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Anthropology and Christianity

The relationship between anthropologists and Christian identity and belief is a riddle. I first became interested in it by studying the intellectual reasons for the loss of faith given by figures in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. There are an obvious set of such intellectual triggers.

They were influenced by David Hume or Tom Paine, for example. Or, surprisingly often, it was modern biblical criticism. The big intellectual guns, of course, were figures such as Darwin, Marx, and Freud (and perhaps we can also squeeze Nietzsche in as a kind of d’Artagnan alongside those Three Musketeers). The so-called acids of modernity eat away at traditional religious claims.

As I accumulated and analyzed actual life stories, however, I hit one such trigger that had not been explored by scholars: the discipline of anthropology. It is not hard to find studies – sometimes daunting heaps of them – on Christianity and evolution or Christianity and Marxism and so on, but it was not clear to me what anthropology had to offer that was so unsettling to Christianity. Nor could I find where to go to read about it. Then there was the self-reporting of anthropologists. I’m a historian so I was coming at the discipline as an outsider. Every anthropologist I talked to, however, confidently told me that anthropology was and always had been from its very beginning a discipline that was dominated by scepticism and the rejection of faith.

Many were quite willing to go so far as to call it anti-Christian in ethos. They reported this whether they themselves were personally religious or hostile to religion – whether they self-identified as Catholic, evangelical, liberal Protestant, Jewish, secular, or atheist. If my random encounters were not profoundly unrepresentative, it seemed to be a consensus opinion. And it was not hard to find printed sources that also offered this assessment emphatically.

But then something strange began to happen. As I had shown interested in the relationship between anthropology and Christianity, my informants (to use an anthropological category!) would also casually mention as a kind of irrelevant, quirky novelty that a certain leading anthropologist was a Christian.

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“Of course, dear old Mary Douglas was a devout Catholic, you know.” Purity and Danger Mary Douglas? One of the most influential anthropologists theorists of the second half of the twentieth century – no, I didn’t know. “Curiously, Margaret Mead, to the bemusement of her parents, chose to become an Episcopalian in her teens and was an active churchwomen for the rest of her life, even serving on the Commission on Church and Society of the World Council of Churches.” Coming of Age in Samoa Margaret Mead? One of the most prominent public intellectuals of twentieth-century America? That is curious.

“Strange to say, Victor Turner, who had been an agnostic Marxist, converted to Catholicism as an adult.” Really? The anthropologist who got us all talking about liminality and rites of passage and so on? The theorist behind the work of whole generations and departments of anthropology? Curiouser and curiouser.

“Oh, Catholic converts interest you? Well, of course, the presiding genius of the golden age of Oxford anthropology, E. E. Evans-Pritchard was one, as was Godfrey Lienhardt, and David Pocock, and . . .”

“What is that you say? What about Protestants? Well, Robertson Smith was an ordained minister in the Free Church of Scotland. Another fun fact was that the Primitive Methodist missionary Edwin W. Smith became the president of the Royal Anthropological Institute.” And so it went on.

What is one to make of the strong perception that anthropologists are hostile to religion with the reality of all these Christian anthropologists hiding in plain sight? The answer to such a question would no doubt be a complicated one with multiple, entangled factors. One of them, however, clearly relates to changing attitudes over time regarding the intellectual integrity and beliefs of people in traditional cultures.

Early anthropologists who rejected Christian faith such as E. B. Tylor (often called the father of anthropology) and James Frazer (of Golden Bough fame) were convinced that so-called “primitive” people had not yet reached a stage of progress in which they could be rational and logical. These pioneering anthropologists saw Christianity as a vehicle that was perniciously carrying into the modern world the superstitious, irrational ways of thinking of “savages”.

As the twentieth century unfolded, however, anthropologists learned to reject such condescending assumptions about traditional cultures. As they came to respect the people they studied, they often decided that their religious life and beliefs also had their own integrity and merit. This sometimes led them to reevaluate faith more generally—and even more personally. This connection is particularly strong in the life and work of E. E. Evans-Pritchard. He was both an adult convert to Catholicism and a major, highly influential champion of the notion that peoples such as the Azande were not “pre-logical” but rather deeply rational.

Victor and Edith Turner went into the field as committed Marxists and agnostics with a touch of bitterness in their anti-Christian stance (Edith had been raised by judgmental evangelical missionary parents). The Turners’ dawning conviction that Ndembu rituals had an irreducible spiritual reality, however, ultimately led them to receive the Christian faith as spiritually efficacious, true, and as their own spiritual home.

When anthropologists today glory in their discipline’s rejection of faith they often have in mind a very specific form of belief: a highly judgmental, narrowly sectarian version of religious commitment that condemns the indigenous people they study as totally cut off from any positive, authentic spiritual knowledge and experience. Evans-Pritchard and Victor Turner, however, are typical of numerous Christian anthropologists who were convinced that the traditional African cultures they studied possessed a natural revelation of God.

The riddle of anthropologists and the Christian faith is at least partially solved by distinguishing between “the wrong kind of faith”—the rejecting of which is a standard trope in the discipline—from an ethnographic openness to spirituality which can surprisingly often find expression in Christian forms for individual theorists.

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Image credit: Old Christian Cross, by Filipov Ivo. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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