Ethnography, Anthropology, and the Study of Religion


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Edward Burnett Tylor was the first modern anthropologist. Image by MSchnitzler2000

Edward Burnett Tylor made the first modern anthropological study of religion. Image by MSchnitzler2000

Victorian interpretation of evolutionary theories saw human progress as a linear continuum.

Many scholars of this period unfortunately did think along racialist lines when it came to the behaviour and habits of non-Caucasian and/or so-called ‘Primitive’ peoples.

Scholars often believed that the religious beliefs of non-modern, non-western societies were irrational and childlike, or that at the very least the beliefs had degenerated after a sort of initial ideal ‘Biblical’ order where a true or at least a ‘legitimate’ religion was followed.

Theistic Perspectives in Religious Studies

Students of religion often studied other systems by looking at the alternate belief system from a theistic point of view – this means that, for example, a Christian scholar may look at a polytheistic religion, where many gods were worshipped, compare it to his or her own, and judge that religion or belief on whether it was right, or valid, or otherwise.

Usually this meant whether or how much a belief system resembled a traditional monotheistic religion based on scripture, such as Christianity, Islam, or Judaism.

In short, studies of religion were rather culturally biased. Analyses and theories were also often based on the purely theoretical research of -as Edward Evan Evans-Pritchard put it – “armchair scholars.”

In actual fact, what modern Anthropology attempts to do is to answer the ‘Why?’ and ‘How?’ of religions, rather than ‘What it is’.  Modern anthropology, being based on ethnography, i.e. a study of a specific society or group in a given geographical location, will also, as a consequence, answer these questions based on a particular type of religion.

Colonialism and Exploration: Opening Minds to New Ideas

Colonialism and exploration would, paradoxically, open intellectual horizons. It allowed young anthropologists, eager explorers, and international entrepreneurs to come into contact with new ideas during their travels, and in this way scholars could actually experience the cultures they wanted to study in person. In this context, the first modern anthropological study of religion was made by Edward Burnett Taylor in 1871.

Taylor first travelled to Mexico to recover from ill health with an antiquarian friend, and ended up proposing innovative social theories which “laid the basis for treating anthropology as a science in the 19th century,” according to the Dictionary of Anthropology. Tylor essentially used his studies and his observations of the native peoples of Mexico to put forward the idea that religious beliefs are, first of all, attempts by people to explain the world around them and its natural phenomena.

His explanation is therefore referred to as ‘intellectualist’. Secondly, he proposed that there is an evolutionary order of the way religious beliefs develop, which roughly means that first comes magic, then religion, then science. Magic is a kind of ‘mistaken science’, where people may believe in a cause having an effect based on similarity: so he gives the example of people believing that a gold ring would cure jaundice.

Early religious scholars saw non-Caucasian beliefs as childlike. Image by Ravi Varma studio

Early religious scholars saw non-Caucasian beliefs as childlike. Image by Ravi Varma studio

Universal Preoccupation With Afterlife

Tylor identified a universal preoccupation with the soul and with death, and contended that, as a result of people observing life cycles, and dreaming of ancestors, they eventually developed a basic religious system, which involves a belief in spiritual beings.

Religion is therefore the next step from the simple and neutral causality of magic. There are supernatural beings involved; often in Tylor’s observations these are ancestral spirits, and there is eventually a kind of morality attached to religious beliefs.

The final stage of this intellectual journey for Tylor was science and scientific belief, which is not unlike magic, as it has no moral or supernatural force driving it, but is based on empirical evidence.

Magic, Religion, and Science

Although magic and religion do sometimes co-exist, it is a gradual process, and usually one will be dominant; eventually science will replace religion, according to Tylor. In our age of cultural awareness, pride and diversity, this comes across as an ethnocentric approach, and one that lacks enough complexity.

This interpretation is also, quite obviously, rooted into Victorian ideas about evolutionary science and cultural hierarchies – Western European ideas or rationality and science are implicitly the pinnacle of human achievement.

But in fact Tylor had put forward a very important innovative idea in his time – that religious beliefs were intellectual processes common to all human beings, and no peoples were ‘too primitive’ or unsophisticated to be unable to experience them.

Everyone had, at some point, been a ‘Primitive!’


Brian Morris.  Anthropological Studies of Religion – An Introductory Text. (1987). Cambridge University Press.

Seth D. Kunin, editor. Theories of Religion, A Reader. (2006). Edinburgh University Press.

Thomas Barfield, editor. The Dictionary of Anthropology. (1997). Blackwell.

Edward Burnett Tylor. Primitive culture: researches into the development of mythology, philosophy. (1871). Accessed July 30, 2013.

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