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.