Chapter 16: Spirituality, Religion, and the Supernatural
WHAT IS RELIGION?
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.
WHAT IS THE FUNCTION OF 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, WITCHCRAFT AND RELIGION
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.
- However, magic is an attempt to make supernatural forces act in specific ways, while religion is seen as an attempt to please these forces. There are two principles of magic.
- Imitative magic is based on the assumption that like produces like. It is the principle that underlies the use of a voodoo doll.
- Contagious magic is based on the principle that things that were once in contact can still influence each other after separation. Some magic rituals require hair or nail clippings of a person they wish to affect.
- Witchcraft, or the idea that certain people have an inborn power to harness spirits or energies for specific purposes, is related to magic. Witchcraft also serves a number of functions in society. It provides explanations of the inexplicable, like illness or natural disasters, as well as allows a community to come together, focus their energies on one thing (ridding themselves of bad witchcraft) and to reassert their communal identity.
THEORIES OF THE ORIGIN OF RELIGION
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.
VARIETIES OF RELIGIOUS BELIEF
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.
- Animism refers to beliefs in which nature is enlivened by personalized spirits.
- Animatism refers to beliefs in which nature is enlivened by impersonal spirits.
- Some religious traditions consider geographic places to be spiritually sacred. These sacred places may figure prominently in religious ceremonies or spiritual rituals.
- Ancestral spirits are the souls or spirits of dead relatives freed from their body at death who maintain an interest in the living. They often need to be worshiped or included in rituals in order to be placated, so that they continue to be benevolent. Sometimes they are thought to be reborn generation after generation.
- Gods and Goddesses are seen as all powerful and remote beings. They control the universe and are often associated with particular aspects of the world when there are more than one.
- Pantheons are collections of deities.
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.
- Life-cycle rituals are often referred to as rites of passage and they mark a status change from one important life stage to another. There are three phases to these rituals: separation, transition and reintegration (or incorporation). Childbirth is a life-cycle ritual.
- Pilgrimage: Many religions have required or encouraged rituals of pilgrimage, a round trip to a place considered sacred for the purpose of religious devotion or ritual. Pilgrimage often has hardships, is demanding and frequently results in spiritual transformation. (Hajj)
- Rituals of inversion require that normal social roles and relations be temporarily reversed or inverted. Some believe that these rituals allow for a social “blowing off of steam” and reduce tensions that might be disruptive. Many Carnival celebrations are rituals of inversion.
- Sacrifice is the offering of something to the supernaturals. Many anthropologists believe that sacrifices are meant to please deities.
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.
- Some religious specialists are part-time, such as shamans and shamankas. They gain their status through direct relationships to the supernaturals, established through altered states of consciousness – trances - and are often seen as being “called.” Anyone can become a shaman. These specialists are often associated with non-state cultures, such as bands and tribes. Originally, the term shaman was applied to medical-religious specialists; however, it has grown to include a variety of part-time religious specialists, spiritual leaders, and traditional medical healers.
- Within state and chiefdom systems that have hierarchies, their religions are also likely to have such status divisions and require specialized teaching and knowledge. Priests and priestesses are full time religious specialists whose position is based on skills gotten through formal training.
- Diviners can discover the wishes of supernatural beings through ritual known as divination (palm/tarot card). Diviners are typically associated with witchcraft.
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.
- Hinduism, with about 750 million followers, most in India, is the oldest, continuously existing religion in the world, developing around 3500 years ago. They don’t seek converts, people are born as Hindus and it is a polytheistic religion. Its core texts are the 4 Vedas.
- Buddhism has about 350 million adherents and derives from Hinduism. It is polytheistic and has no central texts which all believers follow. The central goal of Buddhism is Nirvana (enlightenment). Good deeds allow a better rebirth with each incarnation until you are released from the cycle. It is believed to be around 2000-2400 years old.
- Judaism has about 15 million adherents scattered around the globe. It is roughly 2500 years old and its central text is the Torah. It is monotheistic and places importance on learning.
- Christianity has about 1.5 billion followers, so it’s the largest world religion. It grew out of Judaism and its central text is the Bible. It is about 2000 years old and is monotheistic.
- Islam has over 1.1 billion followers, making it the second largest religion. It is the youngest at 1400 years old and its central text is the Qur’an. It is based on the teaching of the prophet Muhammed, to whom Allah (God) transmitted his words and deeds. It is monotheistic.
- African Religions are found all over the world due to slavery and colonization. About 10% of Africa’s people practice some form of indigenous religion which, while varying widely, share some common features, such as myths about a split between a creator deity and humans; a pantheon of supernaturals from a powerful high god to lesser gods; elaborate initiation rituals and sacrifices; altars within shrines where humans and supernaturals meet; and close links with healing. Rastafarianism is one African Diaspora religion.
DIRECTIONS OF CHANGE
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 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.