ANTHROPOLOGY, WE ANTHROPOLOGISTS LIKE TO BELIEVE, is a magnificently broad discipline, encompassing everything that has to do with the human species from its earliest beginnings to all the current varieties of human behavior and interest--or, in a word, everything we call culture. It would be reasonable, then, to assume that the anthropological study of religion--which, after all, is only one small subdivision of culture--should be limited and manageable.
Well, it isn't. Perhaps that is because the values, assumptions, perceptions, and activities that go to make up religion serve as the bases, or points of departure, for pretty much everything else that humans do or think: social relations, choice of actions, understanding of cause and effect, conclusions about purpose and meaning. As we shall see in this collection of readings, religion has political and gender dimensions; religion is often expressed in violence but is also a source of tranquility and hope; and religion can be the buttress of tradition and continuity and--sometimes at the very same time--the fountainhead of dizzying change. Thus, despite the wide range of topics covered by the chapters in this volume, they do not--and can not--exhaust the possibilities of the anthropological study of religion.
One reason, perhaps, for this sprawl of topics is that anthropologists have been drawn to the subject of religion since the dawn of the discipline. Every theoretical stance ever fashionable in anthropology's intellectual history has been brought to bear on the subject of religion, and field researchers in every corner of the globe have tried to document or at least report back on the diverse beliefs and varied religious practices they encountered in their fieldwork. And this is odd, when you think about it, because most anthropologists have been either nonreligious themselves or staunch adherents of Western belief systems that provided little room for sympathy for the questionable beliefs of benighted "others." It may be that the continuing, unending, anthropological interest in religion reflects the tensions of European values and beliefs in conflict with those of other places and times--and maybe (perhaps even more likely) it reflects the unavoidable clash of "science" and "belief "--any belief.
Clearly, there are a number of uncomfortable issues here for anthropologists and anthropology, and--perhaps understandably--there is a tendency to skirt around them. Let us be brave and immediately raise a few of these issues and questions.