Religion is an analysis of seven works that the author, Daniel Pals, believes have shaped the understanding of religion in the past century. These theories represent seminal attempts to see religion in its social context as a system of values and beliefs, something that would be popularized by French structuralists and students of myth and semiotics in the last half of the 20th century. The theories reviewed put forth a 'scientific approach to religion' that 'first caught the imagination of serious scholars' in the 19th century. (pg. 10) These theories 'exercised a shaping influence not only on religion but on the whole intellectual culture of our century.' Some of the names put to us are familiar to us, such as Freud and Marx, whereas others are more obscure, such as Tylor and Frazer, Emile Durkheim, Mircea Eliade, E.E. Evans-Pritchard, and Clifford Geertz. The author picks what might be called the most partisan thinkers, opting to select scholars that have presented influential ideas in their "purest" form. (pg. 11) Pals defines religion as a "sense of the sacred." (pg. 12) Pals focuses on functional theorists, which he feels explore the impetus for religion.
The first two closely related scholars that Pals looks to are E.B. Taylor and J.G. Frazer, who see animism and magic as the precursors to modern religion. Although their theories are similar, these theorists experiences are quite different: Tylor, the 'Goldmud' of the two, learned all that formulated his theories by observing the interplay of individuals within cultures he observed during his travels. Frazer, the 'Narcissus' of the two, confined his existence to Cambridge. Despite their vastly different experiences, many reached the same conclusions about the nature of religion and deserve to be grouped together.
Tylor was foremost a student of social organization and human culture; many consider him to be the founder of cultural or social anthropology. (pg. 16) Although born in London, his poor health prompted him to seek a warmer climate, so he traveled to central America where he studied the Mexicans and their ancient forebears. Tylor pointed out that primitive cultures almost invariably employed primitive religions; principally animism. According to Tylor, humans progressed from savagery to barbarism. Savagery could be characterized by hunter-gatherer culture, and barbarism by ancient Greek culture. As this happened, the religions changed and gods took on more conceptual forms. The spirit of one tree could become the God of all trees, or a season. Higher civilization, of course, characterized higher religion.
Frazer was an early convert to Tylor's way of thinking, which he discovered at Cambridge. He was raised in a strong Presbyterian Church community, which he came to reject. Frazer's work, The Golden Bough, was the first attempt to deconstruct the Greco-Roman mythology in an attempt to find ancient roots. (pg. 33) In this work, Frazer explored the origins of magic, which he claimed was an attempt by prehistoric people to exert an influence on nature so that it might provide them with crops. "Worship of the gods had arisen, as Tylor had first suggested, in the earliest human attempts to explain the world, and it was driven by the human desire to control the power of nature." (pg. 43) Pals explains that these authors developed the first attempt to reconcile anthropology, religion, and evolution. This was essential at their time in the Victorian era, as evolution and religion were seen as competing ideologies.
The second thinker to be reviewed by Pals is Sugmund Freud. Freud was the foremost psychoanalyst of the early 20th century, and contextualized religion in terms of the processes employed in human thought. Pals half-jokingly comments that "To this day, almosst anyone who hears the name "Freud" associates it at once with two things: psychological therapy and sex. That impression is not inaccurate as far as it goes, but it really does not go very far." (pg. 54) Freud's analysis of the human psyche allowed him to better understand social action.
Freud, who grew up in what we would consider a reformed Jewish household, completely rejected religion. However, at the same time he considered religion an enigma and was given cause to wonder why people continued to hold religious beliefs. Whereas Tylor and Frazer had studied the origins of religion, Freud sought to understand its value in the human psyche. Freud likened the actions of religious fanatics to his neurotic patients (pg. 66) Like Frazer, Freud was interested in the concept of totem animals and cultural taboos. Freud argued that taboos would not exist unless at one point people wanted to break them, which pointed to the prehistoric existence of bestiality and incest. The concept of taboos is one of the conceptual origins of the Oedipus complex.
Pals comments that Freud believed "we must restrain our instincts, compensating ourselves (though never enough) with other satisfactions we can hope to find in, say, the joys of art and leisure or the ties of family, community, and nation." (pg. 71) By providing a dogmatic imperative for the furthering of social interests, religion was comfortable to those that systematically sought to deny their nature. Although nature in its cruelty dictated that everyone must ultimately succumb to death, religion provides adults with childlike security from this prospect. Freud contended that the best word one could use to describe such beliefs was 'illusion.' (pg. 71) Pals contends that Freud makes the mistake of limiting his theory to Judeo-Christian beliefs and by reasoning by analogy.
If Frazer and Tylor could be considered the originators of modern cultural studies and Freud the father of psychology, Pals contends that Emile Durkheim could be similarly associated with sociology. In a society which still held the liberal notion that any group of people was merely a collection of separate persons with shared interests, Durkheim understood the social context to register more thoroughly in the human consciousness than this. To Durkheim, individuals must be understood in a social setting as social designs and mechanisms weighed heavily on any particular individual. According to Pals, "In the course of trying to understand 'the social' in all of its hidden and powerful dimensions, he found himself drawn steadily and repeatedly to 'the religious.' For Durkheim, religion and society are inseparable and, to each other, virtually indispensable." (pg. 89)
In The Elementary Forms, he posits that there are basic elements to all religion. He first observes that primitives do not make the distinction between a logical 'natural' order and a spiritual 'super-natural' one: this is only done in modern societies where logic is considered important. He then establishes that moderns have established a body of things that were considered 'sacred' and 'profane,' which in turn reflect that society's values. (pg. 99) Sacred things are held to be special and clouded in ritual; they "unite into one moral community called a church all those who adhere to them." (pg. 99) Profane things are the ordinary things that comprise human existence. The sacred is communitarian, whereas the profane is private or personal.
Whereas the analysis of religion in the eyes of many scholars was anthropological, those of Karl Marx were openly antagonistic and relied heavily on the perception of religion established during the French Revolution. Revolutionary theorists held religious dogma to be the instrument of a ruling class designed to establish a system of guidelines and standards of conduct that would keep ruled classes compliant and servile. Marx came of age in a time when scholarly work in Germany was dominated by Hegel, who, according to Pals, "believed mental things-ideas, or concepts-are fundamental to the world, while material things are always secondary." (pg. 126)
Marx's response was to essentially argue the opposite: that material things are essential to human life, whereas mental things: concepts and ideas were only essential to the lives of well-fed daydreamers like Hegel. Two of the themes he developed that later formed the basis of most of his work were that "the conviction that economic realities determine human behavior" and "the thesis that human history is the story of class struggle, the scene of a perpetual conflict in every society between those who own things, usually the rich, and those who must work to survive, usually the poor." (pg. 127) From theses principles he derived his views of religion.
Pals acknowledges Marx's work largely on the basis of its popularity, although noting that his condemnation of religion is reductionist. He focuses his criticism on the belief that Marx'es idea doesn't prove successful as a means of providing a justification for a revolution that would return wealth to the greatest number of hands and compel people to then establish a just society. In many senses Pals claims that Marx'es belief in society is similar to that of Durkheim. However, on the matter of religion they differ because Marx at once both believes that man will reject baseless religion in that it does not provide for his material needs and at the same time reserve a dogmatic faith for communist society.