Conceptualizing Religion: Immanent Anthropologists, Transcendent Natives, and Unbounded Categories

Conceptualizing Religion: Immanent Anthropologists, Transcendent Natives, and Unbounded Categories

Conceptualizing Religion: Immanent Anthropologists, Transcendent Natives, and Unbounded Categories

Conceptualizing Religion: Immanent Anthropologists, Transcendent Natives, and Unbounded Categories


"In this study, the author displays an astonishing knowledge of the field, an outstanding command of the literature and a most remarkable width of scope.". The Journal of Indo-European Studies

..". a timely and useful addition to current discussions on the topic.". American Anthropologist

"This is the best book on conceptualizing religion that I have come across for many years. All issues related to the definition of religion are dealt with extensively and in depth, without losing sight of the contribution of the author himself.". Bijdragen, tijdschrift voor filosofie en theologie

How might we transform a folk category - in this case religion - into a analytical category suitable for cross-cultural research? In this volume, the author addresses that question. He critically explores various approaches to the problem of conceptualizing religion, particularly with respect to certain disciplinary interests of anthropologists. He argues that the concept of family resemblances, as that concept has been refined and extended in prototype theory in the contemporary cognitive sciences, is the most plausible analytical strategy for resolving the central problem of the book. In the solution proposed, religion is conceptualized as an affair of "more or less" rather than a matter of "yes or no," and no sharp line is drawn between religion and non-religion.

Benson Saler is Professor of Anthropology at Brandeis University and a former Interim Vice PResident of the Anthropology of Religion Section of the American Anthropological Association. He has carried out ethnographic fieldwork in Guatemala, Colombia, Venezuela, and the United States. his current research is largely dircted to certain aspects of "popular culture" in the United States.


In this Preface I set forth the central argument of the book, shorn for the most part of complexities encountered in the text. In doing so, I call the reader's attention to a matter otherwise insufficiently emphasized: that the idea of "family resemblances" can be applied productively not only to the category religion and to denominated families of religions, but also to elements that scholars variously attribute to religion and to religions (e.g., theism, soul concepts, rituals and ritualizations, etc.). Finally, I address an omission in the text that was noted by a reviewer.


Religion is a Western folk category that contemporary Western scholars have appropriated. As I put it elsewhere,

Western scholars who study religion develop some understanding of what is meant by religion in their society long before they become scholars. This observation is so unremarkable, so obvious and seemingly trite, that I would be embarrassed to voice it were it not important. But it is important. Long before European scholars of religion become scholars of religion, they have fairly well developed ideas of what to look for in searching the world for religions. In large measure, indeed, their scholarly efforts to define or characterize religion are efforts to refine and deepen the folk category that they began to use as children, and to foreground what they deem most salient or important about religion. (Saler 1997:28)

For well over a hundred years, Western academics have labored at the task of refining and deepening the folk category, writing definition after definition and explication after explication. They have variously identified the essence of religion as the supposed fact of, or a special sensitivity to, or a belief in, or commerce with, the supernatural, the super-human, the spiritual, the sacred, the transcendent, the numinous, the wholly other, and the partially other (that is, the anthropomorphized). Or they have sought to locate religion's center of gravity in something special about people in their solitude, or people in their effervescent sociability, or people asserting self, or people projecting, or people otherwise engaging in therapy, or people symboling, or people being reflexive, and so on and so forth.

While these efforts have sometimes contributed to our understandings of the longings, hopes, ideas, expectations, and prac-

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