E. B. Tylor – ‘Primitive’ Animism as the Origin of Religion


Edward Burnett Tylor (1832-1917) was a British anthropologist and the father of cultural anthropology. He conceived influential theories of cultural evolution, inspired by Charles Darwin (1809-1882), some of which include the evolution of religious belief. It is in respect to the latter that Tylor’s ideas have been of interest to scholars of religion.

Scientific Approach to Studying Religion

Tylor believes that religion can be approached in an objective, scientific sense because religions themselves attempt to provide an objective account and explanation of the world. Religious claims can either square with reality or they can fail in light of it. Either way, religion is open being compared to objective reality and measured against empirical observation. This approach lies behind Tylor’s evolutionary chronicle of human culture and religious belief, as well as his theory of animism as the most “primitive” religious belief.

“Primitive” Religion as Animism

Tylor penned a two volume work Primitive Culture (1871). The first volume, The Origins of Culture, is primarily ethnographical and deals with topics of linguistics, myth, and social evolution. The second volume, Religion in Primitive Culture, deals with religious belief and the theory of animism. Tylor’s primary purpose is to understand the religious life of the “primitive” peoples. He argues that animistic beliefs constituted the earliest religious belief, and that these beliefs came into existence as a result of the projection of the ordinary experiences of powerful people onto a supernatural realm. One example is that people came to believe that the world was created by the gods or a God because they witnessed people making things in daily experience, and thus projected this onto the supernatural.

To Tylor this is the most obvious reading of the data given that ancient religions and religious believers so frequently invoke the existence of spirits, souls, and gods to explain events in the world. Religion, across the board from the so-called “primitive” to the “modern,” encompass belief in spirits and spirit agencies. By “primitive religion”, Tylor specifically means the beliefs of hunter-gatherers who made use of stone tools. Tylor sees such historical people to be at a lower level in their development than modern human beings.

Tylor’s Dislike for Religion and Christianity

Despite his Quaker background, Tylor disliked religion, and was particularly disliking of the Anglican Church that constituted the external context in which he theorized. It is likely that these sentiments influenced his animistic theory for he was aware that Christianity teaches the existence of one God, but if his animistic theory is true then it would undermine the uniqueness of this teaching and its purported truth.

Tylor’s theory essentially suggests that belief in spirits, gods, and God are all the same, and that what modern Christians believe God to be is actually just an evolution of once held belief in spirits of ancient people. Tylor argues that Christian beliefs, particularly ones held by Mexican Catholics, resembles the “primitive” ones shared by the ancient animists. He specifically points out the similarities the Catholics have with the behaviours of the animistic people who communicated with gods as a means to obtain their favour and for success in their enterprises. Tylor believes that for primitive people animistic beliefs are understandable as they likely occur due to dreams and from observations of death and dying but it does not mean that they conform to objective reality.

Tylor’s Evolutionary Chronicle

Tylor realized the need to explain how his animism and modern religions fitted into his evolutionary chronicle of human culture. He proposes that human culture moves through three stages from savagery, to barbarism, and then to civilization.

Following discoveries of pre-historic human remains in Brixham cave (England) and his attempt to divide human cultural development into stages of periodization, Tylor contends that he is able to examine more closely different periods within human history. He treats with primacy the first stage where he situates and subsequently examines primitive culture within human development. He compares modern, civilized people with primitive, savage people through identifying cultural forms, artifacts, and expressions which include language, mythology, custom, and religion.

By analyzing these primitive “vestiges,” Tylor thinks he can reconstruct the society and culture of earlier times. However, he notices that in certain cases the development from the primitive to the modern has not fully occurred while in others places primitive culture has been left behind entirely. This is perplexing for why are animistic beliefs associated with primitive people of ancient times still believed in by contemporary religious people? Were contemporary religious people not more aware of science? Yet they still believe in God and deities. Tylor reasoned that some modern religious people had not progressed from primitive belief and were in fact left behind on a lower stage of mental evolution, perhaps akin to how some people have not developed emotionally beyond their adolescent years.

Tylor is one of several prominent historical theorists to promote the idea that modern religious belief is an evolution from prior beliefs. Also see Raffaele PettazoniJames Frazer, and Herbert Spencer.



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