Anti-Evolutionist Views of Religion’s Development in Historical Religious Studies

The evolutionist view proposed that the occurrence of religion came very early in the history of humankind and that religious thought evolved through distinct stages along with distinct mental capacities (referred to as a chronicle). 

This view was promoted by some classical scholars such as James George Frazer (1854-1941) and Edward Burnett Tylor (1832-1917). But other scholars became critical of the evolutionary chronicle and argued that it was misplaced because it focused too much on the origin and essence of religion. Critics argued that emphasis should be placed on multiple elements of religion rather than on an isolated element (the origin of religion). Several scholars engaged the religion question from this perspective. 

A. R. Radcliffe Brown (1881-1955) believed that the fundamental frame of reference for understanding religion was contextualist rather than evolutionary. He believed in treating social systems as a process rather than as an entity and argued that such systems must be examined in dynamic rather than static terms. Systems to which religion is linked consist of a multitude of actions and interactions of human beings who act as individuals or in combinations of groups. 

This contextualist approach emphasized examining the processes of social life at a particular region and time. Brown intended to engage in a theoretical and comparative study of the forms of social life among “primitive” peoples which would allow for “generalizations about how social systems change.” He treated religion alongside morality and law that he believed were essential elements or components of “the social machinery.” He also thought that religion is necessary to the makeup or constitution of a society as it functions to articulate society’s sense of dependence.

Swedish historian and professor Geo Widengren (1907-1996) challenged and attempted to discredit the evolutionary theory in his book Religionens Ursprung. He rejected the idea that religions evolved from the simple to the more complex and challenged the assumption that one could work back from complexity to a singularity to determine religion’s origin. The religions of the earliest people were not necessarily the most simple and the religions of later people were not necessarily more complex or sophisticated.

E. Evans Pritchard (1902-1973), notable for his study of the religion of the Nuer people in Sudan, was critical of the evolutionary accounts or chronicles of religious belief. Pritchard was interested in these accounts of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries but criticized the assumptions and their methodological strategies: “If we are now able to see the errors in these theories purporting to account for primitive religions, it is partly because they were set forth, thereby inviting logical analysis of their contents and the testing of them against recorded ethnographical fact and in field research.” 

Although Pritchard was critical of evolutionary theories, he still saw within them something worth engaging. But his position remained skeptical: “About all these broadly speaking intellectualist theories we must say that, if they cannot be refuted, they also cannot be sustained, and for the simple reason that there is no evidence about how religious beliefs originated.” Evolutionary theories remain unpersuasive because of this lack of evidence. Pritchard urged theorists to shift their focus from origin and essence to intrinsic relationships. This required a transition focus from singulars (like a single origin, perhaps in animism, or essence, such as the experience of the numinous) to that of multiplicities. The focus should be on how various elements and components come together with the religious factor being one of various elements of collective life. 

Evolutionist explanations were, however, revived by the American sociologist and the Elliott Professor of Sociology Robert Bellah (1927-2013). Bellah saw the development of religion as a symbol system from lesser to more complex forms. He defined religion as “a set of symbolic forms and acts that relate man to the ultimate conditions of his existence.” He contended that over time the symbolization of religion had become more complex because the societies to which they related had themselves become increasingly complex. When societies evolved into more complex ones their religious components needed to keep pace.

About monotheistic religions, Bellah noted that they “involve a much more differentiated symbolization of, and produce a much more complex reaction to the ultimate conditions of human existence than do primitive religions.” Thus, religious expression and understanding are coordinate with social organization. Bellah proposed five stages he believed accounted for the evolution of religious consciousness: [1] primitive, [2] archaic, [3] historic, [4] early modern, to [5] modern. At each stage Bellah examined “the kind of religious action which occurs, the kind of social organization in which the action occurs, and the implications for social action in general that the religious action contains.”  

Bellah noted that a big difference between primitive and archaic religions was that the latter depicted mythical beings in a much more definite, less tentative, and fluid manner. Through religion’s development aspects became more definite and specific, for instance, priests assumed specific and concrete roles, worship and sacrifice were regulated by particular descriptions, and so on. Bellah’s work has revived interests in evolutionism given his revised methodological base.

A reason that evolutionary chronicle explanations for the development of religion and religious thought fell out of favor is because the inferences drawn from the lack of evidence of early religion become speculative and tentative. Essentially, scholars need to infer religious consciousness from evidence like cave paintings, limited artifacts (the lion-man and Venus figurines, for example), and burial sites. As Ninian Smart reflected, it is incredibly difficult to infer mentality “from bones, or feelings from chiseled flint, or wishes from fragments of animals skeletons partly touched by fire” (1).


1. Smart, Ninian. 1998. The World’s Religions. Cambridge University Press. p. 32

Capps, Walter. 1995. Religious Studies: The Making of a Discipline. Minneapolis: Fortress Press. p. 94-104. 

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