Mormonism and Theories of Religion: Tylor and Frazer

July 27, 2004 | 15 comments
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As Nate mentioned, I am starting my doctorate in Religious Studies this fall. In my first semester I will take a required seminar for new doctoral students Contemporary Issues in the Theory of Religion. We were given some summer reading as a preparation for this course, which included the introductory book on the subject, Seven Theories of Religion, by Daniel L. Pals. He recognizes, and I concur, that these are not all of the theories, and some important thinkers are overlooked, but seven does sound like a nice round(ish) number.

Now, if Nate feels ignorant of fields which are not his own, I feel doubly ignorant of my own field. So I would like to apply these various theories to the study of Mormonism in order to try and learn something. I hope to hear your thoughts on the strengths and weakness, and overall usefulness of these various approaches. In so doing, I will attempt to offer a theory of Mormonism in the voice of the theorist at hand. Due to the constrains of the blog format, these summaries will be of necessity brutally short, but hopefully the comments can spin out the ideas a bit more.

The first theory of religion treated by Pals is attributed to two British scholars in the late 19th c., E. B. Tylor and James Frazer. They adopted an evolutionary view of religion, wherein humans progressed from “primitive” religion to more rational thought (namely, science). For these thinkers, religion arose among primitive peoples as a means to explain the world around them. They used magic to control the forces of nature. Later, religion proper developed as people prayed to God to accomplish their goals in nature. As humanity progresses, still some primitive practices linger. Magic and pseudo-science are still practiced by many “civilized” peoples, but religion itself is simply an outmoded way of explaining the universe. Religion and magic are thus false sciences of prelogical minds to understand the forces of nature.

Such an approach to religion has been applied to 19th century Mormonism and the use of folk magic, most notably by D. Michael Quinn. Though his view of magic is slightly more subtle than Tylor and Frazer, it is not without problems. But I am less interested in 19th c. Mormonism for this project, and more interested in how this may apply to 20th c. LDS belief and practice. To what extent is Mormonism a tool for explaining the natural world, if at all? Do LDS farming communities rely on fasting and prayer to control the crop output? What about the practice of blessings of the sick? Does the theory of Tylor and Frazer about the function of religion as a pre-scientific understanding of how the world works shed light on contemporary LDS beliefs and practices?

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15 Responses to Mormonism and Theories of Religion: Tylor and Frazer

  1. Rob on July 27, 2004 at 2:41 pm

    Great questions. Reminds me of recent evangelical and mainline Christian critiques of Mormonism; Mormons actually try to enlist God in changing world events, from healings to ending droughts and famines (remember the churchwide fast for African famine relief in the 1980s?).

    I think many LDS do have a pre-scientific worldview–witness regular debates about evolution at BYU.

    On another note, theologically a Mormon restorationist paradigm of history would seem to run counter to Hegel’s (and Tylor and Frazer’s) views of progressive history. While many Christians (and Jews) still see their later movements as progressive from earlier positions, Mormons may see their movements as “falling aways” or apostacies. Truth isn’t something that History is moving towards, through more enlightened historical epochs, but rather something repeatedly revealed and potentially altered or lost.

  2. diogenes on July 27, 2004 at 3:21 pm

    While I find the question intriguing, isn’t there some difficulty with the premises? Specifically, wasn’t Frazer and his approach thoroughly and completely discredited by serious anthropologists about 40 years ago?

  3. Taylor on July 27, 2004 at 3:33 pm

    Diogenes, you’re absolutely right. In fact, none of the theories I will present are currently accepted. However, they have had a major impact on how religion is understood by both scholars and the general public. While they may not be useful as general theories of religion, I wonder whether or not they may illuminate certain aspects of religion. Maybe, maybe not.

  4. Jim F. on July 27, 2004 at 3:48 pm

    Though there are elements of our religious practices that might suggest otherwise, such as the fasts for the cessation of famine that Rob mentions or Utahns’ prayers for the end of the drought, I don’t think that 20th and 21st century LDS understand the world through the lens of their religion very much. We generally wear two hats, our religion hat and our science hat, and we don’t mix them much. I don’t see the tomatoes in my garden and immediately see them as a blessing from God. I have to remind myself to see them that way because my first response to them is as the result of natural processes combined with my dunging and tilling. I think that is our natural attitude toward the world.

    Even those who worry about evolution and find “creation science” tempting don’t have a prescientific understanding of the world, only a bad scientific understanding of it. The problem is that they agree that science is the way to explain things. They just don’t like the science that does that. (By the way, the debates about evolution at BYU haven’t been “regular” for 20 years or more—today and for some time almost no one in religion at BYU attacks the scientists for evolution, and they can be assured of “getting in trouble” if they do. We have a large group of evolutionary biologists on campus who go about their work relatively unhindered. Evolution was an issue in the 60s and into the 70s. It isn’t much of a campus issue any more, though of course it may be an issue for individual faculty or students.)

    I also think that intellectual hubris and a lack of careful observation informed the judgment that religion was originally primitive science. There are so many things that go under the title “religion” that it is difficult if not impossible to decide how to define the term to encompass everything to which it is applied. So perhaps there are religions that amount to primitive science. But I don’t think it is difficult to see that Judeo-Christian religions and many other religions don’t. Consider that most of what happens in many religions is difficult to classify as even primitive science. Animal sacrifice for sin, for example, is difficult to explain that way.

    Even what appears at first glance to have some bearing on science probably doesn’t. For example, when the scriptures tell us how the world was created, they do so with interests, goals, and basic assumptions so different from those of science that we ought to be suspicious of claims that both are answers to the same question “How did the world come to be?” Such claims equivocate, for the question does not mean the same thing in a scriptural context that it means in a scientific one. (The existence for LDS of four different and incompatible creation stories–Genesis, Moses, Abraham, the temple–is one reason to believe that these are not alternate scientific accounts. That and the fact that they are, after all, ritual texts.) Scientific and scriptural accounts of the origins of the world both make truth claims. To the degree that they make claims about the same things, they are comparable and we can decide between them. But it is far from obvious that they do that very often.

    Rob’s point is a good one: LDS who take a dispensational view seriously won’t find it easy to fit their view into the progressive view. But the question is how best to explain religion, not how religious people understand themselves. Frazer’s and Tylor’s views of how to explain religion aren’t compatible with our understanding of our religion.

    Diogenes, I find Taylor’s question interesting because, though these theories have been discredited in the academy for a long time, they remain part of our common sense. One doesn’t have to go far to hear someone assuming some version of their view, and assuming that it is obviously true.

    I’m looking forward to Taylor’s next six (?) installments.

    P.S. For what I think is a very well-thought-out essay on how we can study religion, I recommend Paul Ricoeur’s “Philosophy and Religious Language” in Figuring the Sacred or “Experience and Language in Religious Discourse” in Phenomenology and the ‘Theological Turn': The French Debate.

  5. Rob on July 27, 2004 at 4:19 pm

    Jim, while it is probably true that evolution may not be a source of institutional tension at BYU, it does come up in the letters to the editor pages of the Daily Universe every fall as new freshman become shocked to learn that the pre-scientific view of creation they were taught at home is not the accepted view of origins taught in the science departments at BYU (at least this was still the case in the early ’90s when I was there).

    And I would still hazard a guess that there are many CES employees (maybe even T&S readers) for whom evolution is still a deadly heresy.

    I would also submit that these views really are pre-scientific holdovers. While modern members may be “scientific” in their approach to other aspects of their life (though I think this is highly debateable), they often use pre-scientific logic and thinking for approaching their religious life and cosmology.

    And just as many Christian fundamentalists hold to their literal Biblical view of creation despite those views being demonstrably unscientific, the long-discredited views of Tylor and Frazer–or at least their progressivistic assumptions–still find voice in many popular (and possibly scholarly or at least psuedo-scholarly) works on religion. How many times do we have to hear about Mosaic monotheism replacing “primitive” tribal religions, or Christian truth replacing “primitive” Mosaic laws? These are common views, tied to the same discredited assumptions Tylor and Frazer held.

  6. Nate Oman on July 27, 2004 at 4:27 pm

    “And I would still hazard a guess that there are many CES employees (maybe even T&S readers) for whom evolution is still a deadly heresy.”

    I call for an controlled empirical study!

  7. Jim F. on July 27, 2004 at 4:29 pm

    Rob, I don’t doubt that there remain many in the Church for whom evolution is heretical nor that their first experience at BYU can be a shock–nor that the editors at the Daily Universe can’t resist printing the same dumb letters year after year. That’s another question.

    I think that the very evidence you adduce for concluding that many hold prescientific views is actually evidence that they don’t. You point out that they unknowingly use the assumptions of Tylor and Frazer–who are discredited scientists rather than prescientific thinkers–to think about the relation of Christianity to the Mosaic law. My argument (for which there is not room here) is that these are just bad science, not prescientific and that most of what members say today takes a scientific view, though it is a bad scientific view.

  8. Rob on July 27, 2004 at 4:50 pm

    Jim, without getting into a long discussion to define what we mean by “scientific”, I’ll agree that you may be right about this…though without that long discussion, we may never know.

    My mom once asked me if I thought the California Condors were going extinct because there weren’t large numbers of dead Lamanites to eat anymore. Where did that come from? Pre-scientific? Psuedo-scientific? Bad Science? Complete wackjobbery?

    How about, “we don’t have to do anything about global warming (or any other environmental issue) because Jesus is going to come back and burn up the earth anyway”?

    What about, “if I wear my garments I won’t get into a car wreck”?

    What about, “lets pray to be led to a golden contact today”?

    What about, “our leaders can’t lead us astray, because they told us so”?

    While you might be right that much Mormon thought is scientific, or maybe bad-science, surely there is a huge area of our beliefs and practices that is pre-scientific or unscientific. To the degree that we use scriptural authority as a foundation, that isn’t scientific. To the degree that we pray for God to intervene on our behalf in the world, that isn’t scientific–unless you are following Grant Von Harrison and trying to use some sort of faith technology to draw down the powers of heaven.

    To the degree that much of our practices may be unscientific, I think it is legitimate to examine these unscientific practices. To the degree that these practices shape and our shaped by our worldview, I think Taylor (if not Tyler and Frazer) has a good question for us.

    So, again the question is “To what extent is Mormonism a tool for explaining the natural world, if at all?”

    Many members use pre-scientific religious texts to understand the origins of the earth and our human place in the cosmos. Others may be more steeped in a scientific worldview. Looking at differences in approach between those with different worldviews would seem a fruitful subject of discussion.

  9. Jim F. on July 27, 2004 at 5:26 pm

    Rob, I get irritated when LDS writers make points in a discussion by saying, “I wrote about that in X.” But I’m going to be irritating because, as I’m sure is true for those with whom I get irritated. there isn’t room enough here to make the argument and I’ve already tried to do so in some other place. As a sub-theme, I wrote about how I understand the pre-scientific point of view (I call it “premodern”) in “Scripture as Incarnation,” Historicity and the Latter-day Saint Scriptures. Ed. Paul Y. Hoskisson. Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center Brigham Young University, 2001, 17-61. That essay touches on the question of science and religion. I also have made my argument about the scientific character of so-called fundamentalist Christian belief in an essay that is still “in press”: “Myth and Religion: Theology as a Hermeneutic of Religious Experience.” In a volume on theology. Ed. David Paulsen. Albany: SUNY Press. Since that isn’t available yet, I apologize for referring to it, but I’ll send anyone interested a copy on request.

    Please e-mail me privately rather than use this thread for requests.

    I don’t want to post it on the net for fear of violating the publisher’s copyright.

  10. Rob on July 27, 2004 at 5:48 pm

    Thanks for the references…hard to be irritated when good reading is in the offering.

  11. Sheldon Lawrence on July 27, 2004 at 5:58 pm

    What about: “If I pay my tithing, an unexpected check will show up in the mail.” Or the sister missionaries I heard of in South America that asked God to bless them with contacts if they slept without a pillow for a week. What about explaining mental retardation and infant death in terms of pre-existent righteousness? What about those who read even mundane daily events as signs that God is telling them that something is or isn’t “meant to be”?

    I think this kind of superstition can be spiritually paralyzing. People find themselves taking increasingly irrational steps to please an increasingly irrational God. I know because I have gone through these phases to some degree throughout my life. I’m still not entirely certain to what degree something is superstition and magic, and to what degree it is true religion. Is it superstitious to pray for a safe journey on a long road trip? Will God really intervene by making a drunk driver not hit you? Why couldn’t/wouldn’t he?

    By the way, I’m not well read in this subject. Can anyone tell me briefly just how Tylor and Frazer have been discredited?

  12. diogenes on July 27, 2004 at 6:30 pm

    Well, if I am remembering correctly, aside from some rather severe methodological problems — like not bothering to do any fieldwork, and relying on third-hand “a friend of a friend once told me” ethnography — Frazer’s ideas were badly infected with a lot of Edwardian “my religion is the epitome of civilization and yours is primitive howling savagery” hubris, mixed in with a healthy dose of Spencerian “primitive social behaviors evolve toward more advanced behaviors — which happen to be my social behaviors” assumptions.

  13. Jim F. on July 27, 2004 at 8:01 pm

    Sheldon Lawrence: I don’t think that superstitious behavior is the same as primitive scientific behavior. For some very nice ideas about the relation of superstition to religion, see Ricoeur’s “The Religious Significance of Atheism” in a book of the same title.

    I have been recommending Ricoeur a lot in the last couple of days, but that is mostly a coincidence–that and he is a religious philosopher who’s thought a lot about religion and philosophy and, so, often has interesting things to say.

  14. Dave M. on July 28, 2004 at 3:49 pm

    Growing up in a small farming town in Southern Utah, I remember a regular summer event. It retrospect, it seems it happened every summer, but it’s entirely possible that this regularity is a construct of my memory. As the summer wore on, the water supply inevitably dwindled and a fast (sometimes on a ward basis, sometimes on a stake basis) was called to end the drought and bring rain. Often, following the fast, the late summer rains would come (whether through divine intervention or meteorological cycles, I’m not qualified to say). This behavior seemed very natural to me at the time, and for all I know, this almost ritual use of prayer and fasting to control the natural elements still continues in some parts of rural Mormondom.

  15. Ethesis (Stephen M) on July 28, 2004 at 11:07 pm

    I guess part of the question is whether or not God is a God of miracles or whether miracles have ceased.

    Excellent question, along with what is faith.