Anthropology of Religion

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Anthropology of Religion

University of Colorado-Boulder

Anthropology 4020

Summer B (2015)
Cris Campbell


Office Hours: T-Th 2:45 – 3:30 pm (and by appointment)

Office: Hale 146
Class Dates: July 7 – August 7

Class Days: M-T-W-Th-Fr

Time: 12:45 – 2:20 pm

Location: Educ 134
In this course we will examine “religion” using conceptual tools from four-field anthropology (i.e., biological anthropology, cultural anthropology, archaeology, and linguistics) and sister disciplines of sociology, psychology, and history. The general framework within which we conduct this examination will be evolutionary. There are three reasons for framing our inquiry this way: (1) evolutionary studies of religion have, over the past two decades, exploded in size and scope, (2) anthropology, as a discipline, was founded on evolutionary studies of religion, and (3) an evolutionary framework enables us to impose temporal and explanatory order on a vast and often bewildering array of theories, methods, and data pertaining to “religion.”
This course will make extensive use of my blog, Genealogy of Religion. Some of our readings are original blog posts; however, most of the readings can be found under the header section of the blog under the link titled “Resources.” This tab contains the syllabus and other articles for the course. There are no books – all reading assignments are posted under the Resources tab of the blog. I strongly recommend that you download each of the assigned readings and organize them into a digital folder or physical course-pack. You should bring all assigned readings to class for purposes of group discussion.
July 7: Introductions, Expectations, and Course Summary
July 8 and 9: Religion, Magic, and Myth – Constructing Categories & Defining Terms


  1. Sociological Definitions, Language Games, and the “Essence” of Religion by Andrew McKinnon (2002)

  2. The Construction of Religion as an Anthropological Category by Talal Asad (1993)

  3. Historical and Historiographical Issues in the Study of Pre-Modern Japanese Religions by Neil McMullin (1989)

  4. Magic: A Problem in Semantics by Dorothy Hammond (1970)

July 10: Evolutionary Theory, Natural Selection, and Adaptation


  1. Godless Savages and Superstitious Dogs: Charles Darwin, Imperial Ethnography, and the Problem of Human Uniqueness by Matthew Day (2008)

  2. The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptationist Programme by Gould and Lewontin (1979)

July 13 and 14: Cognitive Byproduct Theories of Religion


  1. Religious Thought and Behavior as By-Products of Brain Function by Pascal Boyer (2003)

  2. Cognitive Science of Religion: What Is It and Why Is It? by Justin Barrett (2007)

  3. Religion is Natural by Paul Bloom (2007)

  4. Homer’s Soul by Paul Bloom and Dave Pizzaro (2006)

  5. Lacking Control Increases Illusory Pattern Perception by Whitson et al. (2008)

  6. Are Children Intuitive Theists? by Deborah Keleman (2004)

  7. Mentalizing Deficits Constrain Belief in a Personal God by Norenzayan (2012)

July 15 and 16: Evolutionary-Adaptive Theories of Religion


  1. The Adaptationist-Byproduct Debate on the Evolution of Religion: Five Misunderstandings of the Adaptationist Program by Richard Sosis (2009)

  2. The Cognitive Psychology of Belief in the Supernatural by Jesse Bering (2006)

  3. Signaling, Solidarity, and the Sacred: The Evolution of Religious Behavior by Sosis and Alcorta (2003)

  4. Explaining Religion without Explaining it Away: Trust, Truth, and the Evolution of Cooperation in Roy A. Rappaport’s “The Obvious Aspects of Ritual” by John Watanabe and Barbara Smuts (1990)

  5. Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society, book review by Richard Sosis (2003)

July 17 and 20: New Schism/Old Schism – Tylor/Anthropology v. Durkheim/Sociology

Readings: “Explanatory Theories of Religion” Post at Genealogy of Religion:

  1. Charles Darwin

  2. Robert Marett

  3. Emile Durkheim

  4. Robert Lowie

  5. Evans-Pritchard

  6. “Robin Horton: MIA” Post

July 20: Special Guest Visitor – Professor Stewart Guthrie, author of Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion (1993)

Reading: Anthropology and Anthropomorphism in Religion by Guthrie (2007)
July 21: Elusive Origins & Altered States of Consciousness

  1. Harnessing the Brain: Vision and Shamanism in Upper Paleolithic Western Europe by J.D. Lewis-Williams (1997)

  2. Middle Paleolithic Symbolism: A Review of Current Evidence and Interpretation by Harold Dibble (1987)

July 22 and 23: Shamans as Sense-Makers and Healers


  1. The Epistemology and Technologies of Shamanic States of Consciousness by Stanley Krippner (2000)

  2. Shamanic Healing, Human Evolution, and the Origin of Religion by James McClenon (1997)

  3. The Signs of the Sacred: Identifying Shamans Using Archaeological Evidence by Christine van Pool (2009)

  4. Shamans and Other Magico-Religious Healers: A Cross-Cultural Study of Their Origins, Nature, and Social Transformation by Michael Winkelman (1990)

July 24, 27 and 28: Animism and Animist Worldviews


  1. Ojibwa Ontology, Behavior, and World View by A. Irving Hallowell (1960)

  2. Technology, World View, and Adaptive Strategy in a Northern Hunting Society by Robin Ridgington (1982)

  3. Animism Revisited: Personhood, Environment, and Relational Epistemology by Nurit Bird-David (1999)

  4. Re-Thinking the Animate, Re-Animating Thought by Tim Ingold (2006)

  5. Alienation, Recovered Animism, and Altered States of Consciousness by Bruce Charlton (2007)

  6. African Traditional Thought and Western Science by Robin Horton (1967)

July 29 and 30: Neolithic Transitions, Dichotomies, and Development of “Religions”


  1. Economy, Ritual, and Power in Ubaid Mesopotamia by Gil Stein (1994)

  2. Ancient Mesopotamian Gods, Superstition, Philosophy, Theology by Wilfred Lambert (1990)

  3. Notes and Suggestions on the Early Sumerian Religion and Its Expression by John Peters (1921)

  4. The Basic Aspect of Hittite Religion by Giuseppe Furlani (1938)

  5. Yahweh Becomes King by Roy Rosenberg (1966)

July 31: Religious Evolution and Cultural “Progress”


  1. Religious Evolution by Robert Bellah (1964)

  2. Classifying Cultures: Grade v. Clade Post at Genealogy of Religion

  3. Non-Progressive Religions Post at Genealogy of Religion

August 3 and 4: Suffering, World Rejection, Transcendence, Morals and the Axial Age


  1. What is Axial about the Axial Age? by Robert Bellah (2005)

  2. Karen Armstrong’s Axial Age: Origins and Ethics by Alan Strathern (2009)

  3. The Age of Transcendence by Benjamin Schwartz (1975)

  4. Gods, Rituals, and the Moral Order by Rodney Stark (2001)

  5. Increased Affluence Explains the Emergence of Ascetic Wisdoms and Moralizing Religions by Baumard et al. (2015)

August 5 and 6: Course Review

August 7: FINAL EXAM

Course Requirements and Evaluation

Course assessment will be based on a combination of class attendance and participation, reading quizzes, the course diary, and a final examination. These four components are equally weighted, so the total number of possible points is 100. There are, however, opportunities for extra credit so it is theoretically possible to attain more than 100 points for the course. Final grades will be calculated on a curve. Grades will be figured as follows:

Class Attendance and Participation (25 points)
Because this is a condensed summer course, we will be moving quickly through large amounts of material. Each class builds on the previous one and it is easy to fall behind. Attendance is therefore critical. If you miss a class or lecture, be sure to get notes from someone who attended. Failure to attend class will adversely affect your grade. There are only 25 classes during this session. You are allowed one unexcused absence. If you have 2 unexcused absences, your grade will be lowered by half a point (e.g., from B to B-); with 3 unexcused absences, your final grade will be lowered by a full point (e.g., from B to C). If you have 4 or more unexcused absences, you will be given a failing grade (i.e., an F). In addition to attendance, I expect you to participate in class. During lectures, you should ask questions and offer answers to questions that I ask. During group discussions of readings, you are expected to participate in a manner which demonstrates you have done the readings and critically reflected on them.
Reading Quizzes (25 points)
For each class, we will read journal articles, book chapters, or blog posts. I have kept these readings short with the expectation that you will do the reading before each class. This reading will constitute the basis for lectures and discussions. Once or twice per week, we will begin class with a short written assignment or “quiz” which will ask you to state the thesis of the article/chapter and the arguments/data used to support the thesis. The purpose of these unannounced quizzes is twofold. First, they encourage everyone to do the assigned readings and attend class. Second, I use the quizzes to evaluate reading comprehension and guide class discussions.
Class Diary (25 points)
You will not be required to write a formal or research paper for this class. Instead, you will be keeping a class diary in which you critically and creatively reflect on the lectures, readings, discussions, and course in general. You should write in your journal each day, with two paragraphs minimum and no maximum. There is no standard format for diary entries. You should keep your journal in a single running document that clearly dates each separate entry. You should regularly back-up this document! It is important to make regular entries in your diary because once or twice per week, I will ask you to send me the diary electronically so that I can monitor your writing and progress.
The purpose of the diary is to force you to think about the class and articulate your thoughts. Although these thoughts may be of a personal nature, keep in mind that I will be reading your diary and the diary can be extremely useful when it comes to organizing lecture and reading notes, and studying for the final exam. If your diary consists mostly of personal reactions and thoughts, it will be less useful for these purposes. Ideally, your journal entries should show that you have understood the lectures and readings, and are synthesizing them to create a coherent timeline, theory, and story. Although this is a personal diary, I expect you to write in a professional manner, with good organization, proper grammar, and correct spellings.

Final Examination (25 points)
The final exam will be comprehensive. It is designed to test your overall understanding of the course. There will be one large question requiring an essay response that will enable you to demonstrate your understanding and mastery of the materials and themes of this course. There will be 2-3 more narrow questions allowing you to give a shorter but in depth answer to a particular issue or subject.

Extra Credit (Up to 15 points)
You may earn extra credit in this course, the maximum amount of which will be 15 points. Most extra credit opportunities will arise as a result of doing additional reading (which I will specify) and then providing formal written assessments which demonstrate your understanding of the reading(s) and relevance to themes of this course. I will announce these extra credit opportunities as they arise from time to time.

  • There will be elements of this course that are demanding. Academically, it will be rigorous because we will read across several disciplines, not just within anthropology. Personally, it may be challenging because we will be questioning cultural assumptions and examining religion from a naturalist perspective. Religion can be a sensitive subject and we will be respectful of this. Please keep the following in mind:

  • This course is not concerned with the truth or falsity of religious belief and we will neither consider nor discuss such issues.

  • This is not a theology course and we will consider specific beliefs or doctrines only to the extent they bear on the larger themes in the class.

  • There are no hidden or unspoken agendas in this course. My personal thoughts on these subjects, whatever those may be, are not relevant to the materials.

  • By the same token, personal religious beliefs will not be discussed in class. We will not tolerate polemical or personal attacks on particular religions or beliefs.

  • If you have questions about being able to meet these expectations on classroom behavior, please see me and/or seek more information on the university’s policies: and at

  • If you qualify for accommodations because of a disability, please submit a

letter to me from Disability Services in a timely manner so that your needs may

be addressed. Disability Services determines accommodations based on

documented disabilities. Contact: 303-492-8671, Willard 322, or


  • Campus policy regarding religious observances requires that faculty make every

effort to reasonably and fairly deal with all students who, because of

religious obligations, have conflicts with scheduled exams, assignments or

required attendance. In this class, you should notify the professor at least one week in advance of course deadlines. See policy details at

  • All students of the University of Colorado at Boulder are responsible for

knowing and adhering to the academic integrity policy of this institution.

Violations of this policy may include: cheating, plagiarism, aid of academic

dishonesty, fabrication, lying, bribery, and threatening behavior. All

incidents of academic misconduct shall be reported to the Honor Code Council

(; 303-725-2273). Students who are found to be in violation

of the academic integrity policy will be subject to both academic sanctions

from the faculty member and non-academic sanctions (including but not limited

to university probation, suspension, or expulsion). Additional information on

the Honor Code can be found at:

and at

In coming to the University of Colorado, students and faculty have joined an intellectual community dedicated to learning together through the open exchange of ideas. For us to feel comfortable sharing our perspectives, we need to be confident that our ideas will be respected as our own. All of us share responsibility for creating an environment conducive to open exchange by holding to principles of trust, integrity, and honesty. This class adheres to a zero tolerance policy for academic dishonesty. Any work that, upon investigation, is found to violate the Honor Code will receive a grade of zero and a report will be submitted to the Honor Code Council.

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