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date: 11 April 2021

Applying Religionfree

  • 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.

Practicing anthropologists are akin to entrepreneurs, entering into collaborative relationships with diverse communities, asking poignant questions, seeing connections between ideas, experiences, and expressions, reframing perspectives and opportunities, and proposing actions that enhance the lives of individuals and collective enterprises. When applying religion, things become a bit more complicated in that what religion is, what it means, and who decides is contested. Many have tried to define religion in ways that will stand the test of time; yet, to date, no consensus exists as to what it is. Some argue that settling on a definition is a challenge given that conceptualizations about religion grow out of its history in the West that scholars in many disciplines have appropriated to further specific models of religion (Saler 1999). While some relegate religion to specific times, places, and practices, others argue the underlying assumptions, values, perceptions, and activities “for pretty much everything else that humans do or think” are based on religion (Klass 1999, 1). There is little agreement about what the word means and when or whether to use it (Lampe 2013, 693). Yet reports of the demise of the term are, to borrow from the author Samuel Clemens, “greatly exaggerated.”

The ways anthropologists think about religion and its relationship to other societal structures and the ways those intersect with lived experience, highlight both the difficulty and importance of applying religion. Humans are meaning-makers. Human beings associate ideas with people, places, and things in ways that transform them. These associations are at the heart of meaning-making, which involves experiencing the world by making associations among ideas, things, and events, to which arbitrary meaning is assigned. As a result, the things which people are passionate about and what they do are laden with symbolic meaning. Sometimes these things are clearly associated with a specific religious system while at other times the connection is more tenuous.

People and the communities of which they are a part invest a great deal in how they understand and experience their place in the universe. Rooted in the West, the term “religion” traces back to possible Latin terms such as religare as in “to read again” or “to repeat” (re: “to repeat”; legere: “to read”); religio as in “to reply,” “to depend on,” or “to go through something again,” or ligation, meaning “that which binds,” as in the transactions that bind humans and gods (Harper 2019). Yet its nebulous origins did not stop its use over two millennia as a way to classify particular human ideas and practices.

The focus here is on applying religion. The experiences that shape and form people’s lives give rise to two questions: (a) What is religion? (b) Why does religion matter? The challenge for anthropologists has been in establishing the parameters for what is religion and/or religious behavior and what is not. Is belief in a divine being necessary for something to be identified as religion? If so, is religion restricted primarily to monotheistic movements? Or, does religion encompass systems of meaning indexed by and including something intangible, that which humans cannot hold in their hands? When narrowly defined, as in the former, many shared expressions and experiences that are meaningful to people are excluded. Yet when broadly applied, religion begins to include everything under the umbrella of culture. Anthropologists applying religion must overcome the tendency to presume that religion is represented solely on what the Enlightenment and subsequent Reformation have identified as religion, making it all the more interesting to engage with, explore, and apply today. By no means exhaustive, examples of socioreligious dynamics present in health and healing, community development, and sustainability with a particular nod to climate change, illustrate the relevance of applying religion when collaborating with specific communities, engaging in policy conversations, and solving problems.

Anthropology and Religion

Anthropology and religion have a long, and at times, tenuous relationship. The immediate precursors to modern anthropology included speculative hypotheses about social variation. The convergence of European trade and colonial expansion included European Christian missionary forays into distant lands. New proposals about human biological variation led to speculation about similarities and differences between European and non-European societies, about why they were organized in particular ways, their technologies, and their stories of origins, why certain events occur, what happens after death, and why. Why different religious systems existed, their relationship to one another, and what it meant that people explained unexplainable phenomena, misfortune, or good fortune was one of many lines of inquiry. Within these postulations were questions about whether there were noncorporal entities at work in the world, their relationship to human beings, and how to interact with them.

In this pre-fieldwork era, four additional assumptions inform inferences about what religion is and its purpose. First, Victorian English society, its organization, beliefs, and technologies were assumed to be at or near the pinnacle of the unilineal social evolutionary chain. Second, within English society, human beings, specifically men, alone, were enlightened and as such had all command of what was rational, good, and right. Third, those deemed lower on the evolutionary scale were operating from a naïve perspective relying on superstitious ideas about spirits and nonhuman powers, resulting in magical practices. And fourth, over time these primitive ideas would give way to monotheism which would be replaced with scientific rationality. Much has changed over the past century.

Defining Religion

The term “religion” has been the subject of considerable debate by anthropologists and scholars of religious studies (Klass 1995; Smith 1996). Limited and inadequate as it is, no consensus has emerged as to what to call that which is beyond the tangible world. Rather, any particular definition of religion belies particular assumptions about what its study entails (Bielo 2015). A “system of meaning,” “cosmology” (the study of the nature of the universe), and “cosmogony” (the origins of the universe) have been offered as alternatives, yet each proves inadequate when pushed beyond its initial offering. Systems of meaning harken back to Geertz’s proposal that a religion is a “system of symbols,” a definition that is easily applied to culture and even more problematic when Geertz attempted to explicate it using European Protestant assumptions (Geertz 1966; see also Asad 1983). Cosmology begins with metaphysical questions and philosophical inquiry into the ultimate nature of reality and being which in turn lead to the study of ways of knowing and being, epistemology and ontology. Cosmogony, a philosophical term—literally a theory of the origins of the universe—has, like cosmology, become the purview of physics. Contemporary physical models of the origins of the universe now dominate the scientific literature, limiting the ability of nonscientific scholarship to engage with and offer theories of its origin and mechanics (Halverson and Kragh 2017). Ultimately, the term “religion” continues to be used to classify certain ideas and practices—a term reflecting the ways meaning and practice are locally constructed and experienced (Yoder 1974). Yet those who define the term determine which of these meanings and practices are religious and belong together, and those which are not and do not.

When the term “religion” is applied, it is used to classify ideas and behaviors. In doing so, anthropologists are not interested in deciding whether an experience is valid or true but instead seek to understand it in relationship to interrelated social experiences and global movements. When applied to social ideas and behaviors, the term “religion” recognizes that people have and continue to recount stories of their community’s origins, to monitor what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior, and to put meaning into action through rituals intent upon interacting with the nonmaterial world.

First applied to enemies of the Roman state with the introduction of Christianity, the word was used to “delineate between nostra religio and vestra religio (a collective’s religio vis-à-vis the religio of others)” (Lampe 2013, 693). Constantine’s 313 Common Era (ce) declaration of toleration for Christianity resulted in Christianity being used to distinguish between true and false religion (vera religio and falsa religio). With this declaration, Christianity became the template for what constitutes true religion. European ways of thinking about religion were shaped over time, especially by the Enlightenment, including anthropology.

Early anthropology followed the Cartesian distinction between mind and body (nous and som) (Erwin 1999, 597) as well as the earlier dualism of the ancient world: “the Pythagorean-Orphic tension between spirit and flesh; the Platonic distinction between the intelligible and the sensible world; the Zoroastrian ethical dualism between a good and evil spirit, later converted into gods” (Peters 1971). These dichotomies contributed to European conceptualizations of non-Europeans, shaping early ideas about religion. Bodies are temporal; they decay and die. The flesh is weak, corrupt, dirty, and dangerous. Minds separate humans from the nonhuman world and are capable of higher thought. The spirit is the place where purity, faith, hope, and love are understood and expressed, and in doing so, spirit is the place wherein the divine dwells within Christianity. These distinctions continue to inform categories of religion, hence the preference by some to describe themselves as spiritual rather than religious. Anthropology, however, has begun to move into new directions.

Developments in the Anthropology of Religion

Recent developments in the anthropology of religion have taken distinct yet intertwined paths. One movement has been a shift toward specific religious movements with attention to the relationships they share with one another along with their distinct incarnations. For example, significant scholarship has been devoted to an anthropology of Islam (Schielke 2018) and a parallel emphasis on an anthropology of Christianity (Coleman 2013), specifically the proliferation of Pentecostal and evangelical Christianity. These represent very different theological streams yet both emphasize social ruptures, an area of interest in the anthropology of Christianity (see Coleman and Hackett 2015). Along with this research has come an interest in the interplay among anthropology, philosophy, and theology. Grounded in their common histories, this emerging focus considers the ways anthropology in general, and anthropologists and the people they interact with, are impacted and shaped by questions of identity, purpose, and meaning. Underlying these questions are ruminations about what it means to be a person who affiliates with local and social groups. This endeavor, sometimes referred to as the ontological (philosophical study of being) turn, brings together substantive conversations about identity politics (Giri 2006; Hill and Wilson 2003) and philosophical inquiry about being, asking fundamental questions about identity and what it means to be human, particularly the parameters and freedoms that come with it (Hofweber 2017).

The second movement considers the different ways religious experiences affect people’s minds, bodies, and spirits within particular movements. Rejecting general laws, post-structuralism emphasizes ambiguities and gaps in structures of meaning (Harcourt 2007). In doing so, anthropologists look not for regularity, “patterns, and closed systems of meaning,” but rather the ways knowledge is shared and experienced within specific sociocultural settings (Harcourt 2007, 18). The ways people construct meaning in space lends import to considering religious experiences within their social setting (Foucault and Carrette 1999). In developing ethnographies on transnational religious movements such as Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism, anthropologists have had difficulty articulating a singular experience and shared meaning given the many ways these movements inform and impact one another in specific times and places. Figure 1 is a sketch of symbols representing many religious movements.

Figure 1. World religions sketch.

Source: Krista M. Licata.

A third movement focuses on the difference between epistemology (Moser 1995), the study of knowing, and ontology (see Hofweber 2017), the study of being. The intersection of these two movements highlights one of the challenges with which anthropology continues to wrestle: how do anthropologists know what they know? This question is an important one to be sure, particularly when applying anthropological perspectives and analytics to human social experiences. Are anthropologists able to speak authoritatively while representing the ways people understand and experience their fundamental identity or sense of being? Identifying the source of knowledge invites questions about perspective, authority, and voice.

A fourth movement focuses on the relationship between material culture and religion. While interest in material culture, the relationship between things, the meanings ascribed to them, and the ways those meanings influence and inform social identity and experience is not new (Appadurai 1986; Harris 1966, 1979; Marx [1867] 2015; Steward [1955] 1972), the move has been away from nomothetic formulations and toward materiality and meaning in space and place (see Low and Lawrence-Zuniga 2001) due to the particularity of religion and religious movements, experiences, and identities (Bielo 2018b; Hasinoff 2011; Johanson and Jonuks 2018; King 2010; Morgan 2010; Pintchman and Dempsey 2015; Promey 2014). Some focus their attention on media, its use, and the way it inculcates meaning and sensory experiences (see Bielo 2018a; Buddenbaum 2017; Hoover 2006; Hosseni 2008; Meyer and Moors 2006; Meyer et al. 2011; Vries and Weber 2001). This renewed emphasis on material culture attempts to take seriously the relationship between human and material worlds and the interactions between them (Hazard 2013; Reiger and Waggoner 2015) and in doing so shifts the focus away from human-created symbols, meanings, and experiences and toward the ever-shifting assemblage of things interacting with humans and vice versa. “New Materialism is about movements—bodily, political, organizational—as much as discrete material realities” (Jones 2015, 2).

Renewed interest in material culture should come as no surprise to archaeologists given their longstanding focus on the relationships between specific material goods within an assemblage. Yet for linguistic and cultural anthropologists this is an important shift—a rediscovery of the relationship between material culture and meaning.

Reworking received notions of matter as a uniform, inert substance or a socially constructed fact, new materialism foregrounds novel accounts of its agenic thrust, processual nature, formative impetus, and self-organizing capacities, whereby matter as an active force is not only sculpted by, but also co-productive in conditioning and enabling social worlds and expression

(Sencindiver 2017).

Matter is more than simply something to be cataloged, described, and situated within its context. In New Materialism, people engage with things, and those things interact with other things generating meaning that in turn produces meaning.

This move to New Materialism has inspired intersections between religion and material culture. The journal Material Religion seeks “to explore how religion happens in material culture—images, devotional and liturgical objects, architecture and sacred space, works of arts and mass-produced artifacts” as well as exploring ways religious practice such as pilgrimage and ritual practice are embodied (Board 2020). This integration of the study of religious movements and material culture weds sociocultural anthropology, archaeology, and museum studies by considering the ways “different practices . . . put them to work.” Ritual, communication, ceremony, instruction, meditation, propaganda, display, magic, liturgy, and interpretation constitute many of the practices whereby religious culture constructs the worlds of belief (Morgan and Cotter 2012). As such, religious ideas and practices are reified through material culture. “All religion is material religion. All religion has to be understood in relation to the media of its materiality” (Engelke 2011, 209). This renewed emphasis on material religion considers the ways material culture interacts with and informs human notions of the past, present, and future. Examples of material religion follow, including symbols in the public square, indigenous peoples’ connections to space and place, and rites of passage and social identity.

The Context of the Anthropology of Religion

These four movements benefit from interdisciplinary synergy. Anthropology, feminism, philosophy, communication studies, biotechnology and ethics, environmental and ecological studies, theology, and religious studies inform new ways of thinking about and understanding human religious experience. Ironically, in 1966, Time magazine pondered whether the world needed God any longer (figure 2). As a result, religion returns to the fore within anthropology with renewed energy and focus, turning people’s attention from outsider-centric systemic analysis to the insider experience, from the objectification of the Other to contemporary experiences and expressions of socioreligious identity and praxis throughout the world. Initial energy focused on the dynamic spread of Christian Pentecostal, evangelical Christian, and Islamic movements as revitalization movements. With their diffusion, these movements connected individuals and communities on many different levels. While previous centuries had seen the rapid spread of Christianity and Islam through trade and colonization, digital technology allows instantaneous interactions between communities, far different from the weeks-to-months lag that was the norm when people were writing letters and sending packages to one another.

Figure 2. 1966 Time magazine cover story.

Source: Time magazine.

The Insider’s Perspective

Expanding the notion of what religion is beyond Western European movements has been a focus in the anthropology of religion in recent years. While European Christianity and Judaism have shaped and shaded what constitutes religion, for many non-European societies the concept of religion as separate, for example, is quite different from the distinctions that Americans and Europeans made between religion and the rest of life.

To be sure, not everyone in the United States or Europe recognizes this distinction. Some communities in the United States and Europe deliberately intertwine their faith and practices in ways that separate them from the dominant society. In non-European American communities, social cohesion could be, to borrow Geertz’s imagery, a web of significance that humans have constructed and are suspended within (1973, 5), such that religion, seemingly less pronounced, is present nonetheless. Shared ideas about what is religious or not and how someone is to behave and why are tied to notions about how the universe works, what nonhuman entities are present and active, what practices are dangerous and which are not (and why), how to counteract problems when they arise, and how all these ideas are passed along to the next generation are central to social identity. These commitments are critical to health and well-being within communities.

Finally, because the notion of belief in God is so central to Western European Christianity, faith and God have been long considered central tenets of religion. When anthropologists, explorers, and missionaries encountered communities where the notion of a single God or words for faith, belief, or assent were lacking, those communities were classified as primitive and superstitious in contrast to the monotheism modeled in European Christianity. Needing to deal with or placate ancestral spirits specifically, or interact with spirits in trees, rocks, mountains, and bodies of water means that maintaining health and good fortune, on the one hand, and with disease and misfortune on the other, requires following proscriptions including ritual offerings and sacrifices to placate entities unhappy with community transgressions.

Anthropologists recognize the malleability of religious ideas, symbols, and practices to ever-changing experiences, focusing on social identity and power when writing about religious movements and the experiences they engender for community members. These foci follow the ontological turn (Bessire and Bond 2014; De Castro 2004), recognizing that there are different ways of knowing. Just as anthropological epistemologies interpreted ideas, information, and experiences so too do those who participate or live in different epistemologies. This focus on being draws on earlier work on embodiment (Csordas 2002, 2009; Desjarlais and Throop 2011; Mascia-Lees 2011) and phenomenology (Merleau-Ponty 1962). Fundamental to these shifts has been the recognition that people experience and interpret meaning in multisensory ways.

This emphasis on identity and experience opens the door for research on globalization. With increased travel and digital technology come opportunities for people to engage with and experience the religious ideas and practices of others. Meanings, posited in the mixing of symbols, stories, and rituals, travel and are experienced, shared, adopted, and adapted in new settings.

Health and Healing

Applying religion to health and healing is informed and shaped by medical anthropology, with the distinction between biomedicine and ethnomedicine a central tenet. The former focuses on using biological principles for research, diagnosis, and practice in healing; the latter on local culturally specific ways of explaining illness and non-health as well as remedies and cure. Specifically, recognizing ethnomedical tenets means anthropologists acknowledge that ways of experiencing the world are intrinsically tied to culture, that is individuals experience the world culturally, including whether nonhuman agents and entities are impacting health and non-health. The underlying current in distinguishing between biomedicine and ethnomedicine is the distinction in how one knows what one knows.

The challenges inherent in different ways of knowing and being are found in the context of health and healing, a topic with significant religious overtones. Medical science’s way of knowing—diagnosing and treating health problems using biomedical tests and analyses—can be at odds with a community’s way of knowing. When a community relegates problems associated with health and well-being to powers, entities, relationships, and agents beyond the human realm (the ethereal), that behavior falls under the realm of religion.

Meditative Practices

Three examples demonstrate the way peoples’ approaches to health and healing are informed by religious ideas and practices (Csordas 2002; Toniol et al. 2018). The first, meditative practices aimed at helping people be present in the moment, is tied to mental health (Myers et al. 2015). Yoga, tai chi, and qigong are examples of Asian-inspired practices, combining meditation with ritual movement to center and heal mind and body. Based on the underlying principle of the body-mind connection, all three invite practitioners to still their minds by slowing down and concentrating on their breath while engaging in deliberate movement. Instructors in each use the vocabulary and prescribed poses of Asian masters while guiding students through specific practices. Originating in Tao, Buddhist, and Hindu movements focused on awakening or enlightenment in what are now India and China, yoga, tai chi, and qigong are practiced throughout the world with classes held in city parks, church basements, community centers, health clubs, and libraries.

Meditation helps people center themselves in different ways. For example, fundamental to yoga is the interplay between emptying one’s mind and mindfulness. Mindfulness infers being fully conscious of one’s breath and body, using both to fully separate from one’s own being outside distractions that prevent one from being present in the moment. Mindfulness includes letting go of the past, letting the future be the future, and living only in the present moment. And in the present one is able to imagine, nay experience, being at-one with the cosmos. Practitioners working in healthcare systems now recognize the importance of finding a sense of balance in their lives. This balance is achieved by encouraging meditation and movement as key elements in self-awareness. Those whose sense of self needs re-centering need to understand the undercurrents of healing that come through meditative practice wherein people experience being a part of a mystical union, regardless of the religious movement that inspired the particular practice. For example, Alaskan vistas invite and inspire awe (figure 3).

Figure 3. Alaskan vista.

Source: Author.

The point is this: meditative practices in the United States and Europe are religious practices designed to embrace and experience the mystical that have been adopted and adapted for Western audiences. Whether it matters that these are religious systems or not is an interesting question for people who attend classes but is beyond this scope. For present purposes, it is enough to note that emotional and physical well-being are inextricably tied together. Sunsets are often considered mystical (figure 4).

Figure 4. Tucson, Arizona, sunset.

Source: Author.

For many these practices serve to ground people seeking meaning in their lives. For some, the underlying religious elements are less important than the rituals themselves. For others, the opportunity to engage in Asian and South Asian mystical practices is deeply meaningful. Still others counsel that such practices should be avoided because they distract people from their Christian faith—risking their salvation by embracing another religious system. Instead, they contend, Christian yoga incorporates Christocentric language and imagery. Still others shrug, finding these practices helpful in maintaining a semblance of balance in their lives.

Anti-Vax Movements

A second example involves a childhood disease thought to be largely eradicated that has re-emerged to near endemic proportions. Measles outbreaks in different parts of the United States have created vociferous debates about health, faith, and freedom of people. Not restricted to the measles, anti-vaccination movements have spread across the United States and in Europe thanks in part to a proliferation of websites arguing that childhood vaccinations are dangerous and unnecessary and that immunity is best gained by exposure to what were once common childhood diseases. To review this matter in totality is far beyond the scope here. Rather, two examples will serve to highlight the ways religious convictions influence and inform parents’ decisions to resist what the medical and public health experts insist are tried and true scientifically developed practices.

Some resisting childhood immunizations do so based on religious convictions (Hussain et al. 2018). Members of communities who came to the United States fleeing persecution are leery of government oversight and maintain their insular identity by refusing childhood vaccinations out of religious convictions. Their identity is deeply tied to maintaining language, family structures, clothing, and foods; they reject modern technologies, practices, and temptations that jeopardize their status as true believers.

People identified as “Old Order” such as Mennonite and Amish communities, Russian Orthodox Christian “Old World Believers,” some Orthodox Jewish communities, different movements within Islam, Jehovah Witnesses, and the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints are examples of communities formally or informally resisting vaccinations as a part of their distrust of the dominant society (Center 2013). For these communities, faith and life are woven together such that changes in who decides to marry whom, what clothes are worn in public, how men and women relate to one another, and how people interact with nonbelievers require community deliberations, as they understand that this small change will have profound impacts upon the community at large. Whether Christian, Jew, or Muslim, the relationship between these conventional religious beliefs and contemporary health is relevant for researchers in understanding the total of an individual’s social experience.

A “vaccine symposium” led by leading figures in the anti-vax movement held in Monsey, New York, turned into an “Anti-Vaccine Rally” according to the New York Times (de Freytas-Tamura 2019). Funded by Bernard and Lisa Selz’s family-managed foundation in cooperation with the Informed Consent Action Network (ICAN) (Feldman 2019; also see Rogers 2019), this event promoted informed consent among people afraid of government overreach in healthcare—specifically the mandate for childhood vaccinations.1

A curtained partition divided the large ballroom, separating hundreds of ultraorthodox Jewish men and women from one another as is custom. Andrew Wakefield, a former British physician and leading voice in the anti-vaccine movement, spoke via Skype, and warned of the now wholly discredited link between the measles vaccine and increased susceptibility to autism and also cautioned that “vaccines were giving rise to deadlier immunizations-resistant diseases” (de Freytas-Tamura 2019). Wakefield and other speakers reinforced the concerns of those in attendance that the promotion and enforcement of measles vaccinations represented an attempt by the government to draw attention away from immigration problems as well as rid the state of nonconforming community members. Rabbi Hillel Hander is quoted as saying “We Hasidim have been chosen as a target . . . The campaign against us has been successful” (de Freytas-Tamura 2019). These concerns brought to the fore questions about the US government targeting nonconforming religious communities while reinforcing the mistrust that these communities have against outsiders impinging on their freedom to live as they believe. A lobbyist from the Church of Scientology offered to represent the community in Washington, DC, as a “voice in the public-policy game” (de Freytas-Tamura 2019).

Those who question the safety of immunizations but who otherwise embrace modernity reject the cautions of public health officials with more religious zeal than those whose beliefs reject modern medicine. Whether the rejection is based on a belief that the biopharmaceutical industry is foisting dangerous medicines on a naïve public, or that immunity from childhood diseases is garnered best by exposure to those already infected, nature, if left to itself, will take its course. Some are suspicious of institutional authority, others of the scientific method, still others of the pharmaceutical companies. Testimonials from mothers whose children have become sick, developed disabilities, or died following their childhood vaccinations reinforce existing concerns about the safety of vaccinations regardless of whether the illness, disability, or death can be directly tied to the immunization.

Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) Pandemic

Religious movements responding to the global COVID-19 pandemic serve as a third example. First identified in Wuhan, China, in December 2019, the novel coronavirus rapidly impacted communities throughout the world. With the danger of aerosol transmission, many governments advised or required people to remain at home unless identified as essential to security, economic, and physical health infrastructures. For weeks many people remained home, venturing out only to purchase groceries, manage basic affairs, or pick up takeout food orders.

Large public gatherings were directly affected. The US’ political primary election season was affected with public rallies called off and polling plans disrupted. The Democratic and Republican National Conventions were delayed, the NCAA basketball tournament was canceled as was the Wimbleton Chapionship, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics were postponed for a year, Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association abbreviated their seasons, the Stanley Cup Playoffs were delayed, to name a few.

Amidst the many canceled activities, shuttered businesses, and laid off workers, religious communities were making decisions about how to respond as well. Jewish Passover, Christian Holy Week, and Muslim Ramadan were all affected by these required closures. Synagogues, churches, and mosques were closed. Some Jewish families shared Seder meals via social media or teleconference. Many Christian congregations canceled public services, others telecast services over social media, and some ignored governmental prohibitions and met anyway. Pope Francis delivered his Holy Week messages to an empty St. Peter’s Square. The ritual activities, meals, and fasting of Ramadan were redefined by each family according to their needs, means, and circumstance.

Yet some challenged the stay-at-home orders. The New York Hasidic community gathered en masse to mourn and carry the body of a beloved rabbi to his grave in spite of the city’s ban on public gatherings (Stack 2020a). Some Texas churches continued to meet, claiming they were “essential services” and therefore exempt from the requirement that they close their doors (Collier et al. 2020). While most American universities were moving to online courses in mid-March 2020, Liberty University, a conservative Christian institution, had students return to campus following spring break only to find themselves embroiled in a class action lawsuit filed by students for the danger they were put into by returning to campus (Williamson 2020).

St. John the Divine, a large episcopal church in New York City was slated to be opened as a field hospital to alleviate pressure on other city hospitals. The partnership between the cathedral itself, with Mt. Sinai Hospital Network, and funding from the Rev. Franklin Graham’s faith-based Samaritan’s Purse, was a creative solution to a complex problem. In the end the cathedral was not used. Some suggest sufficient resources existed making it unnecessary. Others have suggested that the Rev. Franklin Graham’s theological animosity toward the LGBTQ communities conflicted with the episcopal church and St. John the Divine’s open embrace of those communities making collaboration impossible (Stack 2020b).

How did people of faith practice their faith amidst the novel coronavirus? Was their faith impacted by it? How did people interpret COVID-19? In an April 30—May 4, 2020, poll of people living in the United States, some trends emerged (AP-NORC/UChicagoDivSchool 2020). Some continued to pray albeit alone, others tuned into broadcast services, some met with their communities of faith, and others stopped practicing. Some believed that God would protect them, others that the virus was a message from God (Schor and Fingerhut 2020), and still others that the virus was a sign of God’s judgment against the world but that prayer could cure believers who were infected (Boorstein 2020).

Others responded differently. Coalitions called for collaboration, advocacy, and action, including the United Nations Environment Program, by encouraging interfaith responses to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on communities (UNEP 2020). A broad coalition of organizations called for gender justice amidst the pandemic (WCC 2020a). The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and Religions for Peace called for global multireligious “faith-in-action” (Fore et al. 2020). The Christian Connections for International Health (CCIH) joined others in encouraging faith communities to respond to community needs (CCIH 2020).

The long-term effects of those concerned about God’s judgment as well as collaborative calls to action remains to be seen.

Civil Religion: Race, Rights, and Responsibilities

When, where, and what it means to kneel in the United States has emerged as a contested symbolically laden ritual of American Civil Religion (see Bellah 1967; Sabella 2019). Kneeling, for some, is a form of protest. Some people of African descent have begun kneeling during the National Anthem as a silent yet visible form of protest of the yet to be realized promise of equality for all in the United States. The power of this symbolic act has become all the more poignant with the death of Black men and women at the hands of police. Kneeling quickly became a powerful symbol with the re-emergence of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, amidst the death of young Black men and women at the hands of law enforcement. Others argued that kneeling was a blatant sign of disrespect for the flag in general and the United States in particular.

Kneeling re-emerged as a contentious symbol with the death of George Floyd, on May 25, 2020. A cell phone video showed Mr. Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, gasping for air. His recorded words, “I can’t breathe” and “mama,” went viral immediately. The video recording included a portion of the eight minutes and forty-six seconds Mr. Floyd was pinned to the ground and his lapse into unconsciousness, later to be declared dead. Mr. Floyd was not the first nor last to die but with his death, his name became a rallying cry for change.

The phrase “Black Lives Matter” resurfaced as a demand for change and an anathema for others. Bibles, flags, uniforms, memorials, helmets, kneeling, body armor, bottles of water, fences, surgical masks, riot shields, signs, rubber bullets, eight minutes and forty-six seconds, and gas masks became symbols of resistance against or support of formal political power. Each evoked emotions: compassion, aggression, compliance, advocacy, anger, and sorrow were evinced within different social, political, and religious movements.

While associated with religious activities, marriage proposals, and submission in the past, kneeling came to reflect the values of different sectors of American society in specific ways during this time of unrest. Photos of protesters ritually kneeling, some police officers, public figures, and some congressional leaders with kente cloth draped over their shoulders, represented one narrative; t-shirts with the words “Stand for the Flag, Kneel for the Cross” on a red, white, and blue background soon followed. Kneeling continues something began by Colin Kaepernick, the National Football League (NFL) quarterback, whose sitting and later kneeling during the National Anthem became a political symbol. Celebrated as a symbol of support for the BLM movement, it was an expression of disdain for everything American by others. Kaepernick explained his decision to protest, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color. . . . There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder” (NFL-News 2016).

Kaepernick was eventually released by his team, his career seemingly ended. Yet Kaepernick’s importance re-emerged when, amidst the public protests, Roger Goodell, Commissioner of the NFL announced, “We were wrong” and instituted a change in NFL policy, recognizing the right of players to kneel (Goodell 2020).

Religious Symbols in the Public Square

In the midst of the reckoning with race and religious imagery, American Civil Religion re-emerged with the forcible removal of protesters so that President Trump could walk to St. John’s Episcopal Church and pose, holding a Bible, an act that enhanced the resolve of protesters and the anger of those who disagreed with them (Rascoe and Keith 2020). Competing narratives about the origin of the photographs of kneeling and the Bible photo-op swirled through various social networks—questions were raised as to what each meant, and who they were meant to appeal to. Debates arose about protesters in Lafayette Park (who were being given water and food by the congregation); if these protesters were peaceful, then why they were forcibly removed, and what kind of chemical agents were used to move them, so that the President could walk to St. John’s? Why had the President walked to St. John’s? Was it because he had been reported to have spent time in the White House bunker the day before? Was it to inspect the damage that a fire had caused the night before? Or did it symbolize an allegiance of governmental power with God?

Other symbols were scrutinized as well. The flag “Stars and Bars,” now associated with the Confederacy, was banned from NASCAR races, military posts, and removed from the Georgia state flag by a popular vote. Portraits of former House Speakers associated with the Confederacy were removed from the US Capitol. Food producers announced Aunt Jemima’s syrup and pancake mix, Uncle Ben’s Rice, and Cream of Wheat would remove Black caricatures from their branding. Starbucks reversed a ban on its baristas wearing BLM logoed material. Princeton University stripped the name of Woodrow Wilson, former President of Princeton and later of the United States, from its school of public policy as well as a residence hall, because his segregation policy of the federal civil service set back integration for many years (Slotkin 2020).

These symbols, rituals associated with them, the things they represent, and the narratives surrounding them invoke complex religious systems. At the heart of these competing systems of meaning are issues of social identity, rights, and responsibilities, and competing cosmologies and ontologies about what it means to be American.

Applying religion means approaching this cacophony by considering each symbol, its contested meanings, and the larger systems they represent. People organizing and participating in social movements calling for change, revitalization movements really, will find the anthropology of religion’s theoretical motifs helpful in shaping their message.


Places like Lafayette Square, the site of George Floyd’s death, and others, draw people to them who wish to pay tribute to the deceased, marking these particular places as important. This practice of travel is not new. Pilgrimages, long an area of interest in anthropology, index the intersection of socioreligious identity and health. Pilgrimages are journeys people make to places to which meaning is ascribed. Sometimes meaning is posited in very personal experiences or history, whereas in other instances meaning is shared by many. The point is that people identify particular places with meaning. Whether it is to a conventional religious shrine or a place of historic importance, people make their journey to and visit an actual site with intent and purpose. Personal, social, and religious pilgrimages allow participants to integrate themselves into larger movements of identity or healing. Figure 5 is a memorial to Holocaust victims.

Figure 5. Moses bronze, a memorial to the Holocaust victims, at Syracuse University.

Source: Author.

Ritual pilgrimages include people stepping out of normal everyday routines and into a place that has been identified as different, as a place set apart from the ordinary. For some, this might be a trip to a place where family or friends’ remains are interred. For others, it might be a place where ancestors dwell such as mountains, bodies of water, or rock formations, where stories of identity and origin are embodied. Still other places where a person of importance lived, did something remarkable, or died are important. Similarly, memorials or museums marking places of death, national tragedy, tangible religious objects, resistance, or the remembrance of forgotten warriors are remembered. Japanese war dead are memorialized in Papua New Guinea (figure 6).

Figure 6. Japanese memorial in Papua New Guinea.

Source: Author.

That these journeys are important is clear. Understanding the meanings associated with travel to these places includes recognizing those who embark on these pilgrimages deliberately leave their everyday lives to enter different and specific emotional, physical, and existential spaces.

Pilgrimage and meditation are similar in that they include people deliberately leaving their normal everyday lives for a brief period of time. People engaging in meditative practice or making a pilgrimage to a meaningful place involves people entering a liminal space. Liminal, literally threshold, refers to a time and space between two structured points in one’s life (Turner 1969; see van Gennep 1960). First applied to rites of passage, liminality proves helpful in explaining pilgrimages, including the structural and functional transitions that occur when individuals and the communities of which they are a part identify specific places as set apart and then enter liminal time and space while traveling to and from there.

The history of people making religious pilgrimages is deep and rich and remains very important for some today. For example, competing interests on public access to public lands and their use in the southwestern United States involve, on the one hand, advocates for resource exploration and extraction, and advocates for retaining places of pilgrimage for indigenous peoples on the other (Fox 1994; Hays-Gilpin 2018). The oral histories of some indigenous peoples of the Southwest are imbued with power. These narratives and the places they identify are closely associated with the ancestors whose spirits are still active and engaged with contemporary community members. The need to journey to Bears Ears, for example, to listen for and to these spirits and to leave offerings as a part of the ongoing reciprocal relationship between the living and those who have gone before, is an example of a religious pilgrimage (Burillo 2017; Inter-Tribal Coalition 2015; Wilkinson 2018).

Pilgrimages like these are as important as past veteran groups’ Run for the Wall to honor fallen comrades in Washington, DC (Michalowski and Dubisch 2001), or people traveling to the Grand Canyon, traveling to the cemetery to spend time at the grave of a deceased loved one, or visiting one’s childhood home or homeland as a way to understand identity, purpose, and being. The act of deliberately traveling to a specific place, of making pilgrimage, is imbued with meaning.

Rites of Passage

Rites of passage and the liminality associated with them mark important transitions in people’s lives. For example, many social groups mark the transition from one stage in life to another by segregating initiates from others. Adults within a community are tasked with inculcating both the practicalities of how to be an adult as well as knowledge imparted by and associated with ethereal entities so that initiates understand the prescriptions, rules, roles, and responsibilities associated with their new status. With rites of passage, socially constituted identity is established and maintained through generational change (Janusz and Walkiewicz 2018).

Clearly a single rite of passage is not sufficient to enculturate people once and for all. People are undergoing rites of passage on a regular basis. Some of these rites of passage are socially formalized and rigorous, while others occur with less formality (Norbeck and Alexander 2018; Zhang 2013). The ubiquitous photographs of a child’s first steps, transitioning from diapers to using the toilet, and wearing a mortarboard to mark the transition from preschool to kindergarten or kindergarten to grade one are examples of ways people now mark the transition from one stage in life to another. High school and college serve as rites of passage as do becoming engaged, marriage, divorce, first drink, first vote, first sexual intimacy, self-disclosing a particular gender identity, first tattoo, a driver’s license, a first job or professional position, induction into the military and boot camp, entering hospice care, and death. Even in death, rites of passage occur whether saying a prayer for the dead, washing the body of the deceased, preparing for burial, attending a funeral or memorial service, scattering of ashes in a place of significance, or commemorating the dead in some way (Metcalf and Huntington 1991).

Recognizing and using the conceptual frameworks of rites of passage and liminality to specific social phenomena means inviting anthropological practitioners working with agencies, organizations, and families to recognize the significance of these transitions in people’s lives, invites reflection on the importance of ritualized transitions, and ties these rituals to social identity. In effect, rites of passage mark overt as well as nuanced social transformation that come with changes over time. Remembering that there are ways to coalesce and mark shared moments and movements in people’s lives in particular ways during chaotic times may redirect anxiety into meaningful experiences.

Community Development

Recent publications on religion and development highlight the ways policies and activities are informed by religion (Awuah-Nyamekye 2012; Rew 2011). Development has long been linked to progress, “a process and in contemporary context . . . a movement towards a condition that some of the world’s nations are supposed to have attained” (Mair 1984, 1), and modernization, “the process of social change whereby less developed societies acquired characteristics shared with developed societies” (Lerner 1968, 386). During the 19th to mid-20th century, colonizers exerted political and economic control over non-European societies in attempts to alter sociopolitical systems and community organization to their own purposes. One argument for European expansion and colonization was to bring civilization to non-Western societies so that they might emulate European ideas and practices. The interest was in replacing what some refer to as “traditional” practices with Western means of production and religious ideologies that encourage individual autonomy, fostering commitments to shared human rights ideas, ideals, and practices and in doing so creating modern societies. Using the West as a model of the modern, mid-century social scientists “were eager to show that the West (especially the United States) had reached a point in history that foreshadows the future history of other states” (Everts 2012, 983). Movements toward modernization involved “the process of social change whereby less developed societies acquire characteristics common to more developed societies” (Lerner 1968).

The relationship between religion and modernization has received some attention (Aupers and Houtman 2010; Comaroff and Comaroff 1993; Douglas 1982; Parker 1996). Yet less work has focused on economic development, reinforcing “modernization theories that declare a progressive differentiation between religious and economic domains of social life” (Bornstein 2005, 1). Yet while some have missed the connection, communities seeking economic development have not. The influence of faith-based organizations in colonization and continued development projects in two thirds of the world is significant.

Colonialism and Development

Building societies modeled after Europe and the United States includes creating what became nation states and introducing Western-style education, market economies, political systems, Christianity, healthcare, and technologies, all inculcating the importance of individual responsibility and initiative. In many places of European colonization, missionaries were responsible for schools, healthcare, and employment, all the while emphasizing conversion and salvation as the key to personal fulfillment.

What was true of Kenya may well be applied to other places as well; “development was a powerful rhetorical device that sacralized (made sacred, set apart) domination in a secular idiom, and was thus a state-centered continuation of the explicitly religious idiom of conversion and salvation deployed by missionaries” (Smith 2008, 37). Participation in these systems means individuals were uprooted from their existing social, political, and economic system and were required to take responsibility for their own successes or failures (Haferkamp and Smelser 1992; Lerner 1958). This shift to personal responsibility was a marked change from communities that required social responsibility first and foremost.

In many Melanesian societies, ancestors (tumbuna) are the arbiters of good fortune and bad. When good things occur, it is because the ancestors have been properly venerated. Material wealth, good health, and bountiful harvests come because people maintain a proper relationship with, to, and through the ancestors. This cosmology continues with European evangelization, with becoming Christian being seen as an avenue to well-being, spurring a number of religious movements, mislabeled by some as “cargo cults” (Kaplan 1995). By emulating the ways of masta (Melanesian Pidgin English term for White man), people would receive the goods that had been diverted from the ancestors (Burridge [1960] 1995; Lawrence 1967).

Over time, Christian movements preaching that salvation and abundance are linked, and that local communities are God’s chosen people emerged (Handman 2015; Lattas 1998). This linking of Christian faith with well-being has expanded exponentially with evangelists, inspired by American Christians preaching prosperity, announcing that once people fully trust Jesus, sacrificing what they have to demonstrate their full faith in him, they will be rewarded with abundance (Haynes 2012; Jorgensen 2005). The ways this message localized are unique in each community with some people tying the lack of economic development to the battle between God and the Devil (Meyer 1999, 2010), and others invoking jealousy and witchcraft (Smith 2008; Smith and Mwadime 2014).

Inferring a relationship exists between faith, practice, and well-being is not limited to Christian evangelization. For the past century or more, many organizations have worked to raise the standard of living for people around the world all the while preaching the gospel. Sometimes their work includes direct aid, while at other times it involves education and work training, microloans, and structural adjustments. Today this link between faith and development continues through faith-based, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) (Berger 2003; Petersen 2010). Groups with Christian affinities dominate the list of organizations working in healthcare, housing, disaster relief, human rights, and community development. Heifer International, Bread for the World, World Vision, Habitat for Humanity, Feed My Starving Children, and ACT Alliance are examples of interdenominational groups. Some denominationally based organizations include Catholic Relief Services, Lutheran World Relief, and Episcopal Relief and Development. Samaritan’s Purse is a nondenominational evangelical group. The Denver Rescue Mission (figure 7) is an example of a nondenominational evangelical group linking faith with dramatic changes in the lives of homeless and hungry people. Non-Christian groups include Islamic Relief USA, World Jewish Relief, the Hindu American Foundation, and the Anti-Defamation League provide relief, services, and advocacy in different parts of the world. While each organization mobilizes its staff and supporters to respond to needs, the ways each organization and staff relate to those they serve, particularly those who do not share the same creed, vary (Heist and Cnaan 2016).

Figure 7. Denver Rescue Mission, Denver, Colorado.

Source: Author.

The impact of faith-based organizations on relief, aid, refugee services, and development appears to be growing (Poole and Wineburg 2019). Although the US government has contracted with faith-based schools, hospitals, and orphanages since before the Civil War, the passing of “Charitable Choice” provisions, beginning in 1996, led to the White House-based Office of Faith-Based Neighborhood Partnerships under President George W. Bush (Queen 2017). Together, these “Faith-Based Initiatives” have resulted in changes in policies, relational shifts, and the establishment of offices across different sectors of state and federal government in the United States, making it easier for faith-based organizations to receive government funding so that they might provide direct services to community social programs (Sager and Bentele 2016). Government support has resulted in a wider array of faith-based organizations delivering goods and services than in the past. The work of these organizations varies widely.

From Progress to Sustainability

The ways faith-based organizations engage with local community members, local resources, and the environment have direct impacts on the ways they interact with and relate to the communities they work with. Sometimes this engagement is influenced by their donors. As a result, some faith-based organizations link development to progress, and progress is linked to faith. Yet in these cases many recipients experience colonization in new forms with little effective change to their situations (Schuller 2016). This process has led some to call for a halt to all aid (see Moyo 2009), while others find the good that some NGOs do in spite of their conflicted loyalties helpful (Lashaw et al. 2017).

Effective sustainable development focuses on working within and understanding a particular community within a specific sociohistorical setting, the context within which they emerged, and the ways political histories have and continue to impact them. Yet contextualizing movements related to community development has proven difficult (Friedman 2006), particularly when encouraging communities to find their own solutions based upon their human, material, and nonhuman resources at hand. Community-based development is particularly difficult when that development is associated with Western technologies, organizational models, and their accompanying systems of meaning—things people may actually be asking for. Applying religion is useful in that it invites conversations that recognize the unique expectations and experiences communities have with regard to the meaning, allocation, and use of ideas and resources. Figure 8 depicts quilters doing God’s work.

Figure 8. Quilters: “God’s Work, Our Hands.”

Source: Author.

In instances where humans share elemental relationships with everything nonhuman, a symbiotic relationship may exist, at least to a degree. It is helpful to understand how that relationship exists and to what degree, without unduly romanticizing it. For some the earth is alive with spirits, ethereal entities (sometimes ancestors) whose relationship with humans both sustains and threatens their existence. Maintaining respectful relationships with the nonhuman world (e.g., animals, water, mountains, plants, and soils) reinforces continued relationships with these spirits, ensuring harmonic interactions with one another.

Social identity is maintained by sustaining a good relationship with the spirits, who in turn maintain relationships with individual humans and the communities they represent. The context within which humans maintain relationships with others, whether they are human, sentient, or ethereal entities, is central to social and political identities. If, however, these relationships are taken for granted then the spirits are taken for granted. The result may be social chaos or a loss of habitat or resources.

Tenets about the relationship humans have with the nonhuman world, and what that entails, affect different relationships with the environment. If humans are set apart from the material world then the landscape and the accoutrement with which humans interact are objects, subject to the whims of human wants and needs. If, however, humans are a part of the material world then they interact with different spaces and places, and the elements found there. All is made even more complex if these relationships are animated, with people socially interacting with nonhuman entities that infuse life into these material things.

Social Movements, Religion, and Change

Religious movements have and continue to play a significant role in challenging social structures and fomenting change. For example, in the mid-20th century Roman Catholic movements calling for change grew out of the Second Vatican Council’s call for renewal in the church. Changing the language of the mass from Latin to the local languages, religious freedom, and calls for respectful engagement with non-Catholics (including non-Christians) empowered laity and clergy alike (Vatican 1965). Theologians called for allying with economically, politically, and socially oppressed communities (Gutierrez 1973). Initially created in Latin America but later spreading to Asia, Africa, and beyond, Marxist-inspired Liberation Theology drew upon the prophetic traditions of the Hebrew scriptures challenging structures that prohibit people from breaking free from their bonds of oppression.

The American Civil Rights movement promulgated an end to the formal suppression of rights in the United States, inspiring Black South Africans to risk demanding change as well. Laden with Christian imagery, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Rev. Ralph Abernathy were but two of many leaders whose faith led them to protest the existing systems of racial injustice (Branch 1988, 1998, 2007). Inspired by Gandhi, they chose nonviolent protest; “They tried to literally ‘love your enemies’ and practiced pacifism in all circumstances” (Congress 2020). Others in the Civil Rights movement, equally inspired by their faith, rejected nonviolence as naïve. Elijah Muhammad, a convert to and later leader of the Nation of Islam, discipled Malcolm X and then Louis Farrakhan in calling for Black nationalism (Mamiya 2020a, 2020b). This call was based on the premises that Africans were the first humans, Christianity was the Whiteman’s religion and had long been used to oppress Blacks, and that it was time for descendants of these first humans to rise up and claim their place in history (Mamiya 2020b). The Nation of Islam was committed to maintaining strict moral codes, prohibiting alcohol, gambling, and pork to maintain social stability at a time when many Black families were being torn apart by social ills foisted upon them.

Rising Pan-African consciousness led to people of color protesting political systems subjugating people in South Africa. Christianity figured prominently in shaping arguments for both apartheid and for its end. Dutch Reformed Christians played a significant role in developing and promulgating the legal separation of people of color from Whites and the prohibition of marriage between races; they also barred integrated communities, travel, and the like, thus sanctioning the system of separation theologically (Prozesky 1990).

But just as Christians erected and imposed apartheid, so Christians also dismantled it. In the midst of the push to end apartheid, the call to free Namibia from South African rule included a dramatic 1971 challenge from leaders of two of the three Lutheran church bodies in Namibia; Roman Catholic and Anglican church leaders soon followed (Arnold 2009). Over time American Lutherans became involved in the struggle for Namibian independence through their relationship with people long-evangelized by Lutheran missionaries. With over three quarters of Namibians identifying as Lutheran, the affinity was telling. Many Christian congregations in the United States and Europe boycotted multinational corporations profiting in South Africa, calling for divesting pension funds as well.

Some have suggested Christian ideas and practices informed the parameters for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in South Africa and Namibia, although formal engagement in the latter has been questioned (Groop 2012). Included in the preamble to the 1995 Interim South African Constitution, the TRC granted conditional amnesty to people who perpetuated violence, provided they met a number of conditions proportionate to their deeds. The goal of the TRC was restorative justice—restoring South African society as a whole rather than tearing it apart by retributive payback. The impetus came from South African Christian leaders of color, notably Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Meshing the Xhosa notion of Ubuntu (people are people through other people) with Christian commitments to forgiveness, the TRC process became an Afro-centric Christian mix of moral and theological imperatives with its own ontology. Whereas apartheid attempted to dehumanize people and strip them of their personhood, Ubuntu elevates the “interests of groups or communities over the rights of individuals” in order to replace the authority of colonial oppression (Fox 2011, 108). Yet the lived experience of reconciliation has met with mixed results (Ross 2003a, 2003b; Wilson 2003).

Religion remains prominent in various social movements and countermovements. The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City on September 11, 2001, have had a profound impact on the United States and its relationship with Muslim movements. Antagonism toward people perceived as the Other continues to fuel tensions rooted in socioreligious ideas, ideals, and identities; others work to humanize those who have been demonized based on their religion, gender, or heritage.

Animosity toward people from Latin America has renewed concerns about “illegals” and “aliens,” harkening back to Woody Guthrie’s 1961 hit Deportees (aka “Plane Wreck at Los Gatos”), later recorded by Joan Baez and Arlo Guthrie in the 1970s, and more recently by Bruce Springsteen, to urge on those providing refuge, support, and hope for people from the US’ southern border (Hernandez 2017).


Responses to the urgency of human-caused climate change, environmentalism has re-emerged in new ways all the while shaped by its religious roots reflecting the diverse relationships that humans have with the material world (Hulme 2009, 28). It has been argued that as the roots of the 1960s environmental crisis were religious, so “the remedy must also be essentially religious, whether we call it that or not” (White 1967, 1207). The same is true today. Global religious movements as well as the communities in which they are found evince considerable diversity concerning climate change and its effects on vulnerable populations (Haluza-DeLay 2014). For some, the earth, water, air, and creatures represent infinite resources to be used at the pleasure of humans; they are commodities with economic value. For others, the relationship may be as simple as respect for the complex beautiful diversity of these things, or intimate—akin to a relationship with a living entity or a link between climate and social justice. Fundamentally, relationships that humans have with the material world are culturally shaped by the interplay of stories of identity and origin, and the contexts within which they are told.

In some global religious movements, regional and local communities are very active in conversations about climate change and social justice. An interfaith gathering at Windsor Castle prior to the Copenhagen climate change negotiations in 2009 began with Sikh musicians welcoming “religious leaders from around the world . . . [meeting] to collaborate on an issue that the world’s governments are having a hard time agreeing on” (PRI 2009). Priests, imams, monks, nuns, and pastors representing a wide variety of movements gathered to listen, talk, and strategize about ways to energize communities to engage with climate change. These activities are not new. The World Council of Churches’ emphasis on climate and justice, began in the 1970s, and now sees representatives of over 350 religious movements regularly engaging in conversations (WCC 2020b).

Mid-20th-Century Environmentalism

Local faith communities are allying themselves with one another regardless of tradition in advocating for change. Yet these commitments to environmental justice are not new. Interest in non-European religious models of engaging with the earth had a profound impact on early environmentalists. Amidst the unrest of the 1960s–1970s, people found inspiration in writings far removed from Eurocentric political, religious, and scientific norms. Campus bookstores and coffee houses were filled with books and quote-filled posters from Kahlil Gibran, Buddha, and Black Elk.

Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet (1923), a collection of prose poetry, redirects human attention from existential meaninglessness to embracing moments for what they are, how they affect others, and the sanctity of all that is (Gibran 1923). The immigration of Buddhist teachers to the United States in the 1950s resulted in centers where the teachings and practices of the Buddha diffused into some American communities. Although the streams of Buddhism are as complex as Christianity, practitioners seek to redirect energy and attention away from themselves and into the universal whole, to see in and revere the sanctity of all (Lopez 2020).

Black Elk Speaks, a 1932 poetic rendering of a Lakota holy man’s life story, recounts his visions with the hopes of preserving Sioux culture (Neihardt 1932). In spite of Neihardt’s loose rendering of Nicholas Black Elk’s words, the book became a “must read” for those in the counterculture movements of the 1960s. It influenced those committed to peace and justice amidst the 1973 American Indian Movement’s Pine Ridge protests at Wounded Knee (Johnson et al. [1971] 1999), the degradation of the earth, and concern for the larger human community.

The publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, in 1962, raised the alarm about the dangers of synthetic pesticides and herbicides and the ways they alter the landscape for human consumption. The residual effects of their use highlighted the interdependent relationship that human beings have with the animals, plants, soils, water, and air.

Amidst this rising consciousness, news of oil spills, health problems caused by napalm and handling defoliants to remove the tropical canopy in Vietnam, and insecticides to combat mosquito-vectored illnesses, as well as the residual effects on other humans and the environment, channeled energy into what became modern environmental activism. Marxist-inspired Christian movements including the Catholic Worker’s Party were among several groups actively protesting United States involvement in Vietnam contra the United States Conference of Catholic Bishop’s support for the White House policies (Cornell 2014). Daniel and Philip Berrigan, Roman Catholic priests, personified these protests with their highly publicized burning of draft cards with napalm and other acts of civil disobedience (Marsh and Brown 2012).

This social unrest inspired the Whole Earth Catalog (Brand 1968), Mother Earth News (Shuttleworth 1970), and the first Earth Day, April 22, 1970 (Editors 2020), channeling the energy of protesters from war to the earth. Cookbooks like Moosewood (Katzen 1977) and More-with-Less (Longacre 1977) tapped into the same interest that Mother Earth News did, offering readers new ways to engage with the earth and one another through diet. Moosewood was birthed in Ithaca, New York, from the menu of a vegetarian restaurant run by a collective committed to healthy eating in harmony with the earth. More-with-Less was authorized by the Christian Mennonite community to encourage people to live and eat more simply so that others might have enough. Both were highly successful and have since been republished although well-worn originals sit on this author’s shelves.

This mid-century fascination with the earth is rooted in the ancient past. Many modern eco-religious movements find their inspiration in Gaia (Ge), the primal earth of Greek mythology. Bringing form to the primordial chaotic void, Gaia spontaneously gives birth to the sky (Uranus), the oceans (Pontus), and the mountains (Ourea). Gaia then mates with Uranus and Pontus, producing the twelve Titans of Greek mythology and the creatures and monsters of the deep respectively (Hesiod 700 bce). Gaia inspired the public imagination in many ways. Phrases like Mother Earth, the Goddess, the Earth Goddess, Mother Nature, and the Divine Feminine are used by different communities to describe an intimate relationship with the earth.

The Gaia story has inspired modern symphonies, a documentary series with eight films, various musical groups, and even its own hypothesis. The Gaia hypothesis proposes that the earth is sentient with its waters, air, and landforms interacting with one another as a living organism. Developed in the mid-1970s by Chemical Engineer-cum-Environmental Philosopher James Lovelock and Microbiologist Lynn Margulis, the Gaia hypothesis originally argued that the earth is an organism, a carefully integrated complex system, self-regulating itself by responding to stresses and stressors (Lovelock and Margulis 1974; Lovelock [1979] 1995; Onori and Visconti 2012). Now referred to as the Gaia theory, over time its conceptual framework has been adapted, acknowledging that the earth functions as a thermodynamic self-regulating system with chemical, biological, physical, and human components.

Climate Change

Yet these Greek, Buddhist, Native American, and scientific movements are not the only ones whose systems of meaning shape practitioners’ relationship to the earth. Jewish and Christian movements have distinct approaches as well. Some find in their sacred texts the charge to the first humans to “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over . . . every living thing that moves upon the earth” (NRSV 1995, Genesis 1:28). In this case resources are seen as commodities existing for use by human beings. Others read of being created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27), inspiring them to be stewards in relationship with the earth as is the divine with them. Still others read of the first human being formed from the soil (Genesis 2:19) and so see themselves as a part of creation, committed to living in synthesis with the earth and all human and nonhuman life forms. These examples touch on the complexity of Jewish and Christian relationships to the environment.

These three relationships—having dominion over, being a caretaker of, and elemental sharing—represent very different ways of being with and relating to the material world. These three have been and continue to be used as a rationale for specific relationships to land, water, living things, and other human societies. Inspired by the opening chapters of Genesis, each interpretation understands its activities to be a continuing part of the creation narratives as sacred texts. Various Jewish and Christian movements envision their relationships with the earth in a range of ways. For some, humans are a part of the divine mystery; in other movements, they have been given the power to be lord over others; and in still others, they are akin to gardeners tasked with caring for the earth as stewards.

These different relationships are, to a degree gendered. While some read of an asexual- divine being with whom humans encounter a mystical relationship (Buber 1970; Otto 1950), others read of patriarchy, with male God placing women in a subservient position to men (Bjork-James 2020); still others argue that reading the texts as supporting domination is problematic (Ruether 2014). Still others find the nurturing of a feminine divine more meaningful.

Many evangelical and Pentecostal Christians read the Bible as supporting patriarchy (Joyce 2009). Those reading the text this way also anticipate the end times—God’s return to judge nonbelievers and reward those who have kept the faith and so protecting the environment is not of concern. There are any number of reasons for this patriarchal reading of the Hebrew texts but there are alternatives (Van Dyke 2009). But to presume all Christians read the scriptures this way essentializes what are diverse movements.

As one of the leading scholars and voices for action on climate change, Katherine Hayhoe generated considerable discussion when self-identifying as an Evangelical Christian in the New York Times (Hayhoe 2019). Some were puzzled by her ability to believe evangelical precepts, assuming that all evangelical Christians read the creation account in Genesis 1 literally and are therefore unable to engage with the scientific method. Others presumed that all Christians welcome the climate crisis as the beginning of the end times—a foreshadowing of the Apocalypse and the end of the world. Still others welcomed her commitments to Earth Keepers as well as environmental justice. Hayhoe is not alone. The Evangelical Climate Initiative parallels work in the World Council of Churches in engaging in public conversations about the need for climate action as a profound part of their faith-identity (Wilkinson 2012). Other interfaith coalitions including the Council on Foreign Relations, the Climate Coalition, the Interfaith Coalition for Earth Justice.

The Goddess Movement

With the strictures of male-centric religion in decline, new notions about the divine emerged. During Second Wave Feminism, women began to free themselves from the patriarchal bonds that had long suppressed them. Some were inspired by psychologists who placed matriarchy ahead of patriarchy in social evolution. Others found the Jungian archetype of the Great Mother a model for reimagining the divine not as a distant, cold, judgmental patriarch but rather as a Goddess Within (Woolger and Woolger 1989). Still others, including Buddhism and Sufi Islam find feminist mysticism in their traditions (Tomalin 2018; and Shaikh 2019, respectively). Still others found that archaeologist Marija Gimbutas’s reports on Neolithic agricultural societies worshipping “the Goddess as the [one who held] powers of birth, death, and regeneration” as insightful, offering new ways for modern women to experience femininity (Christ 2016; see also Gimbutas 1991; Gimbutas [1974] 1992). Feminist theologians began asking critical questions of Christianity in particular, challenging the notion of God as male (specifically the use of male pronouns and ascribing masculine characteristics) rather than as a power, force, or Paul Tillich’s “ground of being” (1967, I, 156; see also Daly 1973; Suchocki 1994), having courage to accept being and its source when the alternative is not being (Tillich 1952). Reframing the divine in this way creates opportunities for interreligious dialog. This challenge was part of a much larger movement calling for people, particularly women and minorities, to look for other ways to experience nonhuman elements and powers.

Contemporary neopagan and Wiccan religious movements find inspiration in pre-Christian European nature-worshipping practices deeply rooted in the Goddess (Melton 2018). Wiccan practitioners point to the mystical traditions of ancient Greece and Rome (Magliocco 2004) or scholarly work on European Old World matriarchal societies and witches (Jencson 1989; see also Murray [1931] 1952; Murray [1921] 1962). Others stress Gardner’s use of third century ce Neoplatonists to propose a unifying universal force as a primer for modern witchcraft (Gardner 1954). Others point to publications by Adler (1979) or Starhawk (1979) as primers in the practice.

The creative energy in these religious social movements, be they Goddess, neopagan, Wiccan, or a host of others, is evident in the networks, publications, and specialty shops selling resources for community members to learn and use in their practice. Ethnographic research into these movements is growing (Luhrmann 1989; Magliocco 2004; Pike 2001; Roundtree 2011). Its relevance is the emphasis that these communities place on the environment. “It advocates a sacred ecology that repudiates the Baconian ethic of human domination over nature and the capitalist outlook that views nature simply as a commodity or as a resource to be exploited” (Morris 2006, 275). Experiencing oneself as literally wedded to the environment as a part of the larger mystical universe renders a relationship far different from the narrative of domination.

New Animism

An important parallel movement is re-emerging as new animism. The notion of a sentient landscape, dismissed by early anthropologists as a “failed epistemology” (Bird-David 1999), includes entities not normally identified as living, even on a par with being human (Peterson 2011; see also Harvey 2005). Animism, like many of the movements identified so far, is no singular movement. Rather, members of indigenous communities steeped in hunter-gatherer relationships (past and present) see themselves in “a relational (not failed) epistemology” (Bird-David 1999). As such, the ontological nature of the environment and universe are at the heart of this revitalization (see Hallowell 1960). New animism offers a counter epistemology to the Cartesian separation of mind and matter, bestowing personhood on rocks, trees, rivers, animals, and other elements of nature such that everything lives and is in relationship to everything else.

With this relational reclamation have come some shifts in public sentiment as well as in courts of law. In recent years a number of rivers have been granted legal rights and protection akin to human beings (Westerman 2019). In Bangladesh, New Zealand, Columbia, and Ecuador, specific river systems have been granted the rights of personhood, changing their relationship with humans from object to subject. What started as a suit calling for a human right to water for consumption in Bangladesh led to the Ganges and Yamuna rivers being granted rights themselves—a recognition of an interrelationship between humans and the rivers. Argued using public trust doctrines from “Roman law and the English common law” (Clark et al. 2019), jus publicum, the court’s determination reinforced the sentience of these rivers in ways that resonate with indigenous communities.

Unprecedented as the decision to recognize the legal rights of a river appears, the oldest images of the Ganges drawn from the far recesses of history and myth suggest that the natural and divine attributes of this sacred body of water have always been inseparable. Ganga and Yamuna as goddess of profusion and fecundity owe their graven forms to animistic guardian spirits and ancient deities of fertility and abundance

(Sen 2019a; see Sen 2019b).

The difficulty, however, is in how to implement the court decision. With over five hundred million people in northern India relying on the Ganges for water as well as countless communities drawing groundwater from underground aquifers, the practical implications of this precedent remain to be seen.

Careers in Applying Religion

The opportunities for practitioners to engage in applying religion are many. Some positions require formal training in anthropology along with specializations in other areas, while others do not. What is important is being entrepreneurial in seeing the presence and importance of religion in people’s daily lives, and in local, regional, and national news. Fundamental to applying religion is realizing the ways it shapes people’s understanding of themselves, their identity, and their experiences. Does one need to become a religious specialist to apply religion? No.

Many nonprofit organizations work in communities whose identity is steeped in their religious identity. For some this work includes alliances and advocacy for those whose voices have been silenced by virtue of their skin color, language, gender, dress, national origin, or belief. Whether skill-building, housing, refugee resettlement, food programs, veterans, or homelessness, working in the nonprofit sector requires recognizing the presence and importance of religion in the ways it shapes people’s understandings of themselves, their community of origin, notions of modesty and privacy, and obligations to and relationships with those they encounter.

Public health policies and programs require sensitivity to religious identity and its effects upon people and the communities of which they are a part. Sometimes religious ideas and practices may seem contraindicated given the scientific evidence on health. Yet to presume a shared trust in the biomedical models is naïve. Health professionals, whether aids, orderlies, nurses, physicians, biomedical researchers, or public health officers steeped in the application of religion offer credibility to healthcare that those who ignore it do not.

People working in public service will that find recognizing the presence and importance of religion to public office is critical for maintaining civil society. Recognizing that ideas about social well-being are shaped by religious language and ideas and that those who are not a part of dominant religious discourse or experience need to be heard, go a long way in fostering a healthy, social commons. Whether an elected official, serving as an aide, or an engaged citizen on a local, regional, national, or international level, recognizing the underlying religious currents shaping public discourse is critical to success.

With attention to climate change come changes in technology, food-ways, human migration, mental health, and life-choices. Scientists, nutritionists, inventors, life coaches, and entrepreneurs would do well to recognize the currents of religion that permeate language, ideas, and relationships. Being sensitive to the ways religious ideas and identity shape human imaginations and experiences will help managers, engineers, and service providers shape their responses to a changing world. They have the opportunity to recognize the diverse ways humans engage with and experience the world, and in doing so nurture healthy diversity in relationship to the nonhuman world.


There are many ways to apply religion as the practice of anthropology—whether the seemingly esoteric systems of meaning that coalesce around specific issues or the more conventional networks that tie communities together in specific ways. Posited within a specific identifiable and formal religious movement or as part of a generation of seekers, anthropology’s relationship with and focus on religion has changed considerably over time. It should be no surprise that religion is re-emerging as people look to the future. As a result, it should not be a surprise that anthropologists are again paying attention to religion as well.

For practitioners to apply religion they must see religion. Recognizing the esoteric yet very real way systems of meaning influence people’s lives is critical to its application. Once the complexity and breadth of religion as a domain are recognized, practitioners are able to redirect questions about social experiences by including it in their systemic analysis. For example, they might consider the ways meaning is associated with stories about humans in relationship to the nonhuman world, creating and maintaining relationships for individuals and the communities of which they are a part. Whether printed in canons of sacred texts or transmitted orally, stories shape, create, inform, and transform symbols that in turn set one group of people apart from another.

Employment opportunities in government and private sectors where religion is recognized as a key component of human social experience abound. Many graduates begin their careers providing direct services through nonprofit organizations as full-time staff members or in national service positions. Those experiences and the networks they offer then provide an entrée for positions in government or nonprofit organizational management. Recognizing the need, providing the vision, and offering the expertise to apply religion in real and meaningful ways is a critical way to put anthropology to work.

Practitioners must take the experience of the communities with which they work seriously. Recognizing the intersections in place and at work in the lives of people in power, those on the margins, and everyone in between, is a critical first step in reframing identified problems anthropologically. Figure 9 shows a future with humans interacting with artificial intelligence. Once the careful work of identifying allies and alliances willing to hear the stories of others has begun, engaging with them over time and slowly, carefully making and modeling change appropriate to their setting can take place. To apply religion, one must recognize and understand religion. And to understand religion one must enter into what one anthropologist has called “the noisesome bog” (Klass 1995).

Figure 9. On campus lunch time delivery.

Source: Author.

Further Reading

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  • 1. The acronym ICAN, used by the Informed Consent Action Network, resembles that of the Immunization Costing Action Network (ICAN), a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funded project to build capacity in low and middle-income developing countries to ensure “sustainable and predictable financing for immunization” (ICAN 2020).