Outline and discuss the problems which anthropologists confront when trying to devise a universal definition of 'religion'

Essay by robynniUniversity, Bachelor'sA, January 2009

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Many respected anthropologists have attempted to create a universal definition of religion and ultimately failed. This seems to be so because there are simply so many different practises all over the world, each which have their own function and each with their own meanings. Erickson notes that Tylor;Defines religion simply as beliefs in supernatural beings. The question of what is supernatural immediately poses itself here, for does that not very just like every other form of knowledge - is it not a case that what is natural to us is supernatural to others? (Erickson: 197)This is an example of an ethnocentric problem, of which we are bound to face when tackling the subject of religion in cultures we have not experienced years of familiarity with. Hendry elaborates by describing Edward Burnett Tylor's position in the anthropological field, '(he) was the first professor of social anthropology at the University of Oxford' (Hendry: 116).

Hendry similarly sees problems with Tylor's definition and he asserts that, 'Buddhists, for example, are concerned with achieving a state beyond the spiritual' (Hendry: 116), therefore they do not believe in supernatural beings. Hendry also states that Tylor's definition would 'include notions of magic and witchcraft, which many would object fall outside the area of "religion" as such' (Hendry: 116). This is just one example of how difficult it is to define religion in universal terms, as even Tylor's short, supposedly fail proof definition is left lacking. In the following essay, I will look at theoretical approaches to religion, such as the functionalist and the intellectualist approaches, and examine how each conception succeeds or fails in devising a universal definition of religion.

As we have already seen in the introduction, Tylor's definition has been scrutinised and ultimately doesn't work, but it is interesting to look at his...