The Anthropology of Religion

This information is for the 2017/18 session.

Teacher responsible

Dr Michael Scott OLD 6.16 and Prof Matthew Engelke OLD 6.12


This course is compulsory on the BA in Social Anthropology and BSc in Social Anthropology. This course is available on the BA in Anthropology and Law. This course is not available as an outside option. This course is available with permission to General Course students.


Students should have a substantial background in Social Anthropology.

Course content

This course covers selected topics in the anthropology of religion, focusing upon relevant theoretical debates. In the Michaelmas term, the focus will also be on understanding through specific ethnographic and empirical case-studies, the ways in which lived religious practice, and the understanding of religion, get constituted inside and outside ‘Western’ and modern contexts. We will also pay attention to cases in which Western and non-Western definitions are emerging in interplay with each other, including their relation to understandings of modernity and the secular. Current approaches to and reconsiderations of classic topics in the anthropology of religion are also presented; these may include ritual, belief, sacrifice, and the fetish. In the Lent term, we will consider topics such as shamanism, cargo cults, initiation, witchcraft and sorcery, cosmology, and human-nonhuman relations, primarily with reference to ongoing transformations of the indigenous traditions of Melanesia, Africa, Amazonia, Australia, and the circumpolar north.  Recurring themes will be: transformations in the definition of ‘religion’ in relation to ‘science’; the nature of rationality; and the extent to which anthropology itself can be either – or both – a religious and a scientific quest to experience the wonder of unknown otherness.


10 hours of lectures and 10 hours of classes in the MT. 10 hours of lectures and 10 hours of classes in the LT.

This course has a reading week in Week 6 of the MT and LT.

Formative coursework

Students are expected to prepare discussion material for presentation in the classes and are required to write assessment essays. Anthropology students taking this course will have an opportunity to submit a tutorial essay for this course to their personal tutors. For non-Anthropology students taking this course, a formative essay may be submitted to the course teacher.

Indicative reading

H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills (eds.) 1946 (and later editions), From Max Weber: essays in sociology; E. Durkheim 1915 (and later editions), The elementary forms of the religious life; S. Mahmood 2005, Politics of Piety; J. Milbank 1990, Theology and Social Theory; R.A. Orsi (ed.) 2012, The Cambridge Companion to Religious Studies; C. Taylor 2007, A Secular Age; B Latour 2009 The modern cult of the factish god;  H Hubert and M Mauss 1960, On Sacrifice; A. Abramson and M. Holbraad (eds.) 2014, Framing Cosmologies: The Anthropology of Worlds; G. Bateson and M. C. Bateson 1987, Angels Fear: Towards an Epistemology of the Sacred; B. Kapferer (ed.) 2002, Beyond Rationalism: Rethinking Magic, Witchcraft and Sorcery; L. Lévy-Bruhl 1926, How Natives Think; M. A. Pedersen 2011, Not Quite Shamans: Spirit Worlds and Political Lives in Northern Mongolia; P. Ingman, T. Utrianinen, et al. (eds.) 2016, The Relational Dynamics of Enchantment and Sacralization: Changing the Terms of the Religion Versus Secularity Debate; H. Whitehouse and J. Laidlaw (eds.) 2007, Religion, Anthropology, and Cognitive Science; R. Willerslev 2007, Soul Hunters: Hunting, Animism, and Personhood among the Siberian Yukaghirs; D. E. Young and J-G. Goulet (eds.) 1994, Being Changed: The Anthropology of Extraordinary Experience. Detailed reading lists provided at the start of each term.


Exam (70%, duration: 3 hours) in the main exam period.
Essay (15%, 2500 words) in the MT.
Essay (15%, 2500 words) in the LT.

Key facts

Department: Anthropology

Total students 2016/17: 27

Average class size 2016/17: 14

Capped 2016/17: No

Lecture capture used 2016/17: Yes (LT)

Value: One Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information