Studying Christianity as a non-believer

When I first started researching contemporary Christianity, back when I was an undergraduate anthropology doing research in northern Thailand, I woke one morning to find I had missed an early phone call from my father. In those more technologically simple days, international calls were a rarity, and so I called straight back. “Have they got to you yet?” he asked, with a tone of real concern in his voice. It seemed that one of the greatest fears of my atheist father was that I might be converted by one of the evangelical Christians I was spending time with!

Quite a few years later and I have yet to have that road-to-Damascus moment, or even a slow conversion to becoming a believer (most probably still to the relief of my dad). But does my continuing lack of Christian beliefs – or indeed any spiritual beliefs – make it impossible to be able to understand those that I study? In a similar way to the experience of the atheist anthropologist Ruy Llera Blanes (2007) when he was researching Pentecostal churches in Lisbon, an interviewee once suggested to me that without having a relationship with God and without being filled by the Holy Spirit, I would never be able to effectively understand his belief system. But surely this is actually at the heart of doing anthropology: trying to understand cultures that are different to our own.

As anthropologists, our training encourages us to attempt to understand others’ beliefs on their own terms, rather than engaging in an exercise of assessing the validity of truth claims. Put simply, my role is not to ascertain whether a church-goer is correct in believing in God, whether a prophecy will really come to pass, or whether an intercessor speaking in tongues is really filled with something called the Holy Spirit. Instead, it is to understand what these beliefs mean to those that hold them, and how these beliefs influence their lives and the actions they take in the societies in which they live.

As our project continues it will be interesting to compare notes and analyses with my Christian colleagues. But hopefully an anthropological approach from this outsider will still have value in increasing our understanding of Christian megachurches in contemporary London, even if I only go to church for work!


Blanes, R. L. (2006), The atheist anthropologist: Believers and non-believers in anthropological fieldwork. Social Anthropology, 14:223–234


One thought on “Studying Christianity as a non-believer

  1. There is a long tradition of anthropologists, regardless of their own personal convictions, contributing meaningfully to the study of religion. Tanya Luhrmann, a psychological anthropologist, is the author of When God Talks Back, a study of the relationship that charismatic Christians have to God. She also conducted research as an outsider to this type of faith and describes herself as taking what she calls an ‘anthropological attitude.’ This consists of working to understand how people interpret their world before passing judgement on whether this interpretation is true or false. She writes, ‘I will not judge whether God is or is not present to the people I came to know.’ This agnostic approach enables her to listen attentively to her data without assuming that her participants are deluded.

    Indeed, when Christianity is viewed as a culture, then there is great value in an outsider’s perspective, which enables them to see assumptions that insiders miss. Anthropologists quite helpfully distinguish different approaches to a culture via the terms ’emic’ (studying accounts from within a culture) and ‘etic’ (a description of an element of culture from an outside observer). Although these approaches are arguably not mutually exclusive, taking different angles on a research context will often yield more telling and useful data. Certainly the contributions of our anthropologist colleague are greatly valued!

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s