Anthropology of Religion

Sacrifice scene, with kalos inscription. Detai...
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I don’t often post on religious topics on this blog. At least not topics related to modern religion like Christianity. I’m more interested in ancient religion and expression of religion and belief in the material record of antiquity than modern squabbles about “belief in God,” etc.

But I took the time to listen to a podcast titled, “anthropology of religion” hosted by the Minnesota Atheists. It was an audio version of their public access television show I believe. Featured were two theologians discussing the anthropology of religion. Or so they thought. I actually took the time to leave a post on the podcast episode’s blog and I thought I’d share it here:


I listened with some fascination and a bit of dismay to the podcast interviewing Chester O’Gorman and Grant Steves. I was particularly shocked at the limited point of view O’Gorman applied to the subject of the anthropology of religion. Clearly his is a position of “theology” and not of science, so I kept telling myself to be patient and forgiving. But I’d still like to post a comment regarding some of his statements.

O’Gorman seems fixated with “victimization” and “scapegoating” in ritual and religious expression. While I’m familiar with the works of René Girard, I’m definitely not an expert. And, while I recognize that O’Gorman is channeling Girard, nearly verbatim in certain instances, I’ll confine my criticism to O’Gorman and not Girard.

O’Gorman’s admittance that his definitions of ritual and myth are “narrow” are one of the few statements I found agreeable. He says that ritual is the means of reenacting the process of victimization and that sacrifice must include a victim. Indeed, his exact words are, “there has always been a sacrifice at the center of ritual.” This is, of course, an absurd statement. There are many rituals that do not include sacrifices: marriage, baptism, the sweat lodge, the visionquest, pipe ceremonies, funerals, feasts, potlach, etc. In some of these, one can make some very abstract connections to sacrifices, but these are hardly the types of sacrifices that O’Gorman is referring to. And each of these rituals existed either long before or in complete ignorance of Christianity, so his remark that “we have them now” (rituals without sacrifice), doesn’t follow.

Sacrifice *can* be seen as including a victim, but it’s more accurately described as showing a degree of piety or dedication by offering personal wealth or otherwise valuable possessions for divine consumption. Wealthy Greeks sacrificed oxen in the Bronze Age by bringing their best stock to the temple and delivering to the priests within the tenemos of the temple where it was butchered and fed to the populace. In this manner, wealth was redistributed (with the priestly class getting the best cuts). This ensured the society as a whole benefited. The remaining bits of meat and skin were burnt on an altar, the gods getting their share via the smoke.

This is quite different from the type of sacrifice O’Gorman was alluding to when he states “things have evolved away from human sacrifice.” Here he seems to be implying that Christian religious doctrines have done away with the violence associated with sacrifice, leaving only the sometimes graphic and violent reenactments of an alleged messiah being sacrificed on a wooden cross. Christians the world over keep such iconography close to them in the form of little crosses on chains, which they periodically raise to kiss, or by mimicking a cross with a hand gesture.

Human sacrifice is actually very rare in the archaeological record and never more prevalent than within the histories of Christianity. O’Gorman says, “it’s only through Christian influence that ritual takes on a new connotation where sacrifice no longer happens.” O’Gorman should either give back his degree or demand a refund of his tuition! While Precolumbian Mesoamericans practiced human sacrifice, we cannot overlook the fact that this practice was halted primarily by Christian invaders who slaughtered these “savages.” While Maya, Incan, Aztec and a few other cultures stand out as including various human and animal sacrifices, their actions pale when compared to early and even modern Christians who burned heretics and witches during the inquisition, poured Kool-Aid for parishioners at Jonestown, ignited themselves at Waco, and took their shoes off for a never ending nap at Heaven’s Gate.

Most other religions, both extant and extinct, show evidence of many, many rituals that exist without any sort of sacrifice except, perhaps, that of time and effort. One of the most significant ritual exercises present in religions the world over is ritual prayer and incantation. While there are sacrifices associated with some (offerings of food, wine, anointments of oil, etc.), the vast majority show no evidence of sacrifice. And to suggest that the symbolism of sacrifice found in the myth of Jesus isn’t technically a sacrifice because a victim isn’t being exploited begs the question since it assumes that the mythos presented in the gospels are both accurate testaments as well as representations of actual events, all regardless of whether Jesus actually existed.

As a graduate student of anthropology whose focus is on the archaeological remains of cult and religious belief in antiquity, I’d have to say I disagree with O’Gorman at nearly every turn of his conversation. Clearly his main focus is “theology.” I suspect he’s genuine in his desire to align his studies with an anthropological perspective, but I also suspect this is tainted by the conclusions one must necessarily begin with when taking on the title “theologian.” Anthropologists are scientists. Scientists do not begin with conclusions to which they seek only data which fit, rather they observe data and arrive at conclusions.

O’Gorman is no anthropologist.

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About Carl Feagans 397 Articles
Professional archaeologist that currently works for the United States Forest Service at the Land Between the Lakes Recreation Area in Kentucky and Tennessee. I'm also a 12-year veteran of the U.S. Army and spent another 10 years doing adventure programming with at-risk teens before earning my master's degree at the University of Texas at Arlington.


  1. While I agree with your argument, I’m dismayed at your lack of objective rhetoric. Your anti-Christian bias is crystal clear and taints your claim of being a “scientist.” A truly objective approach to the topic would not include only the abberations (poured Kool-Aid for parishioners at Jonestown, ignited themselves at Waco, and took their shoes off for a never ending nap at Heaven’s Gate.) While I don’t yet have the credentials to call myself an Anthropologist I question your disdain for the beliefs of human beings when surely you’ve discovered they are pervasive across time and culture. As scientists are we so smug as to say we know it all? As you continue your academic journey, please stop from time to time to consider what we DON’T know.

  2. “[W]hat we DON’T know” is what motivates me in academia. And I know of no scientist or student of science that is smug enough to assume we know it all. Nor do I attempt to convey this in my response to the podcast above -quite the opposite actually.

    I do, however, admit to being somewhat harsh in my questioning of O’Gorman’s qualifications, but he did state at the outset that his goal (and I’m paraphrasing) was to use an anthropological approach to exploring religion and his failure to effectively do this leaves one to wonder why.

    My anti-Christian bias was not my choice. It was thrust upon me by O’Gorman when he used only explanations that fit the versions of ritual and sacrifice that he wanted to be true. My aberrant examples likewise aren’t my choice but, again, the responsibility of O’Gorman who implied the Christian religion no longer engaged in the sacrifice of life. I know of no other method of describing such a sacrifice without describing such a sacrifice. Aberrations? Most definitely. It isn’t the norm of modern Christianity to sacrifice the lives of others for religious purpose. But the doctrines do allow for it and can easily be interpreted to encourage it.

    My point was to show that aberrations exist throughout human history and prehistory and Christianity has no corner on the market of righteousness or aberration.

    I also freely admit my bias against Christianity. I’m biased against it in the way I’m biased against astrology and psychics. I bear no ill-will toward Christians, astrologers, or psychics until they begin to demonstrate a deleterious effect on society. If astrologers are being consulted by politicians for advice on foreign policy -I’ll be the first in line to criticize them. When psychics trick the hopeful and needy out of thousands of dollars, I’m willing to criticize.

    Most importantly, however, I think that if you’re going to profess to examine religion under the lens of anthropology, you must, necessarily, use the whole microscope. O’Gorman ignored much of the existing work in anthropology. If I had to guess why, I would suppose it was because he’s Christian and has an agenda to support and/or justify.

  3. That’s interesting because I didn’t perceive an anti-Christian bias. There was certainly an anti-theological position taken. That’s only anti-Christian if you believe O’Gorman’s theology is the only inevitable expression of Christian belief.

    In contrast I do see a strange bias in Linda Herrick’s comment. Carl’s right but… what? Is it bad taste to point out the flaws in O’Gorman’s reasoning? Or is this a personal matter where one individual gets to define what it is permissible to say about the large diversity of beliefs we collectively describe as “Christian”? “You shouldn’t say that, even though I agree with it, for reasons I haven’t specified,” seems terribly arrogant to me, but not every branch of Christianity takes the humility thing seriously.

    There is a problem in insisting on special respect for a religion. Not only do you end up giving privileges to a religion, but it’s to a very specific form of that religion. There are no generic Christians, but competing sects of Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant varieties. In the case of Linda Herick it would see she would lend political weight to the more militant forms, rather than Christians who follow a more humble and questioning path.

  4. To Alun: I’m not sure which sentence in my comment constitutes a ‘militant form’. In the ‘study of man’ one must be completely objective. I disagree with Gorman’s perspective in an Anthropological setting because it is NOT objective. However, Joe makes the same mistake — that of judgement. Belief systems are part of what makes us human and should be viewed in that way by an Anthropologist. I don’t think it is my role to judge. My role is to observe what is. To Joe: Have not rulers of the past consulted astrologists?

  5. Actually it’s cfeagans. “Joe” is the cup of coffee that is often close when I’m writing or perusing the science blogs. 🙂

    While I agree that belief systems are an inherent part of human culture, I don’t agree that simply subscribing to a belief system places one above inquiry or criticism. Particularly when that belief system has the potential to have a substantial affect on my life and the the lives of my family.

    Recently in my state, a law has been enacted that the Christian bible will be taught as “literature” in public school. This is no attempt to improve literature standards (there are far better works already in use to which more attention should be focused) but, rather, an attempt to insert Christian ideology into the public school system of Texas. A school system which to which a large majority of children are from Christian families but which is also populated by Muslims, Jews, Native Americans, Hindus, atheists, Mormons, Scientologists, etc.

    This is but one, single example of a “belief system” attempting to insert its superstitions into my life.

    I have not only the right, but the duty to speak out and, yes, I have a clear bias: toward reason and logic.

    What you’re criticizing me for is not maintaining an objective stance, but as I’ve already stated: the objective position was removed from me by O’Gorman when he favored the very superstition that is attempting to affect me.

    Have not rulers of the past consulted astrologists?

    Sure. So have the rulers of the present. And they’re utterly wrong to do so since those consults potentially affect the lives -the lives– of their constituents. And I don’t mind judging them as wrong and superstitiously ignorant. And I’m happy to call upon my academic experience and knowledge to make an argument against them.

  6. Hi

    I wonder if you have a view on the following…

    1. the presence of sacrificial altars in the vicinity of both ancient tombs and temples?
    2. The perceived spiritual function of the Altar?
    3. The perceived spirituality of the blood released at the altar?
    4. The subsequent conveyance of this blood into the darkness of tombs and temples?

    Note: my website is under construction and will go live with a few months.

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