The Anthropology of Religion

This information is for the 2019/20 session.

Teacher responsible

Dr Michael Scott OLD 6.16 and Dr Nicholas Evans KGS 3.07


This course is compulsory on the MSc in Social Anthropology (Religion in the Contemporary World). This course is available on the MRes/PhD in Anthropology, MSc in Anthropology and Development, MSc in Anthropology and Development Management, MSc in China in Comparative Perspective, MSc in Law, Anthropology and Society and MSc in Social Anthropology. This course is available with permission as an outside option to students on other programmes where regulations permit.

Course content

This course covers selected topics in the anthropology of religion, focusing upon relevant theoretical debates.

In the Michaelmas 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.

In the Lent term, we will further explore the category of ‘religion’ in its western and non-western contexts. What were the historical processes through which particular constellations of beliefs and practices were grouped together as ‘religions’? In what way are different religious traditions comparable to each other? Why do we call some traditions ‘religion’ and others ‘cults’? Students will examine categories such as orthodoxy and heresy and they will explore the relationship between religion and secularism in modern society. Current approaches to and reconsiderations of classic topics in the anthropology of religion are also presented; these may include myth, ritual, belief and doubt, sacrifice, authority and charisma.


10 hours of lectures and 15 hours of seminars in the MT. 10 hours of lectures and 15 hours of seminars in the LT.

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

Formative coursework

Students will be expected to produce 1 essay in the MT and 1 essay in the LT.

Indicative reading

  • M. Weber 1905 The protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism;
  • E. Durkheim 1915 (and later editions), The elementary forms of the religious life;
  • S. Mahmood 2005, Politics of Piety;
  • C. Taylor 2007, A Secular Age;
  • B Latour 2009 The modern cult of the factish god; 
  • H Hubert and M Mauss 1960, On Sacrifice;
  • V. Turner 1969 The ritual process: structure and anti-structure;
  • T. Masuzawa 2005 The invention of world religions, or, How European universalism was preserved in the language of pluralism;
  • J. Robbins 2004 Becoming sinners: Christianity and moral torment in a Papua New Guinea society;
  • S. Ahmed 2015 What Is Islam?: The Importance of Being Islamic;
  • 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 (100%, duration: 3 hours) in the summer exam period.

Key facts

Department: Anthropology

Total students 2018/19: 19

Average class size 2018/19: 10

Controlled access 2018/19: No

Value: One Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information