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Anthropology of Religion
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Religious Social Organization

Chapter Summary

  1. All religions are a system of cult institutions, sets. of rituals all having the same general goal, all explicitly rationalized by a set of similar or related beliefs, and all supported by the same social group. The four kinds of cult institutions are individual, shamanic, communal, and ecclesiastical.
  2. Shamans are part-time religious practitioners who perform shamanic rituals in behalf of individual clients when called on to do so. Shamans are accepted as religious specialists because of their personal charisma and established reputation as successful practitioners. They typically enter trance states during their ritual performances and may alter established rituals as they feel inspired to fit the particular needs of specific clients.
  3. Shamanic curing relies on the belief in one or more of five religious ideas about supernatural causes of illness: soul loss, spirit possession, object intrusion, taboo violation, and witchcraft and sorcery.
  4. Sorcerers are individuals who perform magical rituals for antisocial purposes.
  5. Witches are persons who are believed to be not fully human and to have an innate power to cause supernatural harm to others.
  6. Priests are religious specialists who perform ecclesiastical rituals, rituals in behalf of entire congregations, often at scheduled times. Unlike shamans, priests are conservators of established religious traditions rather than religious innovators. Their role is based on the authority of their office rather than personal charisma.
  7. Prophets are the charismatic founders of new religions who base their teachings on the claim of personal revelation from the supernatural rather than from the study and interpretation of a preexisting theology. Like shamans, prophets are charismatic religious innovators, but they do more than simply modify existing rituals to meet the needs of specific clients. They create entire systems of rituals and beliefs that may differ radically from those practiced among the same people previously.
  8. Religions are a system of two or more cult institutions. The oldest and simplest of religions are shamanic religions that consist of individual and shamanic cult institutions. Communal religions add a communal cult institution to the individualistic and shamanic ones. Ecclesiastical religions include individualistic, shamanic, communal, and ecclesiastical cult institutions.
  9. Ecclesiastical religions include sects, cults, and churches. Both sects and cults tend to be small groups that rely heavily on recruiting new members for perpetuating themselves. Both tend to be at least somewhat at odds with the values and beliefs of the larger society of which they are a part. They differ primarily in that the religious beliefs of sects belong to the same general religious tradition of the mainstream religions of their own society, while cults perpetuate a religious tradition that differs from that of the mainstream of their own society. Churches tend to have a larger membership and tend to be supportive of the mainstream secular values of the societies in which they are found.