Theories concerning the origins of religion
To draw a clear line between anthropology and sociology is difficult, and the two disciplines are divided more by tradition than by the scholarly methods they employ. Anthropology, however, has tended to be chiefly concerned with nonliterate and technologically primitive cultures and thus has stressed a certain range of techniques, such as the use of participant observation. Much anthropological investigation, however, has been carried out recently in more complex societies, such as in various Hindu areas of India, where there are different layers of society, ranging from an educated elite to illiterate workers who carry out the traditional menial tasks of the lowest castes and the outcastes. Because of the anthropologists’ interest in tribal and “primitive” societies, it has not been unnatural for them to try to use the data gained in the study of such societies to speculate about the genesis and functions of religion.
An early attempt to combine archaeological evidence of prehistoric peoples, on the one hand, and anthropological evidence of primitive peoples, on the other, was that of the English anthropologist John Lubbock (1834–1913). His book, The Origin of Civilization and the Primitive Condition of Man, outlined an evolutionary scheme, beginning with atheism (the absence of religious ideas) and continuing with fetishism, nature worship, and totemism (a system of belief involving the relationship of specific animals to clans), shamanism (a system of belief centring on the shaman, a religious personage having curative and psychic powers), anthropomorphism, monotheism (belief in one god), and, finally, ethical monotheism. Lubbock recognized a point later made by the German theologian and philosopher Rudolf Otto (1869–1937) in distinguishing between the unique holiness (separateness) of God and his ethical characteristics. Unfortunately, much of his information was unreliable, and his schematism was open to question; he foreshadowed, nevertheless, other forms of evolutionism, which were to become popular both in sociology and anthropology. The English ethnologist E.B. Tylor(1832–1917), who is commonly considered the father of modern anthropology, expounded, in his book Primitive Culture, the thesis that animism is the earliest and most basic religious form. Out of this evolves fetishism, belief in demons, polytheism, and, finally, monotheism, which derives from the exaltation of a great god, such as the sky god, in a polytheistic context. A somewhat similar system was advanced by Herbert Spencer (1820–1903) in his Principles of Sociology, though he stresses ancestor worship rather than animism as the basic consideration.
The classifications of religion—polytheism, henotheism (i.e., the worship of one god as supreme without necessarily excluding the possibility of other groups’ gods), and monotheism—begin from concern with gods and often imply the superiority of monotheism over other forms of belief. Naturally, the anthropologists of the 19th century were deeply influenced by the presuppositions of Western society.
The English anthropologist R.R. Marett (1866–1943), in contrast to Tylor, viewed what he termed animatism as of basic importance. He took his clue from such ideas as mana, mulungu, orenda, and so on (concepts found in the Pacific, Africa, and America, respectively), referring to a supernatural power (a kind of supernatural “electricity”) that does not necessarily have the personal connotation of animistic entities and that becomes especially present in certain men, spirits, or natural objects. Marett criticized Tylor for an overly intellectual approach, as though primitive men used personal forces as explanatory hypotheses to account for dreams, natural events, and other phenomena. For Marett, primitive religion is “not so much thought out as danced out,” and its primary emotional attitude is not so much fear as awe (in this he is close to Otto, whom he influenced).
Another important figure in the development of theories of religion was the British folklorist Sir James Frazer (1854–1941), in whose major work, The Golden Bough, is set forth a mass of evidence to establish the thesis that men must have begun with magic and progressed to religion and from that to science. He owes much to Tylor but places magic in a phase anterior to belief in supernatural powers that have to be propitiated—this belief being the core of religion. Because of the realization that magical rituals do not in fact work, primitive man then turns, according to Frazer, to reliance on supernatural beings outside his control, beings who need to be treated well if they are to cooperate with human purposes. With further scientific discoveries and theories, such as the mechanistic view of the operation of the universe, religious explanations gave way to scientific ones. Frazer’s scheme is reminiscent of that of the French “father of sociology,” Auguste Comte.
These and other evolutionary schemes came in for criticism, however, in the light of certain facts about the religions of primitive peoples. Thus, the Scottish folklorist Andrew Lang (1844–1912) discovered from anthropological reports that various primitive tribes believed in a high god—a creator and often legislator of the moral order. Marett and other anthropologists contended that Lang’s attempt to argue for an Urmonotheismus (primordial monotheism) was contrary both to evolutionary ideas and to the established view of the lack of sophistication and half-animal status of the so-called savage. Since Lang was more of a brilliant journalist than an anthropologist, his view was not taken with as much seriousness as it should have been.
The German Roman Catholic priest and ethnologist Wilhelm Schmidt (1868–1954), however, brought anthropological expertise to bear in a series of investigations of such primitive societies as those of the Tierra del Fuegians (South America), the Negrillos of Rwanda (Africa), and the Andaman Islanders (Indian Ocean). The results were assembled in his Der Ursprung der Gottesidee (“The Origin of the Idea of God”), which appeared in 12 volumes from 1912 to 1955. Not surprisingly, Schmidt and his collaborators saw in the high gods, for whose cultural existence they produced ample evidence from a wide variety of unconnected societies, a sign of a primordial monotheistic revelation that later became overlaid with other elements (this was an echo of earlier Christian theories invoking the Fall to similar effect). The interpretation is controversial, but at least Lang and Schmidt produced grounds for rejecting the earlier rather naïve theory of evolutionism.
Modern scholars do not, on the whole, accept Schmidt’s scheme. Some, such as the Italian anthropologist Raffaele Pettazzoni (1883–1959), have stressed merely that a sky god has a certain natural preeminence; others emphasize that the high god is often a deus otiosus (“idle god”)—i.e., not active in the world and hence not the recipient of a functioning cult. In any event, it is a very long jump from the premise that primitive tribes have high gods to the conclusion that the earliest men were monotheists.
Others who have looked at religions from an anthropological point of view have emphasized the importance, in a number of cultures, of the mother goddess (as distinct from the male sky god). A pioneer work in this direction was that of the Swiss anthropologist and jurist J.J. Bachofen (1815–87), whose Das Mutterrecht(“The Mother Right”) unravelled some puzzles in ancient law, mythology, and art in terms of a matriarchal society.
Functional and structural studies of religion
The search for a tidy account of the genesis of religion in prehistory by reference to primitive societies was hardly likely to yield decisive results. Thus, anthropologists became more concerned with functional and structural accounts of religion in society and relinquished the apparently futile search for origins.
Notable among these accounts was the theory of the French sociologist Émile Durkheim (1858–1917). According to Durkheim, totemism was fundamentally significant (he wrongly supposed it to be virtually universal), and in this he shared the view of some other 19th-century savants, notably Salomon Reinach (1858–1932) and Robertson Smith (1846–94), not to mention Sigmund Freud (1856–1939). Because Durkheim treated the totem as symbolic of the god, he inferred that the god is a personification of the clan. This conclusion, if generalized, suggested that all the objects of religious worship symbolize social relationships and, indeed, play an important role in the continuance of the social group.
Various forms of functionalism in anthropology—which understood social patterns and institutions in terms of their function in the larger cultural context—proved illuminating for religion, such as in the stimulus to discover interrelations between differing aspects of religion. The Polish-British anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski (1884–1942), for instance, emphasized in his work on the Trobriand Islanders (New Guinea) the close relationship between myth and ritual—a point also made emphatically by the “myth and ritual” school of the history of religions (see below Other studies and emphases). Furthermore, many anthropologists, notably Paul Radin (1883–1959), moved away from earlier categorizations of so-called primitive thought and pointed to the crucial role of creative individuals in the process of mythmaking.
A rather different approach to myths was made by the 20th-century French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, whose rather formalistic structuralism tended to reinforce analogies between “primitive” and sophisticated thinking and also provided a new method of analyzing myths and stories. His views had wide influence, though they are by no means universally accepted by anthropologists.
The impact of Western culture, including missionary Christianity, and technology upon a wide variety of primitive and tribal societies has had profound effects and represents a specialized area of study closely related to religious anthropology. One pioneering work is Religions of the Oppressed by the Italian anthropologist and historian of religion Vittorio Lanternari. What is striking is the way in which similar types of reaction, creating new religious movements, occur at different points across the world. There are, thus, many possibilities of a comparative treatment.
Among a number of contemporary anthropologists, including the American Clifford Geertz, there is a concern, after a period of functionalism, with exploring more deeply and concretely the symbolism of cultures. The English social anthropologist E.E. Evans-Pritchard (1902–73), noted among other things for his work on the religion of Nuer people (who live in The Sudan), produced in his Theories of Primitive Religion a penetrating critique of many of the earlier anthropological stances. Though it has always been difficult to confirm theories in view of the complexity of the data, a statistical approach has been attempted—e.g.,by G. Swanson in his Birth of the Gods, which attempts to exhibit correlations between types of social arrangement and religious beliefs, such as the caste system and belief in reincarnation.
Because of the nature of the societies that typically have come under the scrutiny of anthropology, the discipline has necessarily had to come to terms with religion. In terms of the methods used, the anthropological approach is of considerable interest to historians of religion and is a corrective to overintellectual, text-based accounts of religions. Also, the present concerns for comparative studies and symbolic analysis coincide with existing concerns in the phenomenology of religion.