written and formal and is like law because it links incorrect actions and beliefs with punishment. Doctrine is associated with large, organized religions and changes over time, like myths.

Beliefs about Supernatural Forces and Beings

All cultures have ideas concerning supernatural beings or forces. Supernatural forces range from impersonal spirits to gods and can be all powerful or annoying creatures that possess humans.


Rituals are “patterned forms of behavior that have to do with the supernatural realm.” Another way to think of them is as belief in action. Rituals can be religious or secular.


Not all rituals require the presence of a specialist, or someone with special training or knowledge. But even basic rituals require that their practitioners know how to perform the actions correctly, even if that knowledge was gained informally. Religious specialists also help guide the religious practices of others in their culture.


The term world religion refers to religions that cross state borders and have many followers. It refers to Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism, Confucianism, Taoism and Shintoism. No world religion is practiced the same everywhere; each has variations and doctrinal differences. In many places where you have religious contact between new and indigenous religions, they coexist as separate traditions in what is known as religious pluralism. In other places, syncretism, or the blending of elements of two or more religions, takes place.


All religions have some continuity with the past through myths and doctrines, but they are part of a larger cultural system and must also be responsive to the changing needs of their believers.

Revitalization Movements

Revitalization movements are social movements that arise in response to widespread social problems and distress, and which seek to create positive change by reconstructing all or part of a religion that was once threatened or destroyed, or by adopting new beliefs and practices. Such movements often occur at times of rapid cultural change and are a way for people to make sense of the chaos. Cargo cults are a type of revitalization movement that arose throughout Melanesia in response to Western influence. They emphasize the acquisition of Western goods, or cargo. These cults were a response to the disruptive effects of new goods and exchange systems being imposed on indigenous people by outsiders.

Religious Freedom as a Human Right

The United Nation’s Declaration of Human Rights lists freedom from religious persecution as a universal human right. However, many countries violate this right. Many Western states currently have refugee laws that allow people from other states who are persecuted on religious grounds to successfully seek sanctuary in these countries. Religious persecution can lead to religious diasporas. For example, Tibetan Buddhists fled Tibet after the Chinese took over.