Anthropology of Religion

Home Discover anthropology Specialist Areas Anthropology of Religion

People living in the West tend to have a clear idea of what religion should look like: it tends to take place in a building set aside for the purpose (a church, synagogue, mosque, temple etc.), revolves around appeals to a higher, all-powerful deity and involves the articulation of beliefs (often set down in texts) to which the general population may or may not subscribe. Anthropologists have studied such religions, but they have also examined contexts where religious practice looks very different. In many cultures and societies, the idea of a single God may not be present, and the notion of reading a sacred book like the Koran or the Bible would seem very strange, not least because writing and reading may not play any part in people’s lives. Even the western notion of ‘belief’ does not make much sense in contexts where ideas about gods and spirits are taken for granted, and are not challenged by other faiths or the conclusions of the natural sciences.

Anthropologists of religion are not concerned with discovering the truth or falsehood of religion. They are more interested in how religious ideas express a people’s cosmology, i.e. notions of how the universe is organised and the role of humans within the world. Many study rituals which incorporate symbols, and note how these often help to bring communities together in times of crisis or special points in the calendar. The actions of religious specialists, whether these are priests, prophets, shamans or spirit mediums are also examined. In many societies, such specialists have important political and economic as well as religious roles to play.

Text written by Dr. Simon Coleman (reproduced with the author’s permission) 

Postgraduate Degrees in the UK

University of Aberdeen

Recommended Resources


The following trailer is for Holy Hustlers a film distributed by the Royal Anthropological Institute.


Director Richard Werbner
Release 2009
Length 53 mins
Location Botwana / Africa
Ethnic Group Pan-ethnic; Twana, Kalanga, Tswapong, Birwa, Kgaladi
Language English, Twana, Kalanga (English Sugtitles)
University University of Manchester

Charismatic, street-wise young men, living in Botswana’s capital, command the prophetic domain in Eloyi, their Apostolic faith-healing church, at a time of escalating crisis. Bitter, sinful accusations divide Eloyi’s village-based archbishop and his son, the city based bishop. The church itself, seen to be ‘under destruction’, splits. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, prophets are seen in trance, whirling in ecstasy, praying, running wild in exorcism and feeling patients’ pain in their own bodies. But beyond empathy and avowed compassion, prophets hustle and shock. This film illuminates the creative tension between holiness and hustling by showing how, in this Apostolic church’s time of crisis, city prophets assert themselves powerfully because they are both holy and hustlers.

The Royal Anthropological Institute (RAI) has one of the largest ethnographic film libraries in Europe. Films are available for hire, sale, or loan for educational and academic purposes. Click here for a list of films the RAI distributes on Anthropology of Religion.

General – a website of links compiled by M.D.Murphy on numerous religions and religious practices around the world. – a tutorial giving an introduction to folk religion and magic by Dr. Dennis O’Neil. – a virtual index with extensive links maintained by Rutgers University’s Religion Department. – a wesbite containing articles and links on anthropology and history of religion. – BBC’s religions and ethics webpage.


Anthropology and Religion: What We Know, Think, and Question
Winzeler, L. Robert (AltaMira Press, 2008)

The Anthropology of Religion, 2nd Revised Edition
by Fiona Bowie (Blackwell Publishing, 2005)

Religion and Anthropology: A critical Introduction
By: Brian Morris (Cambridge University Press, 2005)

Professional Organisations, Groups and Associations

American Academy of Religion– the world’s largest association of academics who research or teach on topics related to religion.

European Association for Social Anthropologists – EASA has an Anthropology of Religion section which runs its own list-serve. 

C-SAP– The Subject network for Sociology, Anthropology and Politics – is running a network discussing the teaching of Anthropology of Religion.

Society for the Anthropology of Religion – an interest group of the American Anthropological Association which aims to facilitate teaching and research in anthropological study of religion.