Rituals & Religion in Anthropology

In Intro to Anthro 2022, after discussing Kinship-Gender-Sex we read chapter 13, “Supernaturalism” in Through the Lens of Anthropology.

Next: Baseball Magic


Partial Transcript

Chapter 13 is “Supernaturalism,” which is a fancy way of saying a chapter about religion or the anthropology of religion, and also rituals and things like that. The reason they don’t call it the religion chapter is because there’s been a lot of debate about what exactly religion is and what it should encompass. Who has religion? What defines it?

I’m going to spare you all that debate, because I think it is from an earlier time. It’s from a time in which people would go around and try to think about if different structures existed in different societies. The definition of whether you had a religious building or not, or an institution and should we call that religion. There’s arguments to be made on each side.

Also as you noticed, it goes back into the archaeology a little bit to talk about when could we first talk about religious beliefs emerging. But like I said I’m going to spare you that stuff because it gets into interminable debates.

Instead we’re going to concentrate on two main points that anthropology has made about religion, and how we can use religion and belief to analyze our own lives and social relationships. The two main points that I get out of this stuff: First, how people’s beliefs that we might see as strange or irrational, or that were once seen as being part of a mystical magical world, what are called “strange beliefs” may indeed have their own logic and their own consistency. We need to be very careful when talking about others, as if other people are immersed in magic, irrationality, and superstition.

In this chapter Muckle, González, and Camp do say that oftentimes religion and beliefs in things beyond the realm of the immediate senses that we can perceive is often used to explain what we cannot explain, or to offer explanations for things that we now see science as explaining. But what I want us to be very careful about here is that although the realm of religion has often extended to the ultimate questions of the universe, that doesn’t mean it is necessarily in conflict with the idea of science or scientific explanation. We need to be careful of assuming that in our world we have science, and we don’t need religion, or people have religion because they don’t have science, or the more science you have the less religion you have. What people often do in our own society and in other societies, is that religion and belief provide an ultimate answer to the question of why something happens.

There’s a very famous example of this that is related by the anthropologist Evans-Pritchard, who talks about when he was with the Azande in the Sudan, in Africa. There they built granaries, which were erected on posts. There’d be grains stored above and there’d be posts below supporting them. You could sit under them for shade, but every so often termites would eat out the posts. One of the granaries would fall, and somebody might be sitting under it. They might get hurt. What they would say is that was caused by sorcery or witchcraft. Evans-Pritchard said science tells us that it’s the termites that are eating the posts. They would say, yes we know it’s the termites eating the posts, of course, but why was that guy sitting under it when it fell? Why did he get hurt and not that other person?

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that’s where the Witchcraft comes in that’s where the sorcery comes in that’s where the explanation comes in. I think that in some ways we do similar things or at least I’ve seen people do similar things we know that there are viruses. We know that there’s bacteria. We know that’s why we get sick, but why do both of us go to the same party and one person catches it. The other person doesn’t or what are what is the good person get sick. The bad person still gets to keep going that doesn’t make any sense. So, religion I mean it’s not that people we may believe in the viral Theory or the bacterial theory of cause for disease, but it doesn’t tell us why something happens to me and not you. It doesn’t tell us why some people seem to have more severity than others. People turn to other explanations for the for why this happened science is ultimately very unsatisfying about providing you the answer of why something happens it may tell you what’s going on, but why no they can’t. On the one hand, you have the translation or the idea from other societies that what we do is what other people do may be logical. But the other side of this is looking at our own society and discovering that there are strangenesses built inside that our own practices may not be. So, rational, which is what I’ve been discovering with all these angel numbers and all this numeracy going around is that the things in our society, which should be the most rational numeric calculation turn out to be all these people are saying weird things about it the numbers are doing things to people.. I don’t know what’s going on with that I’m just starting to learn about this and learn that certain numbers that I’ve never liked I should like and other numbers that I do like I shouldn’t like and I don’t know, but I what this all adds up to and we’ll read an article a very famous article by Georgia Mills called baseball Magic for Monday, which goes into some of the practices that baseball players have or when they were doing their sport. I think it’s a fun article I hope you will enjoy it, especially those of you who are involved in sport. Again, it’s just to emphasize that the beliefs of others can have logic and our own may not be as rational as we once believed one of the things that is discussed is how religion. The rituals or the things that people do within religion one of the functions verse 1 on page 331 is to create creating community

how does this work what’s it like

bringing people together as a community through these kinds of rituals one of the rituals that is mentioned as a very famous example in anthropology. I hope you can use it to analyze your own your own experiences in your own life it’s the idea of the rights of Passage those rituals that occur when people are transitioning from one state of life to another maybe from childhood to adolescence from adolescence to adulthood or from single to married or these kinds of ways birth death. The anthropologist named Arnold van Gennep back about a hundred years ago wrote a book called the Rites of Passage, which took examples from around the world and he said there were three main stages of these rights the first one being that of Separation where the people the initiates or the people who are going through this transitional stage are separated from their Community might put on special clothes like pride and groom might dress up differently than others or you might have to dress up in robes if you are graduating from something. Then, you enter into this period of transition in which some of the normal rules get turned upside down you’re in a state of betwixt or between, what some people call liminality, or neither here nor there. It might be a big party people might be ingesting various substances the normal rules of life might be upside down there might be some dancing things you’re getting crazy, but then at the end of the ceremony or the end of the ritual there’s a you are reincorporated or reintegrated into society based on the new roles that you have. So, after graduation then. You need to become a new person who is a adult member of the workforce let us say or maybe after graduation from high school you’re reincorporated into the world as a full-grown adult. At that point the people have to assume their new their new social rules yes as pronounce you husband and husband. Then, they walk onto the world into this new role of being married. We can use this to analyze the specific rights a graduation a bar mitzvah a wedding ceremony the only what do. We need to do here is a commitment no commencement wait is that what we did yes we’re here you had to dress all in your blue clothes. Then, we incorporate you and you take a big picture. Now you’re a Hartwick College student. We can look at it as we can analyze those small day-long rituals. We can also look at it as phases of life. If you look at College itself as a time in which you are separated out from your regular community and put into a place upon a hill somewhere. Then, you enter this fairly long period of transition in which the normal rules of life are suspended at least a little bit in time. You can get access to various things that you might not have been able to before. Then, finally you’re reincorporated into your new rules. So, College in some ways the whole experience is a long transition phase from one state into the next. It’s a good it’s just a really helpful framework for looking at things that happen to us in life

Another thing that we can use in terms of analyzing religion in turn in terms of society is looking at various what Muckle, González, and Camp call sacred roles. We have deities or gods. We also have what Muckle, González, and Camp call ancestral spirits, but I’m going to call just ancestors. So, reverence for for those who have gone before.

Forces of nature or beings of nature, which I’m just going to call nature. In all of these cases we can see that people look into the world and find a supernatural or stuff that goes beyond the senses in the world out there. In terms of deities or a deity Muckle, González, and Camp say that these often correspond to hierarchical societies in which there are delineations between the ruled. The ruling the powerful. The not. So, powerful. The deities often reinforce those kinds of hierarchies we can also sometimes see what’s going on or we can get a glimpse into gender relationships when we’re talking about deities talked about this although I think you were talking about ancestors, but I think you were also talking about gendered deities does that happen what happens what happens with gender and deities and maybe even some ancestral stuff

Oftentimes there are many hierarchical religions in which misogyny sexism is institutionalized in ways that are that is not good for the people in that society. On the one hand, we have the ancestor veneration, which can convey respect and social obligations, but indeed if we combine that with what we talked about of patrilineal kinship organization and a gendered hierarchy of deities it can be not. So not nice for certain people in that system on the other hand if we have a matrilineal system and a multiple deities including some that are women it can be a reflection that women have more power or respect in that society.

Muckle, González, and Camp also talk about the spirits of nature we see this a lot in societies that are hunters and gatherers.. We talked about the notion that in such societies there’s reciprocity not just between people, but between people. The l. People and non-human animals people and plants. It’s it’s just it’s a form of or it’s related to what is called, “animism where the world of nature is also imbued with personalities and is seen as something that you interact with on a personal level. On the one hand, this has been seen as a system on its own, but I would also say that it’s important to realize that all of our societies have aspects of these different kinds of beliefs. So, although we might categorize in a large-scale way different societies based on their on their belief system we should recognize that these are often mixed together or combined in various ways. One of the great terms for mixed income combining shows up on page 341 where they talk about syncretism and syncretism most often refers to combinations of religious beliefs mixtures. Most religions although. They might deny it are composed of some form of syncretic beliefs. What people are celebrating Christmas with a Christmas tree or Easter with an Easter Bunny those things are not part of the biblical tradition somehow they got in there in part because various religious and belief systems were merged together a lot of very famous religious Traditions merged in the Americas merging together Catholicism with African beliefs to create what we know now as Kendall or Santeria or what is known as Voodoo more technical called vodun in Haiti. In the Caribbean religious Traditions that blend together is forms and like I said I think all of us are in some ways syncretic in our belief. We may take the Tylenol or take the shot that is given to us. We also do some praying or some ritual activity

At the end of this chapter Muckle, González, and Camp talk to us about how for thousands of years people have manipulated their bodies for religious reasons and this reminds me of what we’re talking about in terms of sex and gender and different ways in which people have been married and had different sexualities and multiple genders this has been something that has been going on for a long time. People get all excited about people taking things and going into trances and this has been something that humans have been searching for in various ways for thousands of years not saying you should go do it just because they were doing it thousands of years ago. But this is something that is pretty common in the Human Experience trying to dance yourself into a into a trance or take various things in the natural environment in order to achieve some altered state. Of course, we all know now that we can go down to get things tattooed on our bodies. But this is again something that has been going on for religious or belief reasons for a very long time. As they put it voluntary painful and arduous physical trials somebody said well we don’t do those and I reminded them when they were beating each other up on the soccer field that in fact we engage in voluntary painful and arduous physical trials all the time or at least I think they’re voluntary. If you looked at them from the outside you might wonder why in the society they’re doing this to each other and going around saying silly things like “no pain no gain.”