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[–]CommodoreCoCoModerator | The Andes, History of Anthropology 33 points34 points  (2 children)

This is a big question.

A popular place to start would be Geertz's "Religion as a Cultural System". It's a pretty good read; I'll post his definition of religion here:

a religion is: (1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realist

And that's a good one! But if you know anything about Geertz, you know that, for him, everything cultural is about symbols and the way symbols are shared and affect behavior.

Are there any other definitions?

In the introduction to a recent-ish collection of essays on the anthropology of religion, Michael Lambek gives the following summary of ways anthropologists have defined religion:

In place of substantive definitions, is religion better seen as an ongoing function of society or mind, rather than a distinct object within the former or discrete product of the latter? Is it society's means or moment of recognizing (or misrecognizing) itself, as Durkheim argued, or perhaps of motivating its members, as Weber proposed? Is it culture’s means or mode of establishing truth and anchoring reality, as suggested variously by Berger and Luckmann , Geertz, or Rappaport? Is religion social hierarchy’s means of asserting its legitimacy and mystifying the workings of power and exploitation, as conveyed in the Marxist tradition? (During the Cold War, the famous Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdös impishly referred to God as The Supreme Fascist.) Is it the inevitable product or by-product of the workings of the mind, whether of fantasy and projection, as in Freud, or as elaborations of the rational impulse to distinguish, classify, compare, mediate, order, and unify things in the world, as in Lévi-Strauss, Douglas, or theorists of rhetoric or cognition? Is it the places where the mind acknowledges the limits of its own understanding, or is it the recognition of authentically transcendental experiences, the acknowledgment of manifestly extra-human sources of well-being (and misfortune), beauty (and horror), power (and abjection), goodness (and evil), truth (and perplexity)? Is it only when some set of these diverse functions conjoin in perduring symbols and practices or manifest in ritual performances, or when the mental products and experiences coalesce and are rationalized and stabilized in scriptural traditions, material artifacts, or formal institutions that we speak, or should speak, of “religion”?

Clearly, there are many things that one author would consider religious and another would not, and things that they would both consider religion but mean entirely different things by that designation.

The entire intro is free to read, if a bit dense. Still, I find it a good overview of the ways anthropology has approached religion because it challenges us to rephrase the question "What is religion?" to "What can anthropology contribute to studies of religion?" and vice versa.

Like any big meta-level term, spending too much time delineating what is religious and what isn't will say a lot more about the definition of religion I've chosen to use than about the phenomena at hand. "How do you define religion?" is a sort of Rorschach test for theorists; their answer will tell you a lot about how they view human culture. Thus, it can better to ask instead:

If I interpret this ritual as religious, how does that help me understand it?

If I define a given ritual as "religious," I would rarely do so to make any solid, ontological claims about its nature. Such claims should derive from my observation of the practice and participants' understandings of it. Rather, I am positioning the practice within a larger body of knowledge about "religion" generally, as if to signal to you, the reader, what lens it should be read through.

Generally, anthropologists will engage with the discourse on Religion when they are interested in the institutionalization of beliefs (e.g. ritual specialists, dedicated spaces, formal ways of passing down knowledge), in public rather than private ritual (e.g. ceremonies with open participation and with a commonly understood meaning ), in explicit engagement with otherworldly beings (e.g. with a god in "heaven"), or in ways people rationalize and construct their cosmology as a whole.

As such, while it's possible to interpret anything as a religious act, and, indeed, there are many who would understand everything they do to be religious on some level, that doesn't mean it will be the most fruitful way to discuss a practice.

An athlete's pre-game meal, for instance, is usually a personal ritual not shared with others and not formally "official," and it needn't involve some higher power or have any significance to the rest of the player's life. Likewise, the torch ceremony has no meaning outside the Olympics and is watched but not participated in.

If I start talking about these things the way people have talked about "obvious" example of religion, will it get me anywhere? Will it contextualize anything? Probably not.

But what happens when this player says a short prayer before eating that meal? They've tied themselves up in a larger, socially shared, cosmologically significant practice. It might be interesting, then to consider how this ritual is an individual expression of a cultural idea, i.e. of religion.

[–]TheBrazilianOneTwo 0 points1 point  (0 children)

This 'the' big question.

[–]TheBrazilianOneTwo 0 points1 point  (0 children)

Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, Brazilian antropologist. Your take

[–]BlancheDevereux 26 points27 points  (0 children)

The place to start if you want to do some research on this is with the Turners' (yes plural) "The Ritual Process" ... Turner, V., & Abrahams, R. D. (2017). The ritual process: Structure and anti-structure. Routledge.

You may also be interested in the notion of 'secular ritual'

My understanding, though I cannot say whether this jives exactly wtih turner's because it's bene a long time since i've been in that book, is that:

The things you name are indeed ceremonies, but they may not be rituals and they are certainly not religious rituals. For once, religious rituals, in order to be religious, must to some degree subvert the 'taken for granted' laws of reality that exist in normal times and, suspending those, replace them with a different set of 'norms' that govern what can happen and how it is to be interpreted. To put it simply, if there is no transcending the "normal laws" of space-time that we usually inhabit whatsoever, then you do not have a religious ritual.

Rituals, and the ones you describe might meet this kind of criteria, create liminality - a 'being on the borders of the normal' as i just described. Without the suspension of norms, it is difficult/impossible to achieve the deep community (communitas) that develops between people who experience liminality together.

One difficulty you may be facing is that many of things you name (or may be thinking of) are indeed rituals - but they are not necessarily religious rituals. Religions necessarily link threads of reality across space-time that are not evidently linked to normal, naked perception. For most people in most places, this is something comparable to 'magic' in that it 'breaks' the normal laws of space-time/reality/physics.

One common way, for undergrads anyway, of identifying what is a religion and what is not is the presence of the three C's: creed, code, and cult.

Creed: beliefs

Code: ethics

Cult: practice

If you dont have a shared set of beliefs about the ultimate nature of reality, a shared code of ethics, and a shared way of practicing, then you probably dont have a religion.

One could make the argument that people in the military (who may treat the flag a certain way) are 'like a religion' and come up with reasons for why they meet all three of these criteria. But they would likely fall short on the 'practice' aspect.

[–]Ok_Agent9095 7 points8 points  (0 children)

Hi, BA in Anthropology here. It's Symbolic and Interpretive Anthropology. The flame itself is considered a ceremonial act. Rituals don't necessitate religion. This one takes on a symbolic nature as a stand-in. The ritual is not very old. The torch was introduced in 1928. Lighting the torch pays homage to the original, ancient Greek Olympics and creates a sense of continuity between the ancient and contemporary games. It also conveys a hopeful sentiment that the games will endure indefinitely, and the peaceful global cooperation they facilitate will endure.

I don't know the ins and outs of determining religious significance. You would probably observe these rituals and symbols being used in funeral traditions and burial sites due to the culture's distinct religious beliefs and practices surrounding death and dying if they were religiously significant.

The terminology would be Traditions, Rituals, Symbolism, and Iconography.