Religion From An Anthropological Perspective


Anthropology is the science examining human experience, and the same notion can be applied to religion. It is certain that historically, culturally, and socially, people differ based on religious perspectives. Thus, spirituality takes many forms, a notion that is most prominent when examining past religious branches, superstitions, and spiritual domains. This paper will examine Marvin Harris’ essay in correlation with the theoretical orientation of the anthropological perspective.


The anthropological perspective implies that different societies approach religion differently. Hence, understanding the theoretical framework of theology presupposes the employment of differentiation among beliefs and superstitions of various tribes, groups, and demographics (Stein & Stein, 2017). A similar approach is highlighted in Harris’ work. In the essay “Why We Became Religious?” the author applies the concept of animism, which implies the presence of perception of spirituality. Hence, spirituality is attributed to people, animals, objects, and places, and the author mentions that all societies possess such beliefs (Harris, 1974). The example that is provided is Buddhism, in which a belief in souls is not intrinsic. Yet, human nature has led to Buddha becoming the embodiment of a supreme force ruling over gods and demons. Thus, it can be highlighted that there is an intrinsic anthropological need for a belief in the supernatural. The same characteristic is attributed to the belief in luck as a notion.

More attributions of the anthropological perspective as a theoretical orientation can be highlighted in Harris’ essay “The Evolution of the Spirit World”. In this literature piece, the author highlights anthropological differences rather than similarities by describing how ancestors and spirits are viewed in different cultures. An example of anthropological contrasts facilitated by culture is the Washo people believe the spirits of the dead to be angry and vengeful, while Dobuans display the skull of the household leaders for protection (Harris, 1974). The differences in perceptions of spirits have a cultural and religious basis. However, a factor that is anthropologically logically common and present across most cultures is the belief in said spirits.

As a result, animism is inevitably somewhat intrinsic. It can take the form of religious beliefs, spirituality, and concepts such as luck, destiny, and fate. By comparing the views of various demographics, the theological perspective may differ in the form of the number of gods within a religion, rituals, outlooks on life, and ethical considerations. At the same time, the existence of animism is certain across demographics, history, and geography. Hence, the holistic approach to religion can be explained from an anthropological perspective as the tribes, groups, and communities differed in terms of history, economics, morals, laws, rules, and structures (Stein & Stein, 2017). This also relates to the idea that religion is to be considered as the result of the complex relationships between the aforementioned external factors.


Based on the number of religions and spiritual beliefs that have existed across history, it is implied that multiple circumstances impact the theological perspective of individuals. However, the anthropological perspective that Harris applies to describe contrasting perceptions of the supernatural also presupposes the existence of animism among all groups. As a result, religion may take different forms and be experienced and lives differently, yet its intrinsic presence is not a matter of external factors. Hence, rituals, gods, and rules differ, while the persistent trust in the existence of the supernatural is a psychological concept relating to human nature.


Harris, M. (1974). Why we became religious, and the evolution of the spirit world. The Anthropological Study of Religion.

Stein, R. L., & Stein, P. L. (2017). The anthropology of religion, magic, and witchcraft. Routledge.