Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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(1920-) Founding member of the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, San Diego, where he serves as an emeritus professor.

His research stresses the need to consider both psychoanalytic and cultural forces in attempting to understand human behavior. Spiro conducted fieldwork in Micronesia, Burma, and Israel (focusing on sex roles in the kibbutzim). Human nature, he contends, is grounded in individual needs. He cogently argues that religion is a projective system rooted in family experiences. Spiro's major contributions to the study of religion examine the articulation of personality systems, belief systems, and social structures. His first book-length treatment of a religious system, Burmese Supernaturalism (Transaction 1996 [1978]), looks at folk religion and demonstrates how different types of religious beliefs can coexist and function to serve the emotional needs of group members. Another important contribution, Buddhism and Society (University of California Press 1982), examines discrepancies between observed ritual practice and the official doctrines of Buddhism. Supernaturalism, Spiro concludes, offers alternate explanations for suffering and thereby meets existential needs. His seminal essay "Religion: Problems of Definition and Explanation" (1966) reviews major definitions of religion, followed by his own attempt at a definition. For Spiro, religion is "an institution consisting of culturally patterned interaction with culturally postulated super-human beings." The remainder of his essay astutely analyzes manifest and latent functions of religion and assesses "causal" as distinct from "functional" explanations for religious belief.

Stephen D. Glazier


M. Spiro, "Religion," in Anthropological Approaches to the Study of Religion , ed. M. Banton (London: Tavistock, 1966): 85-126.

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