||Religion (Latin, â€˜that which bindsâ€™) refers to rituals and beliefs which concern a supernatural â€˜otherâ€™ world. Supernatural is a loose term to distinguish non-human realms and classes of beings. Beliefs in a supernatural realm could encompass such diverse religious practices as sacrifice, sorcery, shamanism and communal cults. Natural religions, in which deities are explained in terms of their relationship with nature, describe more holistic views about existence, rather than splitting the world into two distinct categories of natural and supernatural.
Anthropologists in the 19th century were concerned with finding the origins of religion, and creating a way of classifying the diverse religions found in â€˜primitiveâ€™ societies. From the perspective of their institutionalized world religions, evolutionary anthropologists considered the earliest form of religion as ancestor worship, which evolved in to animism, polytheism and finally monotheism. Other models saw religion as an embryonic precursor to science. All these types of religion were regarded by evolutionists as fulfilling primary human needs in a utilitarian way. Religions provided an explanation for human existence, as well as attuning humans to a specific view of the cosmic order. As a cultural system, it provides the individual with the means to interpret personal experience. Religion often contains rituals whose express purpose is the maintenance of proper relationships with the â€˜other worldâ€™. When moral relations are not maintained a means of restoring balance must be sought through ritual and healing. In this way, religion plays a considerable part in reinforcing the moral and social order of the community.
The sociologist Ã‰mile Durkheim saw religion as a spatial and temporal realm set apart from everyday life, which helped to create a sense of solidarity among the members of a community. Deities were created in the image of society, rather than the other way round. This notion informed early studies of totemism as a form of ancestor worship.
In the 1960s, structuralists picked up the argument about rationality associated with science, technology and economics as being superior to other forms of explanation. They concluded that both religious and scientific modes of thought were parallel expressions of universal methods of classification that ordered the world around them.
Anthropologists now question the assumption that religion can be treated as a unitary category because of the multiplicity of interpretations and possible meanings ascribable to it. Interpretative anthropology redefined religion as a â€˜system of ideas about the ultimate shape and substance of realityâ€™. This definition expressed the relationship between metaphysics and the social order.
Many African religions make a distinction between this world, the world of human society, and the â€˜other worldâ€™. The role of religious experts is to mediate between this world and the other. They gain their knowledge through bodily experience in the performance of rituals, rather than through scripture or faith, as in institutionalized, world systems of religion. In this context, religious knowledge is derived from a coherence of ontological conceptions and experiential reality. CL
See also symbolism; tradition.Further reading A. Lehman and , J. Myers (eds.), Magic, Witchcraft and Religion; , Brian Morris, Anthropological Studies of Religion.