E. B. Tylor – Animistic Theory of Religion and Religion in ‘Primitive Culture’


We have looked at Edward Burnett Tylor before in an article that would be much more pleasant for those who enjoy a briefer read. This article, however, engages in a more detailed analysis of Tylor’s theory of religion, notably his famous concept of animism, and some of the value and criticisms of his work Primitive Culture (1871).

Tylor’s Background

Tylor, born in 1832, died in 1917, was a British anthropologist widely credited as being the father of cultural anthropology. He held academic positions at Oxford, embarked on some early travels to America, Cuba, and Mexico before returning to England. Many of the societies he studied and discussed he did not visit. Other than his famous Primitive Culture, Tylor published three works during his career: Anahuac; or, Mexico and the Mexicans Ancient and Modern (1861), Researches into the Early History of Mankind and the Development of Civilization (1865), and Anthropology, an Introduction to the Study of Man and Civilization (1881).

Tylor was raised in a religious Quaker household and community. The Quakers are known for emphasizing God’s spirit moving a person to speak during worship meetings which meant that all participants would stay in a state of silence until someone felt the spirit prompting them to speak. Tylor also attended a Quaker school until he the age of sixteen but his faith did not allow him to enter university, so he became a clerk in the family business. Tylor, however, grew to dislike religion. He saw religion grounded in error and he had a negative attitude toward the church, particularly the Church of England and the Roman Catholics (1). Tylor wished to discover the earliest religion or form of religious belief and was fully away that doing so would undermine religion itself. It is likely that Tylor’s dislike for religion and his Quaker background came to influence the formation of his animistic theory of religion.

Primitive Cultures and Cultural Evolution

In Primitive Culture, Tylor made it his goal to understand so-called “primitive” people and culture. He proposed an evolutionary, developmental chronicle of culture from the primitive and savage to the civilized. It is Tylor’s controversial cultural evolutionary theory, as well as his views on the evolution of religious belief, for which he is well-known today. He was also much influenced by Charles Darwin’s (1809-1882) biological theory of evolution in the On the Origin of Species (1859) and came to view human cultural evolution to have proceeded in a lawful and natural way. One means of gauging how developed a culture is is to view their technological and moral accomplishments. The greater these are the more developed the culture is in Tylor’s mind.

Tylor’s Philosophical Convictions and Definition of Religion

Tylor held the universe to be inanimate and impersonal and therefore did not find a need to appeal to supernatural forces to explain it. Neither did he need spiritual explanations of religion, especially since religious doctrines and practices belong to “theological systems devised by humans without supernatural aid or revelation.” If anything, rather than owing their origin or continued existence to a God or supernatural force, religions are the development of natural religion. Natural religion is a feature within human beings that makes them turn to religious ways of thinking. It is in human nature to be religious and one need not explain the manifestations of religion with the supernatural, God, or gods. Tylor instead wanted to engage in a “systematic study of the religions of the lower races” and so found it necessary to provide a rudimentary definition of religion, which he defined as the belief in Spiritual Beings: “It seems best to fall back at once on this essential source, and simply to claim, as a minimum definition of Religion, the belief in Spiritual Beings” (2). In what is also somewhat reminiscent of Rudolf Otto’s numinous, Tylor stated that religion is associated with “intense emotion, with awful reverence, with antagonizing terror, with rapt ecstasy when sense and thought utterly transcend the common evil of daily life” (3). Tylor further saw religion to provide an objective account of, or explanation of, the world, which meant that it could be verified or falsified. A religion could fail or succeed in terms of how it squares with reality.

Animism as the Earliest Form of Religion and Two Great Dogmas

Primitive Culture deals with religion and with animism specifically. Broadly understood, animism is ascribing personal agency to inanimate objects and using spirits, souls, or gods to explain phenomena within the world. Tylor phrases it as follows: “I propose here, under the name of Animism, to investigate the deep-lying doctrine of Spiritual Beings, which embodies the very essence of Spiritualistic as opposed to Materialistic philosophy” (4). In Tylor’s terms, animism is a Spiritualism. This means that a person holds to “extreme spiritualistic views” or “the general belief in spiritual beings” which can intervene in the lives of human beings and in the natural world. Such a worldview is opposed to materialism, if not constituting its total opposite, which claims that all phenomena in the universe are material or can be reduced to the material. Tylor claimed animism to be historically the earliest form of religion or religious belief,

“Animism characterizes tribes very low in the scale of humanity, and thence ascends, deeply modified in its transmission, but from first to last preserving an unbroken continuity, into the midst of high modern culture” (5).

Employing colonial terminology that would make many modern readers uncomfortable, animism was the religion of the “savages” that continued to evolve up until the age of “civilized men.” Of course, civilized men being Tylor and many of his fellow European countrymen who agreed with his views. Tylor also acknowledged the possibility of there being other forms of belief prior to animism. This could even have been a non-religious condition prior to the religious condition, although Tylor still maintained that on the “immense mass of accessible evidence, we have to admit that the belief in spiritual beings appears among all low races” (6).

Tylor divided animism into two “great dogmas.” The first dogma concerns that of the souls of individual creatures that are capable of existing after the death or destruction of the body. The second dogma concerns spirits that exist in a hierarchy “upward to the rank of powerful deities.” These spiritual beings are believed by devotees to be active,

“Spiritual beings are held to affect or control the events of the material world, and man’s life here and hereafter; and it being considered that they hold intercourse with men, and receive pleasure or displeasure from human actions, the belief in their existence leads natural, and it might almost be said inevitably, sooner or later to active reverence and propitiation” (7).

Tylor’s definition of animism thus includes a belief in souls, in controlling deities, and a hierarchy of subordinate spirits. These beliefs are also accompanied by doctrines resulting in some form of active worship. Tylor saw this worldview in many cultures such as the Algonquins, Arawak, Abipones, Zulus, Basutos, Caribs, Dakotas, Tongans, Fijians, Karens, Khonds, Papuas, Greenlanders, Malays, Java, Seminoles, the “natives of Nicaragua.” He also includes the Hebrews, and Jewish and Arabic philosophy.

Animism and Development: Souls, Phantoms, Dreams

Several important ideas were proposed by Tylor to explain the development of animism within the primitive peoples at the “low level of culture.” First he observed two phenomena of interest to the primitive cultures. The first concerned what makes the difference between a living body and a dead one, and what causes waking, sleep, trance, disease, and death. The second concerned those human shapes that appeared in dreams and visions. In terms of dreams, Tylor states that the human beings experience their dreams in that they really feel like they are moving in a spiritual space where bodies are not needed (8). In a dream one can observe other things happening, fly, pass through walls, engage in battle, all of which feel very real. According to Tylor, many primitive cultures interpreted dreams as being real experiences of things actually happening and it is perhaps because of this that the so-called “savage philosopher” inferred that every person has two things belonging to him: a life and a phantom. According to Tylor,

“The notion of a ghost-soul animating man while in the body, and peering in dream and vision out of the body, is found deeply ingrained… the primitive animistic doctrine is thoroughly at home among savages” (9).

According to Tylor, the life and the phantom are closely connected with the body. The life enables the body to feel, think, and act, whereas the phantom is the body’s image or second self. Although closely connected with the body, both are also perceived as separable from the body: “the life as able to go away and leave it insensible or dead, the phantom as appearing to people at a distance from it” (10).

Tylor suggested that the next step for these cultures is to combine the life and the phantom. They now both belong to the body and are the manifestations of one and the same soul. Tylor proposed a closer and more nuanced description of this ghost-soul,

“It is a thin unsubstantial human image, in its nature a sort of vapor, film, or shadow; the cause of life and thought in the individual it animates; independently possessing the personal consciousness and volition of its corporeal owner, past or present; capable of leaving the body far behind, to flash swiftly from place to place; mostly impalpable and invisible, yet also manifesting physical power, and especially appearing to men waking or asleep as phantasm separate from the body of which it bears the likeness; continuing to exist and appear to men after the death of that body; able to enter into, possess, and act in the bodies of other men, of animals, and even of things” (11).

Tylor did not claim this ghost-soul concept to be universal but he nonetheless saw it as being sufficiently general to be taken as a standard for religion. Further, there is a kind of extrapolation that occurred to animals and objects who were then also thought to have souls. This, Tylor writes, is a “natural extension from the theory of human souls; the souls of trees and plants follow in some vague partial way; and the souls of inanimate objects expand the general category to its extremest boundary” (12).

Tylor’s Personal Investment in Animism

As we noted earlier, Tylor disliked the church and religion and was well aware that his animistic theory would undermine both. He reasoned that if all beliefs in and about God had merely evolved from a so-called primitive early form of animism then no belief, sophisticated or not, held by anyone in the modern-day, including those within the church, could be considered truer or superior to any other. Every form of monotheistic belief, whether that be the monotheism of Christianity, Islam, or Judaism, is an evolution from animism, just as are the polytheistic and henotheistic religions. All modern religions are therefore no different from the obsolete, ancient superstitious ways of seeing the world. We see this in Tylor’s view of modern theology which simply reuses and sophisticates the beliefs of the savages: “[T]he conception of the human soul is, as to its most essential nature, continuous from the philosophy of the savage thinker to that of the modern professor of theology” (13).

Superstition in Modern People

Tylor held animistic beliefs to have been appropriate for the primitive and savage societies but wondered why contemporary people, especially the religious, still shared similar beliefs. Why, Tylor asked, if modern people are aware of science do their beliefs not conform more to this intellectual progress? Instead most still believed in spirits such as Yahweh, Allah, Vishnu, and so on. Tylor states how “extremely difficult civilized men have found it [animism] to unmake” (14). Tylor had, however, indeed noticed some changes in animistic beliefs as human beings became more civilized. For example, the so-called “notion of souls of beasts is to be seen dying out” while the doctrine of the human soul had undergone modification. The human soul is no longer believed by the civilized mind to be associated with dreams but is instead just an immaterial entity. It is nonetheless a superstition still present in theology. The means by which Tylor explained the continued presence of animism within modern thought was to suggest a kind of animistic residue left over from humanity’s historical development,

“The animism of civilized men, while more appropriate to advanced knowledge, is in great measure only explicable as a developed product of the older and ruder system… [it is the] survival of the old in the midst of the new, modification of the old to bring it into conformity with the new” (15).

“Though classic and medieval philosophy modified it much, and modern philosophy has handled it yet more unsparingly, it has so far retained the traces of its original character, that heirlooms of primitive ages may be claimed in the existing psychology of the civilized world. Out of the vast mass of evidence, collected among the most various and distant races of mankind, typical details may now be selected to display the earlier theory of the soul, the relation of the parts of this theory, and the manner in which these parts have been abandoned, modified, or kept up, along the course of culture” (16).

According to Tylor, certain people had become stuck at a lower stage or level of cognitive, cultural, and religious development than others. He was interested in discoveries of hunter-gatherer societies from the Brixham cave made in 1859 which he used to support his case. Such people made use of simple stone tools, had not developed sophisticated technology, metals, or agriculture, so Tylor viewed them as lower in development than the civilized in “men’s intellectual history.”

Appreciation and Criticisms of Tylor

Tylor’s animistic theory has led some scholars to adopt a “Tylorian theory of religion” simply because he really captured within religion what is really there, namely religion involving a belief in spirit (17). Belief in spirit is a real feature of many religions from the likes of Hinduism and Islam to Christianity, Judaism, Neo-paganism, and many others, although it is less clear how this definition would apply to the likes of Taoism, Confucianism, or Buddhism.

Although one certainly finds value in Tylor’s theory, there are important critiques that have been offered in response to it. One strong criticism is that Tylor underestimated the intellectual and artistic complexity of pre-historical cultures. Scholar Ivan Strenski says that the lack of technological sophistication of hunter-gatherer peoples,

“[L]ed thinkers of Tylor’s ilk to regard our ancient prehistoric ancestors as lower in their development than we. They were, to him, “primitive.” But Tylor seemed blind to the sophisticated artistic quality of the wall painting found in the caves. Of the four chapters of his Anthropology entitled “The Arts of Life,” he writes only about utilitarian material culture – technologies, tools, and implements. There is nothing on esthetics or beauty of so-called “primitive” material culture… Tylor had no taste for the cave paintings that so impressed Marrett as fine art. He literally and figuratively never saw sophistication and high culture in the caves. He saw only what he wanted to see — the “primitive”.” (18)

But as some have argued, the artistic ability evident within hunter-gatherer aesthetic culture suggests an intellectual command not appreciated by later theorists. Also increasingly is contemporary evidence revealing pre-historical peoples to be much more advanced than they have initially been given credit for (19). The twentieth-century British anthropologist Edward Evans-Pritchard is critical of representations like Tylor’s. Having conducted fieldwork with the Nuer people of South Sudan, Evans-Pritchard concedes that to a western mind “It seems odd, if not absurd, to a European when he is told that a twin is a bird as though it were an obvious fact”, as the Nuer evidently believe (20). Equally, for the Nuer to say that the will-o’-the-wisps (these being mysterious lights that emerge in bushes and in swamps) are spirits or Spirit is strange as “For us the light is [merely] a gas arising from swamp vegetation…” and nothing more than that (21). However, Evans-Pritchard still claims to have uncovered a far greater level of intellectual and artistic elocution than theorists like Tylor and others allowed. Speaking of the Nuer, he says that this ability,

“implies experience on an imaginative level of thought where the mind moves in figures, symbols, metaphors, analogies, and many an elaboration of poetic fancy and language… In all their poems and songs also they play on words and images to such an extent that no European can translate them without commentary from Neur… How Nuer delight in playing with words is also seen in the fun they have in making up tongue-twisters, sentences which are difficult to pronounce without a mistake, and slips of the tongue, usually slips in the presence of mothers-in-law, which turn quite ordinary remarks into obscenities… the imagination of this sensitive people finds its sole expression in ideas, images, and worlds” (22).

Tylor seriously underestimated, if not much ignored, this feature to the pre-historical peoples. A further critique, which has spawned an entire field of study called post-colonial and decolonial theory, is the conspicuous colonial terminology and value judgments employed by theorists like Tylor. As post-colonial theorists have highlighted, many of these newly discovered peoples and cultures of Tylor’s time and before were perceived and represented by Europeans as irrational, primitive, savage, and superstitious, and placed on a lower rung of evolutionary development than Europeans themselves. Their texts frequently employ derogatory terminology suggestive of a self-notion of superiority over other persons subject to the dominion of their own countries. In religion studies, many scholars of religion are aware that the origin of their discipline developed out of an intellectual and geopolitical context of conquest, which has led some of them to advocate for positive liberty and encourage respect for local knowledge and practices of indigenous men and women.


1. Strenski, Ivan. 2015. Understanding Theories of Religion: An Introduction. New Jersey: Wiley-Blackwell.

2. Tylor, E. B. 2002. “Religion in Primitive Culture.” In A Reader in the Anthropology of Religion, edited by Michael Lambek, 23-34. p. 25.

3. Tylor, E. B. 2002. p. 32

4. Tylor, E. B. 2002. p. 25

5. Tylor, E. B. 2002. p. 26

6. Tylor, E. B. 2002. p. 25

7. Tylor, E. B. 2002. p. 26

8. Strenski, Ivan. 2015. Ibid. p. 46.

9. Tylor, E. B. 2002. p. 31

10. Tylor, E. B. 2002. p. 27

11. Tylor, E. B. 2002. p. 27

12. Tylor, E. B. 2002. p. 31

13. Tylor, E. B. 2002. p. 31

14. Tylor, E. B. 2002. p. 27

15. Tylor, E. B. 2002. p. 31

16. Tylor, E. B. 2002. p. 27

17. Strenski, Ivan. 2015. Ibid. p. 47.

18. Strenski, Ivan. 2015. Ibid. p. 48-49.

19. Brooks, Alison., Yellen, John., Potts, Richard., Behrensmeyer, Anna., Deino, Alan., Leslie, David., Ambrose, Stanley., et al. 2018. “Long-distance stone transport and pigment use in the earliest Middle Stone Age.” Science 360(6384):90-94; Scharping, Nathaniel. 2019. Denisovan Research Reveals That Early Humans Were More Complex Than We Thought. Available.

20. Evans-Pritchard, Edward Evans. 1940. The Nuer: A Description of the Modes of Livelihood and Political Institutions of a Nilotic People. Oxford: Clarendon Press. p. 137.

21. Evans-Pritchard, Edward Evans. 1940. Ibid. p. 137.

22. Evans-Pritchard, Edward Evans. 1940. Ibid. p. 142-143



  1. Thank you for a very fine article. Just one minor detail: It is not Evans-Pritchard’s ‘The Nuer: A Description of the Modes of Livelihood and Political Institutions of a Nilotic People’, you are quoting (20-22), but Evans-Pritchard: 1956: ‘Nuer Religion’. Kind regards, Rune Engelbreth Larsen

  2. Thank you for a fine article. Just one minor detail: It is noge Evans-Pritchard’s ‘The Nuer. A Description of the Modes of Livelihood and Political Institutions of a Nilotic People’ (1940), you are quoting (20-22), but his ‘Nuer Religion’ (1956). Kind regards, Rune Engelbreth Larsen

  3. Thank you for a fine article. Just one minor detail: It is noge Evans-Pritchard’s ‘The Nuer. A Description of the Modes of Livelihood and Political Institutions of a Nilotic People’ (1940), you are quoting (20-22), but his ‘Nuer Religion’ (1956). Kind regards, Rune Engelbreth Larsen

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