Anthropology of Religion

The Basics

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James S. Bielo
  • Abingdon, UK: 
    , March
     192 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Like many anthropologists of religion, I was drawn to this area of study by a powerful experience during my undergraduate studies. In my second year at Connecticut College, I took a lower-division course on “Hinduism and Its Practice,” for which students were required to visit a local Hindu temple on their own. As a quiet, introverted young woman who had been raised in a Catholic family, I was initially apprehensive about stepping into a space so deeply unfamiliar to me (a feeling that I now try to be mindful of whenever I ask my students to complete similar tasks). And yet, the sights, smells, sounds, and people I encountered there—the temple priests who tenderly bathed a statue of Ganesha and performed arati, the young boy who fidgeted restlessly as he recited mantras alongside his mother—remain vividly ingrained in my mind to this day. James S. Bielo recounts a similarly memorable experience in his book, Anthropology of Religion: The Basics, and notes that his early experiments with fieldwork as an undergraduate student “planted deeply in [him] a sense of wanting to discover religious worlds, and a commitment that anthropology was a fantastic way to do that” (x). Anthropology of Religion: The Basics offers a concise, accessible introduction to the anthropological study of religion, providing readers with insight into the questions and issues that are central to this field.

Bielo’s text begins with a short preface that outlines why anthropological approaches to the study of religion are valuable, noting especially their capacity to address “religion as practiced, embodied, and lived” (xiv). The six chapters that follow thereafter are not organized by religious traditions or key topics, as tends to be the trend in other textbooks on this subject, but rather by core problems and questions in the anthropology of religion. Chapter 1 proves most useful for scholars in a variety of subfields in religious studies, as it raises the question of what we mean when we talk about “religion.” Bielo compares nine different definitions of religion that have surfaced over time, and argues that each definition helps us understand the assumptions, commitments, and theoretical orientation of a given scholar (2). I can imagine assigning this chapter, especially the first fifteen pages of it, in many of my lower-division religious studies classes, including “World Religions”and “Exploring Religious Meaning.”

Subsequent chapters delve deeper into the particularities of the anthropology of religion itself. Chapter 2 addresses ethnography as a powerful but complicated methodology, tracing how the “critical turn” has caused anthropologists to reflect upon ethnography as a way of knowing (32). Here, the author introduces four postures that ethnographers may occupy in terms of how they respond to the truth claims being made by a religious group: methodological atheism, methodological agnosticism, methodological ludism, or methodological theism. The beauty in Bielo’s framing of this issue is the manner in which he encourages students to consider which posture they might occupy. His framing is an invitation for further conversation, rather than a promotion of one particular approach. Chapter 3 considers growing scholarly interest in “mediation,” or the ways in which the immaterial beliefs and elements of religion are made material through bodies, words, and things (55). Moving forward, chapter 4 addresses how religious communities use rituals and narratives to construct particular understandings of time and space, and chapter 5 delves into questions surrounding the negotiation and contestation of religious authority. The book comes to a close with chapter 6, which invites conversation about globalization, diaspora, and transnational religion. 

Bielo’s book proves exemplary in a number of ways. First and foremost, his tone is accessible and engaging. The passion that he feels for this area of study comes through contagiously in his writing, and he also defines key terms in ways that would be useful for students approaching these ideas for the first time. His book presents core questions and issues using a wide range of historical and ethnographic examples. Bielo intertwines classic works in the anthropology of religion—such as those by E. E. Evans-Pritchard, Clifford Geertz, and Victor and Edith Turner—with contemporary scholarship by scholars like Simon Coleman, John Jackson, and Matthew Engelke. He does not overwhelm the reader with different examples but, instead, helpfully shows how scholarly conversations have evolved across time. Additionally, interspersed throughout each chapter are a series of boxes that contain suggested activities for delving deeper into some of the questions and cases he is addressing. These exercises, which range from researching Navajo protests of the Arizona Snowbowl to critically examining films like Hell House (2001), would prove intriguing to and relevant for the students in my classes. 

The inevitable drawback to crafting a book that is so concise (just 160 pages!) is that it cannot be entirely comprehensive. For example, Bielo notes in his introduction that he decided to scrap additional chapters addressing questions about agency and religious pluralism—two areas that are critical to the material that I personally teach—in order to keep the book at an ideal length for classroom use (xii-xiii). Yet, while this book may not be fully exhaustive, it lends itself well to pairing with other readings that are tailored to a given course or topic. Given my own training in existential phenomenological anthropology, I can imagine assigning this book in conjunction with writings by Michael D. Jackson, Devaka Premawardhana, and others. And, for instructors who may be teaching this course for the first time, Bielo’s lists of suggested readings at the end of each chapter also provide a helpful starting point for imagining how to integrate this book alongside other sources. Ultimately, this is a short but powerful book, and one that I would recommend to anyone who is searching for an engaging introduction to the anthropology of religion.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Kate Yanina DeConinck is Teaching Professor at the University of San Diego. Her areas of expertise include anthropology of religion; religion, race, and representation in the United States; and, religion in the wake of mass tragedy.

Date of Review: 
June 26, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

James S. Bielo is Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Miami University, Ohio.


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