Flashcards for Anthropology of Religion
Topics 1-2:  Overview and Common Elements of Religion
(25 cards)

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Copyright © 2004 by Dennis O'Neil. All rights reserved.

The general term for a system of beliefs usually involving the worship of supernatural forces or beings.


Stylized and usually repetitive acts that take place at a set time and location. They almost always involve the use of symbolic objects, words, and actions.


The general function of religious rituals.

They make people “feel good” or exalted by doing them and this, in turn, reinforces the basic tenets of religion.

The reason that religious rituals are usually performed in special places and under special conditions, such as in a dedicated temple or at a sacred spot.

By being removed from the ordinary world, the sacred acts are enhanced for the believers--the separation makes the rituals more effective.

The general term used in the tutorial for a political ideology or movement such as extreme nationalism that has rituals, revered objects, and beliefs that provided meaning and order for large numbers of people.

secular religion

Kinds of psychological needs typically satisfied by religions.

Religions help us confront and explain death, relieve fears and anxieties about the unknown, ease stress during life crises, and lift the burden of decision making in difficult situations by telling us what is right and wrong.

Kinds of social needs typically satisfied by religions.

Religions help bring about social homogeneity by reinforcing group norms. They can provide a basis for common purpose and values that can help maintain social solidarity. They can help establish social control by defining what is right and wrong behavior and providing precedents for proper behavior in common situations.

The general term for a belief in a supernatural power not part of supernatural beings. For those who hold this belief, the power is usually impersonal, unseen, and potentially everywhere. It is neither good nor evil, but it is powerful and dangerous if misused.


The general term for a belief that natural objects are animated by spirits. This belief can take diverse forms. Things in nature may all have within them different spirits--each rock, tree, and cloud may have its own unique spirit. In contrast, all things in nature may be thought of as having the same spirit. In both forms of this belief, the spirits are thought of as having identifiable personalities and other characteristics such as gender.


The general term for souls or ghost of an ancestor. These spirits are often seen as retaining an active interest and even membership in their family and society.

ancestral spirit

The general term of a powerful supernatural being with an individual identity and recognizable attributes. These beings have individual identities and recognizable attributes. They are more powerful than spirits and other lesser supernatural beings--they can effectively alter all of nature and human fortunes. As a result, they are commonly worshipped and requests are made of them to help in times of need. (Hint: another term for such a being is a deity.)

god or goddess

The general term for a supernatural being who is not a spirit, god, human, or other natural being. These beings usually have a human-like appearance and/or personality but can do things that are beyond the abilities of humans. They often have a "trickster" role--they fool people, do outlandish things, and disappear.

minor supernatural being

"The force" in the Star Wars movies fits the description of this type of supernatural belief. It is a supernatural force that is neither good nor evil, but it is powerful and dangerous if misused.


"Mana" in Polynesian cultures of the South Pacific fits the description of this type of supernatural belief. (Hint: for the Polynesians, “mana” was a force inherent in all objects, plants, and animals (including people) to different degrees. Some things or people were thought to have more of it than others and were, therefore, potentially dangerous.)


A belief in a powerful, mature, protective "mother nature" as a spirit being inherent in all objects, plants, and animals is an example of this kind of belief. (Hint: this was a common belief in Native American cultures.)


A belief in these supernatural beings is consistent with the widespread idea that humans have at least two parts--a physical body and some kind of non-physical spirit. The spirit portion is generally believed to be freed from the body by death and continues to exist as a supernatural being.

ancestral spirits

Leprechauns, elves, and pixies in European folk traditions are this kind of supernatural being.

minor supernatural being

In Western North American Indian cultures, coyote was often thought of as this kind of supernatural being. (Hint: these beings often played a "trickster" role in stories--they fooled people, did outlandish things, and disappeared.)

minor supernatural being

The region of the world where ancestral spirits are usually thought of as still being active family members. They are treated warmly with respect and honor so that they will want to help their living descendants.

China and elsewhere in East Asia

The region of the world where the dead and their spirits have been seen historically as dangerous--they haunt the living and often do unpleasant, frightening, and unpredictable things.

Europe and European derived cultures

A belief that there is only one god. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are usually considered to be this kind of religion.


A belief in more than one god. Hinduism is usually considered to be this kind of religion.


The term for a supreme god who established the order of the universe and is now remote from earthly concerns. (Hint: the term is Greek for "at rest”.)

otiose (as in otiose deity)

A kind of a god who is usually almost ignored in favor of lesser gods who take an interest in the everyday affairs of humans. (Hint: this kind of god is often seen as the creator of all things but he/she is now little concerned with things on earth.)

otiose deity

A kind of supernatural being who has less power than a god or goddess. It may be a dead ancestor or a being that inhabits a natural object. A belief in these beings is the central tenet of animism.