Not available in 2024/25
AN4A1      Half Unit
Understanding Religion in the Contemporary World

This information is for the 2024/25 session.

Teacher responsible

Prof Mathijs Pelkmans and Prof Catherine Allerton

This course will first be available during the 2025/26 academic session.


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


Students must have completed Anthropology and Religion (AN490).

Course content

This course explores how religion manifests itself in a range of different societies, studying its relationship to broad social change including the rise of modernity and capitalism, the resurgence of nationalism and populism, as well as its codification in institutions such as the family, law, gender, and the state. We will critically evaluate the category of ‘religion’ and related concepts, paying attention to how these have been redefined in modernity, and how such definitions affect 'religious practice' across the world. Throughout the course, emphasis is placed on the ethnographic record, doing so by foregrounding research that has been carried out by members of the anthropology department.

The first and last week will be used to frame the course, to then explore the subject matter through eight carefully tailored research topics, each of which relates directly to the research of respective lecturers. Topics will relate to several ‘world religions’ and to forms of spirituality such as animism and shamanism, as well as to secularism.

Specific areas of focus may include:

Religious nationalism, religious freedom, contemporary millenarianism, trance and meditation, the power of prayer, religious conversion, doubt and conviction, martyrdom, spirituality and the land, atheism, and neo-shamanism.


15 hours of lectures and 10 hours of seminars in the WT.

Formative coursework

Students will be expected to produce 1 essay in the WT

Indicative reading

  • Allerton, Catherine. 2009. Static crosses and working spirits: anti-syncretism and agricultural animism in Catholic West Flores. Anthropological Forum. 19 (3)
  • Banerjee, Mukulika. 2022. Sacrifice: Cultivating Faith. Chapter 5 of Cultivating Democracy. Oxford University Press.
  • Cannell, Fenella. 2017. ‘Forever Families’; Christian Individualism, Mormonism and Collective Salvation. New directions in spiritual kinship: Sacred ties across the Abrahamic religions: 151-169.
  • Long, Nicholas J. 2017. On the Islamic authority of the Indonesian state: responsibility, suspicion, and acts of compliance. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 23.4 (2017): 709-726.
  • Pelkmans, Mathijs. 2021. Frontier Dynamics: Reflections on Evangelical and Tablighi Missions in Central Asia. Comparative Studies in Society and History 63.1 (2021): 212-241.
  • Scott, Michael W. 2021. How the Missionary got his Mana: Charles Elliot Fox and the Power of Name-Exchange in Solomon Islands. Oceania 91(1): 106-127.
  • Shah, Alpa. 2021. For an anthropological theory of praxis: dystopic utopia in Indian Maoism and the rise of the Hindu Right. Social Anthropology/Anthropologie sociale 29.1: 68-86.
  • Steinmüller, Hans. 2010. How popular Confucianism became embarrassing: On the spatial and moral center of the house in rural China." Focaal 58 (2010): 81-96.
  • Walker, Harry. 2015. Justice and the dark arts: law and shamanism in Amazonia." American Anthropologist 117.1: 47-58.
  • Winchell, Mareike. 2023. Critical ontologies: rethinking relations to other‐than‐humans from the Bolivian Andes. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (2023).


Essay (100%, 4000 words) in the WT.

Key facts

Department: Anthropology

Total students 2023/24: Unavailable

Average class size 2023/24: Unavailable

Controlled access 2023/24: No

Value: Half Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information

Course selection videos

Some departments have produced short videos to introduce their courses. Please refer to the course selection videos index page for further information.

Personal development skills

  • Self-management
  • Team working
  • Problem solving
  • Application of information skills
  • Communication
  • Specialist skills