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The Legacy of Edward Tylor – Roundtable

Edward Burnett Tylor (1832-1917) in many respects has a fixed place in the academic memory of religious studies and cultural anthropology yet acknowledgement of his role is often purely historical, as a key ancestor of little direct relevance to contemporary discussions. This has left us with a limited narrative about the man and his work; a particular received or canonical Tylor defined by his introduction of the concept of animism, his intellectualist approach to religion, his armchair research and staunch social evolutionism. The year of his centenary is an opportunity to begin the task of critically examining the legacy left by Tylor’s work on religion and culture, how much the received Tylor matches his body of work, whether other Tylors can be extracted from these texts which undermine such a limited perspective on a long and eventful career and whether contemporary scholars can find anything of ongoing relevance in the work of such a historically distant figure.

This roundtable recorded at the annual BASR conference at the University of Chester 2017 brought together a group of scholars interested in different perspectives on the legacy of Tylor. Topics discussed included his impact on indigenous societies, the debates over animism, monotheism and the definition of religion as well as his relevance to the cognitive sciences of religion and the degree to which Tylor can be classed as an ethnographer and more. This roundtable includes contributions from Dr Miguel Astor-Aguilera of Arizona State University, Dr Jonathan Jong of Coventry University’s Brain, Belief, and Behaviour Lab, James L. Cox Professor Emeritus at the University of Edinburgh, Liam T. Sutherland – PhD Candidate at the University of Edinburgh, Professor Graham Harvey and Dr Paul Tremlett at the Open University and the much appreciated audience!

The centenary of Tylor’s death was also the theme for a new volume edited by Tremlett, Sutherland and Harvey ‘Edward Tylor, Religion and Culture’ published with Bloomsbury which features contributions from all of the roundtable participants (apart from the audience) and several other scholars, which was launched at the conference.

*This week’s podcast is sponsored in part by, Cen SAMM. Through their collaboration with INFORM, they’ve created a searchable database of millenarian movements available online.*

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A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

Podcast with Graham Harvey, Liam T. Sutherland, Paul-Francois Tremlett, Jonathon Jong, James L. Cox and Miguel Astor-Aguilera (22 January 2018).

Chaired by Graham Harvey

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Tylor_Roundtable_1.1.

Graham Harvey (GH): So this is the Roundtable for our discussion of Edward Tylor for the anniversary of his death, 100 year commemoration. And including myself, we have contributors to this book: Edward Tylor: Religion and Culture. Paul, you had a suggestion for what we should do first?

Paul-Francois Tremlett (PT): I did. My suggestion, as a point of departure, was thinking about this Tylor project as part of a wider question about our relationship to classical theory. And I just thought that might be a nice place to begin. What do we do with early scholarship in Anthropology of Religion/Sociology/Religious Studies, etc? And what’s our relationship to it?

GH: OK, would you like to show us how that’s done?

PT: Well, I don’t think it’s a question of showing you how it’s done. But for me anyway, being involved in this project made me read Tylor in a different way. I’d been used to particular kind of accounts of Tylor’s work in secondary literature. I’d been used to allowing those works to direct me to Primitive Culture and a couple of other things that Tylor wrote. And my Tylor, as it were, was framed by that secondary literature. For this project I read Primitive Culture, two volumes, and a couple of other books- the book Anthropology, a few articles. And I started to get a sense that there were other Tylors, apart from the sort of canonical account. And I found it a really refreshing process. At the same time as doing that, I was actually involved in a slightly different project which meant that I was also reading The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, by Emile Durkheim. And I was reading that – also from cover to cover – and a few other things by Durkheim. And I started to get a very different picture of the kinds of conversations taking place between scholars at the end of the 19th, early 20th century. And it changed my relationship with that theory, and I think I got a hell of a lot out of it, frankly. And I’d thoroughly recommend it to others: read that material. Yes, of course you need the secondary literature – it’s there for a reason and it’s helpful – but at the same time you also need to de-familiarise yourself, and go through the texts as freshly as possible.

GH: It was also interesting, as well as doing some of that re-reading – I wouldn’t say I’ve read both the volumes and all the other work – but reading more of Tylor, but also reading other people’s work as we were editing the book. And being pointed to other parts to look up, and thinking, “OK, so that enriches my understanding of what he was trying to do, and the data he was using and the way he used it.” But also, it’s been interesting . . . A lot of the chapters in the book do this comparative thing – as Jim’s does, and as mine does and other people’s do – to think about Tylor’s practice and his argument alongside other peoples, and to see that. So that, too, was quite an interesting experience: seeing selective reading, sometimes, by other people and thinking how our theories and work arises out of these interesting conversations.

Liam Sutherland (LS): Well, I mean, I came at this very much from a different stage in my career, because I looked at the relationship between modern theory and EB Tylor for my Master’s project. So this really came out from my undergraduate exposure to Theory and Method, which was one of the elements I found the most interesting. But I was quite fascinated with the bits of Tylor that had been presented. But it was very much – as Paul has touched on – in a very kind of codified, boxed in way. But I thought there was a lot of explanatory potential there, so I wanted to go back and pursue this at a deeper level with my Master’s. And I think it was when I actually, really had to get to grips with this, with the primary sources, with the two volumes of Primitive Culture, (5:00) that it really became apparent to me, sort-of really just how much can be lost without necessarily being wrong. It’s not – as we touch on in the book – it’s not necessarily the case that the canonical Tylor, as we’ve called it, is completely, is an inaccurate depiction; it’s a limited one, and perhaps a necessarily limited one. But it’s the fact that when you go and read the primary sources in context, it’s quite a different experience. And sometimes the kind of voice, the nuances, and the humanity of some of the early scholars that you look at can really get lost; that they’re actually far more persuasive, especially in their own context, than we actually give credit for. So, as much as my particular focus has been Tylor, I hope that I’ve at least internalised these lessons. So that with other key theorists that I’m only dimly aware of, or that I’m only aware of the canonical version of, that I might already begin to suspect that there’s more to the picture that I’m missing, and at least try to look for that in future.

Jonathan Jong (JJ): So Liam, you discovered Tylor during your undergraduate studies,

LS: Yes.

JJ: . . .which is to say that your lecturers put him on the reading list, right?

LS: Yes, that’s true.

JJ: And for that reason, I think, it’s kind of surprising that we are surprised that we get a lot out of reading Tylor. Because we must have known this at some level, assuming- I don’t do this kind of work – but, like, the rest of you around this table presumably assign Tylor. So why do you do that?

GH: No, I haven’t.

Miguel Astor-Aguilera (MAA): I assign him, but it’s in the same manor that it was when I was in graduate school in seminars: little snippets. Nobody assigned a complete work of Tylor, Malinowski or Evans-Pritchard, or Frazer. Oftentimes they wind up in readers where: “This is what they meant, so that’s what you get.” So this is one of the fantastic things about not only being in the volume, but it’s also, as you mentioned, going in and actually reading exactly what he said, which makes a world of difference.

JJ: But what motivates people who design syllabi to put the classical – even if snippets of the classical texts – what motivates people who construct theses syllabi to put them there in the first place? Is it for historical interest? Do scholars like yourselves think that there is something of value for today? How does it come about that these people appear in our textbooks? I ask this question because, in the Sciences, this doesn’t really happen. We don’t assign Darwin’s Origin, really, any more, in biology classes, right? We don’t really assign Freud in Psychology classes.

MAA: The question would be: Why not?

JJ: Indeed. But if the question is, what is it that we get out of it, I think it is precisely as you say: why, and why not? Pros and cons of putting in, or omitting the venerable texts of our intellectual traditions in the syllabi. I don’t think we should take it for granted that all the things of the past should be jettisoned in a sort of . . . . Like, Dan Dennet likes to say that he’s never read any philosophy within 60 years prior, or something like that. But that’s ridiculous, right? But just because those two positions are ridiculous it doesn’t mean that we don’t need reasons for there to be no position.

GH: One of the answers to your question, I think, is Liam’s phrase, “the canonical Tylor”. There are a number of canonical figures who are set as readings. So there has been . . . . I don’t know if people are still producing readers, maybe they are – I’ve produced a couple – in which we select short extracts from canonical texts – very rarely saying, I think, that the issues that they engaged with, or the methods that they practised are still current, or should generate more work. However, some of them do do that, very clearly, and I think we’ve demonstrated that very well. Tylor and others do, clearly, have the potential to generate new questions, or to bring us back to the nub of the question we are asking now. So, in my case: what does animism mean? In James’ case, what does monotheism mean? How do they define it? How do they – putatively – among whom you research, what do they think those terms mean?

James L. Cox (JC): Well I think, part of the approach has been, for example, in Eric Sharpe’s classic Comparative Religion: A History, is to provide a kind of basis and understanding of what’s gone before. Sot that the students don’t think that we’re just inventing things as they come along, and: “Aha! Here’s a new idea!” Because many of the new ideas are old ideas (10:00). And they’ve been reworked, and thought through, and so on. And so I think that students need a background, but of course they can make the mistake of – which we sometimes make – just simply critiquing them in the light of a hundred-and-some years later, and applying theories and methods, and ignoring everything that’s come in between. But I do think it’s important to study the classical and important figures in the history. Another thing that I’ve done has been to use these figures, because my area of development has been the phenomenology of religion. And many of the key phenomenologists of religion, writing in the early to mid-20th century, bounced themselves off (early ethnographers), particularly criticising them for their assumptions about evolutionary ideas about development, advancement according to almost an application of Darwinian theory in social contexts. And part of the theory there was to say: “Well, unless we’re aware of these presuppositions that influence the way we think, we won’t be able to critique our own ways of thinking.” And so, just one other thing, and that is – I have most recently been doing work on Australia – the practical effect of these writers. For example, the theories of Baldwin Spencer and his colleague Frank Gillen, about the aboriginal peoples of Australia being the lowest form of human development. And there’s a very famous quote that I use: “Just like the platypus has gone and faded away, so will these people inevitably be taken over by the more advanced civilisations.” And if one thinks about the social consequences of this idea, it could be argued, and has been argued that this way of thinking led to justification for genocide. Because aboriginal peoples are going to be made extinct anyway, naturally: “so we can take over”. And it could be said that these theories are not just in the air – just up in the air – but they actually have social consequences. So these are the three things I would say: they need a foundation; we need to be able to critique them according to other theories; and we need to know the social consequences of our thinking.

PT: That’s interesting. I mean, the way I encountered Tylor as an undergraduate was in a class about definitions. So you had the substantive Tylorian definition, the functional Durkheimian definition, and the pinnacle, at that point, was Clifford Geertz. And maybe we read Talal Asad alongside that, if we had a particularly brave tutor!

All: (Laughter)

JC: Which you probably, usually didn’t! (Laughter)

PT: So, that’s the kind of way in which Tylor would appear in undergraduate curricula. I was thinking of readers. The last anthropology of religion reader I recall is Lambek’s: Michael Lambek. And I think Tylor’s in there. And I think, again, it’s around this definition of religion as belief in spiritual beings – as we all know. And that’s part of the history, the conversation – Eric Sharpe’s is a good example; Brian Morris’ anthropology . . . .

JC: Fiona Bowie

PT: Exactly. And Tylor’s in all of them one way or another.

LS: But that’s exactly how I encountered it first. It was in a class talking about the definition of religion and I . . . because sometimes you’re just given a slight quote. And obviously, students can’t be interested in every quote that they’re fed. The thing is that sometimes you’re only given a little piece and then you’re not given the materials to read them on your own. You might not be given a chapter to read or anything like that. In my case, though, it really sparked my curiosity, because I wanted to know a bit more about what this actually meant. And when we went on to explore theories, for example, in greater detail, I found that James Fraser . . . . One of the texts we were using was Daniel Pals’ Eight Theories of Religion, and I think it’s a very, very good introduction, actually. But he puts Tylor and Fraser together, because they do have similar theories in many respects, but they’re actually quite different. So they just a get a chapter in and of themselves. And he rushes through the material, because he has to, at quite a pace (15:00). So the issues and the nuances can really get lost.

JC: They can, but undergraduates need to have this. And they can be introduced to the primary sources, but if they don’t have the foundation . . . . You’re not going to assign a first year undergraduate student to read two volumes of Primitive Culture!

PT: No!

JC: So you have to give them a kind-of basis. And that can generate their interest and go further. And they might go on to post-graduate work.

MAA: There are seminars where I have colleagues that assign Pals. But it’s because, at the introductory level, they may be coming in from other disciplines.

JC: That’s right.

MAA: So Graham, as you mentioned, you have a reader. And this is where I was actually introduced to your work, and others. So, like a stepping stone to many of these larger works, I think they certainly have their place. Within being a third year into a graduate school, I think it’s certainly time to start reading some of the major heavyweights that we’re talking about, certainly including Tylor.

GH: That’s interesting that we, in the book, most of us engage with primitive cultures and we go right back on that. But you went somewhere very different, somewhere that I’m not even sure that I knew that you’d written anything on it before!

All: (Laughter)

JJ: Well, indeed!

GH: And you’d been to London to hang out with spiritualists and so on, but the whole idea of going to Cuba and Mexico . . . . So is that book used by anthropologists?

  1. No. Most of my colleagues, when I told them about this chapter that I was writing, they were like: “He did what?!”

All: (Laughter)

JJ: “Are you talking about that Tylor??” “Yes, yes!”

GH: The father of armchair anthropology!

JC: I know; it’s all you hear!

JC: But it was not one – that (Pals) book – that was a reader. But we used it in a first year course many years ago. But it had little introductions, and in the introduction it mentioned that Tylor went to Mexico, and that he wasn’t just an armchair anthropologist. It was trying to give the students and idea that: he’s noted for that, he’s criticised for that, but he actually did do some field studies.

All: Absolutely, yes.

JJ: The Pals thing is interesting I think. Because one way of reading the Pals book, as opposed to An Introduction to – now Nine, I believe – Theorists of Religion– of course the title is now Theories of Religion, right? So what Pals does with these figures is uses them as paradigmatic examples of ideas. And that seems like a perfectly reasonable way to think about what to do with these classical texts: as just very good examples of – maybe a terrible thing – but, nonetheless, very good examples of the thing.

LS: I think you’re both absolutely correct. But because you’re introducing these ideas to students you can only package them in so many ways. And obviously, you cannot cover everything to the same degree. And actually, I think what was interesting is, that there’s actually . . . . Because Tylor seems to be one of these figures that people develop a periodic interest in that sometimes is not quite as sustained as figures such as Durkheim. And there’s not even, necessarily, always the scholarship to cover every kind of theorist that has had an input in the process. No, I certainly agree that you cannot . . . that you have to package these ideas in one way or another, and you’re always going to leave something out. So I don’t mean that as a critique of Pals, per se.

GH: There seems to be something different between the ways that Durkheim and others in Sociology, as kind-of the founding figures, are much more positively quoted. Whereas Tylor, my impression is, is usually set up as: “Ok, that was fine in the 19th-century, but we don’t do that anymore!”

LS: (Laughs)

PT: Yes. Absolutely.

GH: “He was stuck in his armchair” – and even if we know (differently), he didn’t do enough of it to allow us to be enthusiastic.

PT: I want to mention Anne Kalvig’s chapter at this point, because Anne’s chapter is all about the séances and Tylor’s interest in spiritualism

GH: Don’t tap the table!

PT: Indeed! Well if the chairs dance, what are we going to do?

All: (Laughter)

PT: And I think – like Miguel’s chapter – that it really contributes to . . . . All I remember, as an undergraduate student, was that Tylor didn’t do any fieldwork. Turns out he actually did quite a lot!

LS: Quite a lot, yes!

PT: And the posthumously published fieldwork notes about the séance that were published by Stocking – that Anne Kalvig works with – I thought they were really interesting. And there’s a very ambivalent Tylor there – about what’s taking place – that reveal quite a lot about his own relationships with mortality,(20:00) with his class, with his background as a Quaker, with what he wants to, I think, perhaps, believe about science and superstition – but at the same time being emotionally and intellectually challenged by being at these events.

GH: I think that’s like in Mexico. Things happened in the séances and things happen when he’s wandering about, he gets a taste for certain kinds of food and these experiences that he has. And he obviously wants to be more celebratory. And then, perhaps, retreats into this more distant version, for whatever reason, I mean.. So that’s the kind-of interesting “multiple Tylors” that we discover. And maybe there wasn’t one, even for him – that he’s a kind-of conflicted figure, being attracted to things that he then wants to dismiss as superstition, you know: “They must have been manipulating the table for this to happen!” So yes, a very interesting character.

MAA: So coming back to what gets assigned and why, these are very . . . . he’s obviously a genius, but like most people of that intellect, he’s very complicated. In Mexico, it would be great to have a photo of him in a sarape as he says he used to wear. I can just see him (Laughter- audio unclear) to the Mexican gods.

GH: There’s a quest there, in the archive, is to find such a picture!

MAA: So one of the things that happens, I think, in studies – and I think it’s a symptom just of academia – is having a knee-jerk reaction to who these people were : “This is what I learned in a seminar: Tylor was this – or this other academic – however great they were in their time. But I want nothing to do with them!” Without actually ever reading their work.

JJ: Well Freud would have a field day with that!

All: (Laughter)

JJ: I don’t know about the other classical thinkers but certainly one good reason to read the Victorian theorists is that nobody writes like that anymore!

LS: That’s true!

JJ: I don’t want to give the audience the impression that the two-volume, dusty Primitive Cultures – four inches of book – is a hard read, because it’s not. But it’s a cracking read! And this is true of so many Victorian theorists. I don’t know what happened, really. I don’t know why we started writing terribly, but it isn’t true of Tylor.

GH: There’s a wealth of examples that he brings together, and whether he does that in the strange cabinet of curiosities thing sometimes, not quite like The Golden Bough, but something of that flavour, with all these weird and wonderful things. And you think, some of it, he’s got this information, data that has been sent to him and he’s presenting it back to people to say, “Look. Humans do amazing things! What are we going to do with that?” So yes, very rich.

JJ: I’m going to be so bold – as the person who is not an anthropologist – to suggest that it is entirely Durkheim’s fault!

All: (Laughter)

JJ: So in scholarship we generally learn about thinkers from the debates that they get into, right? So we read Tylor and Durkheim at the same time. If we work on early Christianity, a lot of what we know about early Christian heresies are from orthodox people who write about them, and not from them themselves. And a similar thing has happened, I think, and has always happened in academic work. So, because we learn about and teach about figures via these debates, I think what you get, necessarily, are these polarised caricatures, which by necessity lack richness, depth and nuance. So I don’t know if there’s something in particular about our history, per se. I think it has something to do with our pedagogical tools, and our tools of the transmission of ideas. So, for whatever reason, this is how we transmit ideas: by pitting people against each other.

MAA: So within anthropology . . . . So, when I was an undergrad I never heard of any of these folks, or just very slightly. Going into graduate school at phase one at the MA level, one of the people who turned into one of my professors – not on my advisory or my supervisory committee – but when I told him I was interested in religion, the first thing that came out of his mouth was (25:00): “You must really love Durkheim!” And I was like, “Durkheim? Who’s Durkheim?”

All: (Laughter)

MAA: But then, it’s curious as to why Durkheim? He becomes like the champion of actually studying religion, where apparently Tylor is dealing with other things.

LS: That’s kind of understandable in the 20th century, I think. Because if you have a book that’s called The Elementary Forms of Religious Life and you have book called Primitive Culture, there’s, like, a political zeitgeist which means you might want to recommend one book and not the other, for purely optics reasons.

GH: There’s also the thing about the armchair in the early 20th century and mid-20th century – that the whole Oxford style is just put aside, demonised in that sense. So then, I don’t know, maybe it becomes impossible to find that other Tylor again out of old Stockings’ notes, there’s a few bits of a diary, or whatever it was. Somebody else has to represent it.

JJ: But Durkheim didn’t go to Australia!

All: Exactly! (Laughter)

LS: He focussed on one case study and drew all his conclusions about all of human religion from it!

PT: Brilliantly!

LS: Brilliantly – yes! I think we should not get into Durkheim bashing!

All: (Laughter)

GH: But does Sociology . . . . Do you have to do that? Can’t Sociology stay in the study?

JC: What I was trying to do in my paper was to underscore that Tylor, like many others, had certain criteria for determining the validity of a statement, you might say. So, in the issue of the question of whether humans were originally monotheistic, or whether they were at lower levels and developed higher a social evolutionary scale, what I tried to argue was that Tylor had already decided the answer to this, not on the basis of his empirical investigations – although he cited empirical investigations, as so did Lang, both did, and so did Wilhelm Schmidt. Wilhelm Schmidt was fantastic in his ethnographies – but he started from a position and he proved his position. So one way that I tried to look at these influential scholars is to try to help students see these fundamental starting points. And show how, therefore, the starting point produces the conclusion. And then examine how it would be possible to insert actual empirical evidence into this, in order to determine the value of their arguments. That’s one thing. But then, the other point I tried to make in the paper was that all of these things, all of these discussions – at least in the study of indigenous peoples – is about people who are just there as sort of laboratory agents and not really agents themselves. But they’re there to be studied to prove the theory with which I began. And what I’ve tried to do is to say, if we look at the some of the ways in which indigenous people have been depicted: as passive; as powerless; as incapable of thinking, or dreaming, or whatever; and they just do things because they’re caught in this horrible existence, and they have to solve their problems. But actually, to let them have the voice, or a voice, a prominent voice in how these questions are addressed and answered. And to my mind, if you go back to Tylor or any of these classical theorists, one can begin looking at ways which will impact on the ways we do our own studies. And that, to me, is an important way of using these scholars.

LS: A point that another contributor to the book, Martin Stringer, likes to point out is that it’s very easy to classify Tylor in certain respects because he was writing at was the very early stage in the generation of the social sciences. That he, in some ways, lacked the kind of language to actually discuss some of the things he wanted to get at (30:00). So one of the things that can get quite . . . . Actually reading the text, and then comparing that with the way Tylor was often interpreted, he was interpreted as someone who’s just talking about individuals, who are just kind of reflecting . . . . The term “savage philosopher” makes you think of an individual. If I actually recall the text accurately, I think he actually only uses this expression once or twice. I don’t think he uses it very often.

GH: That’s right.

LS: It’s quite an over-played term, because it’s the term to explain Tylor. But he actually only refers to it once or twice. I think something that really gets missed . . . . Martin likes to talk about the fact that Tylor was fascinated with language and with different groups – always remember that these were ethnological examples. So sometimes these things were far more social than they sometimes appeared. And to relate that to the kind of work that is going on in the cognitive sciences of religion now, we seem to be talking about “cognitive capacities”. This is where the psychic unity of mankind comes in. What are patterns of thought that are widely shared? But behind this is very much a social context. So there’s a brilliant quote where he talks about the fact that when people encounter dreams and visions, these are always in a very, very specific local form. If you’re a Catholic you’re encountering dreams of the Virgin Mary, and this is produced by your social context. So, for example, a 1st century Catholic – inasmuch as you can talk about Catholicism at the that time – is not encountering the kind of 16th century vision of the Madonna with all of the tiaras and the stylised – the stylised depiction of the Madonna has already become an important part – and that’s inherently social, what he’s talking about. If I may just expand on one point: in terms of his, he actually, at one point tried to explain the evolution of the concept of ideas. That’s a word that we take for granted: idea. But actually, we trace that to . . . I think it was Democritus, I think – one of the Pre-Socratic Greek philosophers. And he actually tried to explain this as a product of a sort of animistic culture, where what would be termed ideas were actually encountered as almost personalities. And he tried to locate this in the context of Greece itself.

JC: One thing that appears, at least, when we talk about Tylor’s projection theory, that of the inner individual – you have dreams, you see somebody die, breath goes out of them – it seems to imply that there is a spirit or a soul or that there’s a body and soul and so on. That seems to me, at least, that what appears lacking in this part of it, is the social context, the ritual context, in which these dreams or visions, or relationships with the dead or ancestors, is all, in a sense, socially validated, socially constructed. And then becomes lived out in ritual contexts. For example, the work that I’ve been doing on Australian Aboriginal religions and, in the 1930s what this man I’ve been looking at, TGH Draylaw, has discovered was that the ancestors who then went back into the ground after creating – and then come forth again in the rituals – are actually reincarnated in their ancestors. But these reincarnations in the ritual now become the original ancestor. But none of this, it seems to me, would make sense to . . . . It’s very difficult to make sense of anyway. But to make sense of it in strictly individualistic ways of thinking, it has to be understood in the whole way that this society’s constructed, and the relationships that people have amongst one another, and with other groups within that society. So it’s not directly related to your question, but it is sort of looking at this idea. If you say that Tylor was using a projection theory – that is, projecting out of the individual experience, to create this – it seems to me that, insofar as he did that, he overlooked and was deficient in the concept of the social construction of which these experiences occur. I’m not saying that these experiences don’t occur, but I’m saying that they can only be interpreted and, in a sense, made useful and meaningful in the social context.

PT: And I think that’s what Tylor shows us about the history of anthropology. (35:00) In the beginning Tylor and others are collecting instances of beliefs or practices of X kind, of Y kind and then plotting where they are in populations. And as people start to look at the kind of methodologies, the evolutionist methodologies, then you get that moment where ethnography starts to become, you know . . . . Perhaps following Boas in the United States – the idea that rather than collecting and arranging ethnographic data in that way, one should contextualise it, rather than see it as individual units that have that kind of distribution. But understand them as holistically interdependent with one another. In other words, ethnography fieldwork: going to a particular place, staying there for a sustained period of time during which one learns the language and understands how this data is all connected relationally. That’s partly what studying a figure does, isn’t it? It allows you to have access to the history of a discipline in a slightly different light, and seeing it unfold.

GH: We’ve actually come to end of the time allotted for this conversation. And that maybe actually a perfect point, that we’ve reached, to stop: this thought about why these classic figures remain important and what we pick up from them. So thank you all for joining me in the conversation.

All: Thank you. A pleasure.

LS: Thanks to our audience, as well, for participating!

All: (Laughter)

Citation Info: Harvey, Graham, Liam T. Sutherland, Paul-Francois Tremlett, Jonathon Jong, James L. Cox and Miguel Astor-Aguilera. 2018. “Tylor Roundtable”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 22 January 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 19 January 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/tylor-roundtable/

All transcriptions for THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

Nature alive: Amazonian religion in Peru

book cover ReganThe Amazon rainforest has always been a land filled with mystery since its ‘discovery’. Ranging from the first expedition of the conquistador Francisco de Orellana, to the establishment of Jesuit missions across the Marañon river, and the naturalistic explorations of Humboldt and la Condamine, it still feels as if it has more to be known.

This was also the case for the earliest ‘ethnographic’ records of Gaspar de Carvajal and Francisco de Figueroa . As was often the case with Spanish chroniclers, they ‘misunderstood’ the ‘indigenous’ way of thinking, in some cases even labeling them as atheists (Regan: 2015). In time, this would change, in part because of the continuing social interaction (between missionaries, laymen, other indigenous groups, and so on) but also in more recent times, because of the ethnographic research undertaken by many different anthropologists. This has enabled a more comprehensive knowledge about the beliefs and way of life of the Amazonian indigenous people. In this podcast, Dr Jaime Regan Mainville, a leading researcher in the anthropology of religion and linguistics, discusses his ethnographic research among some of the indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin; namely the kukama, the awajún, and the wampís, among others.

Regan argues that one particular characteristic of Amazonian  belief is highlighted above the rest: close links with the environment. Amazonian identity and belief systems are articulated into what Philippe Descola and other anthropologists have regarded as animism (Regan: 2015). Of course, these beliefs haven’t remained ‘untouched’ or ‘pure’, but have been particularly influenced by encounters with Jesuits and Franciscans during the sixteenth century. The interview continues to focus upon some of the impacts of this these encounters upon existing belief systems, practices and cosmologies (cf. Regan: 2001).

remate-libro-a-la-sombra-de-los-cerros-las-raices-513001-MPE20264898860_032015-F (1)In the final part of the interview Regan states that the indigenous way of life has drastically changed, because of the Peruvian state’s oil exploration policy s, combined with illegal mining and logging. For example, in the case of oil exploration, in June 2009 the “Baguazo” or Bagua conflict took place in part due to failed attempts at consultation and negotiation between with indigenous leaders of the Amazon region (mostly awajún and wampís) and the Peruvian state: Regan traces this to a conflict of worldviews (Regan: 2010).

Listeners might also be interested in our previous podcasts on Andean Religion in Peru, Vernacular Religion, and the category of “indigenous religion”. You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, stuffed animals, gobstoppers, and more..

References

Sámi Shamanism – Up Close and Personal

In his RSP interview, David Gordon Wilson tells us why he started studying spiritualism and shamanism, his relation to shamanism now, and general problems one may face while studying these subjects.

Like Dr. Wilson, I believe there are multiple ways of defining shamanism, a task that many have pursued and one that I am not willing to take up here. The term “shaman” will be mentioned; however, due to the space limits of this essay, I will not spend time on definition, nor will I explain why I have chosen one definition opposed to another. Instead I will focus on describing my personal experience with Sámi shamanism at an indigenous festival in the north of Norway with hopes that it will be of interest to the RSP audience.

The Sámi

The Sámi are an indigenous group in Norway, Sweden, Finland and north-western Russia. The history between the Sámi and the Norwegian government has left a stain on the Sámi for generations:

 The Norwegianization policy undertaken by the Norwegian government from the 1850s up until the Second World War resulted in the apparent loss of Sami language and assimilation of the coastal Sami as an ethnically-distinct people into the northern Norwegian population. Together with the rise of an ethno-political movement since the 1970s, however, Sami culture has seen a revitalization of language, cultural activities, and ethnic identity (Brattland 2010:31).

Personal Insight

I grew up in the north of Norway and was taught from a very young age to be cautious of certain objects in nature: specific stones, trees, and areas. For example, certain rituals had to be performed when we travelled past a big rock called “Stallo.” Some would bow their heads three times as they passed “Stallo,” while others laid down coins at his feet. I was told to greet the rock out loud as we passed by his side. My mother always reminded my brother and me of this, and told us why it was important for good luck and a safe journey. She spoke of the rock as if he was alive and had power to do both good and bad. If we didn’t greet him, he could get cross and we could get hurt. Or so she told us.

At the time, I had no idea that this was an old Sámi custom. It was not until I started studying religion at the university that I realised I have Sámi roots. I confronted my mother and she informed me that my grandparents had rejected the Sámi language and culture. The reason for this, she said, was that they were ashamed of their origins and, sadly, they were not the only ones.

Little Storm on the Coast

My story is far from unique in Norway. In fact there is even a festival in the north of Norway that was founded by people with similar stories. The festival is called “Riddu Riđđu” which means “little storm on the coast.” Riddu Riđđu was created by a group of youths who sought answers to why the elders in the community spoke a different language, a language they were not allowed to learn. In other words, the festival started as a rebellion against those who had refused the Sámi society. The festival program has a wide variety of music, cultural performances, and workshops held by indigenous people from Norway and other parts of the world.

Riddu Riddu in the Summer of 2010

Riddu Riddu in the Summer of 2010

Indigenous Performance at Riddu Riddu in 2013

Indigenous Performance at Riddu Riddu in 2013

My Thesis, My Journey

I had barely heard of the festival when I started my master’s degree in religion and society at the University of Oslo in 2009. I had heard that, from its beginning, Riddu Riddu has been important for the Sámi population as a meeting place as well as for people who have lost their connection to the Sámi and wish to learn. I had also heard that there were shamans at the festival, Sámi shamans and others from around the world. Naturally, having just learnt of my Sámi background, I was intrigued, and chose, therefore, Riddu Riddu as my main topic for my master’s thesis, focusing on Sámi religion and identity.

According to one of the founders of Riddu Riđđu, Lene Hansen, the festival is almost like a religious gathering – people meet both spiritually and socially, and experience ethnic bonding and communality[1]. I had my focus on shamanism and found that, like David Gordon Wilson, speaking to individuals was the best approach.

Sámi Shamanism

Dr. Graham Harvey tells us in Shamanism: A Reader (2003) that the word ”shaman” is being used within several languages today. However, he warns us that the use of the terms ”shaman” and ”shamanism” can generalise a number of people as there are numerous local words for shamans (Harvey 2003:1). For example a Sámi shaman can be known as a noaide.

I spoke to a man, let´s call him “Tor”, at Riddu Riddu who is Sámi and a shaman, but refused to be called a noaide. Tor explained that while the word ”shaman” means ”the one who knows,” the word noaide means ”the one who sees” (directly translated from Norwegian) and refers to the ritual expert in the old Sámi society. According to Tor, the noaide was the most feared and at the same time the most respected person in the old Sámi community. If one happened to be on the bad side of a noaide, he or she could put a curse(gaine) on you. On the other side, Tor told me that the noaide was the person one sought out in crisis, as he or she was the only one who had direct contact with the spirit world and therefore had healing powers.

Enjoy The Drumming

Tor invited me and a few others to participate in a drum journey inside a gamme (see picture below). At the time, we had just learned that a bomb had gone off in Oslo and there were several casualties. Tor suggested that it was a good time to do a drum journey and we all agreed.

A picture I took at Riddu Riđđu in 2013. The one on the right is a gamme. The others are lavvu (traditional Sámi tent).

A picture I took at Riddu Riđđu in 2013. The one on the right is a gamme. The others are lavvu (traditional Sámi tent).

Inside the lavvu, he built a fire and we were asked to lie down on the reindeer pelt. He started drumming in a slow rhythm and after a while he started joiking (traditional Sámi form of song). The experience was calming, in my opinion, and quite enjoyable. Mostly because I was able to focus on enjoying the moment right there and then. This, I was told later, was the shamans’ main purpose for that particular drum journey: to be truly present for a moment. After the drum journey I spoke briefly to Tor about shamanism. He emphasized that shamanism consists of getting in touch with one’s feelings, internal life, and soul. For me, this remark seems to be quite universal when it comes to speaking of shamanism, however I am not trying to compare what Tor told me to what other shamans believe. It is just an observation.

It has taken several years for the Sámi to turn their shame of being Sámi into proudness. I believe Riddu Riđđu has played a role in that turning point by offering a positive place for Sámi and other indigenous people from around the world to meet, compare and differentiate between them.

Like Dr. Wilson, I started with an outsiders’ perspective, but, as the years went by, I ended up as an insider. I find Riddu Riđđu to be a place to learn about shamanism, the Sámi and even about my self.

Myself in a Sámi dress, standing in front of a lavvu (traditional Sámi tent) at Riddu Riđđu in 2013.

Myself in a Sámi dress, standing in front of a lavvu (traditional Sámi tent) at Riddu Riđđu in 2013.

References

Brattland, Camilla 2010: Mapping Rights in Coastal Sami Seascapes, In: Arctic Review on Law and Politics, vol. 1, 1/2010 p. 28–53.

Harvey, Graham 2003: Shamanism: A Reader. New York: Routledge.

Henriksen, Marianne V.2011: “Å bli same”. En religionsvitenskapelig studie av Riddu Riddu Festivala i et rituelt perspektiv. MA thesis, the faculty of theology, University of Oslo. Reprosentralen. http://www.duo.uio.no/

Pedersen, Paul and Viken, Arvid 2009: ”Globalized Reinvention of Indigenuity. The Riddu Riddu Festival as a Tool for Ethnic Negotiation of Place,” In: Nyseth, Torill and Viken, Arild 2009: Place Reinvention: Northern Perspective. Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Limited.

 

[1] Founder of Riddu Riddu, Lene Hansen quoted in Perdersen and Viken 2009:193

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bruno Latour, Talking “Religiously”, part 2

This is the second part of our interview with Professor Bruno Latour, and if you haven’t already, you can listen to the first part here.

This time, Latour and David Robertson discuss Latour’s recent works We Have Never Been Modern and On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods. Discussion moves from his critique of the distinction between the manufactured and “real”, and how this affects our models of belief.

Conversation finally turns to his Gifford Lecture Series, presented this February in Edinburgh, with the title Facing Gaia: An Enquiry Into Natural Religion. While we are used to problematising the category religion, Latour argues that we should equally question the category of natural. Videos and abstracts of Bruno Latour’s complete Gifford Lecture series can be viewed on the University of Edinburgh’s page.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us, or use our Amazon.co.uk link to support us when buying your important books etc.

Bruno Latour is Professor at Sciences Po Paris and has also been Professor at the Centre de Sociologie de l’Innovation at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Mines in Paris and visiting Professor at University of California (San Diego), at the London School of Economics and Harvard University. After field studies in Africa and California he specialized in the analysis of scientists and engineers at work. In addition to work in philosophy, history, sociology and anthropology of science, he has collaborated on many studies in science policy and research management, producing significant works such as Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts and most recently Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory (Clarendon Lectures in Management Studies). He has also made a valuable contribution to the political philosophy of the environment with the book Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy, a theme which the Gifford Lectures continue.

The Last Best Hope of Earth? Bron Taylor and the Limits of Dark Green Religion

Bron Taylor, Professor of Religion and Nature at the University of Florida, and editor-in-chief of the Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature (2008), may be the best interpreter of environmentalism as a religious project working today.  His latest book, Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future (2010), argues that the constellation of spiritual and naturalistic worldviews which hold nature as sacred can be described as part of a new religious movement, one that might replace traditional religions and help save our planet from ecological disaster.

In the wide-ranging interview for the The Religious Studies Project, Taylor traces the history of the greening of religion, the growth of a naturalistic cosmology based on Darwinian science (that for many has replaced traditional religions like Christianity), the coalescence of a new form of religiosity Taylor dubs “dark green religion,” how conceptualizing this phenomena as religion can be analytically useful, how the narrow-mindedness of new atheists like Richard Dawkins can limit their analyses, and whether dark green religion will transform human culture and the future of life on earth.

In this response, I will focus on a few key points that Taylor makes in the interview, and then offer a brief reflection about his book Dark Green Religion.

In the interview, Taylor begins by critiquing the “greening of religion” hypothesis, which holds that (primarily Western) religions can respond effectively to the environmental crisis by becoming more environmentally-friendly [cf. Roger Gottlieb’s A Greener Faith: Religious Environmentalism and Our Planet’s Future (2006)].  For Taylor, it is not clear whether traditional religions like Christianity are actually turning green or whether they are just reflecting the society in which they are situated (as society is becoming more environmentally conscious).  Insufficient evidence exists to support the claim that religion is driving people to become better caretakers of the earth, he claims.  Despite the plethora of optimistic research about the greening of religion, I think Taylor is correct to sound this note of caution in interpreting earth-friendly religions like contemporary liberal Christianities.  Even after greening these religions, the tradition-bound, dominion-theology roots of our ecological crisis will remain.  Still, Taylor should provide a fuller explanation of why this is so.  However, pushing further, I wish Taylor would address the often-uncritical embrace of Eastern and indigenous religions as paragons of environmentalist ideas and practices.  Sometimes the portraits of non-Western religions painted by environmentalists are too rosy, belying complicated relationships with nature that remain underexplored.  For example, many of the dark green religion subjects Taylor discusses in his book do not think critically about the social and physical construction of wilderness, still assuming an idyllic natural state untouched by humans, one granting little to no agency to indigenous populations, as if native peoples leave no footprints.  Taylor could have complicated and improved his analysis by discussing this issue.

Next, tackling the perceived division between science and religion, Taylor discusses three major responses to Darwinian evolution in Western culture: rejecting evolution, grafting an evolutionary worldview onto a religious one (e.g. Catholicism, liberal religions), or embracing atheism and agnosticism.  However, for Taylor, even atheists and agnostics seek meaning and a moral sensibility, often finding them in nature, such as through the mythic meaning-providing aspects of the Darwinian evolutionary narrative.  Many who self-describe as “spiritual but not religious” may fit into this mold, in a more pagan or animistic vein, as might the scores of scientists who use religious rhetoric to describe their findings and experiences in nature.  Even an atheist like James Cameron, the director of Avatar, has deep environmental concerns and passions, such as kinship ethics, a theory of intrinsic value, an awareness of the interdependence of all life on earth, a humble sense of being one species amongst others (even noting cross-species continuities and animal consciousness), and an evolutionist, cosmological narrative of common origins.  Following E. O. Wilson, Taylor argues that kinship ethics, for example, is part of the emotional repertoire of human beings, that spiritualities of fellow-feeling are cross-culturally present across time.  Thus, as Taylor rightly shows, the supposed divide between religion and science—as well as between religion and irreligion—is messier than most commentators allow.

While Richard Dawkins and other so-called new atheists argue that religion is always poisonous, Taylor claims that their narrow view of what constitutes religion occludes from them phenomena that they support and about which they might agree.  Many atheist scholars use romantic language to describe their wonder at nature, for example.  Additionally, atheistic nature spirituality of the sort Taylor describes has wide cultural traction.  Dawkins should ratchet back his anti-religious rhetoric and read more religious studies literature, such as Taylor’s book, thus nuancing his view of religion.  If he did so, Dawkins might find that dark green religion describes his own naturalistic worldview (see Dark Green Religion: 158-160, 177-179).  New atheists should heed Taylor’s call for greater attention to the contested category of religion and to ways in which they may share central convictions with dark green religion.

In an optimistic mood, Taylor maintains that dark green religion is likely to become a global civil religion, especially as we better understand ecological science and our contemporary environmental predicaments.  Dark green religion may not replace traditional religions ultimately, but it could be the small piece upon which we can all agree.  While it is admittedly difficult to predict the future, Taylor claims that we could be in a gestalt period, a world-transformative moment in our religious and cultural life, one in which the fate of our planet hangs in the balance.  For Taylor, it is reasonable to speculate that religions which originated thousands of years ago will be less prevalent thousands of years into the future, and that dark green religion characteristics will be more prevalent than today’s traditional religions.  Although I am not inclined to indulge Taylor’s crystal ball-gazing, it is clear that he describes a major shift in ecological consciousness and spiritual belonging in his latest book, to which I now turn.

Taylor’s extremely well-read survey of contemporary environmentalist nature religiosity, Dark Green Religion, employs literary, ethnographic, and material cultural accounts to chart a global spiritual movement that seeks to protect the earth and reshape humanity’s role in it.  Chapters in the book define what he terms “dark green religion,” portray its historical tributaries and luminaries, analyze radical environmentalist and surfing spiritualities, examine the globalization of dark green religion through documentaries and the arts and sciences, and explore the role of global institutions such as UNESCO and global sustainability summits as they promote dark green religion.  Traits of dark green religion include an awareness of ecological interdependence, spiritualities of connection and belonging, kinship ethics, a sense of the intrinsic value of all life, contact with nature, and an evolutionist cosmogony (83, 149-151).  Throughout the book, Taylor acknowledges the hybridity and bricolage of dark green religion and its various sources and manifestations, noting that pinning it down to any particular creed, person, or institution would over-simplify a complex phenomenon.  Even in defining dark green religion, Taylor is careful to preserve such flexibility as it suits his interpretive purposes (101, 125).  Wary of using other terms that might carry unintended baggage, such as pantheism, deep ecology, or even nature religion [of the sort described by Catherine Albanese in Nature Religion: From the Algonkian Indians to the New Age (1990)], Taylor acknowledges that his new interpretive category may have limited utility beyond the scope of his book’s arguments (223-224).  In the end, he finds dark green religion to be a global, civic earth religion capable of replacing all other religions and perhaps thereby saving the planet.

One of the strengths of this book is Taylor’s eclecticism, as he draws from many and varied sources to make his argument, pulling quotes from nature writers, magazine ads, nature documentaries, and environmental legislation, for example.  He successfully brings these strands together into a cohesive whole, providing strong evidence for dark green religion’s existence.  He also adroitly explores how naturalistic accounts of the universe can be religious, in a way that moves beyond the claim that science is like religion since it is a totalizing worldview.  As a hybridizing and dynamic religious worldview, dark green religion is evolving and sprouting new forms, a fact that Taylor suggests will help it grow and flourish (185, 189).

Taylor labels dark green religion as “dark” because he wants to show its depth as well as its shadow side, such as elitism and radicalism (e.g. eco-terrorism).  However, he ultimately dismisses the dark side as a fringe that does not represent the mainstream of dark green religion.  This dismissal is unfortunate because it undermines the complexity that Taylor seeks to show, that this religion also has a significant dark side which has resulted in bodily injuries, damaged property, and loss of income.  Moreover, even within environmentalist kinship ethics, troubling choices have to be made, such as those that pit one community’s needs against another’s.  Dark green religion is not a panacea for the world’s problems or for resolving human conflicts.

In its bricolage, dark green religion takes from indigenous spiritualities across the globe and blends them with Western spiritual, cultural, and political ideals.  Taylor fairly represents the appropriation issues at stake, and he also highlights the viewpoints of indigenous peoples in global environmental summits, showing how race and religion become hot buttons within dark green religion.  However, there are also a few places where Taylor and his dark green religion subjects seem to compare apes to indigenous peoples, searching to find our most primitive and commonest characteristics while also raising the status of nonhumans (e.g. 30).  In an evolutionary perspective, comparing people to apes is not necessarily a bad thing, but when only indigenous peoples are compared to apes, then it begins to sound prejudiced.  I would like to hear Taylor’s response to this kind of under-the-surface bias.

The end of the book veers into advocacy of environmentalism and even dark green religion itself, as Taylor claims it can help preserve our planet and our species.  In this vein, he criticizes Christianity and other religions as unable to correct their anthropocentrism; he sees no hope in the greening of religion, instead encouraging readers to embrace the dark green religion he describes (178, 197, 206-207, 218, 221-222, 286).  However, in the book, Taylor needs to provide more evidence as to why other religious worldviews will necessarily fail us, and to engage more fully with Eastern and indigenous religions.  And some readers may question Taylor’s switch from description and analysis to advocacy.

Despite the few quibbles I present here, I admire Taylor’s work greatly.  Although there are many scholars examining nature and religion, few do so as thoroughly and thoughtfully as he does, and no one has presented as convincing a case for a global new religious movement based on environmentalist beliefs and practices.

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

Dusty Hoesly is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, specializing in Religions of North America.  His research focuses on religion and irreligion in the U.S. Pacific Northwest, specifically the values held by people who self-describe as not religious, how those values developed, how they translate into social or political action, and how irreligious people interpret experiences that stand apart from ordinary life.  Incorporating fieldwork, surveys, and historical and material culture research, this project will help explain the growth of religious “nones” in the U.S. and reexamine the categories of sacred and secular in contemporary society.  Other research interests include religion in the American West, comparative secularisms, liberal evangelicalism, and religion and politics.

Bibliography

Albanese, Catherine L. Nature Religion: From the Algonkian Indians to the New Age. Chicago:University of Chicago Press, 1990.

Gottlieb, Roger S. A Greener Faith: Religious Environmentalism and Our Planet’s Future. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Taylor, Bron. Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010.

An Evaluation of Harvey’s Approach to Animism and the Tylorian Legacy

An Evaluation of Harvey’s Approach to Animism and the Tylorian Legacy

By Liam Sutherland, University of Edinburgh

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 17 February 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Graham Harvey on Animism (13 February 2012).

The interview with Graham Harvey on Animism was of particular interest to me because my Masters thesis concerns the theoretical relevance of the work of E.B Tylor, credited with introducing the concept of Animism to scholarship. Harvey related Animism back to the work of Tylor but when offered a definition of Animism by the interviewer (David Robertson), as “the attribution of a soul of some kind to non-human beings” Harvey contrasted this and more traditional Tylorian approaches to Animism with more recent discussions of Animism based around personhood.

He characterised the understanding of Animism in Tylor’s 1871 work Primitive Culture as ‘belief in souls and spirits’, and as the application of something human like to non-human phenomena: this is a fair description of Tylor’s Animism. Harvey also correctly emphasised the fact that for Tylor, Animism is characteristic of all religions generally, it is the core of religion; his theory is applicable by design to all religions, to Indigenous Peoples and High Anglicans. Harvey displayed a rich and refreshing appreciation for Tylor’s work with a nuanced understanding of his theories, the historical context in which he wrote and a deep knowledge of Primitive Culture (an often misunderstood text which is rarely read carefully).

I commend Harvey for more fully grounding the theory of Animism in the performance of ritual, on behaviour and for showing Animism to be a set of values and not just a cosmology, without ignoring the latter. However, it must be stressed that while rituals can be prescribed as obligatory without heed to the intent or belief of the practitioner, such rituals do have a clear connection to the belief system because certain inanimate objects are persons and thus they must be treated accordingly. The conceptions of a culture must be understood in order to account for behaviour: in short, believers really believe in their beliefs and it affects the mental world in which they move

I find the dichotomy he drew between the old and the new approaches to Animism a little stark. It must not be thought that Tylor’s understanding of Animism was of abstract, purely metaphysical spirits; Tylor argued forcefully that spirits are often considered to be ethereal, material beings. Though he did not emphasise personhood nearly as strongly as Harvey, he argued that the extension of Animism (the doctrine of the soul) to natural phenomena in which they are considered to be firmly embodied: animals, plants and objects, is based on personalisation. Furthermore the earliest rituals of religion are theorised to have been based on the notion that spirits, including those embodied in natural phenomena, can be related to as though they were present persons; it is only later that religious rituals became more formulaic mysteries. Other than perhaps Hallowell, it is not clear which authors make up the new approaches to Animism; at times Harvey seems to quite intelligibly and astutely describe the views of Indigenous Animists themselves, which hardly represents a ‘new Animism.’

He is correct to emphasise the non-systematic nature of much human thought – a perennial difficulty for ethnographers. I would, however, question Harvey’s implied dichotomisation of ‘western’ and ‘non-western’ thought, particularly his assumption that other cultures do not have ‘grand narratives’ while westerners are clinical, rigid and doctrinal in their view of the world. Arguably even an assumption “that life is pervasive” or a differentiation between persons and inanimate objects entailing a host of obligations is a somewhat systematic ‘grand narrative.’ The differences between cultures should not be overemphasised when the difference between life and death, say, may involve different rituals and beliefs but is never an absent or radically different distinction. Nor are most people in the west concerned with clinical dichotomies anymore than Ojibwa and Amazonian tribespeople; only in some situations and sometimes only for some specialists do strict definitions of categories matter. People largely think and act pragmatically, but for some people and in some situations systematic thought is required.  As Martin Stringer showed in his Contemporary Western Ethnography and the Definition of Religion, many ‘nominal’ Christians who also believe in science and astrology do not reflect on their beliefs (especially those that may be contradictory) much outside of the situations where they are contextually significant. They hold ‘situational beliefs’.

Similarly, Harvey laudably reinforced the fact that Animists inhabit basically the same cognitive world as materialists, that animals and inanimate objects are largely treated the same by both – a stone is mostly a stone. It is only certain stones on certain occasions which are treated as animate, possessing personhood and entailing obligations of respect.

One of the most important and novel contributions Harvey has made to the theory of Animism is his insistence that Animism is neither, as Tylor argued, innate nor an inevitable assumption made by the earliest humans, but is always taught. Animism or Animisms are systems of belief which entail and are cemented by ritual. The status of certain objects as other than human persons is underscored by being shown respect by the same ritual gestures as a human being. How certain objects are recognised as persons or when they need to be shown respect has to be taught, often to particular religious specialists such as Shamans or Medicine Men.

Surprisingly given this, Harvey also does link religious Animism, albeit tentatively, with the ingrained human tendency to treat animals and objects as personal even in non-Animistic cultures, to name ships and shout at slow computers to go faster etc. These two were linked by Tylor and more recently Stewart Guthrie in his Faces in the Clouds, who argued that religious conceptions are based on the evolutionary cognitive reflex to ‘bet’ that an ambiguous object is animate or even to anthropomorphise to avoid predators. Nonetheless, Harvey’s approach does not imply that religious Animism is determined by some mental category mistake, and is arguably more in line with the modus operandi of Religious Studies; methodological agnosticism to the beliefs of the people under study. The tendency to anthropomorphise is simply a means of appreciating Animist conceptions.

It could be objected that the focus on the relationship between persons in religion or even in Indigenous Religions is too narrow and that forces, qualities, laws and realms are also an important part of the collective worldview which may affect and prescribe certain actions. Nonetheless, this is not especially important because relationships with personal beings characterises much of the bread and butter of religious life, and theories which downplay this risk being unwieldy and aloof. One of the great hurdles in attempting to critically theorise religion and to move away from Abrahmocentric conceptions, is to understand that many of the beings which are the subject of religious rituals are not necessarily conceived of as much greater in power or status than human beings. Ancestor or larger Nature Spirits may be conceived of as primus inter pares in relation to their worshippers but may not necessarily represent the ‘summum bonum’ or highest good or value for a culture to which all other things are subordinate: instead this may which may well be something like respect. Religious communities are in many contexts well characterised as a community of persons – only some of whom are human – bound in reciprocal respectful relations.

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

I am a Religious Studies Postgraduate student at Edinburgh University undertaking a Masters by Research, my topic is the relevance of E.B Tylor for the contemporary theory of religion, defining religion and modern scholars with a ‘Neo-Tylorian’ influence or affinity. I am a native of Edinburgh where I also completed my undergraduate degree  in 2009, producing a dissertation on contemporary Indigenous Australian spirituality and the politics of land rights. Though I began in Politics, and took many Politics and school of Social Science courses, I quickly fell in love with Religious Studies! I enjoy Alternative Rock, Metal and other peculiar forms of music, sci-fi and fantasy literature, real ale and ranting. I hope to pursue an academic career as opposed to the bank for whom I currently work part-time (doing nothing evil!).

References

Guthrie, S. Faces in the Clouds (1995) OUP: Oxford

Harvey, G. Animism: Respecting the Living World (2005) Hurst & Co: London

Platvoet, J. “To Define or Not To Define” in Platvoet, J.G and Molendijk, A.L The Pragmatics of Defining Religion: Contexts, Concepts and Contests (1999) Leiden: Brill

Stringer, M. Contemporary Western Ethnography and the Definition of Religion (2008) Continuum: London

Tylor, E.B Primitive Culture (1871) London: John Murray

 

Animism

Graham Harvey photo

Animism is often taken as referring to worldviews in which spirits are to be found not only in humans, but potentially in animals, in plants, in mountains and even natural forces like the wind. It was of central importance in early anthropological conceptions of religion, most notably in the work of E. B. Tylor. More recently, however, Graham Harvey has challenged the traditional conception of animism, seeking to understand it as “relational epistemologies and ontologies”; in other words, it is a way of living in a community of persons, most of whom are other-than-human.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes.

Dr Graham Harvey has been Reader in Religious Studies at the Open University since 1993, and is also the President Elect of our sponsors, the British Association for the Study of Religions. Other than Animism, his work has covered a wide range of subjects, from Judaism, Paganism, Indigenous Religions and Shamanism.

His most important publication on animism is his 2005 book Animism: Respecting the Living World. It is supported by www.animism.org.uk, which features essays, articles and interviews which expand on the material in this podcast.

His paper, ‘Animals, Animists and Academics’, from Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 41.1 (2006), is available to download here, if you have University access.

If not, (or, indeed, as well,) “Animism rather than Shamanism”, from Spirit Possession and Trance : New Interdisciplinary Perspectives (edited by Bettina Schmidt and Lucy Huskinson, Continuum 2010) is available here.

Podcasts

The Legacy of Edward Tylor – Roundtable

Edward Burnett Tylor (1832-1917) in many respects has a fixed place in the academic memory of religious studies and cultural anthropology yet acknowledgement of his role is often purely historical, as a key ancestor of little direct relevance to contemporary discussions. This has left us with a limited narrative about the man and his work; a particular received or canonical Tylor defined by his introduction of the concept of animism, his intellectualist approach to religion, his armchair research and staunch social evolutionism. The year of his centenary is an opportunity to begin the task of critically examining the legacy left by Tylor’s work on religion and culture, how much the received Tylor matches his body of work, whether other Tylors can be extracted from these texts which undermine such a limited perspective on a long and eventful career and whether contemporary scholars can find anything of ongoing relevance in the work of such a historically distant figure.

This roundtable recorded at the annual BASR conference at the University of Chester 2017 brought together a group of scholars interested in different perspectives on the legacy of Tylor. Topics discussed included his impact on indigenous societies, the debates over animism, monotheism and the definition of religion as well as his relevance to the cognitive sciences of religion and the degree to which Tylor can be classed as an ethnographer and more. This roundtable includes contributions from Dr Miguel Astor-Aguilera of Arizona State University, Dr Jonathan Jong of Coventry University’s Brain, Belief, and Behaviour Lab, James L. Cox Professor Emeritus at the University of Edinburgh, Liam T. Sutherland – PhD Candidate at the University of Edinburgh, Professor Graham Harvey and Dr Paul Tremlett at the Open University and the much appreciated audience!

The centenary of Tylor’s death was also the theme for a new volume edited by Tremlett, Sutherland and Harvey ‘Edward Tylor, Religion and Culture’ published with Bloomsbury which features contributions from all of the roundtable participants (apart from the audience) and several other scholars, which was launched at the conference.

*This week’s podcast is sponsored in part by, Cen SAMM. Through their collaboration with INFORM, they’ve created a searchable database of millenarian movements available online.*

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, comic books, tiny dinosaur figurines, and more.

A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

Podcast with Graham Harvey, Liam T. Sutherland, Paul-Francois Tremlett, Jonathon Jong, James L. Cox and Miguel Astor-Aguilera (22 January 2018).

Chaired by Graham Harvey

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Tylor_Roundtable_1.1.

Graham Harvey (GH): So this is the Roundtable for our discussion of Edward Tylor for the anniversary of his death, 100 year commemoration. And including myself, we have contributors to this book: Edward Tylor: Religion and Culture. Paul, you had a suggestion for what we should do first?

Paul-Francois Tremlett (PT): I did. My suggestion, as a point of departure, was thinking about this Tylor project as part of a wider question about our relationship to classical theory. And I just thought that might be a nice place to begin. What do we do with early scholarship in Anthropology of Religion/Sociology/Religious Studies, etc? And what’s our relationship to it?

GH: OK, would you like to show us how that’s done?

PT: Well, I don’t think it’s a question of showing you how it’s done. But for me anyway, being involved in this project made me read Tylor in a different way. I’d been used to particular kind of accounts of Tylor’s work in secondary literature. I’d been used to allowing those works to direct me to Primitive Culture and a couple of other things that Tylor wrote. And my Tylor, as it were, was framed by that secondary literature. For this project I read Primitive Culture, two volumes, and a couple of other books- the book Anthropology, a few articles. And I started to get a sense that there were other Tylors, apart from the sort of canonical account. And I found it a really refreshing process. At the same time as doing that, I was actually involved in a slightly different project which meant that I was also reading The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, by Emile Durkheim. And I was reading that – also from cover to cover – and a few other things by Durkheim. And I started to get a very different picture of the kinds of conversations taking place between scholars at the end of the 19th, early 20th century. And it changed my relationship with that theory, and I think I got a hell of a lot out of it, frankly. And I’d thoroughly recommend it to others: read that material. Yes, of course you need the secondary literature – it’s there for a reason and it’s helpful – but at the same time you also need to de-familiarise yourself, and go through the texts as freshly as possible.

GH: It was also interesting, as well as doing some of that re-reading – I wouldn’t say I’ve read both the volumes and all the other work – but reading more of Tylor, but also reading other people’s work as we were editing the book. And being pointed to other parts to look up, and thinking, “OK, so that enriches my understanding of what he was trying to do, and the data he was using and the way he used it.” But also, it’s been interesting . . . A lot of the chapters in the book do this comparative thing – as Jim’s does, and as mine does and other people’s do – to think about Tylor’s practice and his argument alongside other peoples, and to see that. So that, too, was quite an interesting experience: seeing selective reading, sometimes, by other people and thinking how our theories and work arises out of these interesting conversations.

Liam Sutherland (LS): Well, I mean, I came at this very much from a different stage in my career, because I looked at the relationship between modern theory and EB Tylor for my Master’s project. So this really came out from my undergraduate exposure to Theory and Method, which was one of the elements I found the most interesting. But I was quite fascinated with the bits of Tylor that had been presented. But it was very much – as Paul has touched on – in a very kind of codified, boxed in way. But I thought there was a lot of explanatory potential there, so I wanted to go back and pursue this at a deeper level with my Master’s. And I think it was when I actually, really had to get to grips with this, with the primary sources, with the two volumes of Primitive Culture, (5:00) that it really became apparent to me, sort-of really just how much can be lost without necessarily being wrong. It’s not – as we touch on in the book – it’s not necessarily the case that the canonical Tylor, as we’ve called it, is completely, is an inaccurate depiction; it’s a limited one, and perhaps a necessarily limited one. But it’s the fact that when you go and read the primary sources in context, it’s quite a different experience. And sometimes the kind of voice, the nuances, and the humanity of some of the early scholars that you look at can really get lost; that they’re actually far more persuasive, especially in their own context, than we actually give credit for. So, as much as my particular focus has been Tylor, I hope that I’ve at least internalised these lessons. So that with other key theorists that I’m only dimly aware of, or that I’m only aware of the canonical version of, that I might already begin to suspect that there’s more to the picture that I’m missing, and at least try to look for that in future.

Jonathan Jong (JJ): So Liam, you discovered Tylor during your undergraduate studies,

LS: Yes.

JJ: . . .which is to say that your lecturers put him on the reading list, right?

LS: Yes, that’s true.

JJ: And for that reason, I think, it’s kind of surprising that we are surprised that we get a lot out of reading Tylor. Because we must have known this at some level, assuming- I don’t do this kind of work – but, like, the rest of you around this table presumably assign Tylor. So why do you do that?

GH: No, I haven’t.

Miguel Astor-Aguilera (MAA): I assign him, but it’s in the same manor that it was when I was in graduate school in seminars: little snippets. Nobody assigned a complete work of Tylor, Malinowski or Evans-Pritchard, or Frazer. Oftentimes they wind up in readers where: “This is what they meant, so that’s what you get.” So this is one of the fantastic things about not only being in the volume, but it’s also, as you mentioned, going in and actually reading exactly what he said, which makes a world of difference.

JJ: But what motivates people who design syllabi to put the classical – even if snippets of the classical texts – what motivates people who construct theses syllabi to put them there in the first place? Is it for historical interest? Do scholars like yourselves think that there is something of value for today? How does it come about that these people appear in our textbooks? I ask this question because, in the Sciences, this doesn’t really happen. We don’t assign Darwin’s Origin, really, any more, in biology classes, right? We don’t really assign Freud in Psychology classes.

MAA: The question would be: Why not?

JJ: Indeed. But if the question is, what is it that we get out of it, I think it is precisely as you say: why, and why not? Pros and cons of putting in, or omitting the venerable texts of our intellectual traditions in the syllabi. I don’t think we should take it for granted that all the things of the past should be jettisoned in a sort of . . . . Like, Dan Dennet likes to say that he’s never read any philosophy within 60 years prior, or something like that. But that’s ridiculous, right? But just because those two positions are ridiculous it doesn’t mean that we don’t need reasons for there to be no position.

GH: One of the answers to your question, I think, is Liam’s phrase, “the canonical Tylor”. There are a number of canonical figures who are set as readings. So there has been . . . . I don’t know if people are still producing readers, maybe they are – I’ve produced a couple – in which we select short extracts from canonical texts – very rarely saying, I think, that the issues that they engaged with, or the methods that they practised are still current, or should generate more work. However, some of them do do that, very clearly, and I think we’ve demonstrated that very well. Tylor and others do, clearly, have the potential to generate new questions, or to bring us back to the nub of the question we are asking now. So, in my case: what does animism mean? In James’ case, what does monotheism mean? How do they define it? How do they – putatively – among whom you research, what do they think those terms mean?

James L. Cox (JC): Well I think, part of the approach has been, for example, in Eric Sharpe’s classic Comparative Religion: A History, is to provide a kind of basis and understanding of what’s gone before. Sot that the students don’t think that we’re just inventing things as they come along, and: “Aha! Here’s a new idea!” Because many of the new ideas are old ideas (10:00). And they’ve been reworked, and thought through, and so on. And so I think that students need a background, but of course they can make the mistake of – which we sometimes make – just simply critiquing them in the light of a hundred-and-some years later, and applying theories and methods, and ignoring everything that’s come in between. But I do think it’s important to study the classical and important figures in the history. Another thing that I’ve done has been to use these figures, because my area of development has been the phenomenology of religion. And many of the key phenomenologists of religion, writing in the early to mid-20th century, bounced themselves off (early ethnographers), particularly criticising them for their assumptions about evolutionary ideas about development, advancement according to almost an application of Darwinian theory in social contexts. And part of the theory there was to say: “Well, unless we’re aware of these presuppositions that influence the way we think, we won’t be able to critique our own ways of thinking.” And so, just one other thing, and that is – I have most recently been doing work on Australia – the practical effect of these writers. For example, the theories of Baldwin Spencer and his colleague Frank Gillen, about the aboriginal peoples of Australia being the lowest form of human development. And there’s a very famous quote that I use: “Just like the platypus has gone and faded away, so will these people inevitably be taken over by the more advanced civilisations.” And if one thinks about the social consequences of this idea, it could be argued, and has been argued that this way of thinking led to justification for genocide. Because aboriginal peoples are going to be made extinct anyway, naturally: “so we can take over”. And it could be said that these theories are not just in the air – just up in the air – but they actually have social consequences. So these are the three things I would say: they need a foundation; we need to be able to critique them according to other theories; and we need to know the social consequences of our thinking.

PT: That’s interesting. I mean, the way I encountered Tylor as an undergraduate was in a class about definitions. So you had the substantive Tylorian definition, the functional Durkheimian definition, and the pinnacle, at that point, was Clifford Geertz. And maybe we read Talal Asad alongside that, if we had a particularly brave tutor!

All: (Laughter)

JC: Which you probably, usually didn’t! (Laughter)

PT: So, that’s the kind of way in which Tylor would appear in undergraduate curricula. I was thinking of readers. The last anthropology of religion reader I recall is Lambek’s: Michael Lambek. And I think Tylor’s in there. And I think, again, it’s around this definition of religion as belief in spiritual beings – as we all know. And that’s part of the history, the conversation – Eric Sharpe’s is a good example; Brian Morris’ anthropology . . . .

JC: Fiona Bowie

PT: Exactly. And Tylor’s in all of them one way or another.

LS: But that’s exactly how I encountered it first. It was in a class talking about the definition of religion and I . . . because sometimes you’re just given a slight quote. And obviously, students can’t be interested in every quote that they’re fed. The thing is that sometimes you’re only given a little piece and then you’re not given the materials to read them on your own. You might not be given a chapter to read or anything like that. In my case, though, it really sparked my curiosity, because I wanted to know a bit more about what this actually meant. And when we went on to explore theories, for example, in greater detail, I found that James Fraser . . . . One of the texts we were using was Daniel Pals’ Eight Theories of Religion, and I think it’s a very, very good introduction, actually. But he puts Tylor and Fraser together, because they do have similar theories in many respects, but they’re actually quite different. So they just a get a chapter in and of themselves. And he rushes through the material, because he has to, at quite a pace (15:00). So the issues and the nuances can really get lost.

JC: They can, but undergraduates need to have this. And they can be introduced to the primary sources, but if they don’t have the foundation . . . . You’re not going to assign a first year undergraduate student to read two volumes of Primitive Culture!

PT: No!

JC: So you have to give them a kind-of basis. And that can generate their interest and go further. And they might go on to post-graduate work.

MAA: There are seminars where I have colleagues that assign Pals. But it’s because, at the introductory level, they may be coming in from other disciplines.

JC: That’s right.

MAA: So Graham, as you mentioned, you have a reader. And this is where I was actually introduced to your work, and others. So, like a stepping stone to many of these larger works, I think they certainly have their place. Within being a third year into a graduate school, I think it’s certainly time to start reading some of the major heavyweights that we’re talking about, certainly including Tylor.

GH: That’s interesting that we, in the book, most of us engage with primitive cultures and we go right back on that. But you went somewhere very different, somewhere that I’m not even sure that I knew that you’d written anything on it before!

All: (Laughter)

JJ: Well, indeed!

GH: And you’d been to London to hang out with spiritualists and so on, but the whole idea of going to Cuba and Mexico . . . . So is that book used by anthropologists?

  1. No. Most of my colleagues, when I told them about this chapter that I was writing, they were like: “He did what?!”

All: (Laughter)

JJ: “Are you talking about that Tylor??” “Yes, yes!”

GH: The father of armchair anthropology!

JC: I know; it’s all you hear!

JC: But it was not one – that (Pals) book – that was a reader. But we used it in a first year course many years ago. But it had little introductions, and in the introduction it mentioned that Tylor went to Mexico, and that he wasn’t just an armchair anthropologist. It was trying to give the students and idea that: he’s noted for that, he’s criticised for that, but he actually did do some field studies.

All: Absolutely, yes.

JJ: The Pals thing is interesting I think. Because one way of reading the Pals book, as opposed to An Introduction to – now Nine, I believe – Theorists of Religion– of course the title is now Theories of Religion, right? So what Pals does with these figures is uses them as paradigmatic examples of ideas. And that seems like a perfectly reasonable way to think about what to do with these classical texts: as just very good examples of – maybe a terrible thing – but, nonetheless, very good examples of the thing.

LS: I think you’re both absolutely correct. But because you’re introducing these ideas to students you can only package them in so many ways. And obviously, you cannot cover everything to the same degree. And actually, I think what was interesting is, that there’s actually . . . . Because Tylor seems to be one of these figures that people develop a periodic interest in that sometimes is not quite as sustained as figures such as Durkheim. And there’s not even, necessarily, always the scholarship to cover every kind of theorist that has had an input in the process. No, I certainly agree that you cannot . . . that you have to package these ideas in one way or another, and you’re always going to leave something out. So I don’t mean that as a critique of Pals, per se.

GH: There seems to be something different between the ways that Durkheim and others in Sociology, as kind-of the founding figures, are much more positively quoted. Whereas Tylor, my impression is, is usually set up as: “Ok, that was fine in the 19th-century, but we don’t do that anymore!”

LS: (Laughs)

PT: Yes. Absolutely.

GH: “He was stuck in his armchair” – and even if we know (differently), he didn’t do enough of it to allow us to be enthusiastic.

PT: I want to mention Anne Kalvig’s chapter at this point, because Anne’s chapter is all about the séances and Tylor’s interest in spiritualism

GH: Don’t tap the table!

PT: Indeed! Well if the chairs dance, what are we going to do?

All: (Laughter)

PT: And I think – like Miguel’s chapter – that it really contributes to . . . . All I remember, as an undergraduate student, was that Tylor didn’t do any fieldwork. Turns out he actually did quite a lot!

LS: Quite a lot, yes!

PT: And the posthumously published fieldwork notes about the séance that were published by Stocking – that Anne Kalvig works with – I thought they were really interesting. And there’s a very ambivalent Tylor there – about what’s taking place – that reveal quite a lot about his own relationships with mortality,(20:00) with his class, with his background as a Quaker, with what he wants to, I think, perhaps, believe about science and superstition – but at the same time being emotionally and intellectually challenged by being at these events.

GH: I think that’s like in Mexico. Things happened in the séances and things happen when he’s wandering about, he gets a taste for certain kinds of food and these experiences that he has. And he obviously wants to be more celebratory. And then, perhaps, retreats into this more distant version, for whatever reason, I mean.. So that’s the kind-of interesting “multiple Tylors” that we discover. And maybe there wasn’t one, even for him – that he’s a kind-of conflicted figure, being attracted to things that he then wants to dismiss as superstition, you know: “They must have been manipulating the table for this to happen!” So yes, a very interesting character.

MAA: So coming back to what gets assigned and why, these are very . . . . he’s obviously a genius, but like most people of that intellect, he’s very complicated. In Mexico, it would be great to have a photo of him in a sarape as he says he used to wear. I can just see him (Laughter- audio unclear) to the Mexican gods.

GH: There’s a quest there, in the archive, is to find such a picture!

MAA: So one of the things that happens, I think, in studies – and I think it’s a symptom just of academia – is having a knee-jerk reaction to who these people were : “This is what I learned in a seminar: Tylor was this – or this other academic – however great they were in their time. But I want nothing to do with them!” Without actually ever reading their work.

JJ: Well Freud would have a field day with that!

All: (Laughter)

JJ: I don’t know about the other classical thinkers but certainly one good reason to read the Victorian theorists is that nobody writes like that anymore!

LS: That’s true!

JJ: I don’t want to give the audience the impression that the two-volume, dusty Primitive Cultures – four inches of book – is a hard read, because it’s not. But it’s a cracking read! And this is true of so many Victorian theorists. I don’t know what happened, really. I don’t know why we started writing terribly, but it isn’t true of Tylor.

GH: There’s a wealth of examples that he brings together, and whether he does that in the strange cabinet of curiosities thing sometimes, not quite like The Golden Bough, but something of that flavour, with all these weird and wonderful things. And you think, some of it, he’s got this information, data that has been sent to him and he’s presenting it back to people to say, “Look. Humans do amazing things! What are we going to do with that?” So yes, very rich.

JJ: I’m going to be so bold – as the person who is not an anthropologist – to suggest that it is entirely Durkheim’s fault!

All: (Laughter)

JJ: So in scholarship we generally learn about thinkers from the debates that they get into, right? So we read Tylor and Durkheim at the same time. If we work on early Christianity, a lot of what we know about early Christian heresies are from orthodox people who write about them, and not from them themselves. And a similar thing has happened, I think, and has always happened in academic work. So, because we learn about and teach about figures via these debates, I think what you get, necessarily, are these polarised caricatures, which by necessity lack richness, depth and nuance. So I don’t know if there’s something in particular about our history, per se. I think it has something to do with our pedagogical tools, and our tools of the transmission of ideas. So, for whatever reason, this is how we transmit ideas: by pitting people against each other.

MAA: So within anthropology . . . . So, when I was an undergrad I never heard of any of these folks, or just very slightly. Going into graduate school at phase one at the MA level, one of the people who turned into one of my professors – not on my advisory or my supervisory committee – but when I told him I was interested in religion, the first thing that came out of his mouth was (25:00): “You must really love Durkheim!” And I was like, “Durkheim? Who’s Durkheim?”

All: (Laughter)

MAA: But then, it’s curious as to why Durkheim? He becomes like the champion of actually studying religion, where apparently Tylor is dealing with other things.

LS: That’s kind of understandable in the 20th century, I think. Because if you have a book that’s called The Elementary Forms of Religious Life and you have book called Primitive Culture, there’s, like, a political zeitgeist which means you might want to recommend one book and not the other, for purely optics reasons.

GH: There’s also the thing about the armchair in the early 20th century and mid-20th century – that the whole Oxford style is just put aside, demonised in that sense. So then, I don’t know, maybe it becomes impossible to find that other Tylor again out of old Stockings’ notes, there’s a few bits of a diary, or whatever it was. Somebody else has to represent it.

JJ: But Durkheim didn’t go to Australia!

All: Exactly! (Laughter)

LS: He focussed on one case study and drew all his conclusions about all of human religion from it!

PT: Brilliantly!

LS: Brilliantly – yes! I think we should not get into Durkheim bashing!

All: (Laughter)

GH: But does Sociology . . . . Do you have to do that? Can’t Sociology stay in the study?

JC: What I was trying to do in my paper was to underscore that Tylor, like many others, had certain criteria for determining the validity of a statement, you might say. So, in the issue of the question of whether humans were originally monotheistic, or whether they were at lower levels and developed higher a social evolutionary scale, what I tried to argue was that Tylor had already decided the answer to this, not on the basis of his empirical investigations – although he cited empirical investigations, as so did Lang, both did, and so did Wilhelm Schmidt. Wilhelm Schmidt was fantastic in his ethnographies – but he started from a position and he proved his position. So one way that I tried to look at these influential scholars is to try to help students see these fundamental starting points. And show how, therefore, the starting point produces the conclusion. And then examine how it would be possible to insert actual empirical evidence into this, in order to determine the value of their arguments. That’s one thing. But then, the other point I tried to make in the paper was that all of these things, all of these discussions – at least in the study of indigenous peoples – is about people who are just there as sort of laboratory agents and not really agents themselves. But they’re there to be studied to prove the theory with which I began. And what I’ve tried to do is to say, if we look at the some of the ways in which indigenous people have been depicted: as passive; as powerless; as incapable of thinking, or dreaming, or whatever; and they just do things because they’re caught in this horrible existence, and they have to solve their problems. But actually, to let them have the voice, or a voice, a prominent voice in how these questions are addressed and answered. And to my mind, if you go back to Tylor or any of these classical theorists, one can begin looking at ways which will impact on the ways we do our own studies. And that, to me, is an important way of using these scholars.

LS: A point that another contributor to the book, Martin Stringer, likes to point out is that it’s very easy to classify Tylor in certain respects because he was writing at was the very early stage in the generation of the social sciences. That he, in some ways, lacked the kind of language to actually discuss some of the things he wanted to get at (30:00). So one of the things that can get quite . . . . Actually reading the text, and then comparing that with the way Tylor was often interpreted, he was interpreted as someone who’s just talking about individuals, who are just kind of reflecting . . . . The term “savage philosopher” makes you think of an individual. If I actually recall the text accurately, I think he actually only uses this expression once or twice. I don’t think he uses it very often.

GH: That’s right.

LS: It’s quite an over-played term, because it’s the term to explain Tylor. But he actually only refers to it once or twice. I think something that really gets missed . . . . Martin likes to talk about the fact that Tylor was fascinated with language and with different groups – always remember that these were ethnological examples. So sometimes these things were far more social than they sometimes appeared. And to relate that to the kind of work that is going on in the cognitive sciences of religion now, we seem to be talking about “cognitive capacities”. This is where the psychic unity of mankind comes in. What are patterns of thought that are widely shared? But behind this is very much a social context. So there’s a brilliant quote where he talks about the fact that when people encounter dreams and visions, these are always in a very, very specific local form. If you’re a Catholic you’re encountering dreams of the Virgin Mary, and this is produced by your social context. So, for example, a 1st century Catholic – inasmuch as you can talk about Catholicism at the that time – is not encountering the kind of 16th century vision of the Madonna with all of the tiaras and the stylised – the stylised depiction of the Madonna has already become an important part – and that’s inherently social, what he’s talking about. If I may just expand on one point: in terms of his, he actually, at one point tried to explain the evolution of the concept of ideas. That’s a word that we take for granted: idea. But actually, we trace that to . . . I think it was Democritus, I think – one of the Pre-Socratic Greek philosophers. And he actually tried to explain this as a product of a sort of animistic culture, where what would be termed ideas were actually encountered as almost personalities. And he tried to locate this in the context of Greece itself.

JC: One thing that appears, at least, when we talk about Tylor’s projection theory, that of the inner individual – you have dreams, you see somebody die, breath goes out of them – it seems to imply that there is a spirit or a soul or that there’s a body and soul and so on. That seems to me, at least, that what appears lacking in this part of it, is the social context, the ritual context, in which these dreams or visions, or relationships with the dead or ancestors, is all, in a sense, socially validated, socially constructed. And then becomes lived out in ritual contexts. For example, the work that I’ve been doing on Australian Aboriginal religions and, in the 1930s what this man I’ve been looking at, TGH Draylaw, has discovered was that the ancestors who then went back into the ground after creating – and then come forth again in the rituals – are actually reincarnated in their ancestors. But these reincarnations in the ritual now become the original ancestor. But none of this, it seems to me, would make sense to . . . . It’s very difficult to make sense of anyway. But to make sense of it in strictly individualistic ways of thinking, it has to be understood in the whole way that this society’s constructed, and the relationships that people have amongst one another, and with other groups within that society. So it’s not directly related to your question, but it is sort of looking at this idea. If you say that Tylor was using a projection theory – that is, projecting out of the individual experience, to create this – it seems to me that, insofar as he did that, he overlooked and was deficient in the concept of the social construction of which these experiences occur. I’m not saying that these experiences don’t occur, but I’m saying that they can only be interpreted and, in a sense, made useful and meaningful in the social context.

PT: And I think that’s what Tylor shows us about the history of anthropology. (35:00) In the beginning Tylor and others are collecting instances of beliefs or practices of X kind, of Y kind and then plotting where they are in populations. And as people start to look at the kind of methodologies, the evolutionist methodologies, then you get that moment where ethnography starts to become, you know . . . . Perhaps following Boas in the United States – the idea that rather than collecting and arranging ethnographic data in that way, one should contextualise it, rather than see it as individual units that have that kind of distribution. But understand them as holistically interdependent with one another. In other words, ethnography fieldwork: going to a particular place, staying there for a sustained period of time during which one learns the language and understands how this data is all connected relationally. That’s partly what studying a figure does, isn’t it? It allows you to have access to the history of a discipline in a slightly different light, and seeing it unfold.

GH: We’ve actually come to end of the time allotted for this conversation. And that maybe actually a perfect point, that we’ve reached, to stop: this thought about why these classic figures remain important and what we pick up from them. So thank you all for joining me in the conversation.

All: Thank you. A pleasure.

LS: Thanks to our audience, as well, for participating!

All: (Laughter)

Citation Info: Harvey, Graham, Liam T. Sutherland, Paul-Francois Tremlett, Jonathon Jong, James L. Cox and Miguel Astor-Aguilera. 2018. “Tylor Roundtable”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 22 January 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 19 January 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/tylor-roundtable/

All transcriptions for THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

Nature alive: Amazonian religion in Peru

book cover ReganThe Amazon rainforest has always been a land filled with mystery since its ‘discovery’. Ranging from the first expedition of the conquistador Francisco de Orellana, to the establishment of Jesuit missions across the Marañon river, and the naturalistic explorations of Humboldt and la Condamine, it still feels as if it has more to be known.

This was also the case for the earliest ‘ethnographic’ records of Gaspar de Carvajal and Francisco de Figueroa . As was often the case with Spanish chroniclers, they ‘misunderstood’ the ‘indigenous’ way of thinking, in some cases even labeling them as atheists (Regan: 2015). In time, this would change, in part because of the continuing social interaction (between missionaries, laymen, other indigenous groups, and so on) but also in more recent times, because of the ethnographic research undertaken by many different anthropologists. This has enabled a more comprehensive knowledge about the beliefs and way of life of the Amazonian indigenous people. In this podcast, Dr Jaime Regan Mainville, a leading researcher in the anthropology of religion and linguistics, discusses his ethnographic research among some of the indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin; namely the kukama, the awajún, and the wampís, among others.

Regan argues that one particular characteristic of Amazonian  belief is highlighted above the rest: close links with the environment. Amazonian identity and belief systems are articulated into what Philippe Descola and other anthropologists have regarded as animism (Regan: 2015). Of course, these beliefs haven’t remained ‘untouched’ or ‘pure’, but have been particularly influenced by encounters with Jesuits and Franciscans during the sixteenth century. The interview continues to focus upon some of the impacts of this these encounters upon existing belief systems, practices and cosmologies (cf. Regan: 2001).

remate-libro-a-la-sombra-de-los-cerros-las-raices-513001-MPE20264898860_032015-F (1)In the final part of the interview Regan states that the indigenous way of life has drastically changed, because of the Peruvian state’s oil exploration policy s, combined with illegal mining and logging. For example, in the case of oil exploration, in June 2009 the “Baguazo” or Bagua conflict took place in part due to failed attempts at consultation and negotiation between with indigenous leaders of the Amazon region (mostly awajún and wampís) and the Peruvian state: Regan traces this to a conflict of worldviews (Regan: 2010).

Listeners might also be interested in our previous podcasts on Andean Religion in Peru, Vernacular Religion, and the category of “indigenous religion”. You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, stuffed animals, gobstoppers, and more..

References

Sámi Shamanism – Up Close and Personal

In his RSP interview, David Gordon Wilson tells us why he started studying spiritualism and shamanism, his relation to shamanism now, and general problems one may face while studying these subjects.

Like Dr. Wilson, I believe there are multiple ways of defining shamanism, a task that many have pursued and one that I am not willing to take up here. The term “shaman” will be mentioned; however, due to the space limits of this essay, I will not spend time on definition, nor will I explain why I have chosen one definition opposed to another. Instead I will focus on describing my personal experience with Sámi shamanism at an indigenous festival in the north of Norway with hopes that it will be of interest to the RSP audience.

The Sámi

The Sámi are an indigenous group in Norway, Sweden, Finland and north-western Russia. The history between the Sámi and the Norwegian government has left a stain on the Sámi for generations:

 The Norwegianization policy undertaken by the Norwegian government from the 1850s up until the Second World War resulted in the apparent loss of Sami language and assimilation of the coastal Sami as an ethnically-distinct people into the northern Norwegian population. Together with the rise of an ethno-political movement since the 1970s, however, Sami culture has seen a revitalization of language, cultural activities, and ethnic identity (Brattland 2010:31).

Personal Insight

I grew up in the north of Norway and was taught from a very young age to be cautious of certain objects in nature: specific stones, trees, and areas. For example, certain rituals had to be performed when we travelled past a big rock called “Stallo.” Some would bow their heads three times as they passed “Stallo,” while others laid down coins at his feet. I was told to greet the rock out loud as we passed by his side. My mother always reminded my brother and me of this, and told us why it was important for good luck and a safe journey. She spoke of the rock as if he was alive and had power to do both good and bad. If we didn’t greet him, he could get cross and we could get hurt. Or so she told us.

At the time, I had no idea that this was an old Sámi custom. It was not until I started studying religion at the university that I realised I have Sámi roots. I confronted my mother and she informed me that my grandparents had rejected the Sámi language and culture. The reason for this, she said, was that they were ashamed of their origins and, sadly, they were not the only ones.

Little Storm on the Coast

My story is far from unique in Norway. In fact there is even a festival in the north of Norway that was founded by people with similar stories. The festival is called “Riddu Riđđu” which means “little storm on the coast.” Riddu Riđđu was created by a group of youths who sought answers to why the elders in the community spoke a different language, a language they were not allowed to learn. In other words, the festival started as a rebellion against those who had refused the Sámi society. The festival program has a wide variety of music, cultural performances, and workshops held by indigenous people from Norway and other parts of the world.

Riddu Riddu in the Summer of 2010

Riddu Riddu in the Summer of 2010

Indigenous Performance at Riddu Riddu in 2013

Indigenous Performance at Riddu Riddu in 2013

My Thesis, My Journey

I had barely heard of the festival when I started my master’s degree in religion and society at the University of Oslo in 2009. I had heard that, from its beginning, Riddu Riddu has been important for the Sámi population as a meeting place as well as for people who have lost their connection to the Sámi and wish to learn. I had also heard that there were shamans at the festival, Sámi shamans and others from around the world. Naturally, having just learnt of my Sámi background, I was intrigued, and chose, therefore, Riddu Riddu as my main topic for my master’s thesis, focusing on Sámi religion and identity.

According to one of the founders of Riddu Riđđu, Lene Hansen, the festival is almost like a religious gathering – people meet both spiritually and socially, and experience ethnic bonding and communality[1]. I had my focus on shamanism and found that, like David Gordon Wilson, speaking to individuals was the best approach.

Sámi Shamanism

Dr. Graham Harvey tells us in Shamanism: A Reader (2003) that the word ”shaman” is being used within several languages today. However, he warns us that the use of the terms ”shaman” and ”shamanism” can generalise a number of people as there are numerous local words for shamans (Harvey 2003:1). For example a Sámi shaman can be known as a noaide.

I spoke to a man, let´s call him “Tor”, at Riddu Riddu who is Sámi and a shaman, but refused to be called a noaide. Tor explained that while the word ”shaman” means ”the one who knows,” the word noaide means ”the one who sees” (directly translated from Norwegian) and refers to the ritual expert in the old Sámi society. According to Tor, the noaide was the most feared and at the same time the most respected person in the old Sámi community. If one happened to be on the bad side of a noaide, he or she could put a curse(gaine) on you. On the other side, Tor told me that the noaide was the person one sought out in crisis, as he or she was the only one who had direct contact with the spirit world and therefore had healing powers.

Enjoy The Drumming

Tor invited me and a few others to participate in a drum journey inside a gamme (see picture below). At the time, we had just learned that a bomb had gone off in Oslo and there were several casualties. Tor suggested that it was a good time to do a drum journey and we all agreed.

A picture I took at Riddu Riđđu in 2013. The one on the right is a gamme. The others are lavvu (traditional Sámi tent).

A picture I took at Riddu Riđđu in 2013. The one on the right is a gamme. The others are lavvu (traditional Sámi tent).

Inside the lavvu, he built a fire and we were asked to lie down on the reindeer pelt. He started drumming in a slow rhythm and after a while he started joiking (traditional Sámi form of song). The experience was calming, in my opinion, and quite enjoyable. Mostly because I was able to focus on enjoying the moment right there and then. This, I was told later, was the shamans’ main purpose for that particular drum journey: to be truly present for a moment. After the drum journey I spoke briefly to Tor about shamanism. He emphasized that shamanism consists of getting in touch with one’s feelings, internal life, and soul. For me, this remark seems to be quite universal when it comes to speaking of shamanism, however I am not trying to compare what Tor told me to what other shamans believe. It is just an observation.

It has taken several years for the Sámi to turn their shame of being Sámi into proudness. I believe Riddu Riđđu has played a role in that turning point by offering a positive place for Sámi and other indigenous people from around the world to meet, compare and differentiate between them.

Like Dr. Wilson, I started with an outsiders’ perspective, but, as the years went by, I ended up as an insider. I find Riddu Riđđu to be a place to learn about shamanism, the Sámi and even about my self.

Myself in a Sámi dress, standing in front of a lavvu (traditional Sámi tent) at Riddu Riđđu in 2013.

Myself in a Sámi dress, standing in front of a lavvu (traditional Sámi tent) at Riddu Riđđu in 2013.

References

Brattland, Camilla 2010: Mapping Rights in Coastal Sami Seascapes, In: Arctic Review on Law and Politics, vol. 1, 1/2010 p. 28–53.

Harvey, Graham 2003: Shamanism: A Reader. New York: Routledge.

Henriksen, Marianne V.2011: “Å bli same”. En religionsvitenskapelig studie av Riddu Riddu Festivala i et rituelt perspektiv. MA thesis, the faculty of theology, University of Oslo. Reprosentralen. http://www.duo.uio.no/

Pedersen, Paul and Viken, Arvid 2009: ”Globalized Reinvention of Indigenuity. The Riddu Riddu Festival as a Tool for Ethnic Negotiation of Place,” In: Nyseth, Torill and Viken, Arild 2009: Place Reinvention: Northern Perspective. Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Limited.

 

[1] Founder of Riddu Riddu, Lene Hansen quoted in Perdersen and Viken 2009:193

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bruno Latour, Talking “Religiously”, part 2

This is the second part of our interview with Professor Bruno Latour, and if you haven’t already, you can listen to the first part here.

This time, Latour and David Robertson discuss Latour’s recent works We Have Never Been Modern and On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods. Discussion moves from his critique of the distinction between the manufactured and “real”, and how this affects our models of belief.

Conversation finally turns to his Gifford Lecture Series, presented this February in Edinburgh, with the title Facing Gaia: An Enquiry Into Natural Religion. While we are used to problematising the category religion, Latour argues that we should equally question the category of natural. Videos and abstracts of Bruno Latour’s complete Gifford Lecture series can be viewed on the University of Edinburgh’s page.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us, or use our Amazon.co.uk link to support us when buying your important books etc.

Bruno Latour is Professor at Sciences Po Paris and has also been Professor at the Centre de Sociologie de l’Innovation at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Mines in Paris and visiting Professor at University of California (San Diego), at the London School of Economics and Harvard University. After field studies in Africa and California he specialized in the analysis of scientists and engineers at work. In addition to work in philosophy, history, sociology and anthropology of science, he has collaborated on many studies in science policy and research management, producing significant works such as Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts and most recently Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory (Clarendon Lectures in Management Studies). He has also made a valuable contribution to the political philosophy of the environment with the book Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy, a theme which the Gifford Lectures continue.

The Last Best Hope of Earth? Bron Taylor and the Limits of Dark Green Religion

Bron Taylor, Professor of Religion and Nature at the University of Florida, and editor-in-chief of the Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature (2008), may be the best interpreter of environmentalism as a religious project working today.  His latest book, Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future (2010), argues that the constellation of spiritual and naturalistic worldviews which hold nature as sacred can be described as part of a new religious movement, one that might replace traditional religions and help save our planet from ecological disaster.

In the wide-ranging interview for the The Religious Studies Project, Taylor traces the history of the greening of religion, the growth of a naturalistic cosmology based on Darwinian science (that for many has replaced traditional religions like Christianity), the coalescence of a new form of religiosity Taylor dubs “dark green religion,” how conceptualizing this phenomena as religion can be analytically useful, how the narrow-mindedness of new atheists like Richard Dawkins can limit their analyses, and whether dark green religion will transform human culture and the future of life on earth.

In this response, I will focus on a few key points that Taylor makes in the interview, and then offer a brief reflection about his book Dark Green Religion.

In the interview, Taylor begins by critiquing the “greening of religion” hypothesis, which holds that (primarily Western) religions can respond effectively to the environmental crisis by becoming more environmentally-friendly [cf. Roger Gottlieb’s A Greener Faith: Religious Environmentalism and Our Planet’s Future (2006)].  For Taylor, it is not clear whether traditional religions like Christianity are actually turning green or whether they are just reflecting the society in which they are situated (as society is becoming more environmentally conscious).  Insufficient evidence exists to support the claim that religion is driving people to become better caretakers of the earth, he claims.  Despite the plethora of optimistic research about the greening of religion, I think Taylor is correct to sound this note of caution in interpreting earth-friendly religions like contemporary liberal Christianities.  Even after greening these religions, the tradition-bound, dominion-theology roots of our ecological crisis will remain.  Still, Taylor should provide a fuller explanation of why this is so.  However, pushing further, I wish Taylor would address the often-uncritical embrace of Eastern and indigenous religions as paragons of environmentalist ideas and practices.  Sometimes the portraits of non-Western religions painted by environmentalists are too rosy, belying complicated relationships with nature that remain underexplored.  For example, many of the dark green religion subjects Taylor discusses in his book do not think critically about the social and physical construction of wilderness, still assuming an idyllic natural state untouched by humans, one granting little to no agency to indigenous populations, as if native peoples leave no footprints.  Taylor could have complicated and improved his analysis by discussing this issue.

Next, tackling the perceived division between science and religion, Taylor discusses three major responses to Darwinian evolution in Western culture: rejecting evolution, grafting an evolutionary worldview onto a religious one (e.g. Catholicism, liberal religions), or embracing atheism and agnosticism.  However, for Taylor, even atheists and agnostics seek meaning and a moral sensibility, often finding them in nature, such as through the mythic meaning-providing aspects of the Darwinian evolutionary narrative.  Many who self-describe as “spiritual but not religious” may fit into this mold, in a more pagan or animistic vein, as might the scores of scientists who use religious rhetoric to describe their findings and experiences in nature.  Even an atheist like James Cameron, the director of Avatar, has deep environmental concerns and passions, such as kinship ethics, a theory of intrinsic value, an awareness of the interdependence of all life on earth, a humble sense of being one species amongst others (even noting cross-species continuities and animal consciousness), and an evolutionist, cosmological narrative of common origins.  Following E. O. Wilson, Taylor argues that kinship ethics, for example, is part of the emotional repertoire of human beings, that spiritualities of fellow-feeling are cross-culturally present across time.  Thus, as Taylor rightly shows, the supposed divide between religion and science—as well as between religion and irreligion—is messier than most commentators allow.

While Richard Dawkins and other so-called new atheists argue that religion is always poisonous, Taylor claims that their narrow view of what constitutes religion occludes from them phenomena that they support and about which they might agree.  Many atheist scholars use romantic language to describe their wonder at nature, for example.  Additionally, atheistic nature spirituality of the sort Taylor describes has wide cultural traction.  Dawkins should ratchet back his anti-religious rhetoric and read more religious studies literature, such as Taylor’s book, thus nuancing his view of religion.  If he did so, Dawkins might find that dark green religion describes his own naturalistic worldview (see Dark Green Religion: 158-160, 177-179).  New atheists should heed Taylor’s call for greater attention to the contested category of religion and to ways in which they may share central convictions with dark green religion.

In an optimistic mood, Taylor maintains that dark green religion is likely to become a global civil religion, especially as we better understand ecological science and our contemporary environmental predicaments.  Dark green religion may not replace traditional religions ultimately, but it could be the small piece upon which we can all agree.  While it is admittedly difficult to predict the future, Taylor claims that we could be in a gestalt period, a world-transformative moment in our religious and cultural life, one in which the fate of our planet hangs in the balance.  For Taylor, it is reasonable to speculate that religions which originated thousands of years ago will be less prevalent thousands of years into the future, and that dark green religion characteristics will be more prevalent than today’s traditional religions.  Although I am not inclined to indulge Taylor’s crystal ball-gazing, it is clear that he describes a major shift in ecological consciousness and spiritual belonging in his latest book, to which I now turn.

Taylor’s extremely well-read survey of contemporary environmentalist nature religiosity, Dark Green Religion, employs literary, ethnographic, and material cultural accounts to chart a global spiritual movement that seeks to protect the earth and reshape humanity’s role in it.  Chapters in the book define what he terms “dark green religion,” portray its historical tributaries and luminaries, analyze radical environmentalist and surfing spiritualities, examine the globalization of dark green religion through documentaries and the arts and sciences, and explore the role of global institutions such as UNESCO and global sustainability summits as they promote dark green religion.  Traits of dark green religion include an awareness of ecological interdependence, spiritualities of connection and belonging, kinship ethics, a sense of the intrinsic value of all life, contact with nature, and an evolutionist cosmogony (83, 149-151).  Throughout the book, Taylor acknowledges the hybridity and bricolage of dark green religion and its various sources and manifestations, noting that pinning it down to any particular creed, person, or institution would over-simplify a complex phenomenon.  Even in defining dark green religion, Taylor is careful to preserve such flexibility as it suits his interpretive purposes (101, 125).  Wary of using other terms that might carry unintended baggage, such as pantheism, deep ecology, or even nature religion [of the sort described by Catherine Albanese in Nature Religion: From the Algonkian Indians to the New Age (1990)], Taylor acknowledges that his new interpretive category may have limited utility beyond the scope of his book’s arguments (223-224).  In the end, he finds dark green religion to be a global, civic earth religion capable of replacing all other religions and perhaps thereby saving the planet.

One of the strengths of this book is Taylor’s eclecticism, as he draws from many and varied sources to make his argument, pulling quotes from nature writers, magazine ads, nature documentaries, and environmental legislation, for example.  He successfully brings these strands together into a cohesive whole, providing strong evidence for dark green religion’s existence.  He also adroitly explores how naturalistic accounts of the universe can be religious, in a way that moves beyond the claim that science is like religion since it is a totalizing worldview.  As a hybridizing and dynamic religious worldview, dark green religion is evolving and sprouting new forms, a fact that Taylor suggests will help it grow and flourish (185, 189).

Taylor labels dark green religion as “dark” because he wants to show its depth as well as its shadow side, such as elitism and radicalism (e.g. eco-terrorism).  However, he ultimately dismisses the dark side as a fringe that does not represent the mainstream of dark green religion.  This dismissal is unfortunate because it undermines the complexity that Taylor seeks to show, that this religion also has a significant dark side which has resulted in bodily injuries, damaged property, and loss of income.  Moreover, even within environmentalist kinship ethics, troubling choices have to be made, such as those that pit one community’s needs against another’s.  Dark green religion is not a panacea for the world’s problems or for resolving human conflicts.

In its bricolage, dark green religion takes from indigenous spiritualities across the globe and blends them with Western spiritual, cultural, and political ideals.  Taylor fairly represents the appropriation issues at stake, and he also highlights the viewpoints of indigenous peoples in global environmental summits, showing how race and religion become hot buttons within dark green religion.  However, there are also a few places where Taylor and his dark green religion subjects seem to compare apes to indigenous peoples, searching to find our most primitive and commonest characteristics while also raising the status of nonhumans (e.g. 30).  In an evolutionary perspective, comparing people to apes is not necessarily a bad thing, but when only indigenous peoples are compared to apes, then it begins to sound prejudiced.  I would like to hear Taylor’s response to this kind of under-the-surface bias.

The end of the book veers into advocacy of environmentalism and even dark green religion itself, as Taylor claims it can help preserve our planet and our species.  In this vein, he criticizes Christianity and other religions as unable to correct their anthropocentrism; he sees no hope in the greening of religion, instead encouraging readers to embrace the dark green religion he describes (178, 197, 206-207, 218, 221-222, 286).  However, in the book, Taylor needs to provide more evidence as to why other religious worldviews will necessarily fail us, and to engage more fully with Eastern and indigenous religions.  And some readers may question Taylor’s switch from description and analysis to advocacy.

Despite the few quibbles I present here, I admire Taylor’s work greatly.  Although there are many scholars examining nature and religion, few do so as thoroughly and thoughtfully as he does, and no one has presented as convincing a case for a global new religious movement based on environmentalist beliefs and practices.

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

Dusty Hoesly is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, specializing in Religions of North America.  His research focuses on religion and irreligion in the U.S. Pacific Northwest, specifically the values held by people who self-describe as not religious, how those values developed, how they translate into social or political action, and how irreligious people interpret experiences that stand apart from ordinary life.  Incorporating fieldwork, surveys, and historical and material culture research, this project will help explain the growth of religious “nones” in the U.S. and reexamine the categories of sacred and secular in contemporary society.  Other research interests include religion in the American West, comparative secularisms, liberal evangelicalism, and religion and politics.

Bibliography

Albanese, Catherine L. Nature Religion: From the Algonkian Indians to the New Age. Chicago:University of Chicago Press, 1990.

Gottlieb, Roger S. A Greener Faith: Religious Environmentalism and Our Planet’s Future. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Taylor, Bron. Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010.

An Evaluation of Harvey’s Approach to Animism and the Tylorian Legacy

An Evaluation of Harvey’s Approach to Animism and the Tylorian Legacy

By Liam Sutherland, University of Edinburgh

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 17 February 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Graham Harvey on Animism (13 February 2012).

The interview with Graham Harvey on Animism was of particular interest to me because my Masters thesis concerns the theoretical relevance of the work of E.B Tylor, credited with introducing the concept of Animism to scholarship. Harvey related Animism back to the work of Tylor but when offered a definition of Animism by the interviewer (David Robertson), as “the attribution of a soul of some kind to non-human beings” Harvey contrasted this and more traditional Tylorian approaches to Animism with more recent discussions of Animism based around personhood.

He characterised the understanding of Animism in Tylor’s 1871 work Primitive Culture as ‘belief in souls and spirits’, and as the application of something human like to non-human phenomena: this is a fair description of Tylor’s Animism. Harvey also correctly emphasised the fact that for Tylor, Animism is characteristic of all religions generally, it is the core of religion; his theory is applicable by design to all religions, to Indigenous Peoples and High Anglicans. Harvey displayed a rich and refreshing appreciation for Tylor’s work with a nuanced understanding of his theories, the historical context in which he wrote and a deep knowledge of Primitive Culture (an often misunderstood text which is rarely read carefully).

I commend Harvey for more fully grounding the theory of Animism in the performance of ritual, on behaviour and for showing Animism to be a set of values and not just a cosmology, without ignoring the latter. However, it must be stressed that while rituals can be prescribed as obligatory without heed to the intent or belief of the practitioner, such rituals do have a clear connection to the belief system because certain inanimate objects are persons and thus they must be treated accordingly. The conceptions of a culture must be understood in order to account for behaviour: in short, believers really believe in their beliefs and it affects the mental world in which they move

I find the dichotomy he drew between the old and the new approaches to Animism a little stark. It must not be thought that Tylor’s understanding of Animism was of abstract, purely metaphysical spirits; Tylor argued forcefully that spirits are often considered to be ethereal, material beings. Though he did not emphasise personhood nearly as strongly as Harvey, he argued that the extension of Animism (the doctrine of the soul) to natural phenomena in which they are considered to be firmly embodied: animals, plants and objects, is based on personalisation. Furthermore the earliest rituals of religion are theorised to have been based on the notion that spirits, including those embodied in natural phenomena, can be related to as though they were present persons; it is only later that religious rituals became more formulaic mysteries. Other than perhaps Hallowell, it is not clear which authors make up the new approaches to Animism; at times Harvey seems to quite intelligibly and astutely describe the views of Indigenous Animists themselves, which hardly represents a ‘new Animism.’

He is correct to emphasise the non-systematic nature of much human thought – a perennial difficulty for ethnographers. I would, however, question Harvey’s implied dichotomisation of ‘western’ and ‘non-western’ thought, particularly his assumption that other cultures do not have ‘grand narratives’ while westerners are clinical, rigid and doctrinal in their view of the world. Arguably even an assumption “that life is pervasive” or a differentiation between persons and inanimate objects entailing a host of obligations is a somewhat systematic ‘grand narrative.’ The differences between cultures should not be overemphasised when the difference between life and death, say, may involve different rituals and beliefs but is never an absent or radically different distinction. Nor are most people in the west concerned with clinical dichotomies anymore than Ojibwa and Amazonian tribespeople; only in some situations and sometimes only for some specialists do strict definitions of categories matter. People largely think and act pragmatically, but for some people and in some situations systematic thought is required.  As Martin Stringer showed in his Contemporary Western Ethnography and the Definition of Religion, many ‘nominal’ Christians who also believe in science and astrology do not reflect on their beliefs (especially those that may be contradictory) much outside of the situations where they are contextually significant. They hold ‘situational beliefs’.

Similarly, Harvey laudably reinforced the fact that Animists inhabit basically the same cognitive world as materialists, that animals and inanimate objects are largely treated the same by both – a stone is mostly a stone. It is only certain stones on certain occasions which are treated as animate, possessing personhood and entailing obligations of respect.

One of the most important and novel contributions Harvey has made to the theory of Animism is his insistence that Animism is neither, as Tylor argued, innate nor an inevitable assumption made by the earliest humans, but is always taught. Animism or Animisms are systems of belief which entail and are cemented by ritual. The status of certain objects as other than human persons is underscored by being shown respect by the same ritual gestures as a human being. How certain objects are recognised as persons or when they need to be shown respect has to be taught, often to particular religious specialists such as Shamans or Medicine Men.

Surprisingly given this, Harvey also does link religious Animism, albeit tentatively, with the ingrained human tendency to treat animals and objects as personal even in non-Animistic cultures, to name ships and shout at slow computers to go faster etc. These two were linked by Tylor and more recently Stewart Guthrie in his Faces in the Clouds, who argued that religious conceptions are based on the evolutionary cognitive reflex to ‘bet’ that an ambiguous object is animate or even to anthropomorphise to avoid predators. Nonetheless, Harvey’s approach does not imply that religious Animism is determined by some mental category mistake, and is arguably more in line with the modus operandi of Religious Studies; methodological agnosticism to the beliefs of the people under study. The tendency to anthropomorphise is simply a means of appreciating Animist conceptions.

It could be objected that the focus on the relationship between persons in religion or even in Indigenous Religions is too narrow and that forces, qualities, laws and realms are also an important part of the collective worldview which may affect and prescribe certain actions. Nonetheless, this is not especially important because relationships with personal beings characterises much of the bread and butter of religious life, and theories which downplay this risk being unwieldy and aloof. One of the great hurdles in attempting to critically theorise religion and to move away from Abrahmocentric conceptions, is to understand that many of the beings which are the subject of religious rituals are not necessarily conceived of as much greater in power or status than human beings. Ancestor or larger Nature Spirits may be conceived of as primus inter pares in relation to their worshippers but may not necessarily represent the ‘summum bonum’ or highest good or value for a culture to which all other things are subordinate: instead this may which may well be something like respect. Religious communities are in many contexts well characterised as a community of persons – only some of whom are human – bound in reciprocal respectful relations.

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About the Author

I am a Religious Studies Postgraduate student at Edinburgh University undertaking a Masters by Research, my topic is the relevance of E.B Tylor for the contemporary theory of religion, defining religion and modern scholars with a ‘Neo-Tylorian’ influence or affinity. I am a native of Edinburgh where I also completed my undergraduate degree  in 2009, producing a dissertation on contemporary Indigenous Australian spirituality and the politics of land rights. Though I began in Politics, and took many Politics and school of Social Science courses, I quickly fell in love with Religious Studies! I enjoy Alternative Rock, Metal and other peculiar forms of music, sci-fi and fantasy literature, real ale and ranting. I hope to pursue an academic career as opposed to the bank for whom I currently work part-time (doing nothing evil!).

References

Guthrie, S. Faces in the Clouds (1995) OUP: Oxford

Harvey, G. Animism: Respecting the Living World (2005) Hurst & Co: London

Platvoet, J. “To Define or Not To Define” in Platvoet, J.G and Molendijk, A.L The Pragmatics of Defining Religion: Contexts, Concepts and Contests (1999) Leiden: Brill

Stringer, M. Contemporary Western Ethnography and the Definition of Religion (2008) Continuum: London

Tylor, E.B Primitive Culture (1871) London: John Murray

 

Animism

Graham Harvey photo

Animism is often taken as referring to worldviews in which spirits are to be found not only in humans, but potentially in animals, in plants, in mountains and even natural forces like the wind. It was of central importance in early anthropological conceptions of religion, most notably in the work of E. B. Tylor. More recently, however, Graham Harvey has challenged the traditional conception of animism, seeking to understand it as “relational epistemologies and ontologies”; in other words, it is a way of living in a community of persons, most of whom are other-than-human.

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Dr Graham Harvey has been Reader in Religious Studies at the Open University since 1993, and is also the President Elect of our sponsors, the British Association for the Study of Religions. Other than Animism, his work has covered a wide range of subjects, from Judaism, Paganism, Indigenous Religions and Shamanism.

His most important publication on animism is his 2005 book Animism: Respecting the Living World. It is supported by www.animism.org.uk, which features essays, articles and interviews which expand on the material in this podcast.

His paper, ‘Animals, Animists and Academics’, from Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 41.1 (2006), is available to download here, if you have University access.

If not, (or, indeed, as well,) “Animism rather than Shamanism”, from Spirit Possession and Trance : New Interdisciplinary Perspectives (edited by Bettina Schmidt and Lucy Huskinson, Continuum 2010) is available here.