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The Social Sciences


 Anthropology can be defined as " the study of human beings as creators of and creations of culture” (Livingston, Anatomy of the Sacred, )  Culture can be defined as the ways of life learned and shared by people in social groups.  Often culture may include the “customs” (ways of life) that a group of people share and pass on.  Thus traditions, customs and acceptable behavior varies from one culture to another.

The anthropologist, Arnold Van Gennep has had a significant influence on the understanding of rites of passage and the function of ritual within a community of faith. In fact, we will refer to his work in more detail when we consider religious rituals 

Anthropology of Religion Tutorial

To gain some insight into how anthropology helps us to understand religion work through this brief tutorial:

Anthropology of Religion: An Introduction to Folk Religion and Magic

As you read, notice how the emphasis is on the functionalist; that is, religion is being studied for what it does rather than what it is.  Nevertheless, many of the findings (especially on ritual and shamanism) are extremely important and helpful.  We will return to this page when we discuss ritual later in the course.  


The sociologist focuses on group behavior.  In particular, sociology tries to determine how religion and society interact: how does religion impact a society and how does society impact religion?  Max Weber was the sociologist who demonstrated how religion (Calvinistic Protestantism) was a major force in  shaping/inspiring American society  through the “Protestant Work Ethic.”  This idea that it was one’s religious duty to serve God through hard work and pursuit of wealth led to the development of a type of capitalism in spite of what seemed to be adverse economic conditions in the young American nation.


            Psychology literally means “study of the soul.”  It is therefore not surprising that a number of  psychologist have applied the insights of psychology to religious behavior. Some of these have not always been very positive.  For example, in Sigmund Freud's theory, religion was little more that wishful thinking that people needed to be outgrow. Many other psychologists, however, have shown much greater appreciation for the role of religion. Gordon Allport in his study of the relationship between prejudice and religion demonstrated that personality structures help explain whether a person has  a superficial (“extrinsic”) or deep (“intrinsic”) commitment to religious teaching.

Read  the survey of
Notable People in the Psychology of Religion

As you read, notice how each psychologist contributed to our understanding of religion and what it means to be religious.  Pay particular attention to Freud, Jung, Allport and William James.  You should be able to recognize each one's important ideas regarding religion.