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The Rite

 The rite constitutes a central theme of the Anthropology of Religion, constituting, in terms of W. R. Smith, “ancient religion in its totality”. According to the author, “primitively, religion was not a system of beliefs with practical applications, but a set of fixed traditional practices to which all members of society were subject”. Ritual hypertrophy is a central aspect in ancient religions with an old structure, as is the case of religions of African origin. Along these lines, Radcliffe-Brown states that beliefs have a much more variable and volatile character than rites, which are more consistent and perennial, the reason why, according to him, rites should be the privileged object of study of the discipline. For Durkheim, the rite has a social dimension, has a character of repeatability, and performs a specific function within a society. In the wake of Freud, Malinowski conceived a psychological size in ritual, which would function as a cathartic and tranquilliser.

Moreover, Malinowski observes a “magical” size in the ritual, resulting from the fact that its efficacy resides in the ritual itself, i.e., when it summons an inherent power (the mana), distinguished, in his idea, from the “religious” dimension, which occurs when its efficacy depends on the intervention of forces external to the rite (gods and spirits). Marcel Mauss made a decisive contribution to the theoretical approach to the ritual. According to him, the ritual is a “traditional act” adopted by the collectivity or by an authority recognised, which concerns things conceived as “sacred”. For Mauss, the rite has the coercive function of manipulating things by employing offerings and requests. Victor Turner, in turn, considers that the study of rituals should be accompanied by the study of symbols, affirming that signs are multivocal, i.e., represent various things at the same time. For Turner, religious life presents characteristics proper to communitas, having “qualities of passage”. Finally, for Turner, ritual is a system of symbols that “stores traditional knowledge”, possessing a rigid and repetitive character, having a dramatic charge that allows the group to overcome divisions and reaffirm unity.

The Concept of Religion

When we leave the universe of Abrahamic reference, we are confronted with a fundamental problem concerning the scope of the concept of “religion”. This concept is dilemmatic when we set out to look at African cultures. In this scenario, it is always operative to take up Kishimoto’s adequate definition [1] that each cultural context generates its definition of religion. To accept such a postulate is to reject hermetic notions that frame the phenomena into religious and non-religious from a particular scheme of what is considered a religion. Rodney Needham [2] had already discussed the problem of translating the concept of “religion” into non-Latin languages. Later, Lenclund [3] broadened the discussion by recognising the obstacle constituted by our Western model of belief to establish an analysis of other cultural-religious realities. Notwithstanding Lenclund’s proposal, later authors bring theoretical proposals that entangle the gaze from ethnocentrism: Christine Bell [4], with the opposition between “ritual” and “religion”, or Rivière [5] (along the lines of Hammond [6]), with the classical opposition between “religion” and “magic”.

One of the first obstacles to the analysis of religions in Africa, particularly within the so-called autochthonous ones, is the assumption of the separation theory between the sacred and the profane[7]. As first Awolalu[8]and later Appiah[9] have argued, religion/rituality is not separate from everyday life. On the contrary, it enters daily activities, assuming an explanatory and justificatory role in all current elements and events. Religion acquires a dimension of “total social fact”[10], operating as a product and producer of social order and aggregation[11]. Following this route, Robin Horton[12]recognises the role of “communion” proper to African religions, extending the idea to attitudes of “explanation”, “prediction”, and “control”.

The dimension of explanation is found with the religious phenomenon ab initio, referring to religion as a metaphorical language that aims to produce a set of narratives that elucidate natural phenomena and the world. In turn, prediction relates to the wonders of divination, which seek to predict essential events in the community’s life. At the same time, control concerns rituality itself, i.e., the capacity of ritual action to control negative phenomena in social life, such as heavy rains, droughts, floods, and epidemics.

[1]KISHIMOTO, Hideo, “An operational definition of religion”, Numen, 8 (3), 1961, pp. 236-240.

[NEEDHAM, Rodney, Belief, Language and Experience, Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1972.

[3]LENCLUD, Gérard, “Vues de l’esprit, art de l’autre: L’ethnologie et les croyances en pays de savoir”, Terrain, 14, 1990, pp. 5-19.

[4]BELL, Christine, Ritual: Perspective and Dimensions, New York, Oxford University Press, 1992.

[RIVIÈRE, Claude, Socio-anthropologie des religions, Paris, Armand Colin, 1997.

[HAMMOND, Dorothy, “A problem in semantics”, American Anthropologist72 (6), 1970, pp. 1349-1356.

[7]ELIADE, Mircea, Le sacré et le profane, Rowohlt Taschenbuchverlag GmbH, 1957.

[8] AWOLALU, Joseph Omosade, “What is African traditional religion?”, Studies in Comparative Religion, 10 (2), 1976, pp. 1-10.

[9] APPIAH, Kwame Anthony, “African traditional religions”, In Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, London: Routledge, 1998.

[10] MAUSS, Marcel, Essai sur le don forme et raison de l’échange dans les sociétés archaïques, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1925.

[11] DURKHEIM, Émile, Les formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse: Le système totémique en Australie, Paris, Alcan, 1912.

[12] HORTON, Robin, “A definition of religion, and its uses”, The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, 90 (2), 1960, pp. 201-226.

Anthropology of Religion

From the remarkable evolutionist conceptions at the turn of the 19th to the 20th century, religious ethnology was born, based on what Albert Marie Bros, in L’Ethnologie religieuse: introduction à l’étude comparée des religions primitives, calls “religious facts observable in primitive peoples” (1923: 15). This evolutionist view of societies remained for quite some time. Lewis Morgan, regarded as one of the pioneers of religious anthropology, in La Société Archaique, 1877, states that religious beliefs are linked to the domain of the imagination and affectivity and are therefore marked by the principle of uncertainty, which is why “primitive” religions are “grotesque” and “unintelligible”.

Despite having freed itself from the methodological and conceptual shackles of evolutionism – a determining obstacle to the construction of an equitable vision of cultures – the discipline remains, even if already under the designation of Anthropology of Religions, devoted to the study of religious forms in primitive societies (Radcliffe-Brown 1945). Nevertheless, British functionalism (with Malinowski, Radcliffe-Brown and Evans-Pritchard) would mark the discipline by establishing the central place of systematic and rigorous field studies, changing the focus from the origin of religion and its contribution to the formation of human societies to the social functions of religion. As Radcliffe-Brown would later affirm, in response to Lewis Morgan, “the social function of religion is independent of its truth or falsity, and religions which we find false or even absurd and repugnant, as of savage tribes, may play an important and effective role in the social mechanism” (1945: 231). Functionalism, despite its relevance in the formation of an ethnographic model as the basis of analysis, failed to focus, above all, on the social function of religion, neglecting other aspects beyond its dimension of social production.

At the turn of the post-war period, Lévi-Strauss’ structuralism centred the debate on religion on the terrain of the psychological and social aspects of human symbolism. Unfortunately, it reduced the significance of religion within anthropology by arguing that the importance of its study boils down to inscribing it within the larger framework of understanding more general human thought and its “social translations”, i.e., rites, institutions, etc., from which to understand cultural universals.

The 1950s and 1960s marked the exhaustion of interest in the study of religions, leading to a discourse of “exhaustion” of the subject. Claude Lévi-Strauss even claimed (1974) that anthropology seemed to have moved away from religious facts. Evans-Pritchard (1965), argues that religion no longer has the same (central) importance it had for anthropology in its early days, justifying this disinterest with an accompaniment of social changes, with anthropology following society’s disinterest in religion.

The definition

However, Roger Bastide (1978), taking up the approach of Claude Lévi-Strauss (1974b), in an entry in the Encyclopaedia Universalis, considers that the principle of religious ethnology is to study the diversity of beliefs or practices of ethnic groups in relation to each other, with the knowledge it produces “remaining located in a cultural area, as a type of religion, animist, for example, or polytheistic”, whereas the principle of the anthropology of religion is to discover the general laws of man as a religious subject. This means, therefore, observing religion from empirical materials in order to produce theoretical models capable of explaining human nature from its religious nature.


As a result of the geography of the discipline, i.e. the fact that it was formulated in the West, between Europe and the United States, the illusion is established that there is only one anthropology of religions. This is why Luís Batalha writes, “there is American anthropology, another British, another French, another Chinese, another Japanese, another German, etc. Or, perhaps, in each of those countries there are even several anthropologies” (1998: 320). This is understandable insofar as, as Kishimoto (1961) states, each cultural context produces its own definition of “religion,” which demands localized methodologies and conceptualizations that are globalized in the broad sense of generating tools for the discipline rather than localized globalized conceptions that tend to sin by their inability to fit the realities under study.


To understand the category “prejudice”, anthropology needs to rely on psychology since it is primarily a mental disposition, which may or may not is translated into specific attitudes. According to José Leon Crochik, in Prejudice, Individual and Culture, prejudice has a plural dimension since it can take different forms in the face of social circumstances and disparate targets since, according to the author, prejudice is more related to the subject who practices it than to the object (target) at which it is aimed. The irrationality of prejudiced acts finds its root in the social environment of the prejudiced subject, i.e., in the framework of the “family, school, mass media”, among others (Crochik 1997: 16). In this sense, for Crochik there are two spheres of prejudice: the first as the result of unthinking acts, i.e., such irrationality of behaviours and, secondly, as the result of a “real or imaginary danger” (p.14).

Still in the framework of psychology, but now in the collective sphere, i.e., of Social Psychology, Gordon Allport, in The nature of prejudice, defines prejudice as a hostile or preventive attitude towards a person based on the idea of his belonging to another group, supposing him the existence of contestable characteristics which are attributed to that same group. Allport considers the prejudiced attitude to be a behaviour induced by groups of individuals by means of negative verbalisation, discrimination, avoidance, physical attack and, in even more extreme cases, extermination. This group-forming mental device facilitates the internalisation of prejudices since it is based on the immediate formulation of generalisations, which, accompanied by emotional factors, create a conviction about a group.

Since it is the socialisation that largely determines subjects’ standards, it is from their place of speech that the subject assimilates prejudice. In Crochik’s terms, prejudice depends on the “ideological, economic, psychic, religious, etc.” (1997: 17) principles in which subjects are socialised. Socialisation standardises the elements, forming a cohesion which operates as a protective shield on the basis of what is called “collective memory”. For the cohesion of the group to be maintained, it is necessary that the process of alterity be created on the basis of prejudice, thus generating a feeling of superiority. This social Darwinism hides, according to the author, a fear of losing one’s own condition, i.e., prejudice against the “other” allows one to marginalise him/her, preventing the inversion of the social position from dominator to dominated. The feeling of constant vulnerability feeds prejudice even more.

The intellectualisation of religions in Africa and the African diaspora

Early on, the authors noticed that more than their peers in academia, the bulk of the readers of their scientific productions came from their own research contexts. This is particularly evident with regard to African-American religions. The eminently hypertrophic ritual character (Prandi, 2000) of these religions, where the doing constitutes the religious ethos itself (Ferreira Dias, 2013a) overcoming the cosmological dimensions, the aspects linked to collective memory and the normative importance of the processes of learning and transmission of knowledge (Berliner & Sarró, 2007), does not avoid, by comparison with the so-called Abrahamic religions, hermeneutic challenges for their members. The production of a new religious dynamics, resulting from globalisation and with it the growing transnationalisation of religions and New Age movements, where religion takes on a market dimension, leads to a ‘rational choice’ (Stark & Bainbridge, 1985) in the selection between religious offers, also giving rise to an intense search for religious knowledge which contests the classic logic of learning. It is not surprising, then, that Sérgio Ferretti (2001) reports the normative importance of his and his wife’s work for the Xangô of Pernambuco or that Salamone (2001) reveals the occasion of a Yorùbá bàbáláàwó who presents himself as an ‘anthropologist in training’. The classic transit between academia and the terreiros of Bahian Candomblé (Seeber-Tegethoff, 2007; Castillo,2010) not only brought a ritual importance to reading (it is enough to see the impact of the work of Pierre Verger or Juana Elbein dos Santos), but also a scientification of the religious discourse, accelerated by the departure of devotees to universities (Seeber-Tegethoff, 2007; dos Santos & dos Santos, 2013), after an initial wave of researchers who moved from the academy into the terreiros. This process of intellectualization of the religious discourse led Paul Christopher Johnson (2002) to coin the term ‘Protestant Candomblé’. In other ‘afro-religious’ scenarios, one can find similar processes. Umbanda, considered ‘ the Brazilian religion par excellence ‘, which perpetuates the myth ‘of the three races’ (Furuya, 1974; Ortiz, 1978), has been marked by the permanent intellectualisation of its discourse and praxis (Birman, 1978; Brown, 1985; Novaes, 2017). The so-called Afro-Cuban religion, which includes various religious segments, contains imprinted the same mark (Palmié, 2007, 2013), evidencing a transatlantic process of religious intellectualisation. In the African context, the emergence of a Yorùbá ethnic and religious identity is not undressed by an intellectualized cultural revivalism (Peel, 2000; Matory, 2005), in which an attempt is made to trace a continuum with respect to Egypt (Lucas, 1948, 1995; Wescott, 1957; Lawal, 1975; Imhotep, 2012) in order to legitimize and superior local religious practices.

Witchcraft, Oracle and the Azande

Edward Evans-Pritchard’s book, published in 1937 under the title Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic among the Azande, remains one of the most remarkable works in anthropological studies. Fundamental in the validation of the ethnographic model, this book is the result of twenty months of fieldwork carried out in Southern Sudan between 1926 and 1929. It is a work of enormous theoretical and ethnographic relevance, where the idea of “witchcraft” occupies a central place in dealing with a vital category in the framework of Azande community life. According to Evans-Pritchard, the Zande belief in witchcraft constitutes an explanatory model for misfortunes. Contrary to the postulates of the founders of anthropology such as Lewis Morgan, who saw in the religions of non-Western societies grotesque and fanciful principles, Evans-Pritchard shows how witchcraft actually belongs to a coherent and racial system of thought and action, which involves oracles, “magic”, “sorcery”, among other elements, composing an explanatory model of objective events and chance. Each element of the system (in chain) explains and validates the other. Even in cases where ritual or divination failures occur, they are explained from a framework of autochthonous mystical and idiomatic references.

In general, the Azande conceive “witchcraft” as a hereditary biological condition that is activated by often involuntary psychic states (impulses), such as envy, hatred, greed, and jealousy, which trigger a series of misfortunes in the person targeted. As these misfortunes range from the simplest situations to death, recourse to the oracle is a daily practice, and the various types of oracles available reveal the identity of the witch, as well as resolve doubts on a wide variety of subjects, which otherwise would be impossible to assess. In opposition to “witchcraft” is “magic”, which is a resource in combating the evils caused by the other, curing illnesses, positively controlling agriculture and hunting (sources of livelihood), as well as acting as a form of revenge against the witches and wizards identified in the oracles. While “witchcraft” among the Azande is involuntary, resulting from natural and unconscious impulses, “magic” is a conscious act, manipulation of the elements by means of specific drugs for each purpose and the performance of “incantations”. A further distinction occurs on the ritual level: “good magic”, i.e., that which is socially accepted, is opposed to “sorcery”, which would be malignant, anti-social and immoral since it has a deliberate intention to harm another person physically and economically.

By identifying a rational logic in Zande “witchcraft”, Evans-Pritchard gives an enormous boost to the study of reasoning in the so-called “primitive” societies of the time, ahead of his predecessor Lucien Lévy-Brühl. The work brings new data and contributions to various social sciences by showing the sociological dimension – conflicts and power relations – produced by accusations of “witchcraft” and “sorcery”, as well as to studies of social change in colonial and post-colonial contexts.