Wallace's Typology of Religions

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  • 0:01 Religion in Many Forms
  • 1:00 Monotheistic
  • 2:43 Olympian
  • 4:05 Communal
  • 4:50 Shamanic
  • 6:11 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine has an M.A. in American Studies. She is an instructional designer, educator, and writer with a particular interest in the social sciences and American studies.

Not all religions in history have developed around the worship of one god. This lesson highlights the connection between the structure of a society and its religions and how belief in the supernatural has been expressed by different cultures.

Religion in Many Forms

Myra grew up in a household that did not practice a particular religion, but she wants to understand more about the types that exist. One day, she starts to pay attention to what religions she encounters in the world.

Many of her friends are Muslim, Christian and Jewish. She starts to notice what elements they have in common. She wonders if Greek gods, like Zeus, which she learned about in school, are also considered a part of a religion. She encounters a person in her community who describes himself as a shaman, who has an entirely different way of approaching spirituality.

In this lesson, we'll follow Myra's exploration of the four different types of religion, as proposed by anthropologist, Anthony Wallace: monotheistic, Olympian, communal and shamanic. We'll also look at how each type tends to form in connection with a particular structure of society.


First, Myra considers how most of her friends worship one god. Islam, Christianity and Judaism are all examples of monotheistic religions, one in which there is a belief in one Supreme Being. This form of religion includes practitioners, like priests, ministers, rabbis, imams and ayatollahs, who are leaders who are sanctioned by the religious organization to provide religious services and rituals.

To remember that monotheism refers to a religion with only one god, think of the root word 'mono-' and how a monorail only has one rail. Other monotheistic religions include Sikhism and the Bahá'í faith, among others. According to Wallace, monotheistic religions are most common in societies that are structured as states, with a political system that is centralized, such as the modern countries of today's world.

Sometimes monotheistic religions do include a variety of figures who are specially honored. For example, Catholicism exalts certain figures within the belief system, such as Mary, mother of Jesus, and the saints, as deserving of special devotion, though they are not considered gods to be worshiped. Monotheistic religions may celebrate prophets or early followers as well.

Some faiths may appear to have multiple gods and yet still have elements of monotheism. Hinduism, for instance, uses many forms to express the concept of a deity. The religion is also practiced in different ways depending on the individual and region, so the category it fits into may depend on how it is actually followed in day to day life.


Myra remembers learning about another type of belief system with multiple deities when she was in high school: the Greek and Roman gods and goddesses. These seemed to be in a different category than the monotheistic religions of her friends.

At first she wonders if they could be monotheistic, too, since there are major rulers, like Zeus for the Greeks or Jupiter for the Romans. Then she recalls how the other characters in these mythologies are considered gods with supernatural powers.

Wallace noted that these types of religious beliefs, which he calls Olympian religions, include multiple deities who are organized in a hierarchy. These deities could be human-like in their form, their relationships and their actions. The types of practitioner who communicated information about these gods were part of a full-time priesthood.

You can remember the term Olympian by thinking about how the Olympics were originally held in Greece, and Greek gods are a type of Olympian religion. The belief in many superior gods appears to be related to the number of social classes in a society. Most likely to hold Olympian beliefs are earlier forms of states and chiefdoms, where families tended to rule rather than holding elections to determine who had power.


Unlike monotheistic and Olympian religions, communal religions involve part-time lay practitioners who are not like typical priests or other full-time leaders. This version of faith tends to include rituals and rites of passage that involve a community, such as harvest festivals or spring ceremonies. Deities have some control over nature.

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