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Since the early 1800s, there had been an ample amount of skeptics trying to account for the origin of religion.
The basic question on everybody’s mind was where does religion come from? Some believed that people developed religion because they didn’t understand the forces of nature around them. Others believe that religion was created as a way of restrain people.
In the 19th century, people were introduced to social science and anthropologists who once studied primitive culture were exposed to several theories on the origin of religion. Edward B Tylor was one of the first who developed a theory on religion. Max Muller was a German professor at Oxford University whose interest included Indian mythology and the study of religion. Another anthropologist was George Frazer who key contributions to religious anthropology was a religious encyclopedia. There are many explanations to the origin of religion, one of the most prominent being Edward B.
Tylor’s theory of animism. This theory is considered the foundation of the physical evolution of religion; two other influential religious anthropologists, Max Muller and James Frazer, also based their explanations of the origin of religion on nature.
All three religious anthropologists are similar in the sense that they traced the evolution of religion in an attempt to figure out the origin of it but differ in the way they approach the concept of religion. Edward B. Tylor developed the theory of animism to help explain the most rudimentary form of religion.
Animism is defined as the belief that attributes souls and spirits to humans, plants, animals and other entities.
Animistic religious beliefs are well-known among primitive societies who were “so low in culture as to have no religious conceptions what so ever” (Tylor). Tylor considered animism as the most primitive phase in the development of religion. He believed that the reflection of dreams and the observation of death caused primitive people to develop the idea of souls and spirits. Tylor thought that primitive people believed that everything in nature had a soul within it.
He hypothesized that a belief in animism led to the formation of a more generalized god and, eventually, the creation of monotheism. Animism ultimately led to the evolution of religion in the minds of the people. It led them to take something so simple as nature and use it to explain the natural phenomenon in their environment. A conflicting theory that uses the concept of evolution is that of Max Muller. Another theory of the origin of religion was developed by Max Muller. He believed that people first developed religion from the observation of nature. According to his theory, primitive people became aware of regularity of the seasons, the tides and the phases of the moon. Their response to these forces in nature was to personalize them”(Hopfe and Woodward). They personalized them through linguistics. Muller believed that development of religion was a cause of confusion in language (Goldsmith). There seems to be a divide between Muller and Tylor over the nature of the origin of religion. Max Muller believed that the answer to the sole origin of religion could be found in the past and a person can trace its origin in the linguistic remnants in the Indo-European languages.
Tylor thought that implementing an ethnological approach would be more successful than studying languages for answers of the origin of religion. Evolution of religion is evident in Muller’s theory because “they personified the forces of nature, created myths to describe their activities, and eventually developed pantheons and religions around them” (Hopfe and Woodward). By developing religions and pantheons from identifying the forces in nature is a clear sign of the evolution of religion in the human mind set.
Even though their theories are different, the idea of evolution of religion in the human mind is evident in both Muller and Tylor’s theory. Sir James George Frazer, a fellow religious anthropologist, began developing his own theories on religion. Frazer believed that humans used magic as a way to control nature and the events around them and when that failed, they turned to religion. They used religion to control the events for a while and when religion failed they turned to science. Frazer’s theories were similar to those of Tylor.
They both believed that the human mind developed in the same way as that of physical evolution.. Even though Frazer took a similar approach to Tylor in tracing the origin of religion, he modified Tylor’s theory and replaced Tylor’s theory of animism with his idea of magic. A similarity between Frazer and Tylor is that they both believed that religion began from an intentional method of describing and making sense of a strange world. Frazer replaces the idea that religion explains nature by introducing science as a substitute.
Frazer’s approach to tracing the origin of religion is similar to that of Tylor and Muller since all three traced the evolution of religion in an attempt to figure out its origin. Both Muller and Frazer’s theory are similar to Tylor’s theory since both trace the origin of religion through the evolution of it but differ in the way they interpret religion. All three of them seemed to miss a vital element of religion which is that no one who practices religion is doing so to explain how the world works. People use religion for several reasons. Some use it to give meaning to their lives while others use it to enforce social order. Maybe all three anthropologists didn’t miss this key component but rather didn’t know about it due to the rapid evolution of religion.
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