Melford Spiro – From Essentialist to Empirical Theories of Religion

Melford Spiro (1920-2014) was an American anthropologist and specialist in religion. He is also remembered for shifting attention in religious studies away from essentialist views of religion to functionalist theories, notably in his contribution to a collection called Anthropological Approaches to the Study of Religion.

Spiro always had a keen interest in religion and psychology. Already in the 1940s, in particular in 1947-1948 when he did his dissertation research on a group of about 250 people on a central Caroline island, Spiro was much interested in religious and supernatural beliefs. One belief of the culture he studied had to do with ghosts, some of whom the people believed were benevolent and others malevolent. Malevolent ghosts were the cause of illness and possession and were thus the source of distress and concern. But Spiro noticed how the behaviour of the ghosts differed markedly from the behaviour of the people who believed in them. The people were, unlike some of their ghosts, non-aggressive and peaceful. Spiro theorized that given the small size of the island, the non-aggressive ethic was valuable for many reasons, perhaps most important of which was that it helped the society to function. It allowed people to live in close quarters and get on with each other and avoid conflict that would otherwise be destabilizing for such a small location. Spiro also claimed that the aggressive impulses of the people were repressed. But repression did not mean they disappeared; in fact, Spiro claimed that these impulses were projected outward onto culturally institutionalized fantasies about ghosts and expressed in folk tales and dreams. Spiro’s study of the people on this island became an important one in anthropological discussions of his time. It was also these notions of repression and the unconscious giving rise to cultural and religious beliefs that occupied Spiro for the rest of his career, although some of his later work focused on Israeli kibbutz, Buddhism in upper Burma, and psychoanalysis.

Where critical theory of religion is concerned, Spiro shifted a great deal of attention away from identifying an essence to religion that had occupied the work of earlier theorists. Many theorists of religion had sought after an underlying principle or element that without which religion would not be what it is. This search was inspired by the Kantian paradigm which led to various views of religion’s essence; for example, some thinkers claimed religion’s essence to be in aesthetics (Friedrich Schleiermacher), in fear and a desire for security (Erwin Goodenough), the experience of the numinous (Rudolf Otto), or in moral sentiments (Albrecht Ritschl), and so on. Spiro looked elsewhere and began by tackling the question of definition. He contended that definitions that focused on the essentialist nature of religion are problematic. He found such definitions difficult to understand and immune to empiricism. They also lacked a precise knowledge of what is being defined. Instead, Spiro recommended that scholars should provide a definition of religion that is supported by empirically testable hypotheses. This is a change in focus from the essence of religion to that of culture; according to Spiro,

“On the assumption that religion is a cultural institution, and on the further assumption that all institutions… are instrumental means for the satisfaction of needs, I shall define religion as an institution consisting of culturally patterned interaction with culturally postulated superhuman beings” (1).

Spiro then contrasts religion with other cultural phenomena that exhibit similar variables to the likes of institution, interactions, and superhuman beings:

“This brief explication of our definition of religion indicates that, viewed systematically, religion can be differentiated from other culturally constituted institutions by virtue only of its reference to superhuman beings. All institutions consist of belief systems, namely, an enduring organization of conditions about one or more aspects of the universe; action systems, an enduring organization of behavior patterns designed to attain ends for the satisfaction of needs; and value systems, an enduring organization of principles by which behavior can be judged on some scale of merit. Religion differs from other institutions in that its three component systems have references to superhuman beings” (2).

Spiro’s viewing religion as having to do with the references to superhuman beings shifts the focus away from essence to culturally connected institutions. Religion is also ultimately unique because of its making reference to superhuman beings. Spiro no doubt believed that religion needed to be taken into account if one attempted to explain society, as other seminal theorists like Emile Durkheim and Max Weber had also claimed.


  1. Capps, Walter. 1995. Religious Studies: The Making of a Discipline. Minneapolis: Fortress Press. p. 189,
  2. Capps, Walter. 1995. Ibid. p. 189
  3. Capps, Walter. 1995. Ibid. p. 190.

D’Andrade, Roy G. 2015. “Melford E. Spiro, 1920–2014.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 112:1915-1916

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