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The Anthropology of Religion

Course Code: ANTH 1130
Faculty: Humanities & Social Sciences
Department: Anthropology
Credits: 3.0
Semester: 15 weeks
Learning Format: Lecture
Typically Offered: TBD. Contact Department Chair for more info.
course overview

An introduction to the varieties and experiences of religion in a variety of cross-cultural contexts. We will analyze the social construction of belief systems as well as the relationship of religion to other aspects of social systems, including how people use religion to make their lives meaningful.

Course Content

  1. Introduction
    • Basic premises and definitions
    • Culture, society, religion
    • Relativity of religious beliefs, traditions and world religions
  2. Mystical Power
    • The problem of meaning in human social life
    • Everyday reality and the paradigms of the self
    • Belief systems and personal identity
    • Mystical power and the person
  3. Home Symbolicus:  Animals and Plants in Religions
    • The power of symbols, cultural universals
    • Sacred and profane
    • Incest taboo
    • Animals, plants and society
  4. Shamanism and Mystical Beings
    • Divinity spirit world & supernaturals
    • Shamanism & possession
  5. Spirit Possession & Communication
    • Induction of trance
    • Altered states of consciousness
    • Possession and channeling
    • Speaking in-tongues
    • Exorcism
  6. Drugs and Other Altered States of Consciousness:  Wizardry
    • Magic mushrooms and chemical substances
    • Medieval European witchcraft and feminism
    • Wizardry & society
  7. Illness & Healing
    • Specialization  and curing
    • Indigenous medicine and medical systems
    • Core clinical functions
    • Traditional versus modern healers
    • Surgery and psychology
    • Reactions to illness
  8. Rites of Passage & Relations Between the Sexes:  Social Construction of Reality
    • Explanation and symbols
    • Ideology and practice
    • The process of legitimation and consensus
    • Consensus and personal identity
    • Males and Females
  9. Ancestors & Ghosts:  Deaths of the Afterlife
    • Survival of death and the power of spirits
    • Hearth fires and ancient cities
    • Blaming the ancestors
    • The origins of ancient beliefs
    • Survival and reincarnation
  10. Waiting for the Goods; Cargo & Renewal
    • Culture and identity
    • Culture and transformation
    • Contact and diffusion
    • Sacrifice and exploitation
    • Cults and charisma
    • Syncretism and religious changes
  11. Altered States, Altered Time       
    • Religion and economy
    • Personal identity and beliefs
    • The confines of language and rationality
    • Beliefs and gender issues
    • Bridging from old to new
  12. What Traditional Religions Do for the People: Symbolic Universes & Paradigms
    • Video Diary
  13. Anthropology as Possession
    • Anthropology as a way of being in the world
    • Anthropology and critical thinking
    • The need to believe and the will to believe
    • The relativity of belief
    • The tyranny of belief

Methods of Instruction

This course will be presented mainly by way of lectures, with class discussion of selected ethnographic material.  This may be supplemented by films, slides, videos, and class discussion.

Means of Assessment

The evaluation of this course follows Douglas College policies as outlined in the current calendar.  During the first week of classes the instructor will provide students with a typed course outline handout setting out the evaluation scheme for the course.   A sample evaluation scheme follows:


A series of examinations, up to 30% each    
     multiple choice or essay style
An individual/group assignment or
research paper
Student presentation  10%
Total 100%

Learning Outcomes

At the end of the course the student will be able to:

  1. Demonstrate an adequate grasp of basic terminology in the sub-field.
  2. Discuss the nature of belief systems and how they are socially constructed.
  3. Explain the relevance of the anthropological approach to the study of religion.
  4. Demonstrate acknowledge of the connections between belief systems and other aspects of the social system.
  5. Identify various traditional peoples and their beliefs from a variety of ethnographic sources.

course prerequisites

Courses listed here must be completed prior to this course:

  • No prerequisite courses


Courses listed here must be completed either prior to or simultaneously with this course:

  • No corequisite courses


Courses listed here are equivalent to this course and cannot be taken for further credit:

  • No equivalency courses

curriculum guidelines

Course Guidelines for previous years are viewable by selecting the version desired. If you took this course and do not see a listing for the starting semester/year of the course, consider the previous version as the applicable version.

course schedule and availability
course transferability

Below shows how this course and its credits transfer within the BC transfer system. 

A course is considered university-transferable (UT) if it transfers to at least one of the five research universities in British Columbia: University of British Columbia; University of British Columbia-Okanagan; Simon Fraser University; University of Victoria; and the University of Northern British Columbia.

For more information on transfer visit the BC Transfer Guide and BCCAT websites.


If your course prerequisites indicate that you need an assessment, please see our Assessment page for more information.