The Spirit of the Matter: a Neo-Tylorian Response to Timothy Fitzgerald

The Spirit of the Matter: a Neo-Tylorian Response to Timothy Fitzgerald

By Liam Sutherland, University of Edinburgh

Published by the Religious Studies Project on 6 June 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Timothy Fitzgerald on ‘Religion’ and Mystification (4 June 2012).

In the interview regarding ‘religion, non-religion and mystification’ Timothy Fitzgerald is quite correct to chide many for failing to critically reflect on the terms they employ. Like all of the core concepts of the Social Sciences: culture, society, politics, ethnicity and ritual are concepts which have been handed down to us from the West and were greatly transformed in the modern era, though ideology is the only one to be specifically coined in this period. The fact that these concepts have a specific history should hardly surprise us, and they can still pick out underlying currents of human life if they are utilised with critical awareness.

Though etymology and discourse analysis are important parts of the toolkit of the Social Sciences, I find Fitzgerald’s assertion that the field’s primary task is to analyse the usage of words to be a troubling retreat from the analysis of what human beings actually do and think. A focus on words and their protean etymologies can be misleading and be detrimental to the study of the phenomena actually present in the context. Would we confine ‘culture’ only to those who possess the systematic category which emerged in the modern era? Would we do the same for ideology? Surely a person could still recognise that there are ingrained, meaningful differences in lifestyle and worldview among communities and that certain ideas may function to justify these, before a concept is constructed or adapted to analyse this.

The compartmentalisation of categories is deeply problematic but because they only show their value when they work in tandem. Religions would not be especially interesting or valuable if ‘religious’ beliefs and practices did not affect politics and society, if they were purely individual or speculative. If it is easier for us to conceive of the workings of society as ‘politics’ influencing ‘religion’ and ‘religion’ influencing ‘politics’ then so be it.  I would not maintain however that a scholar is bound to use common terminology if they find them unhelpful but others may find them perfectly helpful. The concept of culture can cause problems if it creates the notion of a specific set, identifiable number of hermetically sealed ‘cultures’ or the notion that community must have a set number of traditions or folklore to be a viable community. Religions are hardly the only types of community which can be reified and essentialised, but to simply identify groups is not to reify them.

In attempting to set out my own approach I will draw on a theoretical model used by Fitzgerald in his 2000 book Ideology of Religious Studies, because I have found it useful for my own research. He argued that definitions and theories of ‘religion’ have a tendency to be either theological or vague. The two poles being theories which defined religion as some kind of universal essence, specific responses to ‘the Divine’ on the one hand and those which defined religion in a way that picks out nothing distinctive, identifying it with anything meaningful or important to human beings. To his credit however he did not leave it at that which would have served his purposes well enough, but admitted that there were many theories which lay somewhere in the middle. Religion could be defined clearly and scientifically and it is this course that I have sought to trace back to one of its key ancestors, Sir Edward Burnett Tylor and his 1871 Primitive Culture.

Tylor defined religion as belief in ‘spiritual beings’ rooted in the notion that human beings had a soul which gave them life and which could survive the death of the body. This was extended to include soul-like beings in the cosmos, either disembodied or embodied in natural phenomena (animism), personal beings in the cosmos which were causal agents with whom human beings needed to establish relationships. The notion of the soul, naturally enough gave rise to the idea of afterlives and spirit worlds.

Fitzgerald has rightly queried the often uncritical usage of the concepts like ‘god’ (or ‘spirit’), but comparison is based as much on difference as it is similarity. What is most amazing is simply the fact that these beings are postulated at all and throughout the world. This demands Social Scientific analysis. The term ‘supernatural’ has been quite understandably referred to as a ‘peek-a-boo’ term because it is a vague concept, which the vague concept of religion can hide behind; it is also a peek-a-boo concept because it appears to be very difficult to exorcise. Religion appears to be haunted by ‘the supernatural’ and even theories which attempt to define it in a different way are forced to address this. I would argue that it is time to acknowledge that this is the heartland of religion.

The concept of religion that we have is undeniably linked to the scientific worldview: but it could exist without it. Sharpe wrote that the first comparative religionist was the person to recognise that people in other places worshipped different gods. Comparison can be and routinely is, mounted from a non-scientific, faith based perspective, however even that would not quite be the same without the history of modern science. Certainly terms like the ‘supernatural’ can only emerge with the scientific view of nature. I do not believe that this is a problem; as Thomas Tweed has argued, it is impossible for the scholar to be truly un-situated, and we are attempting to pursue a Science of Religion after all. I am not certain that religious pluralism and secular government are as closely linked as Fitzgerald argues: the history of the Roman Empire, China, India or even the early secularising West would appear to be pluralist but not ‘secular’ in the modern sense. Even Medieval Catholicism spread its sacred canopy over much diversity and division.

Religion for me refers to the institutionalised belief in and practices based around ‘extra-natural’ phenomena or the ‘socialised supernatural’, however the phenomena is not necessarily considered to be ‘above’ nature. This includes gods, spirits, souls, other realms, afterlives and forces like the Dao or Karma. It is an etic perspective because for religious believers these are inherently part of the order of the cosmos, but they are additions to that shared core of human experience mediated through individual and cultural factors: the senses, the mind, culture etc. It is important to stress that human beings do inhabit largely the same cognitive universe and that is the (phenomenal) world of experience as opposed to the world as it really is which is unknowable (the noumenal), to borrow a distinction from Immanuel Kant. Religions for their believers provide the key to the complete picture, “the really real” as Clifford Geertz put it. Science also provides extensions to this shared core of human experience, including a variety of hidden phenomena like atoms and other dimensions but the difference is that these are revealed through the application of reason and empiricism, as opposed to tradition.

These phenomena may not be conceived as non-corporeal, even spiritual let alone metaphysical, as Stewart Guthrie is keen to argue, but they are ‘hidden’, so that those not inculcated with belief in them may seriously doubt their existence. One process that Tylor claimed to uncover that I think has enough grain of truth to repeat, is that these phenomena tend to become more mysterious and further removed as scientific knowledge expands. Tylor argued that the spirits were initially conceived as ethereal yet material beings, the gods were located in a physical Heaven above the firmament or on a mountaintop, the sun really was driven across the sky and the land of the dead was found in the West, on a mysterious island or a gloomy cavern. Increasing knowledge drove these phenomena into another realm and drove the spirits out of matter. This meant that such phenomena became more and more based around faith but also simply cannot be truly falsified empirically because their properties are outside of empirical analysis.

Despite this, religious people really do have experiences attributed to such phenomena and in many cases do attempt to instigate this in some way. Felicitas Goodman argued that religion was based around belief in an ‘alternate reality’ which was unique to each culture and was experienced through ritual and trance states provoking altered states of consciousness. These experiences provide all the ‘proof’ many religious people need and is possibly the reason that Ninian Smart put so much stock in ‘the experiential dimension’.

As Fitzgerald asks in the interview, what becomes of the phenomena defined as non-religious? This is a deeply pertinent question and it should give scholars serious pause for reflection because our role is neither to denigrate nor promote religions, including over non-religion. Religion could potentially have different positions in relation to wider society and the state; it is part of its utility as an analytical category that we can make such distinctions. Religion is often claimed to be ‘bound up with’ or ‘inseparable’ from life but in what ways? In Medieval Christianity or classical Islam all aspects of life were considered to be subservient to religion and could never be outside its purview. Indigenous Religions are often claimed to be subservient to the needs of everyday life, personal and social welfare or certain systems of values. Fitzgerald himself has argued convincingly that relationships with the Kami in Shinto are governed by and subservient to the same system of values which govern relationships with human beings. Even the beings or forces postulated by believers are not necessarily conceived of as much higher either in power or virtue than human beings, they are not necessarily the Summum Bonum, the highest good or value.

The exact border between religion and non-religion is difficult to pinpoint, as with the border between other key concepts, however as long as a conceptual heartland and borderland are acknowledged I believe it can still be of use. Nonetheless I will attempt to chart as much of these marches as I can. I would probably consider belief in cryptids such as the Loch Ness monster to be just shy of the dividing line, partially because they are purported to be biological but far more importantly that other than perhaps a hesitation to swim in the waters or a propensity to drag expensive scanning equipment across them, belief does not affect behaviour and is not especially institutionalised among even a loose community. Maintaining a distinction may appear to be pointless but it allows us to understand the processes by which such phenomena could transform into a religion and can allow us to recognise new religions when they emerge.

Religion would become an impossibly wide concept if it included all beliefs or convictions held without empirical evidence. I would adapt the philosophical maxim that we must separate ‘is’ systems, accounts of reality from ‘ought’ systems of how they should be, at least ideal-typically. I can also appreciate Fitzgerald’s reasons for equating belief in God with belief in self-regulating markets which certainly does appear to be nothing short of a modern myth. However the primary difference is the fact that such a belief is dependent on the (much softer than it will frequently admit) science of economics based on analysis of the production and exchange of resources and on mathematics and to an extent is subject to it: what authority it has is dependent upon it and can simply be described as bad economics.

What is the difference between belief in an abstract notion like a Nation or Democracy and a religious belief? Well there certainly is an underlying similarity, they are not physical but do have great social power. These ideas can be classed as ‘Durkheimian gods’ in that they have a hold over a group of people, affect the way they act and relate to one another and are greater than the sum of their parts, acting within and without the individual and can never truly be false in this sense. However I feel I can say as a ‘believer’ or ‘adherent’ of a Nation myself that, for example, the Scottish Nation is still conceived to be nothing more than a body of people, their institutions, traditions, sense of collective self and history. Belief in an actual divine being fits all of these criteria and can be described perfectly as a ‘Durkheimian god’ but is also additionally a ‘Tylorian god’, which is really conceived to exist ontologically, to act as a causal agent which can play an explanatory role. No honest engagement with these beliefs as found among human communities can truly deny this.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author:

Liam Sutherland is a Religious Studies Postgraduate student at Edinburgh University undertaking a Masters by Research, on the relevance of E.B Tylor for the contemporary theory of religion, defining religion and modern scholars with a ‘Neo-Tylorian’ influence or affinity. He is a native of Edinburgh where he also completed his undergraduate degree in 2009. His dissertation was subsequently published in Literature & Aesthetics (2011), entitled “The Survival of Indigenous Australian Spirituality in Contemporary Australia”. Liam has also written the essay An Evaluation of Harvey’s Approach to Animism and the Tylorian Legacy for the Religious Studies Project. Recently, Liam has failed to defy RS stereotypes and ended up working part time for a Church.


Berger, P. The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (1990) Anchor

Cox, J.L. From Primitive to Indigenous in the Academic Study of Religion (2007) Ashgate

Durkheim, É. Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (2001) OUP

Fitzgerald, T. The Ideology of Religious Studies (2000) OUP

Geertz, C. The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays by Clifford Geertz (1973) Basic Books

Goodman, F. Ecstasy, Ritual and the Alternate Reality (1988) Indiana University Press

Guthrie, S.E. Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion (1993) OUP

Kant, I. “Critique of Practical Reason” in (1888) K. Abbot (ed.) Kant’s Theory of Ethics 4th edition Longmans Green & co.

Sharpe, E.J Comparative Religion: A History (1986) Duckworth

Smart, N. The World’s Religions: Old Traditions and Modern Transformations (1989) CUP

Tweed, T. Crossing and Dwelling: A Theory of Religion (2008) Harvard University Press 

Tylor, E.B Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Art and Custom (1871) Volumes 1 & 2: John Murray

5 replies
  1. Avatar
    Yakoub says:

    To describe Fitzgerald’s analysis as “focusing on words and their protean etymologies” is specious polemic, as is contrasting it with what RS academics actually do. The act of building fields of knowledge is fundamental to what RS is – your perspective is akin to that of an astronomer who thinks it better to have virtually no knowledge of the workings of his telescope, in order to devote him or herself to the proper task of looking at stars. It’s tap room empiricism. Not only that, but historiographies of the study of religions has proved vital in, for example, demonstrating how such fields of knowledge have serious contributed to the misrepresentation of Islam – politically, academically, and in popular discourse. See for example the works of Dietrich Jung; Russell McCutcheon, etc. And are you suggesting no one intellectually decries the study of “culture”? Really? You need to have a chat with a Yr 1 Cultural Studies undergraduate.

    • Avatar
      Liam Sutherland says:

      Hello Yakoub,

      Thank you for your comments, I probably could have done with being a little more nuanced in many ways, I would certainly not seek to deny the value of histriography, discourse analysis or indeed etymology, I merely wish to suggest that it can never be the whole picture. I am not sure if Tim Fitzgerald actually meant that they should be the sole focus of the humanities but because his statement could be interpreted in that way, I wanted to argue against that position because I believe that doing so will mean that, in my opinion, the humanities will be much harder to justify in an era of departmental budget cuts when they have never been more relevant. I am well aware of how many categories have led to serious misunderstandings, (I am less aware of the Islamic context I must confess) particularly with regard to Hinduism both in itself and its inclusion in the World Religion Paradigm, the idea that it is a unified phenomenon, the emphasis of Theistic/Monistic philosophy over everyday practice, the search for one holy book etc. I am also perfectly aware that there is an entire multiverse of critiques of individual categories, I particularly enjoyed Tim Fitzgerald’s defence of “culture” and “society” against (correct me if I’m wrong) Frederick Bart and Eric Wolf. My problem with the whole genre is very much that terms are often treated in isolation when they can never be isolated, as Fitzgerald points out religion as a category can never be separated from non-religion and is bound up with the history of secularism. Anyway If you have any further comments I will try and give you the last word on the matter.

      Thank you, Liam

  2. Avatar
    Mohammad Magout says:

    Thanks Liam, a very useful and well-argued piece indeed. I’m glad that I have come across it today. I was working with my notes and readings dealing with the conceptualization of religion to start writing the theoretical part of my thesis. I had some notes from Fitzgerald’s “The Ideology of Religious Studies”and I wanted to find someone commenting on his ideas, so this is how I have ended up here. I think your piece can be helpful for me to organize my thoughts in this section.


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