Anna-Lena Wolf

God is (not) dead: How far does it matter what people consider to be ultimate?
Anna-Lena Wolf

Anna-Lena Wolf (1984) is an anthropologist with a thematic focus on legal anthropology and the anthropology of religion.
She is currently working as a Postdoc researcher and lecturer at the Institute for Social and Cultural Anthropology at the Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg. In 2018, she completed her PhD on changing conceptions of justice in the context of a labor law reform on Indian tea plantations at the University of Bern. She spent one year as a visiting scholar at the Center for the Study of Law & Governance at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. In Rome, she is conducting ethnographic fieldwork on the relation between legal change and divine agency in canon law in central institutions of the Roman Curia.

The illustration below shows the front door of a church, which is located just around the corner from my office in Halle (Saale) in Germany. When I first came across the church, my attention was drawn to some graffiti that somebody had sprayed on the door saying: “God is dead.” This is reminiscent of Friedrich Nietzsche’s theology of the death of God. Next to it, the painter drew a symbol for anarchism. When I passed the church a couple of weeks later, somebody else had added a “not” to the sentence, turning it into “God is not dead”, and had painted a cross over the symbol for anarchism in golden paint. The underlying debate about the death or (non)existence of God, in this case publicly manifested on the front door of a deconsecrated church, has a long tradition in academia and beyond.

How far does it matter if God is imagined to be (not) dead? It matters, among other reasons, for how socio-cultural anthropologists have studied religious practices and beliefs.

According to different schools of thought in the anthropology of religion, believing in God has been understood in multiple ways. As a means of establishing social cohesion (Durkheim 1912). As a symbol through which meaning is communicated (Geertz 1966). As a product of ongoing discursive practices (Asad 1993). The different anthropological understandings of religion point to a paradigm shift in the philosophy of religion. A shift away from theistic definitions of God to a definition of God as something metaphysically, axiologically and soteriological “ultimate” (Schellenberg 2016).

In other words, most anthropological approaches to religious beliefs and practices share a perspective that has been termed “methodological atheism” (Berger 1967). From this perspective, religion is understood as an immanent human projection without a transcendent point of reference.

Ill. 1: Stephanus church in Halle (Saale), Germany, which has been used as a book storage facility for the University library since 1968, photo by the author, January 2020.

Ill. 1: Stephanus church in Halle (Saale), Germany, which has been used as a book storage facility for the University library since 1968, photo by the author, January 2020.

Methodological atheism, however, has been criticised on the grounds that it privileges a secular ontology and denounces religious interlocutors. Instead, a methodological agnosticism has been proposed (Porpora 2006). This means that the explanation of religious experiences is turned into an empirical question. Different explanations of supernatural experiences are juxtaposed “neutrally”. Taking near-death experiences as an example, a methodological agnostic perspective analyses them by putting psychological, medical, sociological and transcendent explanations next to each other, without prior judgement by the researcher about the truth-value of each explanation.
Although methodological agnosticism claims to be more neutral, it is itself based on the scientifically unprovable premise that different explanations are equally valid, which does not do justice to either atheist or to theistic beliefs.

Even though there is no explicit “methodological supernaturalist” approach in anthropology, some studies have dealt with (religious) beliefs as if they were true. These perspectives may be called methodological supernaturalism by way of analogy with the former methodological isms. One example is the ethnographic study by Islamic scholar Sarah Eltantawi on the introduction of Islamic criminal law in northern Nigeria. Eltantawi argues that northern Nigerians favoured the reintroduction of the most extreme form of Islamic criminal law in the early 2000s, with legal sanctions such as stoning or the amputation of body parts, because they hoped that Shari’ah, as perfect God-given law, would provide a justice that secular law failed to deliver. The emic belief in a God who takes action through divine Islamic law and creates justice is taken seriously from Eltantawi’s perspective.

The way in which religious beliefs and practices are explained by anthropologists of religion are therefore informed by a researcher’s methodological approach to it. On whether they look at religious realities as if God was (not) dead.

What people consider to be ultimate, however, seems to matter beyond the anthropology of religion. As a researcher in residence at the Istituto Svizzero in Rome in 2023/24, I am investigating Catholic canon law from a legal anthropological perspective. I am conducting participant observation at the canon law faculty of a pontifical university in Rome where canon lawyers are trained. On one occasion I discussed a lecture on the philosophy of law with a canon law student, who is a nun from Latin America. According to her, postmodern philosophical approaches to law lead people away from God because they confuse what is true. The nun looks at postmodern theories of philosophy from the implicit perspective of a methodological supernaturalism – as if God were not dead – and she evaluates the postmodern theories according to her perspective of what is ultimate. Therefore, she considers postmodern theories to be godforsaken and untrue.

Other people may take gender justice, social justice, ecological justice and so forth to be ultimate and see and evaluate every other phenomenon from this particular viewpoint.

What people believe to be ultimate matters for how they look at (religious or non-religious) phenomena in the anthropology of religion and beyond, and how they evaluate them. There is no impartial perspective.


Asad, Talal. 1993. Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam. Baltimore.
Berger, Peter L. 1967. The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion. Garden City.
Durkheim, Émile. 1912. Les Formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse: Le système totémique en Australie. Paris.
Eltantawi, Sarah. 2017. Shari’ah on Trial. Northern Nigeria’s Islamic Revolution. Oakland.
Geertz, Clifford. 1966. “Religion as a Cultural System”. In Banton, Michael (ed.): Anthropological Approaches to the Study of Religion, London, 1–46.
Porpora, D. V. 2006. “Methodological Atheism, Methodological Agnosticism and Religious Experience”. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour 36(1): 57–75.
Schellenberg, J. L. 2016. “God for All Time: From Theism to Ultimism”. In Buckareff, Andrei and Nagasawa, Yujin (eds.): Alternative Concepts of God: Essays on the Metaphysics of the Divine, Oxford, 164–177.

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