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date: 27 October 2020

Applying Religion

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Anthropology. Please check back later for the full article.

Anthropology has long been interested in religion. The emergence of modern social anthropology in the late 19th century included a fascination with the decidedly Victorian assumption that the stories people told about their origins, interactions with non-human entities, the ways these stories were ritualized, and the material goods, ideas, and places to which they assigned meaning as symbols were primitive stops along the path toward sophisticated civilization.

Shifts in the anthropology of religion include expanding the notion of religion beyond Eurocentric distinctions between the sacred and profane, real and superstitious, pure and syncretic, primitive and civilized, true and naïve. With these shifts came creative and collaborative approaches to understanding systems of meaning beyond the exotic Other. These shifts also include recognizing global movements, the ways that ideas and practices travel, their interactions with local cosmogonies, the ways that proponents of particular movements impact, influence, and shape local discourse and practice, and the creative ways that systems of meaning coalesce, intentionally or by chance—often a bit of both—into meaningful social practice.

Anthropological approaches to the domain of religion and its relevance for and within communities are of particular importance for the communities within which they interact, particularly in areas of health and healing, community development, climate change, and sustainability.