Course overview


Online teaching

We are now offering many of our courses online due to the developing Covid-19 situation. Continue learning with us by taking courses remotely via live distance learning.


This course introduces an anthropological perspective on religion, examining its role in diverse cross-cultural contexts and investigating the evolutionary and psychological significance of religious behaviours in order to understand what, if anything, constitutes ‘human nature’. We will encourage you to engage critically with your perception of different beliefs, reflecting on the cultural biases that we employ when thinking about religious, sociocultural or ethnic groups different to our own.

This course was thought provoking and informative. The course leader has expert knowledge, is very enthusiastic and delivers the information in an interesting manner. Very enjoyable. 

Michelle Plimmer, GP, Spring 2018

In this ten week course we will examine the key categories of magico-religious belief and practice used by anthropologists, including:

  • Myth
  • Ritual
  • Witchcraft
  • Shamanism

As well as surveying theories regarding the continued importance of religion in a contemporary, globalised world in relation to topics such as fundamentalism and identity, religion and violence, and new religious movements.

Possession of an anthropological perspective is a valuable tool for understanding and navigating the increasingly globalised and multicultural environment that we all participate in, and your understanding of such a world and the diversity it encompasses will be significantly enriched through this course.

The kinds of insights, observational skills, analytical abilities and sensitivity to religious and cultural difference that an anthropological perspective provides are also highly valued by many employers, and are particularly pertinent if you are seeking career opportunities either involving travel, or in the transnational/corporate field. Anthropological research skills are also increasingly sought by employers within the media, advertising and marketing industries.

Why Study this Course?

  • Explore religious beliefs and cultural practices in an anthropological framework
  • Learn to engage critically with the way you perceive religious and cultural difference
  • Explore the psychological significance of religious behaviours
  • Develop your observational skills and analytical ability abilities in relation to sensitive cultural matters
  • Understand the contemporary state of magico-religious beliefs and practices



Booking information

Disability Support

We are committed to providing reasonable teaching adjustments for students with disabilities that may impact on their learning experience. If you require adjustments, please complete the relevant section on the booking form and also contact us at so we can respond to your requests as soon as possible. 

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Tutor information

portrait of class tutor justin woodman

Dr Justin Woodman

Dr Justin Woodman is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Anthropology at Goldsmiths with over 15 years’ experience in teaching introductory anthropology courses to adult learners. He completed his doctoral research on the concept and the politics of the ‘demonic’ within contemporary occultures in the UK. His current research interests include: esotericism, speculative fiction and popular culture; racism and political extremism within cultures of conspiracy; religion, cognition and the ‘New Atheism’. In addition to this short course, Justin also teaches on Culture, Society and the Making of Humanity: Introducing Anthropology.


Course structure

Weeks 1 & 2: Introducing the Anthropology of Religion: Religion, Rationality and Society

In the first two sessions of the course, we will investigate what constitutes a uniquely 'anthropological' perspective on religion, and examine key anthropological theories regarding the purpose of religion and its relationship to society. In the second session, we will further investigate the manner in which anthropologists have tried to understand the role of religion in human culture and society, focusing specifically on the issue of whether religion can be considered 'rational' and how, if at all, this relates to ideas about secularisation in the modern world.

Weeks 3 & 4: The Origins and Evolution of Religion - from Shamanism to Monotheism

In recent years, a few anthropologists have advocated a return to an explicitly ‘scientific’ approach in the field of the anthropology of religion. This has entailed a re-thinking of the ‘meaning’ and ‘purpose’ of religion in relation to evolutionary theory and the cognitive sciences. Here, the claim is that religion either serves an evolutionary (and biological) function, or is simply the by-product of universal and innate human cognitive capabilities (the psychological mechanisms by which people acquire knowledge about the world). In the first of these two sessions, we will re-assess the ‘rationality’ debate from this new, exciting (but challenging) perspective, and explore some contemporary theories which seek to explain religion - from a scientific and evolutionary perspective - the origins of human religiousity and the belief in the supernatural.

In relation to this, we will also examine the phenomenon of 'shamanism' which, alongside animism and anthropomorphism, is considered by some anthropologists to be the earliest forms of human religious belief and practice. Following this, we will examine some of the ways in which religious beliefs have changed and developed throughout human history, to focus on the emergence of contemporary forms of monotheism with a view to understanding some of the reasons why monotheism has become such a dominant form of religious belief in the modern world.

Week 5 & 6: Cosmology and Religious Practice: Myth, Ritual & Pilgrimage

Ritual is one of the defining characteristics of religion and one of the most important religious contexts in which religious meanings are created, and in which the sacred cosmos is made manifest. Ritual often involves the re-enactment of important cultural myths. In these three sessions, we will examine the important role that myth plays within the context of ritual, and look at the role of ritual within society more broadly. In particular, we will look at rites of passage (which play an important role in all human societies) to look at the ways ritual is used to call upon the powers of the supernatural to witness and validate important social transitions. In this context, ritual often draws upon cosmology, symbol and myth as the means of structuring and integrating individuals’ roles into the broader workings of society (in many societies perceived as the mirror of the cosmic order). In doing so, it has been suggested that the performance of ritual - and the kinds of meanings expressed by ritual symbolism - serve to reproduce existing structures of power. In this respect, it is important to understand the role played by religion in the ordering of power relations. In this session, we will also touch upon some of the psychological aspects of ritual, and look at how an understanding of ritual can further our understanding of ‘human nature’.

Weeks 7 & 8: Religion and Violence: Witchcraft Accusations, Religious Fundamentalisms, and Social Boundaries

Witchcraft often involves the belief that particular individuals possess the supernatural power to cause harm. Such beliefs occur cross-culturally, and manifest in a number of social and historical contexts - in particular, accusations of witchcraft often appear at times of rapid social change and upheaval. In the first part of the two sessions, we will examine ideas underpinning beliefs about witchcraft as they appear cross-culturally with a view to understanding links between religion, morality and violence. In the second session, we will continue to critically interrogate the claim that religion and violence are instrinsically linked, exploring various instances in which religion and beliefs in the supernatural have arguably been used to legitimate violent acts as a means of engendering 'moral purity' and the establishing/reinforcement of group boundaries – particularly with regard to the growth of various forms of religious fundamentalism. In conjunction with studies of religious violence, we will review both evolutionary and socio-cultural approaches to the issue in order to critically assess the assumption that religion is one of the principle ‘causes’ of violence in the contemporary world.

Week 9 & 10: Religion and Social Change: Millenarianism, New Religious Movements, and Contemporary ‘Occultures’

In these sessions we will focus on the relationship between religion and social change, examining the ways in which the emergence of new religious forms may be view as reflections of or reactions to wider socio-cultural changes. In the first session, we will look at the emergence of a range of ‘revitalisation movements’ amongst indigenous communities, often in response to sweeping social and cultural changes instigated by European colonialism and processes of globalization more generally. Here we will also focus on the widespread influence of both Christianity and global capitalism in shaping 'milleniarian' beliefs and practices in places like Papua New Guinea, as well as looking at how indigenous people's (as well as our own) encounter with consumer goods has informed their religious sensibilities in relation to modernity. Following these, we will draw comparisons with the emergence of ‘New Religious Movements’ in the context of Europe and America, along with an examination of other 'alternative' or 'New Age' spiritualities including contemporary pagan and ‘occult’ beliefs.

Learning outcomes

At the end of this course you will be able to:

  • Identify and evaluate what constitutes an anthropological approach to religion
  • Understand the relationship between religion and society, and the important role played by religion in shaping what it means to be ‘human’
  • Identify and compare key features of religious beliefs and practices in different societies
  • Identify and evaluate key anthropological theories of religion as well as key anthropological categories used to investigate religion (such as myth, ritual and witchcraft)
  • Revaluate your own assumptions and ideas about the religious beliefs of both Western and non-Western cultures
  • Clarify your own ideas and perspectives, and develop their ability to engage in critical analysis through participation in group discussion and exercises.

About the department

Our Department of Anthropology was recently named in the top 40 in the world in the QS rankings. We are committed to cultivating a unique and creative approach to this discipline, and seek to encourage originality and apply these theories into the field. Part of this learning process involves “denormalising” or challenging the familiarity our own experiences, which each of consider the basis of normality.

The subject covers a wide range of study areas, such as politics and economics, and as such, embodies the University wide ethos of an interdisciplinary approach. We are especially interested in supporting all students by creating a responsive and collaborative learning environment, encouraging personal and social development both within, and beyond, the classroom. Anthropology pioneers new fields such as visual anthropology and the anthropology of modernity. At the core of this focus is a commitment to employing our theoretical framework into relevant practical areas, and to understanding and engaging with important contemporary global issues. In addition to this short course, the Department hosts a number of exciting courses including:

Culture, Society and the Making of Humanity: Introducing Anthropology
Introduction to Visual Anthropology: Documentaries and Films
Anthropology and Art: Museums, Galleries and Globalisation
Anthropology of Social Spaces and the Built Environment

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