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Time Travel and Fictions of Science

In 1856, Edward Burnett Tylor, of inscribed with “Huitzilopochtli the god of war, Teoyaomiqui his wife, and Mictlanteuctli the god of hell” all compiled into a gruesome symbol of Aztec religion.  “There is little doubt,” Tylor opined, “that this is the famous war-idol which stood on the great teocalli of Mexico, and before which so many thousands of human victims were sacrificed.”  The famous sculpture, now surveying its victims in the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Chapultepec Park, took on an early identification as a female divinity and passed into common culture as Coatlicue (“She of the Serpent Skirt”).  She is now, so a more recent theory holds, not simply the earth/mother goddess, but a representation of a tzitzimitl, one of any number of female sacred personages of ambivalent powers and actions.  At their worst, the tzitzimime (pl.) could be “star demons” descending to devour humans, but for the most part these female powers, in good Aztec fashion pivoted around duality, a complementarity that balanced threat with surety in their various avatars.

Tylor’s observations about the “war goddess” and Mexico overall, peering into its barbaric past through the residual survivals of a culture he predicted would fall to the United States, is a good mix of science and great deal of fiction.  While not exactly “science fiction” as we have come to know the genre, travelling forward from his time we can see how the spectacle and rudeness of Aztec ritual and human sacrifice aided Tylor in his scientific speculations on the evolution of cultures and the pre-modern human mind at work as it grasped to understand the natural world.  Ever the scientist, Tylor studded his travelogue with the best resources of his time, quoting Lord Kingsborough on Mexican antiquities, Humboldt’s meticulous measurement and mapping on Mexico a half century earlier, and he even provides the reader with a “Table of Aztec roots” to be compared with Sanskrit and related Indo-European forms.  Yet despite his best scholarly efforts, Tylor’s Anahuac is “fiction” in the same way that Europeans have drawn on their vast reservoir of myths, legends, and stories of Amazons and the Lost Tribes of Israel in their mastery of the Americas.  Columbus (in)famously believed he was near the Garden of Eden as he entered the Orinoco in 1498.  So, too, Tylor, while careful to dismiss any number of arguments claiming “supposed Aztec-Bible traditions,” cannot contain his wonder at the similarities between the Aztec and Hindu cosmogonies, and Aztec and Asian calendrics and astronomy (“resemblances in the signs used that seem too close for chance”).

Much, much later, or maybe much, much earlier – we will never know exactly when – Dr. Who and his companions dropped from the stars, landing smack dab in the middle of the great Aztec high priest Yetaxa’s tomb sometime in the 15th century.   We mere humans saw it in 1964, in one of the first serials of what is, arguably, television’s most successful franchises of any genre.  As far as science fiction television goes, Dr. Who is the gold standard for its quirkiness, kitschy but effective visuals, and astonishing insight into humanicity.  For Americans, the enigmatic but ever pragmatic Dr. Who remains the incarnation of British “clever.”

In Aztecs, one of the travellers, Barbara, is mistaken for a reincarnation of the dead priest Yetaxa.  And, never mind that Yetaxa, who was male reincarnates dw50revaztecs3as a woman, for as Barbara/Yetaxa notes, it is the spirit of Yetaxa, not the human form that counts (more on this later).   Because Barbara is a history teacher with, conveniently, a specialization in Aztec history she knows the Spanish will arrive and destroy the Aztec empire.  Thinking that if she can play out her ersatz goddess role she can rid the Aztecs of human sacrifice, preserving only the good in Aztec culture, and thus convince Cortes to spare them from destruction.  “You can’t rewrite history!” warns the Doctor.  “Not one line!”  Ultimately, Barbara/Yetaxa fails to thwart human sacrifice, and as they say, the rest is history.

What the writers of the Aztecs serial couldn’t know was that their fiction turned out to be closer to the idea of Nahua “divinity” than Tylor’s educated view.  Like most scholars of Aztec religion, Tylor believed that Aztec “gods” bore similarities with Indo-Europeans too close to ignore.  Like his comparison of Nahuatl words to Sanskrit and Greek, Tylor continued the common error of classifying the Aztec teteo to the Olympian pantheon.  Science fiction’s imaginative leap away from the pantheon model to Yetaxa’s spirit leaping from body to body is much more in line with our current understanding of how sacred power worked in ancient Mexico.

As scholars of religion engage the thought experiments in science fiction, we are forced to think and imagine beyond the building blocks of the previous generation’s knowledge.  Tylor might have benefitted from taking on the colossal Mexican Coatlicue monolith on its own terms rather than fall back on the work of earlier speculators like Kingsborough.  Maybe, like our ancestor ape-men confronting the black stela in 2001: A Space Odyssey and being catapulted a million years into space-travelling homo sapiens, Tylor would have made the leap from mere scientist into more provocative, certainly more compelling and lyrical interpretations of the stone goddess.  On a number of occasions, reading Tylor’s travelogue suggests that, indeed, he had found his way into Dr. Who’s TARDIS, travelled through time and space and landed in Mexico.  But unlike the curiosity and cleverness of the Dr. Who travellers, Tylor ‘s imagination was limited by his ethnocentrism and stodginess.  For him, Mexico continued its pitiable decline, a “second-hand” culture as he saw it.  Because Mexicans were “totally incapable of governing themselves” as he saw it, it was inevitable and positive that this failed state be swallowed up by the United States.  For Tylor then, travelling back to Aztec Mexico through the archeological remains at Cholula and Xochicalco, the pyramids at Teotihuacan, and displays of ancient objects in museums restored for him the glories of ancient Mexico which at the time were mostly fictions of science.

 

 

Belief, Belonging, and Academic Careers

Almost twenty years ago, Grace Davie observed that despite plenty of studies into the ‘exotic edges’ of religion, ‘the picture in the middle remains remarkably blurred’. Seeking to address this imbalance and engage with the ‘beliefs of ordinary British people in everyday life’, Abby Day‘s recent book, Believing in Belonging (the first topic for this interview), builds upon her doctoral and later postdoctoral fieldwork, beginning within small communities in Yorkshire, and extending to a number of modern industrialised nations.

in this interview with Chris, recorded at the 2013 BSA Sociology of Religion Study Group Conference at Durham University, Day introduces listeners to the concept of ‘belief’ and sets out her own inductive approach, using semi-structured interviews, whereby definitions were allowed to arise from the field. Her central thesis acts as a focal point for a wide-ranging and insightful discussion on a variety of topics from nationalism and secularisation, to the usefulness of censuses as tools for measuring ‘religion’, to gender and belief in destiny. These themes are also picked up and developed in a recent volume published by Ashgate – Social Identities Between the Sacred and the Secular – which was co-edited by Abby, Chris, and Giselle Vincett.

Wearing one of her other hats, Abby also presents regularly on how to build an academic career, win research funding, and get articles published, and has published the books academic publishing and building an academic career.

You can also 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.uk or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when buying your important books etc.

A Brief Re-Examination of the Concept of Belief in the Study of Religion

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Belief […] can be used as a concept to bridge […] frameworks, to allow scholars to understand and appreciate the framework within which religious actors presume to act without using it themselves (or necessarily having to adopt it).

A Brief Re-Examination of the Concept of Belief in the Study of Religion

By Liam T. Sutherland

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 15 May 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Martin Stringer on Situational Belief (13 May 2013)

The work of Professor Martin Stringer is a breath of fresh air for all those who reject both the simplistic belief-centred approach to religion and its attendant backlash. It makes belief an important part of the way that religions are researched and analysed, but not in a fashion recognisable to many.

The traditional belief-centred approach drags with it a raft of assumptions that have proved consistently absent in the field, most notably that religious communities are centred on a coherent body of beliefs which mediates membership and divides them sharply from outsiders. Religious beliefs are often described in ways so philosophical and abstract that they would appear to in no way relate to the everyday lives of practitioners, who may have never encountered such supposedly integral doctrines. This approach has been overturned by examinations of ritual, visual religion, ethnicity, kinship, power etc.  Other assumptions have been overturned, such as the notion that adherents engage exclusively in practices sanctioned by their tradition. Stringer found in his own fieldwork in the North of England that professing Christians would seek the advice of astrologers and claim to believe in reincarnation.

The inaccuracy of such assumptions has led to a rejection of ‘belief’ as a problematic concept. However, many of these assumptions cannot be countered without re-examining the concept of belief. Arguably this is because they reflect a misrepresentation of the workings of belief, not the applicability of the concept itself.  The rejection of belief is based on equally untenable assumptions, usually simple, negative or inverted versions of those mentioned above. ‘Belief’ is often described by its critics in the words of Clifford Geertz, as though it always entailed some kind of ‘abstract Baconian deduction’, always hermetically sealed, intellectual, elite systems which are removed from everyday life. Attempting to remove belief from accounts of religion is a hollow, unsatisfying and deliberately blinkered means of avoiding its pitfalls –  as Geertz added it is like staging Hamlet without the prince.

Stringer has shown that people use belief in extra-empirical beings as coping mechanisms and to anticipate and deal with problems. People may seek the structure, resources and cultural resonance of a Christian church, the ability to predict and respond to future problems offered by an astrologer, and the comfort of being able to chat with dead relatives who can listen and respond. All of these examples depend on a variety of factors, one of which is surely that they are considered to reflect belief in powerful, efficacious and therefore useful realities.

This approach to belief highlights the fact that while religion may have ritual, visual and ideological functions, it is never devoid of interpretations of the cosmos. The fact that some religions are orthopraxic, emphasising the necessity of correct practice not correct belief, does not mean that such religions are devoid of belief. As Segal has argued, religion could not perform any kind of ideological or psychological function if it was not a somewhat independent factor: that is, if many did not believe in the claims being made. A deity may need to be ritually appealed to or appeased but may not be concerned with the mental state of practitioners. This fact does not mean that no one considers the deity to be a real being that requires appeasement. While there may be evidence for other motivations for the performance – cultural heritage, to legitimate the traditional power structure etc. – a practitioner’s statement is surely the best evidence we have. As Horton pointed out, it would be incredibly patronising and unsound for scholars to assume that they have the ‘correct’ interpretation of believers’ statements.

Another crucial contribution that Stringer has made in the rehabilitation of the concept of belief is his notion of ‘situational beliefs’, which serves to explain the apparent ‘contradictory’ nature of many popular religious practices in the modern west. The fact that people may appear to practice many traditions simultaneously, or engage in practices prohibited by their (orthodox) tradition, cannot necessarily be taken as clear evidence that they do not believe in the belief statements they are making. Stringer contends that beliefs are most powerful and consciously thought about in specific situations in which they are relevant, such as a ritual-communal setting like a Church service or in the context of problems or obstacles in the person’s life. While the cognitive dimensions and interpretation which attend religious practices should not be downplayed, not all believers will insist on indivisible, coherent bodies of doctrines, but rather adopt piecemeal and patchwork systems. This may be derided by its critics as a ‘pick and mix’ approach but Stringer’s evidence contributes to the evidence that it is the norm not the exception throughout the world.

However, the concept of belief itself must be examined more closely if it is to be of any value as a scholarly tool. Beliefs must be differentiable in some way from thoughts, and could generally be defined as thoughts which are considered to respond to reality with varying degrees of conviction and held over a notable length of time. The thorny question of where the division lies between belief and knowledge was broached by the interviewer, David Robertson. Stringer places the divide along the lines of how much a statement could possibly be verified, i.e. if I put my cup down it is on the table (knowledge), or whether all leopards are Christian (belief).

According to traditional epistemology, however, all knowledge contains belief. One can claim knowledge if one believes a proposition, has sound reasons to justify this, and the proposition happens to in fact be true[1] Belief is thus a constituent part of the process of gaining knowledge, all knowledge contains belief but not all beliefs count as knowledge. Beliefs themselves can be sub-divided according to how they are justified, whether the belief is empirical and rational and thus accessible to all, or based on experiential or cultural justifications.

One of the interesting questions to come out of Stringer’s research is: how incoherent are the beliefs of the practitioners under study? It is certainly the case that they may not match the traditional expected forms of practice, but while Stringer’s model of situational belief is highly useful, it does not necessarily mean that human beings do not retain a drive for coherence[2]. Stewart Guthrie argued that the worldwide tendency of anthropomorphism, which lies at the heart of many religions, is based on a tendency to seek coherent patterns.

Are the forms of religion in evidence here not so different from the traditional orthodoxies, which no longer have the power or legitimacy to maintain their hegemony, that we find it difficult to recognise them? Practitioners don’t feel a need to accept traditions as whole packages, as Stringer mentioned, and may not even be aware of doctrines that they are contradicting. Furthermore, their God may no longer be a jealous one. That is not to argue that Stringer did not find very palpable evidence of contradictions and a loose attitude to creating a unitary, coherent worldview, even for the individual.

Another traditional view of belief challenged by Stringer is the idea that religious beliefs are always deeply held, of ‘ultimate concern’ to use Paul Tillich’s phrase. This arguably reflects Stringer’s link to the Tylorian tradition, which describes religious belief as a pragmatic means of interpreting the cosmos and indeed to coping with it. This means that believers may not develop an intense ‘faith’ in or sacred aura around these beliefs but, instead, may be willing to adopt new beliefs and abandon old ones, according to how well they appear to offer a valid interpretive mechanism.  As Fitzgerald has astutely pointed out, belief in deities or spirits may be considerably less important or sacred than values such as hierarchy, purity or democracy.

One of the main concepts employed by scholars in place of ‘belief’ is ‘experience.’ Experience is an extremely useful focus but it can be used problematically much like belief and does not perform the same role.  It would certainly be implausible to deny that religious practitioners have real experiences: social, psychological and sensory but the problem is of course that experiences can never be separated out of their frameworks of interpretation. Religious believers frequently claim to have experiences of the love of God and the power of crystals, not just the warmth of their congregation or the pageantry of a festival.

By using the notion of ‘experience’ scholars can conveniently ignore the inherent tension between the naturalistic-cultural and theological frameworks of interpretation. Scholars should not ignore this tension but face it head on: religious people claim to know or experience metaphysical realities because they have interpreted experiences found among specific groups and inculcated by rituals etc. in a particular way. Scholars of religion study only these human beings and do not interpret these experiences in the same way, but cannot simply dismiss them because they lie outside the scientific framework. Belief here can be used as a concept to bridge these frameworks, to allow scholars to understand and appreciate the framework within which religious actors presume to act without using it themselves (or necessarily having to adopt it). Many would not claim to believe in metaphysical realities, but to know them or experience them, but that does not mean that it is useful for scholars to adopt these turns of phrase. They must ‘re-describe’ religious claims in a manner which does not endorse their position.

Experience here takes on the same character as the concept of ‘faith’ that Stringer critiqued, which is used to keep scholars at arm’s length. Adding the concept of belief to the analysis makes it more precise and rich by clarifying  how subjects understand and interpret their experiences, how they separate perceived reality from perceived illusion and modelling the cognitive framework within which actors presume to act. Certainly if social networks can inculcate common behaviour and even common experiences, they can inculcate frameworks of interpretation which are genuinely held to correspond to reality.  The point is that religious believers claim to believe in more than the emotive content of rituals, to believe in ontological realities. Social scientists may be methodologically agnostic to the existence of such phenomena, but they should not leave belief in them out of analysis, because concern with human beings means concern with the cognitive worlds they inhabit.

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:

481753_10151274231722302_1786021171_nLiam Sutherland is a native of Edinburgh who has studied Religious Studies twice at Edinburgh University and is about to go back for third time in September of this year. His undergraduate work focused on Indigenous Religions, taking contemporary Indigenous Australian spirituality as his dissertation topic. His Masters by research concerned the legacy and influence of Sir E.B. Tylor on contemporary theoretical debates in the study of religion and his upcoming PhD will focus on religion and Scottish National identity. He has previously written An Evaluation of Harvey’s Approach to Animism and the Tylorian Legacy,and The Spirit of the Matter: a Neo-Tylorian Response to Timothy Fitzgerald for the Religious Studies project, and participated in roundtable recordings on What is the Future of Religious Studies? and Should Religious Studies be Multidisciplinary?

Bibliography

  • Fitzgerald, T. The Ideology of Religious Studies (2000) Oxford University Press
  • Geertz, C.  “Religion as a Cultural System” in Geertz, C. The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays by Clifford Geertz (1973) Basic Books
  • Guthrie, S.E. Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion (1993) Oxford University Press
  • Horton, R. Patterns of Thought in Africa and the West: Essays on Magic, Religion and Science(1993) Cambridge University Press
  • Lévy-Bruhl, L. Primitive Mentality (1966) Clare, A.L. (trans.) Beacon Press
  • McCutcheon, R.T. Critics Not Caretakers: Redescribing the Public Study of Religion (2001) State University of New York Press
  • Segal, R. “Theories of Religion” in Hinnels, J. R. (ed.) Routledge Companion to the Study of Religion (2005) Routledge
  • Stringer, M.D. Contemporary Western Ethnography and the Definition of Religion (2008) Continuum
  • Tylor, E.B Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Art and Custom Volumes 1 & 2 (1871) John Murray

[1] This approach may well be criticised by many but mostly due to the seemingly arbitrary third factor: that a proposition happens to be true!

[2] I would not argue that Stringer is attempting to revive the position of the early anthropologist Lucien Lévy-Bruhl who argued that many cultures could not recognise contradictions because they thought only in a ‘mystical’ and ‘pre-logical’ framework. Stringer’s account of religion is far too embedded in ordinary life for that. It is possible to speculate that religious people much like non-religious people do not think about the totality of their cognitive cosmos at any one time, rather the aspects that concern them at any one time.

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

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

By Liam Sutherland, University of Edinburgh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About the Author:

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

Bibliography:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Podcasts

Time Travel and Fictions of Science

In 1856, Edward Burnett Tylor, of inscribed with “Huitzilopochtli the god of war, Teoyaomiqui his wife, and Mictlanteuctli the god of hell” all compiled into a gruesome symbol of Aztec religion.  “There is little doubt,” Tylor opined, “that this is the famous war-idol which stood on the great teocalli of Mexico, and before which so many thousands of human victims were sacrificed.”  The famous sculpture, now surveying its victims in the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Chapultepec Park, took on an early identification as a female divinity and passed into common culture as Coatlicue (“She of the Serpent Skirt”).  She is now, so a more recent theory holds, not simply the earth/mother goddess, but a representation of a tzitzimitl, one of any number of female sacred personages of ambivalent powers and actions.  At their worst, the tzitzimime (pl.) could be “star demons” descending to devour humans, but for the most part these female powers, in good Aztec fashion pivoted around duality, a complementarity that balanced threat with surety in their various avatars.

Tylor’s observations about the “war goddess” and Mexico overall, peering into its barbaric past through the residual survivals of a culture he predicted would fall to the United States, is a good mix of science and great deal of fiction.  While not exactly “science fiction” as we have come to know the genre, travelling forward from his time we can see how the spectacle and rudeness of Aztec ritual and human sacrifice aided Tylor in his scientific speculations on the evolution of cultures and the pre-modern human mind at work as it grasped to understand the natural world.  Ever the scientist, Tylor studded his travelogue with the best resources of his time, quoting Lord Kingsborough on Mexican antiquities, Humboldt’s meticulous measurement and mapping on Mexico a half century earlier, and he even provides the reader with a “Table of Aztec roots” to be compared with Sanskrit and related Indo-European forms.  Yet despite his best scholarly efforts, Tylor’s Anahuac is “fiction” in the same way that Europeans have drawn on their vast reservoir of myths, legends, and stories of Amazons and the Lost Tribes of Israel in their mastery of the Americas.  Columbus (in)famously believed he was near the Garden of Eden as he entered the Orinoco in 1498.  So, too, Tylor, while careful to dismiss any number of arguments claiming “supposed Aztec-Bible traditions,” cannot contain his wonder at the similarities between the Aztec and Hindu cosmogonies, and Aztec and Asian calendrics and astronomy (“resemblances in the signs used that seem too close for chance”).

Much, much later, or maybe much, much earlier – we will never know exactly when – Dr. Who and his companions dropped from the stars, landing smack dab in the middle of the great Aztec high priest Yetaxa’s tomb sometime in the 15th century.   We mere humans saw it in 1964, in one of the first serials of what is, arguably, television’s most successful franchises of any genre.  As far as science fiction television goes, Dr. Who is the gold standard for its quirkiness, kitschy but effective visuals, and astonishing insight into humanicity.  For Americans, the enigmatic but ever pragmatic Dr. Who remains the incarnation of British “clever.”

In Aztecs, one of the travellers, Barbara, is mistaken for a reincarnation of the dead priest Yetaxa.  And, never mind that Yetaxa, who was male reincarnates dw50revaztecs3as a woman, for as Barbara/Yetaxa notes, it is the spirit of Yetaxa, not the human form that counts (more on this later).   Because Barbara is a history teacher with, conveniently, a specialization in Aztec history she knows the Spanish will arrive and destroy the Aztec empire.  Thinking that if she can play out her ersatz goddess role she can rid the Aztecs of human sacrifice, preserving only the good in Aztec culture, and thus convince Cortes to spare them from destruction.  “You can’t rewrite history!” warns the Doctor.  “Not one line!”  Ultimately, Barbara/Yetaxa fails to thwart human sacrifice, and as they say, the rest is history.

What the writers of the Aztecs serial couldn’t know was that their fiction turned out to be closer to the idea of Nahua “divinity” than Tylor’s educated view.  Like most scholars of Aztec religion, Tylor believed that Aztec “gods” bore similarities with Indo-Europeans too close to ignore.  Like his comparison of Nahuatl words to Sanskrit and Greek, Tylor continued the common error of classifying the Aztec teteo to the Olympian pantheon.  Science fiction’s imaginative leap away from the pantheon model to Yetaxa’s spirit leaping from body to body is much more in line with our current understanding of how sacred power worked in ancient Mexico.

As scholars of religion engage the thought experiments in science fiction, we are forced to think and imagine beyond the building blocks of the previous generation’s knowledge.  Tylor might have benefitted from taking on the colossal Mexican Coatlicue monolith on its own terms rather than fall back on the work of earlier speculators like Kingsborough.  Maybe, like our ancestor ape-men confronting the black stela in 2001: A Space Odyssey and being catapulted a million years into space-travelling homo sapiens, Tylor would have made the leap from mere scientist into more provocative, certainly more compelling and lyrical interpretations of the stone goddess.  On a number of occasions, reading Tylor’s travelogue suggests that, indeed, he had found his way into Dr. Who’s TARDIS, travelled through time and space and landed in Mexico.  But unlike the curiosity and cleverness of the Dr. Who travellers, Tylor ‘s imagination was limited by his ethnocentrism and stodginess.  For him, Mexico continued its pitiable decline, a “second-hand” culture as he saw it.  Because Mexicans were “totally incapable of governing themselves” as he saw it, it was inevitable and positive that this failed state be swallowed up by the United States.  For Tylor then, travelling back to Aztec Mexico through the archeological remains at Cholula and Xochicalco, the pyramids at Teotihuacan, and displays of ancient objects in museums restored for him the glories of ancient Mexico which at the time were mostly fictions of science.

 

 

Belief, Belonging, and Academic Careers

Almost twenty years ago, Grace Davie observed that despite plenty of studies into the ‘exotic edges’ of religion, ‘the picture in the middle remains remarkably blurred’. Seeking to address this imbalance and engage with the ‘beliefs of ordinary British people in everyday life’, Abby Day‘s recent book, Believing in Belonging (the first topic for this interview), builds upon her doctoral and later postdoctoral fieldwork, beginning within small communities in Yorkshire, and extending to a number of modern industrialised nations.

in this interview with Chris, recorded at the 2013 BSA Sociology of Religion Study Group Conference at Durham University, Day introduces listeners to the concept of ‘belief’ and sets out her own inductive approach, using semi-structured interviews, whereby definitions were allowed to arise from the field. Her central thesis acts as a focal point for a wide-ranging and insightful discussion on a variety of topics from nationalism and secularisation, to the usefulness of censuses as tools for measuring ‘religion’, to gender and belief in destiny. These themes are also picked up and developed in a recent volume published by Ashgate – Social Identities Between the Sacred and the Secular – which was co-edited by Abby, Chris, and Giselle Vincett.

Wearing one of her other hats, Abby also presents regularly on how to build an academic career, win research funding, and get articles published, and has published the books academic publishing and building an academic career.

You can also 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.uk or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when buying your important books etc.

A Brief Re-Examination of the Concept of Belief in the Study of Religion

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Belief […] can be used as a concept to bridge […] frameworks, to allow scholars to understand and appreciate the framework within which religious actors presume to act without using it themselves (or necessarily having to adopt it).

A Brief Re-Examination of the Concept of Belief in the Study of Religion

By Liam T. Sutherland

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 15 May 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Martin Stringer on Situational Belief (13 May 2013)

The work of Professor Martin Stringer is a breath of fresh air for all those who reject both the simplistic belief-centred approach to religion and its attendant backlash. It makes belief an important part of the way that religions are researched and analysed, but not in a fashion recognisable to many.

The traditional belief-centred approach drags with it a raft of assumptions that have proved consistently absent in the field, most notably that religious communities are centred on a coherent body of beliefs which mediates membership and divides them sharply from outsiders. Religious beliefs are often described in ways so philosophical and abstract that they would appear to in no way relate to the everyday lives of practitioners, who may have never encountered such supposedly integral doctrines. This approach has been overturned by examinations of ritual, visual religion, ethnicity, kinship, power etc.  Other assumptions have been overturned, such as the notion that adherents engage exclusively in practices sanctioned by their tradition. Stringer found in his own fieldwork in the North of England that professing Christians would seek the advice of astrologers and claim to believe in reincarnation.

The inaccuracy of such assumptions has led to a rejection of ‘belief’ as a problematic concept. However, many of these assumptions cannot be countered without re-examining the concept of belief. Arguably this is because they reflect a misrepresentation of the workings of belief, not the applicability of the concept itself.  The rejection of belief is based on equally untenable assumptions, usually simple, negative or inverted versions of those mentioned above. ‘Belief’ is often described by its critics in the words of Clifford Geertz, as though it always entailed some kind of ‘abstract Baconian deduction’, always hermetically sealed, intellectual, elite systems which are removed from everyday life. Attempting to remove belief from accounts of religion is a hollow, unsatisfying and deliberately blinkered means of avoiding its pitfalls –  as Geertz added it is like staging Hamlet without the prince.

Stringer has shown that people use belief in extra-empirical beings as coping mechanisms and to anticipate and deal with problems. People may seek the structure, resources and cultural resonance of a Christian church, the ability to predict and respond to future problems offered by an astrologer, and the comfort of being able to chat with dead relatives who can listen and respond. All of these examples depend on a variety of factors, one of which is surely that they are considered to reflect belief in powerful, efficacious and therefore useful realities.

This approach to belief highlights the fact that while religion may have ritual, visual and ideological functions, it is never devoid of interpretations of the cosmos. The fact that some religions are orthopraxic, emphasising the necessity of correct practice not correct belief, does not mean that such religions are devoid of belief. As Segal has argued, religion could not perform any kind of ideological or psychological function if it was not a somewhat independent factor: that is, if many did not believe in the claims being made. A deity may need to be ritually appealed to or appeased but may not be concerned with the mental state of practitioners. This fact does not mean that no one considers the deity to be a real being that requires appeasement. While there may be evidence for other motivations for the performance – cultural heritage, to legitimate the traditional power structure etc. – a practitioner’s statement is surely the best evidence we have. As Horton pointed out, it would be incredibly patronising and unsound for scholars to assume that they have the ‘correct’ interpretation of believers’ statements.

Another crucial contribution that Stringer has made in the rehabilitation of the concept of belief is his notion of ‘situational beliefs’, which serves to explain the apparent ‘contradictory’ nature of many popular religious practices in the modern west. The fact that people may appear to practice many traditions simultaneously, or engage in practices prohibited by their (orthodox) tradition, cannot necessarily be taken as clear evidence that they do not believe in the belief statements they are making. Stringer contends that beliefs are most powerful and consciously thought about in specific situations in which they are relevant, such as a ritual-communal setting like a Church service or in the context of problems or obstacles in the person’s life. While the cognitive dimensions and interpretation which attend religious practices should not be downplayed, not all believers will insist on indivisible, coherent bodies of doctrines, but rather adopt piecemeal and patchwork systems. This may be derided by its critics as a ‘pick and mix’ approach but Stringer’s evidence contributes to the evidence that it is the norm not the exception throughout the world.

However, the concept of belief itself must be examined more closely if it is to be of any value as a scholarly tool. Beliefs must be differentiable in some way from thoughts, and could generally be defined as thoughts which are considered to respond to reality with varying degrees of conviction and held over a notable length of time. The thorny question of where the division lies between belief and knowledge was broached by the interviewer, David Robertson. Stringer places the divide along the lines of how much a statement could possibly be verified, i.e. if I put my cup down it is on the table (knowledge), or whether all leopards are Christian (belief).

According to traditional epistemology, however, all knowledge contains belief. One can claim knowledge if one believes a proposition, has sound reasons to justify this, and the proposition happens to in fact be true[1] Belief is thus a constituent part of the process of gaining knowledge, all knowledge contains belief but not all beliefs count as knowledge. Beliefs themselves can be sub-divided according to how they are justified, whether the belief is empirical and rational and thus accessible to all, or based on experiential or cultural justifications.

One of the interesting questions to come out of Stringer’s research is: how incoherent are the beliefs of the practitioners under study? It is certainly the case that they may not match the traditional expected forms of practice, but while Stringer’s model of situational belief is highly useful, it does not necessarily mean that human beings do not retain a drive for coherence[2]. Stewart Guthrie argued that the worldwide tendency of anthropomorphism, which lies at the heart of many religions, is based on a tendency to seek coherent patterns.

Are the forms of religion in evidence here not so different from the traditional orthodoxies, which no longer have the power or legitimacy to maintain their hegemony, that we find it difficult to recognise them? Practitioners don’t feel a need to accept traditions as whole packages, as Stringer mentioned, and may not even be aware of doctrines that they are contradicting. Furthermore, their God may no longer be a jealous one. That is not to argue that Stringer did not find very palpable evidence of contradictions and a loose attitude to creating a unitary, coherent worldview, even for the individual.

Another traditional view of belief challenged by Stringer is the idea that religious beliefs are always deeply held, of ‘ultimate concern’ to use Paul Tillich’s phrase. This arguably reflects Stringer’s link to the Tylorian tradition, which describes religious belief as a pragmatic means of interpreting the cosmos and indeed to coping with it. This means that believers may not develop an intense ‘faith’ in or sacred aura around these beliefs but, instead, may be willing to adopt new beliefs and abandon old ones, according to how well they appear to offer a valid interpretive mechanism.  As Fitzgerald has astutely pointed out, belief in deities or spirits may be considerably less important or sacred than values such as hierarchy, purity or democracy.

One of the main concepts employed by scholars in place of ‘belief’ is ‘experience.’ Experience is an extremely useful focus but it can be used problematically much like belief and does not perform the same role.  It would certainly be implausible to deny that religious practitioners have real experiences: social, psychological and sensory but the problem is of course that experiences can never be separated out of their frameworks of interpretation. Religious believers frequently claim to have experiences of the love of God and the power of crystals, not just the warmth of their congregation or the pageantry of a festival.

By using the notion of ‘experience’ scholars can conveniently ignore the inherent tension between the naturalistic-cultural and theological frameworks of interpretation. Scholars should not ignore this tension but face it head on: religious people claim to know or experience metaphysical realities because they have interpreted experiences found among specific groups and inculcated by rituals etc. in a particular way. Scholars of religion study only these human beings and do not interpret these experiences in the same way, but cannot simply dismiss them because they lie outside the scientific framework. Belief here can be used as a concept to bridge these frameworks, to allow scholars to understand and appreciate the framework within which religious actors presume to act without using it themselves (or necessarily having to adopt it). Many would not claim to believe in metaphysical realities, but to know them or experience them, but that does not mean that it is useful for scholars to adopt these turns of phrase. They must ‘re-describe’ religious claims in a manner which does not endorse their position.

Experience here takes on the same character as the concept of ‘faith’ that Stringer critiqued, which is used to keep scholars at arm’s length. Adding the concept of belief to the analysis makes it more precise and rich by clarifying  how subjects understand and interpret their experiences, how they separate perceived reality from perceived illusion and modelling the cognitive framework within which actors presume to act. Certainly if social networks can inculcate common behaviour and even common experiences, they can inculcate frameworks of interpretation which are genuinely held to correspond to reality.  The point is that religious believers claim to believe in more than the emotive content of rituals, to believe in ontological realities. Social scientists may be methodologically agnostic to the existence of such phenomena, but they should not leave belief in them out of analysis, because concern with human beings means concern with the cognitive worlds they inhabit.

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:

481753_10151274231722302_1786021171_nLiam Sutherland is a native of Edinburgh who has studied Religious Studies twice at Edinburgh University and is about to go back for third time in September of this year. His undergraduate work focused on Indigenous Religions, taking contemporary Indigenous Australian spirituality as his dissertation topic. His Masters by research concerned the legacy and influence of Sir E.B. Tylor on contemporary theoretical debates in the study of religion and his upcoming PhD will focus on religion and Scottish National identity. He has previously written An Evaluation of Harvey’s Approach to Animism and the Tylorian Legacy,and The Spirit of the Matter: a Neo-Tylorian Response to Timothy Fitzgerald for the Religious Studies project, and participated in roundtable recordings on What is the Future of Religious Studies? and Should Religious Studies be Multidisciplinary?

Bibliography

  • Fitzgerald, T. The Ideology of Religious Studies (2000) Oxford University Press
  • Geertz, C.  “Religion as a Cultural System” in Geertz, C. The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays by Clifford Geertz (1973) Basic Books
  • Guthrie, S.E. Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion (1993) Oxford University Press
  • Horton, R. Patterns of Thought in Africa and the West: Essays on Magic, Religion and Science(1993) Cambridge University Press
  • Lévy-Bruhl, L. Primitive Mentality (1966) Clare, A.L. (trans.) Beacon Press
  • McCutcheon, R.T. Critics Not Caretakers: Redescribing the Public Study of Religion (2001) State University of New York Press
  • Segal, R. “Theories of Religion” in Hinnels, J. R. (ed.) Routledge Companion to the Study of Religion (2005) Routledge
  • Stringer, M.D. Contemporary Western Ethnography and the Definition of Religion (2008) Continuum
  • Tylor, E.B Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Art and Custom Volumes 1 & 2 (1871) John Murray

[1] This approach may well be criticised by many but mostly due to the seemingly arbitrary third factor: that a proposition happens to be true!

[2] I would not argue that Stringer is attempting to revive the position of the early anthropologist Lucien Lévy-Bruhl who argued that many cultures could not recognise contradictions because they thought only in a ‘mystical’ and ‘pre-logical’ framework. Stringer’s account of religion is far too embedded in ordinary life for that. It is possible to speculate that religious people much like non-religious people do not think about the totality of their cognitive cosmos at any one time, rather the aspects that concern them at any one time.

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

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

By Liam Sutherland, University of Edinburgh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About the Author:

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

Bibliography:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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