Introducing Anthropology of Religion: Culture to the Ultimate by Jack David Eller


Introducing Anthropology of Religion is a book (or a textbook depending on how you see it) about the anthropology of religion.  The book studies religions from all over the world, both known and unknown, using six themes.  The themes are: diversity between religion, diversity within religion, integrating religions with its surrounding culture, the fact that religion is not a single, monolithic “thing” but a composite of many elements all of which have their nonreligious ritual, relativity of language and local and practiced nature of religion.  The author discusses topics like belief, rituals, myths, morality, world religions, violence, secularization, fundamentalism, and American religion.

The first chapter takes the phrase “Studying Religion Anthropologically” and breaks it down starting with “anthropologically” and ending with “studying”.  Anthropology of religion is the scientific investigation of the diversity of human religions.  The most important concept in this method is culture.  Anthropology adopts a position of holism, and in culture we have four areas of function: economics, kinship, politics, and religion.  Anthropology upholds the principle of cultural relativism, which means that each culture has its own standards of understanding and judging as well as language.  The author then goes on to define religion.  This of course is no easy thing to do, but he gives us this.  Religion is the discourse, the language and practice, or the means by which human society and culture is extended to include the nonhuman.  He also lists the six functions of religion before moving on to the “studying” part of the phrase.  In Anthropology “studying” religion means to “explain” it.  It means to construct a model of it, to identify processes or mechanism at work in it, and /or to give reasons for it.  Then he goes on to discuss the theories of religion put forward by theorists.

Chapter two is a discussion of belief, religious entities like spiritual beings, human spirits, non-human spirits and spiritual forces.  It also contains a discussion of cosmology and cosmogony, theodicy (explaining evil), human conception, birth, and death and end of time.  It is a very interesting chapter that I had to read twice to make sure I got everything the author was saying.

The next chapter, chapter three, looks at very interesting questions like is religion symbolic and what are symbols for?  It talks about sacred spaces, icons and idols, charms, masks, the human body, ritual objects and religious texts.  The chapter also talks about the different persons associated with religion like shamans, priests, prophets, witches and so on.

Chapter four is very interesting to me because it talks about myths.  The author discusses the myths as religious language, the types and themes of myths, the structural study of myths, myths as oral literature, as performance, and the power of words.

Ritual is the subject of chapter five.  It discusses all types of rituals and rites of passage.  Next comes morality and social order, then religious change and new movements, and a look at world religions and religious violence, fundamentalism, and religion in the USA.

The book is a must read for everyone who wants to study religion, and understand the importance of myths and rituals to it.

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2 thoughts on “Introducing Anthropology of Religion: Culture to the Ultimate by Jack David Eller

  1. David Eller says:

    Thank you for the nice review of my book. Hopefully people will also look at the later chapters which are not discussed in detail in your review but which are really unique in the anthropology-of-religion textbook arena.

    • celticscholar says:

      Thank you for writing it. ALL of the book has helped me greatly in my own research into religion. It is definitely one that I return too time and again.

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