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In some anthropological treatments of religion, non-religious factors appear to be the animating force behind religious activity. Using examples, describe how these arguments connect to historical and social scientific claims about the nature of religion.

Non-religious factors have in many cases been the animating force behind religious activity. This essay will explore these cases to argue that religious knowledge and activity can be brought to life in a variety of non-religious ways. The first section of this essay regards politics and power, as forces for animation and will be discussed in line with claims made by Tylor, Geertz and Asad. This will follow with an examination of psychological and cognitive factors as animating forces, referring to claims made by Freud and Whitehouse. The final section will talk about culture as a factor for animation, exploring claims made by Freud and Tylor. The claims made in each section will be applied to these non-religious factors as well as ethnography to show how they play out in the reality of religious life. 

Though this essay is divided into sections of non-religious factors, it must be noted that they are not bounded to strict categories so separate from each other. Politics, power, psychology and culture cross over in many ways as will be revealed in the course of this essay. The crossover of theorists also emphasises this unbounded and ever changing nature of religion. 


Tylor believed that the origins and essence of religion was “animism - the belief in living, personal powers behind all things” (Pals 2015, 22). He traced philosophical thinking of the first humans to their initial awareness of death; how humans started to question what wakes them up each day, as well as the awareness and questioning of dreams. Tylor used death and dreams as awakenings of awareness to demonstrate how every human had a desire to formulate an idea of why they were here and what their place in the world was. This awareness led to animism as an explanation for life, “each of us animated by a soul, a spiritual principle” (Pals 2015, 23). In understanding religion and the origins of all culture through a lens of primitive belief in animism, Tylor wanted to establish a definition of religion. He decided that using a ‘belief in god’ as a definition would exclude many religions, such as those that that believed in multiple Gods. Tylor then came to define religion as the “belief in spiritual beings” (Pals 2015, 22), believing this would encompass the variety of religions in the world. 


Similarly to Tylor, Geertz wanted to come up with a universal definition of religion and also made claims about religious belief. Geertz’s ideology of religion however also extended to the idea of symbols and his definition revolves around this idea. Geertz’s definition of religion was composed of five clauses: 


            “(1) A system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men [sic] 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 realistic” (Geertz 1973, 90).


Geertz believed that religion was a symbol system within culture and that symbols animated religion, religious moods and motivations. Geertz was fascinated in understanding the role of ideas, beliefs and emotions in life’s activities, analysing how symbols pre-exist the social world humans are born into. For Geertz therefore, religion was an external force reflecting internal belief through symbols. Asad massively critiqued Geertz’s definition arguing that power relations and discipline acted as governing forces over people, not spontaneous symbol power. He believed universalities in religious study were dangerous, suggesting that "if good ethnography properly conveys cultural difference… Geertz’s definition makes this difficult because it presupposes what it will find: an autonomous symbolic sphere that inculcates belief by conveying meaning" (Leber 2016, 239). Asad imposed that religion not be viewed as the belief in symbols, but as constructed via power relations. Geertz separates the social-political world from conceptions of symbols, but Asad argues that power relations within this world actually create the conditions for experiencing truth.


Asad’s power relations connect with ethnographic work by Beliso-De Jesus on Santeria co-presence, demonstrating power and politics as animating forces for religious activity. Asad believes that a power relation is always present throughout religious history, his aim being “to problematise the idea of an anthropological definition of religion by assigning that endeavour to a particular history of knowledge and power" (Asad 1993, 54). This is evident in Santeria because it embodies political history and ancestry through cultural initiation rites. Santeria is established around embodying former power hierarchies of their colonial past of slavery. This embodiment of ancestral spirits challenges theologies of mediation, as the Santeria spiritual experience is not a mediation link between spiritual worlds, but an embodiment of them. Santeria co-presence is a pivotal example of how not all religions come to life through belief, as Tylor and Geertz would argue, but through embodiment. Understanding of the world is achieved through the physical body and energies of co-presence, which is the materialisation of divinities in, on and around the body. 


Santeria is framed around colonial power relations and does not align with epistemological claims about religion being belief and singular divinity centered. Asad worries that Geertz’s definition will inherently  "Christanize the depiction of a given tradition" (Lebner 2016, 241) with the use of symbols and belief systems. Asad’s worries come to life through a religion like Afro-Atlantic embodiment, because Geertz’s definition assumes religious belief as universal. Santeria can therefore be evaluated more accurately when looking through a lens of power and politics because its essence lies in the “grinding and cultivating wherein bodies were made and remade black, racialised bodies collapse time and initiate through kinaesthetic expression” (Beliso-De Jesus 2014). This collapsing and embodying of time and power is seen in Asad’s arguments regarding how “webs of (religious) power create (religious) truth - and crucially, these truths shift over time together with shifts in power" (Lebner 2016, 239). Asad’s claims can be applied to Santeria to highlight how religious activity can be animated by political and power forces across time. Santeria is not supported by claims regarding belief and symbols.


Religious activity can also be animated by psychological and cognitive factors. “Almost anyone who hears the name 'Freud' associates it with two things: psychotherapy and sex" (Pals 2015, 49), referring to Freud’s notions of the unconscious and the civilised repression of private desires. Freud describes how the ‘unconscious’ motivates the daily lives of humans and is found in “routine happenings such as jokes, slips of the tongue (the well-known 'Freudian slip'), absentmindedness, memory lapses, doodling, and even bodily quirks and gestures" (Pals 2015, 54). Freud finds answers to religion in the unconscious, which he frames around totemism to understand the psychology of religion and ‘primitive people’. Freud links cognitive repression of taboo and incest desires in totemism with a progression towards civilisation. His work centred on these cognitive ideas making connections between religion and tendencies of neurotic patients arguing that “just as sexual repression results in an individual obsessional neurosis, religion, which is practiced widely in the human race, seems to be a 'universal obsessional neurosis'" (Pals 2015, 60). Freud claimed that religion was a primitive and neurotic form, with secularism as the civilised modernity in comparison.


Freud’s ideas about the nature of religion coincide with Whitehouse’s cognitive anthropology. Both believe that the animation of religious activity comes from a place of psychology. How the impact on the mind, or the unconscious, determines religious animation. Whitehouse’s work demonstrates how intense ritual practices influence lasting memory. Whitehouse uses two models of religiosity; doctrinal and imagistic, but stresses the importance of imagistic most profoundly (2008, 110). Imagistic religiosity has a much greater impact on memory as “rarely performed and highly arousing rituals invariably trigger vivid and enduring episodic memories among the people who participate" (Whitehouse 2008, 110). Whitehouse discusses how intense ritual can produce ‘flahsbulb memory’, which he describes as the deep penetration of ritual into memory through extreme embodiment or traumatic ritual experience. His work on ‘rites of terror’, as a concept for those intense ritual practices, deploys ‘flashbulb memory’ because of how it “penetrates more deeply the religious experiences engendered in traumatic ritual, and also accounts for recurrent patterns of political association in initiation systems" (Whitehouse 1996, 1). Whitehouse’s cognitive anthropology emphasises how religious activity can come to life though the ‘flashbulb’ on the memory, instigated by psychologically intense rituals.


Freud and Whitehouse use cognitive and psychological factors to frame religious activity. This furthers how religion can be animated by a non-religious factor because these claims can be applied to Clark’s ethnographic work on initiation rites in American patriotic celebration rituals. Clark uses these Christian rituals to explain how “young cultural members encounter ritual through embodied learning and sensoria and not necessarily via adult intentional instruction" (2017, 24). Clark uses an ethnographic example of a North Carolina First Communion describing how prior to the ritual, initiates dwelled on the specific sensory aspects to the ritual including the bread and wine tasting. Clark notes that the intellectual grasping of Eucharist's theological meaning seemed to be of little importance in comparison to the bread, wine and other sensory aspects such as colours and objects. The “sensory elements and embodied participation” (Clark 2017, 27) was key to initiates’ understanding of religious values and a prominent way for them to embody religious knowledge. This sensory embodiment connects to Whitehouse as it emphasises a ‘rarely performed and highly arousing ritual’. According to Whitehouse, this type of ritual will have a deeper print onto the cognitive memory solidifying religious understanding. This perception of ritual and religious experience through the senses is brought the life through how it penetrates the mind and has an impact on long-lasting memory. Religious activity is therefore seen to have strong links to the psychological as an animating factor. 


Freud’s cognitive theory also connects to Clark’s work on Christian initiation rituals, through his discussion on the psychological repression of desire. This also starts to draw on culture as an animating force. Freud argues that humans have "for protection… first joined into clans and communities, thereby creating what we call civilisation. Through it we gain security, but at a price… society can survive only if we bend our personal desires to its rules and restraints" (Pals 2015, 64), highlighting the psychological repression of desire as prominent in conforming to social and cultural rules. Clark’s ‘enculturation’ similarly draws on this idea by demonstrating the societal expectation to conform to ritual, social and cultural rules without hesitation, “this added demand serves to subdue the instinctual human drive to avoid pain, a submission that furthers an implied sense of self being submerged to the collective." (Clark 2017, 29). The North Carolina First Communion is a ritual performed because of “adult’s socialising intentions” (Clark 2017, 27), establishing a psychological and cultural dimension to the animation of religious activity. 


Conforming to the collective combines political forces of society, psychological repressions and cultural learning. It emphasises how the crossover of non-religious factors can animate religion so vastly and across a variety of religious forms. Ritual and religion as the further integration into society is what Bell would call ‘ritualisation’, a power relation and a way for one social body to come to dominate another. This concept brings these factors of politics / power, psychology and culture together because it reveals the hold religion has over influencing human realities.


Building on cultural factors as forces for the animation of religious activity, Tylor’s work is also prominent. Tylor disagreed with religion theorist, Müller and his ideology of building theory on language habits and word derivations. Tylor was interested in understanding deeper intricacies of human culture and social organisation. He suggested it was more powerful "to explore the actual deeds, habits, ideas and customs that language describes - than to make far-fetches guesses based only on the analogies and origins of certain words" (Pals 2015, 19). Tylor’s interest in the actualities of human culture revealed that there are two layers of culture. The first, ’psychic unity’, emphasising that human similarity is not coincidental and that there is a sense of uniformity in the human mind (Pals 2015, 19). This layer of culture also represents another connection between culture and psychology showing the crossover of animation in religious activity. The second layer of culture is the pattern of intellectual / cultural evolution. Tylor argued that societies were only different because they were progressing at different speeds along this scale. At the barbaric stage was the belief in animism and ‘primitive’ rationale of thinking. This compares to the final stage, which he argues all societies will eventually reach, the “belief in one supreme divinity. Needless to say, Judaism and Christianity are the leading examples of the last stage" (Pals 2015, 26). The assumption of cultural progression to a belief in one supreme divinity cannot and does not encompass the range of religions in the world. Tylor’s claims may connect to Clark’s work on the North Carolina First Communion, as it emphasises cultural progression to Christianity, but does not translate to the ethnographic work on Hindu-Muslim marriages. 


Das shares the love story of Kuldip who is Hindu, and Saba who is Muslim, and want to get married but cannot because of the politics and culture of Indian life post-partition. Das focuses on ethics and morality, exploring everyday religiosity and how it is entangled with relationships, particularly in the context of religious difference and diversity. Das explains how Kuldip tried to convert to Muslim in order to marry Saba. This was almost impossible in a society governed by BJP politics and the culture that bred from this that limited the rights of Muslims through discourses of forced Muslim conversion and terrorism. Kuldip would instead adopt certain Muslim praying routines, while still keeping many of his Hindu values. When Kuldip could not convert, Saba said she “really had no objection to being converted - I thought if one of us has to do it, why not me?... Kuldip said to me, 'don't take anything to heart - this is just for legal purposes. No one is going to stop you from reading the Qur'an or saying your namaz' but still it was interesting that no temple would agree to marry us - only the Arya Samaj agreed" (2010, 389). Saba does not want to completely reject her Muslim faith, and Kuldip feels the same about Hinduism. Both then start to create a new type of religion that intertwines the two. Das reveals how religion can be animated by culture and politics because religious activity is influenced as a result. Kuldip and Saba are forced to change their religious reality because of cultural forces in their society. Cultural and political forces animate a new type of religion where they start to adopt aspects of each other’s, demonstrating the ability for non-religious factors to animate religious activity. 


Tylor’s work can build on this because he emphasises how culture plays a factor in the process of religion. However for Tylor, Hindu and Muslim religions will never reach the last stage of intellectual evolution, which limits his ideology too. It assumes that certain religions will never be as civilised, which challenges the ability of religions like these to ever ‘progress’. It is important to recognise how Tylor’s psychic unity did counter a lot of racist science in arguing that no matter what forms of comparable difference there are across humans, we are psychically the same; one biological species. However, his second layer of culture, ‘intellectual evolution’ does objectify many other religions and forces them to be viewed on a teleological evolutionary line of culture. Hindu-Muslim marriages creating a new reality for religion to exist combining both Hindu and Muslim values, transcend both the norms of society and Tylor’s evolutionary scale. "Whole areas of moral life remain obscure if our picture of morality remains tied to some version of following rules" (Das 2010, 377), drawing on how although this new type of religiosity challenges socio-political norms, it also follows personal morals. Das questions; who is therefore ethical – societal rules or personal principles? Das emphasises that borders between religions cannot be assumed as sealed, countering Tylor’s theory because it escapes the bounded nature of the scale. Tylor cannot account for religions that intertwine with each other, because his scale focuses on bounded religions progressing one by one. 


Non-religious factors regarding politics, power, psychology and culture have established how religious activity can be animated in a variety of ways. Claims made by Tylor, Geertz, Asad, Freud and Whitehouse were used to highlight these non-religious factors and apply them to differing religious ethnography. This application demonstrated where theorists could and could not connect with religious realities to demonstrate how unbounded and ever changing the nature of religion can really be. 



Works Cited 

Asad, T. 1993 [1983]. The Construction of Religion as an Anthropological Category. In Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam. Stanford UP.


Beliso-De Jesus, Aisha. 2014. Santeria, Co-presence and the making of African diaspora bodies. Cultural Anthropology. 29 (3):503-526 


Bell, Catherine. 1992. Part II - The Sense of Ritual. In Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice. Oxford University Press.


Clark, Cindy Dell. Enculturation Incarnate: Ritual Sensoria in U.S. Patriotic Holidays. 2017. Ethos. 45 (1): 24–47 


Das, V. 2010. Engaging the life of the other: love and everyday life. In Ordinary ethics: anthropology, language, and action (ed) M. Lambek, 376–99. New York: Fordham University Press.


Geertz, C. 1963 [1973]. Religion as a Cultural System. In The Interpretation of Cultures. Basic Books. 


Lebner, Ashley. 2016. The Anthropology of Religion: Historical and Contemporary Trends. (Ch 13). Handbook on Religion Volume 2: Social Religion: Historical Consciousness and the Social Sciences. William B. Parsons. (Ed.) Palgrave Macmillan


Pals, Daniel L. 2014. In Nine Theories of Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 


Whitehouse, Harvey. 1996. “Rites of terror: emotion, metaphor and memory in Melanesian initiation cults” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute N.S. 2: 703-715


Whitehouse, Harvey. 2008. “Modes of Religiosity” Council of Societies for the Study of Religion Bulletin 37(4): 108-112.

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