The Anthropology of Religion

This information is for the 2020/21 session.

Teacher responsible

Dr Michael Scott OLD 6.16

Dr Yazan Doughan


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, Exchange Programme for Students in Anthropology (Cape Town), Exchange Programme for Students in Anthropology (Fudan), Exchange Programme for Students in Anthropology (Melbourne) and Exchange Programme for Students in Anthropology (Tokyo). 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 current approaches to and reconsiderations of classic topics in the anthropology of religion, such as: myth, ritual, belief and doubt, supernatural experience, ethical self-cultivation, asceticism, sacrifice, authority and charisma. In the Michaelmas term, students will be introduced to debates concerning the ways in which ‘religion’ is said to influence or shape personal experience and collective public life in both western and non-western contexts. Students will explore some of the key concepts that inform contemporary understandings of religion as a force in the world, the history of these concepts, how they enter into various political and ethical projects, and the extent to which they predefine ‘religion’ as an object of anthropological study. Specific areas of focus may include: the relationship between ‘religion’ and ‘secularism’; conceptions of ‘religious freedom’; conversion; inter-religious conflict; the ethnography of religious minorities; the anthropology of religious movements; and the comparative anthropology of ‘religions’. In the Lent term, students will be asked to rethink the category of ‘religion’ entirely and its role in anthropological analysis. Topics facilitating this project may include: 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 year, some or all of this teaching will be delivered through a combination of virtual lectures, classes and online interactive activities. The contact hours listed above are the minimum expected. This course has a reading week in Week 6 of the MT and LT.

Formative coursework

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

Indicative reading

Talal Asad 2009, Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam; Tomoko Masuzawa 2005, The Invention of World Religions: Or, How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism; Hussein A. Agrama 2012, Questioning Secularism: Islam, Sovereignty, and the Rule of Law in Modern Egypt; Mayanthi Fernando 2014, The Republic Unsettled: Muslim French and the Contradictions of Secularism; Webb Keane 2007, Christian Moderns: Freedom and Fetish in the Mission Encounter; W. F. Sullivan, E. S. Hurd, et al. (eds.) 2015, Politics of Religious Freedom; Courtney Bender 2010, The New Metaphysicals: Spirituality and the American Religious Imagination; Leigh Eric Schmidt 2000, Hearing Things: Religion, Illusion, and the American Enlightenment; S. J. Tambiah 1992, Buddhism Betrayed?: Religion, Politics, and Violence in Sri Lanka; 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; P. Ingman, T. Utrianinen, et al. (eds.) 2016, The Relational Dynamics of Enchantment and Sacralization: Changing the Terms of the Religion Versus Secularity Debate; D. C. Posthumus 2018, All My Relatives: Exploring Lakota Ontology, Belief, and Ritual; 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.


Essay (50%, 3500 words) in the LT.
Essay (50%, 3500 words) in the ST.

Important information in response to COVID-19

Please note that during 2020/21 academic year some variation to teaching and learning activities may be required to respond to changes in public health advice and/or to account for the situation of students in attendance on campus and those studying online during the early part of the academic year. For assessment, this may involve changes to mode of delivery and/or the format or weighting of assessments. Changes will only be made if required and students will be notified about any changes to teaching or assessment plans at the earliest opportunity.

Key facts

Department: Anthropology

Total students 2019/20: 43

Average class size 2019/20: 11

Capped 2019/20: No

Value: One Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information