The Anthropology of Religion

This information is for the 2022/23 session.

Teacher responsible

Dr Fenella Cannell

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’  and its role in anthropological analysis. The guiding underlyng approach will be to ask; what is  the study of  ‘religion’  for the social sciences,  and what are the potentials and limitations of different answers to that question.  We will also be asking  where (if anywhere)  religion is located  as category,  practice and experience for a range of interlocutors,  and in different kinds of  analytic writing.    Topics facilitating this project may include some of the following: shamanism,  spirit mediumship,   death rituals and ritual theory,  magic and witchcraft,  ‘spirituality’  and new religious movements,  religion and kinship,   ghosts,  spirits and ancestors,  cosmology,  faith-healing,  life-cycle rituals, human-nonhuman relations,  and religion in disapora and social change,  religion and ‘ethics’,  problems of suffering and critical approaches to religion,  violence and inequality,  encounters with the divine and sacred, religion,  capitalism and the fetish,    religion,  gender  and the body,   religion and development,   implicit religion.   Examples will be drawn both western and non-western contexts,  and from both ‘salvation religions’  such as Hinduism,  Judaism and Christianity,  and other including so-called  ‘animist’  contexts.


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

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.

Key facts

Department: Anthropology

Total students 2021/22: 43

Average class size 2021/22: 14

Capped 2021/22: No

Lecture capture used 2021/22: Yes (MT)

Value: One Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information

Course selection videos

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