- Frederick (Fritz) P. LampeFrederick (Fritz) P. LampeNorthern Arizona University
Anthropology has long been interested in religion. Shifts in the anthropology of religion include expanding notions of what it is beyond Eurocentric distinctions between sacred and profane, real and superstitious, pure and syncretic, primitive and civilized, and true and naïve. With these shifts come creative and collaborative approaches to understanding systems of meaning. The result is that anthropologists are now engaging with global movements, the ways proponents of particular movements impact, influence, and shape local discourse and practice, and the creative ways religious ideas coalesce into meaningful social practice.
Approaches to the domain of religion and its relevance for and within communities recognize: (a) that comprehensive systems of meaning shape individual and social experience; and (b) the ways religion influences and informs ideas about health and healing, community development, climate change, and sustainability. Opportunities to apply anthropologically informed approaches to religion result.
Religion, health, and healing are deeply intertwined. For example, many people seeking life-work balance have turned to meditative practices. Yoga classes, for one, have many people meeting in health clubs, church basements, in city parks, and other community venues. Deep breathing and experiencing the wholeness of one’s body, mind, and spirit impact the ways people understand themselves in relationship to others and the world. The novel coronavirus, COVID‑19, has highlighted the relationships people have with scientific inquiry vis-à-vis their faith, the ways God’s work and will interface in a global pandemic, and what responsibilities people of faith have. These things have come to the fore during the pandemic. These same tenets inform how communities of faith respond to government regulations about childhood immunizations.
In addition to physical health, religion is relevant to social health and healing as well. Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, massive protests called for an end to systemic racism in the United States. A rainbow of people took to the streets to protest the continued and systematic oppression of minority communities—Black, Indigenous, Asian, Hispanic, and White together with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer/Questioning—and they quickly became allies calling for change. Protesters and those who opposed them invoked symbols filled with religious meaning to support their cause in order to restore the nation to health, and what that means.
Pilgrimages physically substantiate underlying meaning for people, their sense of identity and purpose. Making a pilgrimage removes someone from ordinary time, immersing that person into liminal time and space. With some pilgrimages come changes in status, marking a shift in someone’s identity, status, or place in life. Communities tie these rites of passage to important moments in people’s lives; from birth to a conversion experience, from last rites to the ancestral realm and everything in between, people and the communities they are a part of continually mark changes in status and stature.
Religious perspectives inform those working in international aid and community development, how they understand their role and task as well as those with whom they work. When fostering community development, private and public organizations reflect and sometimes reinforce ever-persistent ideas linking religious ideas and practices with material wealth, social organization, and relationships to the nonhuman world. When terms like “developed,” “developing,” and “undeveloped” are used to describe the settings within which they work, a socioreligious value is being placed on people and their ways of living and being in the world.
Human relationships to the earth are fundamentally religious. The ways communities use their time, energy, and resources reflect religious values and perspectives. Modern environmentalism has long recognized the importance of reimagining human beings and their relationship to the cosmos. Religious ideas and practices inform whether people see the earth, water, sky, and creatures as things to be used for the pleasure of humans, as gifts to be cared for, or as living, sentient beings. Responses to climate change are reflected in the relationships fostered by formal and informal religious movements.
With the movement away from Eurocentric models of religion have come new opportunities to envision how anthropologists can approach health and healing, community development, and sustainability. People trained in anthropology have many ways to put these perspectives and methodologies to work in applying religion. Public and private sector organizations including government, for-profit and not-for-profit entities are hiring people able to translate these seemingly tenuous relationships into pragmatic yet complex opportunities for making the world a better place.
- Applied Anthropology