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Introduction to Anthropology

13.5 Other Forms of Religious Practice

Introduction to Anthropology13.5 Other Forms of Religious Practice

Learning Outcomes

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Identify utopian religious communities.
  • Explain the historical and social importance of the Shakers.
  • Identify secular religion.
  • Give an example of secular religion.

Utopian Religious Communities

While the most typical form of religious community today is a group of people who share a common faith and set of beliefs and meet periodically to worship, there are other ways of creating religious community. One example, widespread in the United States during the 19th century, is utopian religious communities. A utopian community is a community intentionally established by a group of people seeking to live out their ideas of an ideal society. Utopian communities may be secular or religious. The utopian communities that are most successful share certain characteristics: they are physically separate from the larger society; establish a degree of economic self-sufficiency, through either agriculture or industry; and have a clear authority structure and ideology, or shared set of beliefs.

There have been dozens of utopian religious communities in American history. In the 19th century, many people in Europe viewed the United States as a blank slate, a country unburdened by history or tradition. The forced removal of Indigenous peoples opened up vast areas of land and natural resources to White settlers and new religious groups seeking autonomy. While many of these societies were short-lived, impractical, and troubled by discord, they were home to thousands of Americans during the 19th and 20th centuries. Today, we still find small utopian communities throughout the United States, some based primarily on religion (such as the Bruderhof) and others on sustainable economics (e.g., Serenbe in Fulton County, Georgia).

Religious utopian communities make particular religious beliefs the center of the community. Some such communities separate themselves completely from secular society, while others establish an enclave, a so-called heaven on Earth within the larger society, that members hope will spread outward and attract more converts. Although utopian religious communities are relatively rare today, they do exist. The Amish, found throughout the United States but primarily in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana, live in small, self-contained farming communities built around very traditional Swiss German and Protestant roots. The Amish have what they call a plain lifestyle based on simple technology, and they tend to separate themselves from the non-Amish communities around them. The Hutterites, now located primarily in Canada, are also from German Protestant roots and are much like the Amish, except they typically are more interactive with their non-Hutterite neighbors and do not prohibit more modern technology. The Bruderhof are more recent utopian religious communities, originating in the 1920s, also with German Protestant roots but now found in many different places, including South America, Africa, Europe, Australia, and the United States. The Bruderhof have a communal lifestyle based on biblical ideals, though they interact with communities around them. While they do have Bruderhof industries, such as a furniture industry for special-needs children, they also work and study in secular society.

Among the most successful of the 19th-century American religious utopian communities was the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, commonly known as the Shakers. Although they first formed near the city of Manchester in England in the mid-1700s, the group did not become a self-sustaining utopian community until after members immigrated to the United States in 1774. Their first settlement was established at Watervliet, New York, in 1776 under the leadership of an Englishwoman, Ann Lee. Mother Ann, as Shakers called her, and her original eight English followers traveled throughout New England seeking converts to join the community at Watervliet. Following Mother Ann’s death in 1784, caused by beatings she received during her period of itinerant evangelism, the Shaker society began to develop a more formal structure that codified beliefs, social expectations, and a strict work ethic. By 1790, new members were required to sign covenants in which they pledged to consecrate all of their property to the society, work for the communal good of the group, follow a celibate life (with those who were already married ending their marriages prior to formally becoming a Shaker), and adhere to Shaker principles and beliefs. From a single, small settlement at Watervliet, Shaker societies grew and spread over 10 U.S. states—New York, Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, Florida, and Georgia—with a membership at its height in excess of 6,000 individuals. Today, the Shakers survive as a single remaining society at Sabbathday Lake, Maine. There are now two remaining covenanted Shakers.

The Shakers are a millennialist Christian faith, meaning that they believe that Christ has already returned and is present now on Earth as the Holy Spirit within believers. With Christ within them, Shakers believe that it is their duty to establish a heaven on Earth. The Shaker principles of faith historically encompass a range of social and religious tenets. They believe that God is dual, both male and female, and they practice gender equality, vesting leadership in both men and women since their beginnings in the late 18th century. They also embrace a commitment to racial equality. Even during the 19th century, as the Civil War raged throughout the United States, this included the practice of housing Black people and White people within the same community with equal access to resources. Shakers are dedicated pacifists, refusing to engage in warfare, and they commit to hard physical labor and self-improvement, taking as their motto a phrase attributed to Mother Ann: “Hands to work and hearts to God.”

The Shakers contributed a great deal to the material culture of the United States. Examples of products developed and successfully marketed by the group include paper seed packets (now used throughout the seed industry worldwide), their simple and graceful furniture, an improved washing machine, waterproof clothing, the circular saw, and medicinal herbs. Their artifacts, architecture, and music continue to be widely recognized and highly regarded. The Shaker song “Simple Gifts” (1848), borrowed and used by Aaron Copland in his ballet score Appalachian Spring (1944), has been performed at three U.S. presidential inaugurations.

While there are few Shakers left today, they remind us of the importance of religion as an enduring institution, the power of religion to bind people together into common cause, and the rich diversities embedded in the heart of faith traditions.

A man sits on a bench holding an oval box in his hands. He wears a knee-length smock. Wood working tools are visible on the table behind him.
Figure 13.14 Shaker Ricardo Beldin, seated in a workshop at the Hancock Shaker Village in Massachusettes, makes oval wooden boxes to sell in 1935. The Shakers, who took as their motto “Hands to work and hearts to God,” earned a reputation for producing elegant and well-made objects for everyday use. (credit: “Brother Ricardo Belden, box maker” by Samuel Kravitt/Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Online Catalog, Public Domain)

Secular Religion

Secular religion is a system of beliefs held by a society that elevates social ideas, qualities, or commodities to a metaphysical, semidivine status. Often, the group sees itself in terms of a divine image, creating a situation in which, as Émile Durkheim famously said, “society = God.” Various types and degrees of nationalism are a form of secular religion in which a group shows honor, respect, and allegiance to the nation itself as a sacred entity. For large and diverse societies, secular religion can create a powerful and enduring bond among otherwise very different groups of people. Often, philosophical ideas and materialism itself have been at the center of secular religion.

One of the most prominent examples of secular religion is nationalism, the belief that the nation-state and its interests are more important than those of local groups. U.S. sociologist Robert Bellah (1967) studied secular religion in the United States and documented the many ways that American society uses religious practices, such as myth, ritual, and sacred space, to elevate the idea of the nation-state. During occasions such as presidential inaugurations and the convocation of Congress, for example, it is routine to use sacred language and prayer, elevating the nation-state to a privileged, sacred status, blessed, ordained, and legitimized by religious imagery. Rituals such as raising the national flag while saying a pledge to the nation-state, flying flags at full versus half-mast, and draping flags over the coffins of deceased service members are practices of secular religion. Burials at nation-state cemeteries such as Arlington National Cemetery may be filled with imagery of secular religion, including a caisson, a bugler, a drummer, and gun salutes.

Ethnographic Sketches

Día de los Muertos

Experience of Marjorie Snipes, chapter author

In the Andean highlands of Argentina, most communities celebrate All Souls’ Day, or Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), on November 1 and 2 every year. While this Catholic ritual commemorates the recently departed, usually those who have died in the past three years, it also includes elements of Indigenous religious practices and beliefs centered on Pachamama (Mother Earth). This integration of beliefs from more than one religious system is common across cultures and is called syncretism.

The practice of Día de los Muertos is a solemn occasion. Families prepare a favorite meal or food items that they associate with the recently departed and set a place setting for their soul (alma). Candles and flowers adorn the elaborately decorated family table. The meal remains available for the soul of the departed from the evening of November 1 until the evening of November 2. During that time, family members meet periodically around the table to offer prayers and to share remembrances of the deceased, and souls are invited to eat and prepare themselves for the journey to the spirit world. Souls of the departed are believed to remain strongly attached to their families and unwilling to leave the living world for three years following death. They must be coaxed by surviving family members to make a peaceful transition to the spirit world, where they can rest. In the southern Andes, many people believe that moths are visual symbols of the soul’s presence. With candles lit throughout the night of November 1, families in rural Andean households often encounter moths. This serves as ritual affirmation.

On the evening of November 2, after a last prayer of departure, Andean families in El Angosto will gather the favorite foods of their departed and offer them to Pachamama by piling or burying the food into an altar of rocks. Each household has a family altar near their house, called a mojon, dedicated to Pachamama. It is a cairn predominantly consisting of white rocks, each believed to symbolize the goddess. The rocks may be naturally white, consisting of milky quartz, a common rock in the area, or they may be calcified or even painted white. During fieldwork, I asked people about the importance of the color white, but their answers were similar to the types of answers many of us would give to questions about our traditions: “This is her special color,” “It’s just this way,” or “This is our custom.” These truthful responses represent enculturation. As a scientist, though, I seek connections between the color white, stones, and Pachamama. I suspect there are several reasons that this color first began to be associated with Mother Earth: milky quartz is a common rock in the region and readily available; since the earth is considered to be Pachamama’s body, the white rocks mimic the color of bone; and perhaps most significantly, the color white is associated with breast milk, a characteristic associated specifically with mothers. Understanding symbolism is important because it gives anthropologists a window into what matters most to those we are studying.

A stack of flat rocks in a barren landscape.
Figure 13.15 A cairn, or stack of rocks, built alongside the road to Mount Misti in Peru. These stacks of rocks are similar to those created as family altars by Andean families in El Angosto. (credit: “Mount Misti,” by RichardJames1990/flickr, CC-BY-2.0)

Mini-Fieldwork Activity

Participant Observation: Analysis of a Religious Service


Do fieldwork and an analysis of a religious service of your choice. With permission from the religious leader(s), attend the service and practice participant observation. Using what you have learned about sacred place and ritual, analyze the physical environment where the service is occurring. Where is/are the threshold(s)? Where is the axis mundi? How does the built environment contribute to the practice of religion and spiritual exercises? In the service itself, what are the primary themes, and how do different participant constituencies respond to these? Does the service conform to any of the rituals that you studied in this chapter? If so, how? After analyzing the service, reflect on your experience of doing this mini-fieldwork activity.

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