1) Biographical details: especially as it relates to personal religious/non-religious beliefsand how those beliefs shaped their approach to the topic of religion; also upbringing,academic situation (i.e., livelihood, any career difficulties).2) 19th century European context: their views of modernity (industrialization, imperialexpansion, colonization, urbanization, technological progress, etc.) and religion’s placein modernity.3) Charles Darwin and the impact of his theory of evolution (Origin of the Species, 1859).4) The Phenomenologists lament in other words, to what extent did these intellectualthinkers manage to bracket their own moral judgment, presuppositions regarding religion (especially Christianity), ingrained assumptions regarding racial, gender, or cultural difference.Science of Religion in the Victorian Era (19th century)
→ Age of Colonialization and Empire
→ Enlightenment Narrative:
“people started using Reason and Science, instead of Religion and
→ Age of Secularism:
Society Secular /Secularism –The “religion” of The Enlightenment
→ Age of Science (Science of Religion):
A model of scholarly inquiry developed in/by:
(1) the age of science/reason
(2) confidence of Enlightenment reflecting biases of its
representatives/chief practitioner
→ The End Product?????
Thursday, Jan 16. Strenski, ch. 4 (31-44) Max Müller
Tuesday, Jan. 21. Strenski, ch. 5 (45-54) Edward Burnett Tylor
Thursday, Jan. 23. Strenski, ch. 6 (55-64) William Robertson Smith
Tuesday, Jan. 28. Strenski, ch. 7 (65-74) James Frazer
Thursday, Jan. 30. Strenski, ch. 8 (75-92) “Phenomenology of Religion”
Take-Home Test 1 covers Part I & II, posted on Canvas, due midnight Monday
Feb 4
Part III. Classic Twentieth-Century Theorists of the Study of Religion:
Defending the Inner Sanctum of Religious Experience or Storming It
Captain James Cook—Exemplar of the Enlightenment
➢ Middle wave of colonization (after settling America, before Africa)
➢ Romantic fascination with science, discovery, accumulating knowledge
Mapping, categorizing, etc. collecting…bird species, people
Resolution and Adventure with fishing craft in Matavai Bay painted by William
Hodges in 1776 shows the two ships of Commander James Cook’s second
voyage of exploration in the Pacific at anchor in Tahiti.
Captain Cook’s Visits to Hawaii
Captain James Cook’s Death
the European Myth of Heroism
• Bolster European heroism
• Emphasize indigenous primitivity/irrationality (in need of
• Argument for intellectualism of enlightenment (science
progress/bring Christianity) over primitive
What kinds of religious/(non)religious beliefs & practices
influenced the “Science of Religion” in the 19th century?
What other forces shaped the Modern West (19thc)?
How secular was this dawn of the secular age?
“Science of Religion” in the Victorian Era (19th century)
A Simple Equation
Enlightenment + Age of Secularism + Age of Science = ?????
→ Solve for ”??????”
→ Answer …
Poster Child for the 19thCentury Age of Reason, Science & Secularism???
Charles Darwin (1809-1882)
On the Origin of Species (1859)
Greater popular acceptance by 1870s
Darwin “[e]liminat[ed] God from science [and]
made room for strictly scientific explanations of all
natural phenomena; it gave rise to positivism; it
produced a powerful intellectual and spiritual
revolution, the effects of which have lasted to this
[Ernst Mayr, Sept. 2009, Scientific American]
*** Nearly every field of social and cultural life was
affected by the
idea of evolution.
THE Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, and Disenchantment…
1) Religious Revival: Rise of Evangelical Religion
Second Great Awakening—early 19th c—height late 1850s;
“Outpouring of the Holy Spirit”; Revivals. Millerite
Movement (Seventh Day Adventist, Mormonism, Quakers)
2) Spiritualism (Efforts of Re-enchantment)
❖ Fascination with the supernatural, occult, paranormal:
mesmerism, communication with the dead (medium/séance).
❖ An American invention (1850s) moved to Great Britain – part of
subculture by 1860s—establish multiple associations/newspapers.
The Study of Religion in the 19th century:
Questions Driving Scholarship:
When, Where, and Why did Religion First Develop?
Search for Origin of Religion or Natural Religion
The Study of Religion in the 19th century:
Unifying Themes
➢ Adapt Charles Darwin’s Evolutionary Theory (Social Darwinism):
to understand cultural development of religious practice/beliefs
➢ Search for the Origins of Religion
➢ Religious Studies = as a Science
o A singular and “right”, “accurate” & ”true” answer can be
➢ Theorists’ own religious/non-religious background factors in
Max Müller
Edward Burnett Tylor
William Robertson Smith
Edward Burnett Tylor (1832-1917)
▪ Primitive Culture: Researches into
the Development of Mythology,
Philosophy, Religion, Art and
Custom (1871)
▪ Appointed First Professor of
Anthropology at Oxford University
in 1896
▪ Tylor’s ideas typify 19th-century:
“Cultural Evolutionism”
Evolutionary Theory of Culture
“The thesis which I venture to sustain, within
limits, is simply this:
that the savage state in some measure
represents an early condition of mankind,
out of which the higher culture has gradually
been developed or evolved, by processes
still in regular operation as of old, the result
showing that, on the whole, progress has far
prevailed over relapse.” [E.B. Tylor]
Edward Burnett Tylor
Edward Burnett Tylor
In Contrast to Max Müller,
E.B. Tylor …
➢ Pushed for a direct, face-to-face study
of religion rather than a close, crosscultural study of scriptures→
➢ Encouraged others to try to understand
traditional or “primitive” peoples
currently living rather than relying on
literature of the past
• E.B. Tylor’s two books, Primitive Culture and Anthropology
(1871) made him as one of the founders of modern
• Tylor developed a theory of animism as the origin of
religion. He defines religion as “belief in spiritual beings.”
• Tylor posited the “savage philosopher,” an imagined
primitive genius who sat alone and thought about things.
Religion sprang from such people who introduced the
(animistic) ideas to their clans..”
✓ Belief in spirits inhabiting & animating beings, or souls existing
in things
✓ First and most basic form of religion –
[“Natural Religion”]
✓ Religion no longer necessary→
→ Culturally speaking, we have moved beyond the
need for religion
Loose the cultural training wheels of our childhood
1. People in primitive cultures have dreams of recently
deceased individuals and assume that what they saw in the
dream is the person.
2. Since they also dream of living people, they reify this
dream-image into a spirit detachable from the living person.
3. Since these spirits are detachable, then theoretically, spirits
may exist that do not inhabit physical bodies at any time.
Hence, they can be divinities or other spirits.
4. Animism stands at the root of all mythology. Primitive
people develop stories that help to explain why they behave
in certain ways. For Tylor, myths are explanatory, not literary.
Survivals: cultural patterns that persisted
beyond the time when they were once relevant
1. Survivals were always throwbacks, not useful in the modern
2. Survivals no longer have value their own right because they
no longer make sense (unscientific) . For Tylor, the word was
equivalent to “superstition.”
3. Tylor concluded that all of religion (belief in spiritual beings)
was a survival that had no real place or function in the
modern world but instead is holding on simply from custom
and habit.
➢ Argues that primitive and modern man are
basically the same over recorded history, but
culture and understanding are progressing.
➢ Posited the idea that religion was a stage in the
progress or evolution in human understanding.
What Factors Shaped Tylor’s POV?
❖ Tylor’s Religious Upbringing (Quaker)
❖ Reaction against Spiritualism Movement
❖ Church of England’s influence over Oxford University
❖ The Colonialization & Knowledge Acquisition
More about Edward B. Tylor
Leading secularist in England
Primitive Culture 2 vol. 1871
➢ Proposed a functional basis for the development of society and
religion, which he determined was universal
➢ Proposes 3 stages of mankind’s development
Primitive, savage, civilized
➢ Key terms: animism, survivals, primitives, savages, civilized.
➢ Political Motivation:
➢ research into history and prehistory of man = religious reform in
British Society
The 19th century Search for the Origins of Religion
Max Müller:
Lifelong Lutheran
E.B. Tylor:
Rejected Religion
“elevated idea of Natural
Religion as the contemplation of
the Infinite”
Posited the concept of Animism
as the origin of religion
Something closely akin to
Protestant Christianity lies at the
base of all religion (e.g., Müller’s
view regarding the purest form
of Hinduism)
Animism: involves a belief in spirits and
spirit agency encompasses all levels of
religious belief, from local to universal,
from the so-called “primitive” to the
But in Tylor’s secular, anti-religious POV…
The universe is inanimate and
impersonal. Personal models have no
place in science. People just need to
accept facts.
Modern Belief in God is a Survival of Primitive Ignorance
Darwinian Lite
“History, so far as it reaches back, shows arts, sciences,
and political institutions beginning in ruder states, and
becoming in the course of ages, more intelligent, more
systematic, more perfectly arranged or organized, to
answer their purposes.” [E.B. Tylor, 1881]
E.B. Tylor:
“While examples of traditional or socalled ‘primitive’ societies might well be
expected, in Tylor’s view [to imagine that
spirits or souls inhabit everything] they do
not explain why contemporary religious
folk should continue to think the same.”
RELI 101-Winter 2020
1st Short Paper Prompt [20% of your total grade]
Thus far we have focused on four 19th century intellectuals whose work has laid the
foundations for the academic (non-confessional/theological) study of religion—i.e., Max Müller,
E.B. Tylor, William Robertson Smith and James Frazer]. In this essay, compare and contrast two
of these individuals and the substance of their contributions to the modern discipline of
religious studies.
Include the following factors in your comparative analysis.
1) Biographical details: especially as it relates to personal religious/non-religious beliefs
and how those beliefs shaped their approach to the topic of religion; also upbringing,
academic situation (i.e., livelihood, any career difficulties).
2) 19th century European context: their views of modernity (industrialization, imperial
expansion, colonization, urbanization, technological progress, etc.) and religion’s place
in modernity.
3) Charles Darwin and the impact of his theory of evolution (Origin of the Species, 1859).
4) The Phenomenologists lament in other words, to what extent did these intellectual
thinkers manage to bracket their own moral judgment, presuppositions regarding
religion (especially Christianity), ingrained assumptions regarding racial, gender, or
cultural difference.
Logistics: 5-7 pages, double-spaced, regular font [e.g., Times New Roman, 11pt]. Submit online
(Canvas)—regular submission/not turnitin. Submit as a pdf and place your name in the title of
the document. NEW DUE DATE!!! Thursday, Feb. 20.
If you would like to submit a draft beforehand, please let me know. I will accept early drafts for
commentary/turn around until Sunday @10pm, February 16. No early drafts accepted for
review after that deadline.
Course reading & lectures (powerpoints)
Contact me if you have any other sources you wish to use.
Check Canvas (assignments folder) for additional aids in writing your paper, including a grade
The Shock of the “Savage”: Edward Burnett
Tylor, Evolution, and Spirits
Mr. Tylor and His Science
It was Max Müller who dubbed anthropology
“Mr. Tylor’s science.” At least since then Edward
Burnett Tylor (1832–1917) has been seen as the
first anthropologist. Like Muller, Tylor held
academic posts at Oxford. But unlike Max Müller,
Tylor spent some time visiting traditional societies, such as on his trip to Mexico in 1856.
Pairing up with a fellow Englishman Henry
Christy (1810–65) of the science-minded
Ethnological Society of London, Tylor recorded
his adventures in his first book, Anahuac (1861)
(Stocking 1987, p. 195; 2001, p. 107). Also unlike
Max Müller, Tylor therefore pushed for a direct,
face-to-face study of religion rather than a close
study of scriptures. He encouraged others to try
to understand traditional or “primitive” peoples
alive and rather than through a literature.
Tylor scarcely mentioned the term Natural
Religion, yet he sought the first religion or the
origins of religion. Here, he reasserted Hume’s
challenge to Herbert of Cherbury to provide
empirical examples of Natural Religion. This
quest eventuated in Religion in Primitive Culture,
his greatest book, and one in which 70 percent
dealt with religion, much of that with animism.
Tylor argued that animism was, in effect, the first
and most fundamental religion, not Max Müller’s
elevated idea of Natural Religion as the contemplation of the Infinite, for example. Both Tylor
and Hume saw the first religion – animism or
polytheism – as a kind of rational projection of
the ordinary experience of powerful people onto
a supernatural realm. The theory of animism
shows the “universal tendency among mankind
to conceive all beings like themselves … in order
to bring them nearer to a resemblance with ourselves” (Tylor 1873, p. 61). For Tylor animism was
both historically the oldest and structurally the
most fundamental of all religions. Thus, he packaged a historical thesis – which religion was first
in time – along with a logical one – which religion
was most basic, fundamental in form. This was
his way of replacing all other proposals pretending to discover either the first or most fundamental
religion. In this chapter we will explore why Tylor
“thought he was right.”
Animism as the True Natural Religion and
First Attempts at Science
Tylor assumed that religion was really about
giving an objective account of, or explanation of,
the world. It was, thus, attempting what our science does – to explain things. This meant that
Tylor looked at religious claims as if they were
Understanding Theories of Religion: An Introduction, Second Edition. Ivan Strenski.
© 2015 Ivan Strenski. Published 2015 by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
Chapter 45
No.: 1 Title Name: Strenski
Comp. by: Sivaranjini Date: 09 Jul 2014
Time: 03:17:06 PM
Stage: Proof
7/9/2014 3:17:06 PM
Page Number: 45
Edward Bu rnet t T yl or
scientific hypotheses. They could fail or succeed
according to how they squared with objective
reality. Did Muhammad ascend into heaven?
Were Adam and Eve the first humans? Does the
accumulation of karma really determine one’s
chances of rebirth or reincarnation? All such religious claims were to be measured against
empirical evidence. And in doing so, Tylor
believed we would learn that Muhammad could
not have ridden his horse into heaven. Nor could
we test the theory of karma and rebirth empirically; and so on. Given this literal-minded way of
reading religious claims, it is easy to see why
Tylor “thought he was right” to presume that the
religions tried to explain things – that they were
about explanation.
But Tylor had so many reasons for thinking he
was right that it is hard to decide which one mattered most to him. There were first the “internal”
reasons for thinking he was right – the reports
from people about the conceptions they had
about things like dreams, the mysteries of death
and dying, or even the movements of heavenly
bodies. To Tylor, the evidence for his theory must
have seemed overwhelming. It was ubiquitous,
and thus relatively easy to find testimonies supporting his theory. That the existence of spirits,
souls, gods, and so on explained events in the
world was something many cultures believed,
both past and present, near and far. The theory of
animism, then, seemed to Tylor, rather obvious.
Consider first the experience of our dreams. In
dreams, many feel that we ourselves were moving
about in space without the resistance that our
material bodies cause us. Now one can fly, now
battle great beasts, now pass through walls, now
run effortlessly across broad landscapes! Many
cultures have naturally interpreted dreams as
being real experiences of things that happen to us
once our true spiritual natures are liberated from
the shackles of the body. In the Upanishads, we
are warned never to wake someone suddenly for
fear that their spirit will not have sufficient time
to return to the body once awake. Thus, when we
dream, our spiritual selves actually move about in
an ether, in a spiritual space where bodies are not
needed. Evidence like that gave Tylor confidence
that he was right.
Observation of the process of death and dying
provoked similar conclusions. Here, the relation
of breath to life is the key. In his article “The
Chapter46No.: 1 Title Name: Strenski
Comp. by: Sivaranjini Date: 09 Jul 2014
Time: 03:17:06 PM
Religion of the Savages,” Tylor explains why he
thinks some so-called “primitive” peoples might
have thought that the life-force inside us is
somehow related to breath. Again, it is obvious
that all living animals breathe, and once they
stop breathing, we can assume they are dead.
Perhaps it is the breath that determines life: “The
act of breathing, so characteristic of the higher
animals during life, and coinciding so closely
with life in its departure, has naturally been
often identified with the life itself ” (Tylor 1866b,
pp. 72–73). The ordinary experience of death –
the cessation of that mysterious, invisible
“something” (breath) – also might make animists
think they are right about the way the world is.
Tylor thinks this experience is why many cultures have identified with breath as a source of
life, and thus as the essence of the soul or spirit.
Does not the Bible say that “the spirit blows
where it will”? Early medical experiments in
Europe proceeded on the assumption of the
reality of breath. Some tests were even proposed
to try to detect the absence of this life principle in
a dead body. The experiment consisted of placing a body that was about to die on the scales and
waiting for death. Once the animal or person had
died, their weight was registered once again in an
effort to detect the difference in weight between
the living and dead body. That difference the
investigators thought would be accounted for by
the absence of the soul or spirit in the body. The
soul as breath was, then, thought to be real.
Max Müller even inadvertently adds weight to
Tylor’s theory. Recall some of what he told us
about Vedic religion. Fire is not a mere thing; it is
the personal god/spirit Agni present on earth.
Fire glows red because the god of fire, present as
flame, expresses “heated” emotions or shows off
his splendor. Likewise, the sun – the personal
fire/Agni in the sky – gives heat because it is the
same “Agni” of the fire smiling at, and hence
warming, those under the sun or gathered round
the hearth. Stars, as well, are not mere dead
matter. They live and move across the heavens
because they are personal spiritual beings directing their course. Does not the god Phaeton make
the day pass by driving his chariot across the
heavens just as a human charioteer does his
earthly vehicle? And, yes, there really is a “man”
in the moon! Or, as the Buddhist Jatakas tales tell
us, those same marks indicate the presence of a
Stage: Proof WorkFlow:CSW
7/9/2014 3:17:06 PM
Page Number: 46
Edward Burnet t T yl or
rabbit on the lunar surface. Even in our own time,
some religious people sometimes resort to animistic explanations of “natural” events, such as
9/11 or Hurricane Sandy. They were acts of divine
judgment by a personal agent – God – upon the
sinful. The ubiquity of animism, and its apparently “natural” form, may be reasons even some
prominent students of religion of our own day,
like the cognitive scientists, “think they are right”
to reprise a broadly Tylorian theory of religion.
Thus, Tylor’s theory of religion involving a belief
in spirits and spirit agency encompasses all levels
of religious belief, from local to universal, from
the so-called “primitive” to the modern.
Now, while Tylor thinks such attributions of
personal agency to inanimate things are “naturally” understandable, it doesn’t mean that such
attributions are true to reality. Animism may be
natural, but that doesn’t mean that it conforms to
reality, Tylor would say. People in traditional
societies (or modern theists!) mistake the true
causes of things because they project everyday
social experience onto nature. The creation of
the world (by the gods or God), for example, is
built upon the analogy of people making
something. If we explain why and how houses
exist by pointing to the carpenters who constructed them, then we can explain why and how
the whole world exists by pointing to the Great
Carpenter, to a spiritual carpenter, so to speak.
But however widespread this way of thinking,
Tylor thinks such a projection of the personal is a
mistake. The universe is inanimate and impersonal. Personal models have no place in science.
People just need to accept facts.
When I said that Tylor had perhaps too many
reasons for thinking he was right about animism,
I was also thinking of the larger, external context
of his theorizing. The theory of animism was particularly agreeable to religions similar to those of
Tylor’s own upbringing. First, Tylor had been
raised in a religious tradition – the Society of
Friends (Quakers). Central to Quaker worship
meetings was a “waiting for the spirit to move one
to speak.” Thus, the assembled worshipers
remained in a state of silence, until one of their
number felt that they had been urged to speak –
by a spiritual force. So moved, the individual
would rise and address the meeting confident
that the spirit was at work. Thus, Tylor’s own religious socialization might have given him ample
Chapter 47
No.: 1 Title Name: Strenski
Comp. by: Sivaranjini Date: 09 Jul 2014
Time: 03:17:06 PM
Stage: Proof
reason to “think he was right” about religion having to do with spirits. Second, the England of
Tylor’s time found Spiritualism enjoying a
cultural vogue. Spiritualism was, in effect, a kind
of animism because it held that the disembodied
souls of the deceased could make contact with the
living. Séances, consultations with spirit
mediums, ouija boards, and such were popular
(Stocking 1994, p. xvii). Thus, perhaps the
“external” context of the religious fashion of
Spiritualism gave Tylor a further reason for
thinking that the belief in the existence of spirits
was important to religion.
But there is a third, stubbornly negative, reason
that Tylor thought he was right about the animistic nature of religion. Here, we see him
responding to the external context of his situation
in Oxford. Tylor deeply hated religion, especially
the Church of England. Roman Catholics came in
a close second as a target of Tylor’s wrath. The
intellectual and social world dominated by the
Anglican Church formed a kind of external context against which Tylor rebelled. A moment’s
reflection should make this clear. If the theory of
animism is true, then all beliefs in a spirit or god
are essentially the same. After all, is not the belief
in one God, so to speak, only “animism” (lowercase) writ large as Animism (upper-case)? When
all is said and done, Christianity, like primitive
animism, has always preached the existence of a
great soul who cares for, acts in, and governs the
world that, in fact, God has created. We can see
some of the conclusions of such thinking in
Tylor’s contempt for the Mexican Catholics
recorded in his first book, Anahuac. Referring to
the elaborate ritual life of Mexican Catholicism,
Tylor said: “ There is not much difference between the old heathenism and the new Christianity
… the real essence of both religions is the same to
them.” He could make such a claim because he
believed that Mexican Catholicism looked liked
so many “primitive” religions. They too had gods
that “might be favourable to them, and give them
good crops and success in their enterprises. This
is pretty much what their present Christianity
consists of ” (Tylor 1861, p. 289). These words,
dripping with sarcasm, should signal how deep
and abiding Tylor’s lofty contempt for religion
was. Arrayed around him, manipulating affairs in
Oxford, was the Church of England – a powerful
external reality that gave Tylor all the reasons he
7/9/2014 3:17:06 PM
Page Number: 47
Edward Bu rnet t T yl or
needed to press on with the theory of animism as
the basis of a universal theory of religion.
But there was a hitch in Tylor’s project. While
examples of traditional or so-called “primitive”
societies might well be expected, in Tylor’s view,
to imagine that spirits or souls inhabit everything,
they do not explain why contemporary religious
folk should continue to think the same. Modern
religious folk know about science, for example,
and therefore should have beliefs that conform
with the discoveries of science. But they don’t!
That modern religious folk continued to believe
in spirits, such as God, Allah, Vishnu, and so on,
presented a problem for Tylor. How was it that
these “modern” folk were in fact no “smarter” in
this respect than people from “pre-modern,”
ancient or small-scale traditional societies? Did
modern religious believers simply not know their
science? Tylor was unwilling to give up his evolutionary theory of human culture, so he had to
explain data pointing to the lack of evolution.
Tylor’s famous “theory of survivals” was supposed to deal with this annoying problem. Tylor
thought he had disposed of the problem of the
persistence of things that confounded evolutionary progress simply by concluding that some
things simply hung on. Like bits of flotsam and
jetsam, some stuff did not get carried along on
the waves of historical development. Thus,
modern religious believers simply had got stalled
at a lower stage of mental evolution, in much the
same way that some people fail to develop emotionally beyond adolescence. Their belief in God
is a survival of “primitive” ignorance, not unlike
the immature behavior that survives in people we
think have not grown up emotionally. That was
the best Tylor could do to explain religion’s
continued vitality. He was unwilling to give up
the idea of progressive evolution. It meant everything to him.
1859 and All That: The Discovery
of the European “Primitive”
Now behind why Tylor assigned religion to the
dustbin of history was his incorrigible commitment to a theory of progressive evolution. Both the
idea of survival and the idea of animism belong to
Tylor’s basic – and, for him, unchangeable –
original theoretical developmental framework.
Chapter48No.: 1 Title Name: Strenski
Comp. by: Sivaranjini Date: 09 Jul 2014
Time: 03:17:06 PM
Everything Tylor wrote depended upon that
assumption. Undermine his developmentalism,
and the whole of his anthropology crumbles, as
indeed it later did. So, we are then left to try to
understand why Tylor might have “thought he
was right” to be so incorrigibly – religiously –
committed to his version of evolutionism.
Recall how Max Müller was stimulated to think
anew about religion by his discovery of the scriptures of ancient Indian civilization. How could we
encompass the religious import of these documents? How could we do so without rejecting
them for confessional reasons? How could we see
other religions within a new, expanded common
mind that did not prejudice one over the other?
In Tylor’s case, inspiration for evolutionism came
from closer to home. Dramatic eruptions of
Europe’s own local prehistory unsettled the cozy
world of mid-nineteenth-century England. Such
new historical data challenged Tylor to arrive at a
common mind about religion that took these new
facts into consideration. I refer to the series of
spectacular archeological discoveries that totally
revolutionized the European sense of history and
the place of religion in it. People had existed tens
of thousands of years ago, but had been utterly
forgotten by their modern European heirs.
What problems of religion did these discoveries
of the prehistoric human past create for Tylor and
those like him? How did Tylor try to convey a
sense of the meaning of these discoveries?
Especially unsettling was the greatly extended
sense of the human past far beyond anything suggested by the Bible. This realization only multiplied the effect of the blows to a biblical authority
already reeling under the impact of Higher
Criticism. These events demanded new theories
to encompass the new knowledge only lately
appearing on the European intellectual scene.
They demanded the formation of a new common
mind free of the constraints imposed by confessional religion. How would Tylor go about this?
As if religious consciousness had not been
shocked enough by this new understanding of
world history, Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of
Species (1859) only deepened the crisis of Western
self-understanding. Darwin’s naturalistic account
of the development of all living forms, moving
slowly but inexorably in geological time, made no
mention of a divine creative initiative. For many,
this explosion in the sense of the scope of the
Stage: Proof WorkFlow:CSW
7/9/2014 3:17:06 PM
Page Number: 48
Edward Burnet t T yl or
recoverable past presented yet another challenge
to the intellectual foundations of religious belief
in the West. If our own conflicts between religion
and science are any guide, Darwin’s challenge
continues to excite controversy. What would
Tylor make of Darwin? Would he adapt Darwin’s
evolutionary theory to his own? Or would he
compartmentalize Darwin’s views and go on, in
effect, as if Darwin had not written at all?
The Caves and Their Religion
Now, although Darwin’s revolution figures in any
story of evolutionism, Tylor’s attitude to religion
may have been more shaped by the revelations of
European prehistory unearthed in the caves of
England and France. In 1859, a notable excavation at Brixham cave on the south coast of
England shocked scientific and popular opinion.
A local builder was digging the foundation for a
row of terraced houses when he broke through
into a subterranean cavern (Gruber 1965). There,
the bones of animals, long since extinct in
England, such as rhinoceri, lions, and elephants,
were found. Adding fuel to the imagination of the
late nineteenth century, some bone pieces showed
signs of human fashioning.
Darwin happened to be particularly
impressed by these discoveries. He felt that
they “established the great antiquity of man.”
For many Europeans, it slowly became clear
that literally right beneath their feet lay buried
an entire prehistoric world of forgotten
European ancestors. Tylor picked up on this
link and developed ideas about present-day
people into a total system. He looked for a link
“to some antecedent primate form,” and went
on to translate this idea “into a systematic
investigation of human sociocultural origins” –
which is precisely what his anthropology would
be (Stocking 1987, p. 172). Tylor’s long-standing
adherence to the pre-Darwinian developmentalist thinkers made it easy for him to imagine
humanity to have grown up through many long
stages of development (Stocking 1987, p. 178).
In this sense, we might say that Tylor welcomed
the problems created for religion by the discoveries at Brixham cave – especially the problems
they made for the biblical literalists and theologians who made his life (and Max Müller’s as
Chapter 49
No.: 1 Title Name: Strenski
Comp. by: Sivaranjini Date: 09 Jul 2014
Time: 03:17:06 PM
Stage: Proof
well!) so difficult in Oxford. But, in terms of
the larger picture, what did Tylor think that
these discoveries of the prehistoric world
taught about religion?
On the one hand, one might argue that there is
something decidedly “primitive” about these
societies marked by the levels of technology
found at Brixham cave. These societies lived by
hunting and gathering, and thus had not yet
developed agriculture or settled life in cities.
Archeological evidence also indicates that these
folk hunted and worked with stone tools rather
than with technologies involving metal-working.
Data such as these, therefore, led 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 (Tylor 1881).
There is nothing on the esthetics or beauty of
so-called “primitive” material culture. On the
other hand, R.R. Marett, Tylor’s biographer and
an anthropologist in his own right, saw the cave
paintings as unmistakably indicating esthetic
refinement and even intellectual command.
Philosopher Georges Bataille suggests as well that
with the appearance of cave art humans moved
out of the grim world of the workaday into a
richer, and in a sense more human, domain of
creative freedom (Bataille 1955). They were
“primitive” no more! But Tylor had no taste for
the cave paintings that so impressed Marett 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.”
Does Religious or Cultural Evolution
Make Sense?
The key to answering this question lies in understanding how and why Tylor, as well other cultural
evolutionists, such as Frazer and Robertson
Smith, whom we will meet shortly, thought they
were right to think that human culture and the
human mind evolve. All of them thought that
some cultures were simply better or more
advanced than others. Some cultures were like
7/9/2014 3:17:06 PM
Page Number: 49
Edward Bu rnet t T yl or
children or teenagers, while others were adult and
mature. Nor was this belief restricted to scientists.
Liberal Protestants, in particular, embraced radical progressive religious and social evolution as a
“quasi-certitude,” as one of their number asserted
in the 1880s (Goblet d’Alviella 1885, p. 173). They
all believed that humans evolved in terms of their
kindness or trustworthiness, in their success at
achieving happiness, in their native intelligence
or honesty, in their range of emotional responses
or abilities to sympathize with others, and so on.
But we no longer agree. We no longer think that it
is really progress to diminish the role of myth,
and thus imagination, from religion in order to
replace it with doctrines. Nor do we take for
granted that it really is progress in religion to
ignore the body, and thus ritual, and replace it
with a series of ethical dos and don’ts. But if we
were nineteenth-century folk in Britain or the
USA, we would!
These questions are not at all easy to answer,
and thankfully we do not have to solve these
problems here. The point to be made is that it is
not at all clear that it makes sense to speak about
cultural institutions like religion, art, politics,
and such as evolving at all, but Tylor and his generation had none of our scruples and doubts. The
thinkers of the late nineteenth century, however,
thought they knew quite well what it meant to
speak of “progress” in religion. It meant the
movement from polytheism to monotheism,
from priesthood and sacrifice to prophecy and
ethical purity of heart, from hieratic and hierarchic religious structures to a godly egalitarianism, from ritual to morality, from myths to
beliefs, from superstitions to rational beliefs, and
so on. In short, in the nineteenth century and
earlier, the religious program of the Protestant
Reformation of evolution and progress in religion was simply assumed as given as a “quasicertitude” (Goblet d’Alviella 1885, p. 173). And
because this mentality had sunk into that of the
times, many secular thinkers felt the same way.
Tylor’s confidence that progress could be tracked
in the human mental and cultural realm came
from the same sources.
Yet beyond the spirit of the age, there is one
more source for Tylor’s belief in cultural evolution that we need to recognize . The answer we
would like to develop here gives Tylor and the
other evolutionists the great benefit of the doubt
Chapter50No.: 1 Title Name: Strenski
Comp. by: Sivaranjini Date: 09 Jul 2014
Time: 03:17:06 PM
and cuts loose for the moment from any of these
“external” influences bearing upon him. The
very logic of evolutionary thinking itself explains
much of why Tylor and others found evolutionism so compelling. Evolution possesses a
powerful core insight. It holds that a given state
of affairs – say, our possession of material technology like an iPod – requires previous facilitating stages of material and social technology –
say, the device that reads the data, the electronics,
a supply of electricity, the technologies of
metallurgy, plastics, and so on – without which
an iPod, for example, would not have been possible. Technology does not leap from stone
wheels or chunks of unworked wood to an iPod.
It relies on a long series of steps, one laid upon
the other, and mounting steadily to places others
would take them – even to have the thought of an
iPod. These lay the successive stages of
development that culminate in the products that
populate our world.
Now, Tylor in effect asked himself what
enabling steps or stages had to be presumed in
order for the mental and moral cultural things in
our world to have come to be in the first place,
and to have survived over the course of so many
years. How did modern-day Protestant ethical
and rational monotheism, for example, come to
be, when we know that people had been religious
for ages in a riotously different series of ways?
How could Tylor form a common mind about how
we got from Brixham cave’s religion to the Church
of England or to Tylor’s own Quakerism –
presuming that we do not get there by way of
supernatural intervention into our world?
That is the problem of religious evolution that
Tylor sets for us. It is therefore why he deserves to
be taken seriously. He and other evolutionary
anthropologists started with common data we all
can agree upon – the material data of the ancient
technologies found in places like Brixham cave.
He then proceeds to ask us how we got from stone
implements and bone tools to hair dryers, record
players, and all the other products that are so
characteristic of our world. Thus, in this study of
how problems of religion generate theories of
religion, Tylor in effect asks us how we got the
religion we have today from the religion of our
prehistoric ancestors, or, as we will see later, by
analogy with the “primitive” folk of our own time.
Tylor seeks to put this question forward knowing
Stage: Proof WorkFlow:CSW
7/9/2014 3:17:06 PM
Page Number: 50
Edward Burnet t T yl or
full well that modern-day religious believers will
not fare well in the bargain. Either modern-day
religious belief in one God – monotheism – will
turn out to be only trivially evolved from the
belief in many gods or spirits – animism – of the
“savages,” or modern-day religion will be seen as
a fusty survival of old, obsolete, and fundamentally ignorant ways of thinking about how to
explain the world. So it is evolutionary thinking
in terms of the necessity of facilitating stages of
development that helped Tylor form a common
mind about the origins and nature of religion.
We Have Met the Primitives,
and “They” Are “Us”
A second great jolt to European religious consciousness was now set to double the impact of
the discovery of prehistoric Europe. We will recall
how in the sixteenth century the first encounters
between Europeans and the so-called “primitives” provoked problems of religion for pious
Christians, in particular about the status of the
religions of the peoples of the New World. We will
also recall how those problems stimulated the
early Deists to imagine an ideal Natural Religion
that formed a common human basis or capacity
for religion. In this way, the Deists were able
to absorb the strange religions of the New
World under the same umbrella that included
Christianity, Judaism, and other religions familiar
to them. All the religions of the world were for
them at the very least local manifestations or variants of Natural Religion. The task before the
study of religion was, then, to mark how far from
or near to a given historical religion was the ideal
of Natural Religion. Hume, Darwin, and the rise
of natural history, however, changed all this.
Just as Max Müller had sought, in effect, to
answer Hume’s challenge for empirical and historical examples of such a Natural Religion by
producing a detailed picture of what was at that
time regarded as the oldest of all religions – Vedic
religion – Tylor gave the wheel of the dialectic
another turn and, in effect, challenged Müller
about the identity of the oldest and most
fundamental religion. With the discoveries of
human prehistory, geology, and evolutionary
biology, a new developmental historical
landscape, with new its scientific investigative
Chapter 51
No.: 1 Title Name: Strenski
Comp. by: Sivaranjini Date: 09 Jul 2014
Time: 03:17:06 PM
Stage: Proof
criteria, lay before anyone seeking to make claims
about Natural Religion. And now, with the new
discoveries of ethnography, Tylor was ready to
advance the case against Müller even further.
From these new data and theories, Tylor felt that
he had found in the belief in spirits – in animism –
the very essence of religion. Here was the most
ancient of religions, one that survived with only
the most trivial of changes wrought by evolutionary development, and which had now lodged
itself in place in modern times cloaked in the
sophisticated jargon of theology. The trick, however, was to link to two sorts of inquiries so that
Tylor could show that he was right about animism
being the first and essential religion. This meant
joining the discourse of the prehistory of the folk
of Europe with the ethnographic researches on
contemporary “primitives.” Tylor’s way of making this all-important link lay in the proper
application of developmentalist and evolutionist
We owe this new vision of the equivalence of
prehistoric folk to our “primitive” contemporaries to the developmental thinker and geologist
Charles Lyell. Although everyone in the human
sciences at this time bore something of the mark
of the influence Darwin, Lyell arguably made
more of a specific impact upon Tylor. Tylor’s evolutionism was thus pre-Darwinian and more
generic in style than anything that conformed to
Darwinian orthodoxy. Tylor never applied a strict
Darwinian principle such as “survival of the
fittest” to his analyses of culture, for example –
even though Max Müller had done so in arguing
how Indo-European languages showed how
certain synonyms were “eliminated” by virtue of
just such a Darwinian struggle (Leopold 1980, p.
31). Indeed, the problem standing in the way of a
Darwinian outlook for Tylor is that quite often
the unfit survived! Tylor’s “survivals” were just
this sort of useless fossil washed up on the shores
of the present.
Anthropology was nonetheless for Tylor, as it
was for Darwin, a branch of natural history, thus
making Tylor a Darwinian in the relatively weak
sense that he felt that human cultural evolution
proceeded in a lawful and natural way. Adopting
nature as a whole, instead of local cultures, as his
strategic level of inquiry provided Tylor with a
powerful comparative tool. It meant that he
could aim at human species universals and pass
7/9/2014 3:17:06 PM
Page Number: 51
Edward Bu rnet t T yl or
over the endless oddities of individual cultures.
Human nature was something thus fundamentally universal, constant, and invariant. All
humans shared a common psychic unity much as
they did a common physical anatomy (Stocking
1994, p. xx).
Nowhere did Tylor’s commitment to the
universal and constant species nature of humans
have more impact than on his approach to religion. Religion for Tylor was to be studied just like
any other feature of the natural world.
To fall back once again on the analogy of
natural history, the time may soon come when it
will be thought as unreasonable for a scientific
student of theology not to have a competent
acquaintance with the principles of the religions
of the lower races as for a physiologist to look
with the contempt of past centuries on evidence
derived from the lower forms of life, deeming
the structure of mere invertebrate creatures
matter unworthy of his philosophic study (Tylor
1958, p. 24).
Implied in this association of natural history
and religion was the further association, owed to
Lyell, of the studies of European prehistory with
the results of anthropological fieldwork among
“the primitive.” Notably, Tylor faithfully followed
a program of identifying the prehistoric
Europeans with the “primitives” of today, anticipating the arguments of Darwin’s The Descent of
Man (1871).
The main conclusion arrived at in this work,
namely, that man is descended from some
lowly organized form, will, I regret to think, be
highly distasteful to many. But there can hardly
be a doubt that we are descended from barbarians. I will never forget the astonishment I felt
on first seeing a party of Fuegans on a wild and
broken shore, for the reflection at once rushed
into my mind – such were our ancestors
(Darwin 1970, p. 276).
And so it was that Tylor “thought he was right”
to identify the religion of the folk of prehistoric
Europe with the religion he met on the ethnographic field: both were examples of “primitive”
religion in the loose Darwinian sense of the term
as the first and least developed of the human
species (Stocking 1994, p. xvi). Without “their”
efforts in the dim past of prehistory, “we” could
not have mounted the heights of progress that Tylor
felt the nineteenth century had achieved – even if
Chapter52No.: 1 Title Name: Strenski
Comp. by: Sivaranjini Date: 09 Jul 2014
Time: 03:17:06 PM
in religious terms this progress would be relatively
slight. “They” provided the enabling first stages of
animism upon which all later religious developmental steps of human religious progress were
painfully constructed over many eons. By thus
bringing religion into the sphere of disciplines
such as natural history, Tylor hoped to revolutionize the religious world of his day.
From the point of view of providing a tool for
explaining religion, Tylor’s theoretical approach
had manifest obvious and ominous – for religious
believers – power. With the merger of the study of
prehistoric societies with those encountered on
the ethnographic field, both could be explained at
one go, without the bothersome details of local
histories. Both were for Tylor (and Darwin)
“primitives” or “savages” in the identical sense of
occupying a common place in the trajectory of
human cultural evolution. Tylor believed that the
prehistoric, proto-European folk whose remains
we find in places like Brixham cave are at an
equivalent level of species maturity as the modern-day primitive “other” we meet on the ethnographic field, and close as well to the peasant folk
of the Europe of Tylor’s day. As Tylor colorfully
put it, “the European may find among the
Greenlanders or Maoris many a trait for reconstructing the picture of his own primitive ancestors” (Tylor 1958, p. 21). They can be compared,
because they are comparable sorts of people in
terms of their technologies, social patterns, and,
most pointedly, their religion.
Thus, we would expect to find many parallel
religious beliefs and practices between these
far-flung folk and ourselves. We should be able to
fill in details missing from one set of folk by
matching them with the other. If we find a belief
in many spirits in “primitive” societies, we can
expect to find (slightly) “higher” forms of such
beliefs – monotheism – in more “advanced” societies. If we find human sacrifice in today’s ethnographic contexts, we would do well to look for it
in the historic domain: if today’s Yanomami tribal
folk carry out human sacrifice, we might expect
those proto-Europeans inhabiting the caves of
Lascaux tens of thousands of years ago to have
done the same. The inferences flow in the
opposite direction as well – from what the paleolithic folk did, such as fashioning stone axes, to
what we might expect among the Yanomami in
terms of their technology of axe-making.
Stage: Proof WorkFlow:CSW
7/9/2014 3:17:06 PM
Page Number: 52
Edward Burnet t T yl or
Whether it be ultimately valid or not, such examples show how powerful Tylor’s evolutionist style
of comparison could be. In Anahuac, Tylor
remarks on the similarities of stone axes:
The family-likeness that exists among the stone
tools and weapons found in so many parts of the
world is very remarkable. The flint-arrows of
North America, such as Mr. Longfellow’s arrow
maker used to work at in the land of the
Dacotahs, and which, in the wild northern states
of Mexico, the Apaches and Comanches use to
this day, might be easily mistaken for the
weapons of our British ancestors, dug up on the
banks of the Thames.
With diffusionists like Müller no doubt, in
mind, Tylor is also quick to head off any explanation of the similarities between cultural traits
that might be attributable to cultural borrowing
or transfer:
The wonderful similarity of character among the
stone weapons found in different parts of the
world has often been used by ethnologists as a
means of supporting the theory that this and
other arts were carried over the world by tribes
migrating from one common centre of creation
of the human species. The argument has not
much weight, and a larger view of the subject
quite supersedes it. (Tylor 1861, pp. 101–102)
With this encompassing vision, Tylor moved ahead
confidently to become the English-speaking world’s
leading proponent of anthropology – a universal
science of humanity, a science that encompassed all
of human history from its rudest beginnings to the
modern day.
Max Müller argued that the study of religion
must be historical (chiefly philological), but
unlike Tylor, Müller saw religion on the whole in
a state of degeneration. Every religion of which
we have any direct evidence signaled to Müller
that it was somehow defective, showing a kind
degeneration from a better state, after a kind of
‘Fall.’ Thus, to study religion through comparison
with Tylor’s present-day or past “savages” was to
err, because one was trying to understand one
degenerate form of religion by comparing it with
another degenerate form of religion. Such comparisons were likely to be unfruitful because they
had little “traction,” so to speak. That is to say,
they did not supply us with any perspective, since
they consisted in comparisons between essentially the same kinds of thing.
The problem for the student of religion was
both to chart and to explain why and how things
had declined. This presumption of decline, rather
than development, in turn called for comparison
between later degenerate forms with earlier lofty
forms of religion. Müller felt that historical
comparison was best undertaken within the context of “developed” (rather than “savage” or
“primitive”) societies. In many ways, he translated the spirit and some of the techniques of the
new critical attitude to the Bible to his own studies
of Vedic religion and the religions of ancient
India. What Max Müller was doing was thus one
thing – a “science of religion” to employ his own
language; Tylor, on the other hand, in his ambitions to found a “science of man,” was certainly
doing anthropology of religion. His not-so-secret
desire “all theologians to expose,” thus shaped his
research program for religion in ways which
would present even modern-day religion as a
survival of long since outmoded ways of thinking,
or at the very best, a trivial development of
“savage” animistic beliefs. In these respects, then,
the two men could not have differed more in their
approaches to the problems of religion that their
age presented to them.
Bataille, G. 1955. Lascaux. Lausanne: Skira.
Darwin, C. 1970. “The Descent of Man.” In P. Appleman
(ed.), Darwin: A Norton Critical Reader. New York:
W.W. Norton.
Goblet d’Alviella, C.E. 1885. “Maurice Vernes et la
méthode comparative.” Revue de l’histoire des religions 12: 170–178.
Chapter 53
No.: 1 Title Name: Strenski
Comp. by: Sivaranjini Date: 09 Jul 2014
Time: 03:17:06 PM
Stage: Proof
Gruber, J.W. 1965. “Brixham Cave and the Antiquity of
Man.” In M.E. Spiro (ed.), Context and Meaning in
Cultural Anthropology. New York: Free Press.
Leopold, J. 1980. Culture in Comparative and
Evolutionary Perspective: E.B. Tylor and the Making
of Primitive Culture. Berlin: Dietrich Reimer
7/9/2014 3:17:06 PM
Page Number: 53
Edward Bu rnet t T yl or
Marett, R.R. 1914. The Threshold of Religion. New York:
Marett, R.R. 1936. Tylor. London: Chapman & Hall.
McCutcheon, R.T. 2001. Critics Not Caretakers:
Redescribing the Public Study of Religion. Albany:
Stocking, G.W. 1987. Victorian Anthropology. New
York: Free Press.
Stocking, G.W. 1994. “Introduction.” In G.W. Stocking
(ed.), The Collected Works of Edward Burnett Tylor:
Anahuac: Or Mexico and the Mexicans, Ancient and
Modern, vol. 1. London: Routledge/Thoemmes
Stocking, G.W. 2001. “Edward Burnett Tylor and the
Mission of Primitive Man.” In G.W. Stocking (ed.),
Delimiting Anthropology. Madison: University of
Wisconsin Press.
Tylor, E.B. 1861. Anahuac: Or Mexico and the Mexicans,
Ancient and Modern. London: Reader & Dyer.
Tylor, E.B. 1866a. “On the Origin of Language.”
Fortnightly Review: 544–559.
Tylor, E.B. 1866b. “The Religion of Savages.” Fortnightly
Review: 71–86.
Tylor, E.B. 1873. Religion in Primitive Culture. New
York: Harper.
Tylor, E.B. 1881. Anthropology. Ann Arbor: University
of Michigan.
Tylor, E.B. 1958. Primitive Culture, vol. 1. New York:
Harper & Row.
Further Reading
Durkheim, É. 1995. The Elementary Forms of the Religious
Life, trans. K.E. Fields. New York: Free Press.
Frankenberry, N.K. (ed.). 2002. Radical Interpretation
in Religion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Lévi-Strauss, C. 1966. The Savage Mind. London:
Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
Lévi-Strauss, C. 1968. “The Structural Study of Myth.”
In C. Lévi-Strauss (ed.), Structural Anthropology,
vol. 1. London: Allen Lane.
Lévi-Strauss, C. 1976. “Race and History.” In In C. LéviStrauss (ed.), Structural Anthropology, vol. 2. New
York City: Basic Books.
Lyell, C. 1863. The Geological Evidence of the Antiquity
of Man. London: John Murray.
Müller, F.M. 1886. “On Manners and Customs.” In Chips
from a German Workshop, vol. 2. London: Longmans,
Green & Co.
Müller, F.M. 1891. Physical Religion. New York:
Longmans, Green & Co.
Müller, F.M. 1892. Natural Religion. London: Longmans,
Green & Co.
Chapter54No.: 1 Title Name: Strenski
Comp. by: Sivaranjini Date: 09 Jul 2014
Time: 03:17:06 PM
Réville, A. 1883. Les Religions des peuples non-civilisés,
vol. 1. Paris: Fischbacher.
Stocking, G.W. 2001. “Books Unwritten, Turning Points
Unmarked: Notes for an Anti-History of Anthropology.”
In G.W. Stocking (ed.), Delimiting Anthropology.
Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
Strenski, I. 1985. “Comparative Study of Religions:
A Theological Necessity.” Christian Century:
Strenski, I. 1985/1996. “Misreading Max Müller.” Method
and Theory in the Study of Religion 8: 291–296.
Strenski, I. 1985/1996. “The Rise of Ritual and the
Hegemony of Myth: Sylvain Lévi, the Durkheimians
and Max Müller.” In W. Doniger and L. Patton (eds.),
Myth and Method. Charlottesville: University of
Tylor, E.B. 1880. “The President’s Address.” Journal of
the Anthropological Institute 9: 443–458.
Tylor, E.B. 1888. “On a Method of Investigating the
Development of Institutions.” Journal of the Anthropological Institute 18: 245–272.
Stage: Proof WorkFlow:CSW
7/9/2014 3:17:06 PM
Page Number: 54
Classic Nineteenth-Century Theorists
of the Study of Religion: The Quest for
the Origins of Religion in History
Chapter 31
No.: 1 Title Name: Strenski
Comp. by: MANGAYARKARASI S Date: 04 Jul 2014
Time: 11:12:34 PM
Stage: Proof WorkFlow:CSW
7/4/2014 11:12:34 PM
Page Number: 31
Chapter32No.: 1 Title Name: Strenski
Comp. by: MANGAYARKARASI S Date: 04 Jul 2014
Time: 11:12:34 PM
Stage: Proof WorkFlow:CSW
7/4/2014 11:12:34 PM
Page Number: 32
Max Müller, the Comparative Study of
Religion, and the Search for Other
Bibles in India
Max Müller in the Center of a Whirlwind
The present chapter takes its inception from a
single question, answered, as it happens, by
Friedrich Max Müller (1823–1900). If the Bible
can be looked upon as a historical document, fit
to be judged by normal historical and empirical
standards of scholarship and knowledge – and
not faith or supernormal cognition – then why
cannot any religious scripture be seen in its
human, historical aspect? Why, therefore, should
not all the texts of all the religious traditions of
the world be subject to critical textual and historical examination for the purpose of understanding the ways that they have changed over the
eons? Despite their claims to supernatural, divine,
or trans-historical origins, are not all religious
scriptures at least at some level documents owned
by human beings and transmitted by human
beings to their descendants? To all these questions, Max Müller gave a rousing positive answer.
Straight off, I must alert students that Max
Müller’s theoretical thinking is perhaps more
complex and contorted than that of any other
thinker in this book. He lived at the center of a
confluence of world-shaking trends of thinking,
many pulling him in opposite directions.
Romanticism, Protestant theological liberalism
and hyper-orthodoxy, German nationalism, the
European discovery of the languages and literatures of India, British and western European
imperialism and colonialism, and rising industrialism name only some of the more salient cultural
forces surging round Max Müller. Added to these,
external forces, Müller cannot be understood
without taking seriously his own sincere, mystical
piety. What then makes him so hard to understand is that he tried to reconcile all these forces
and his own personal spiritual yearnings together
in one seamless theory. In my discussion, I shall
also argue that in some sense the story of the
study of religion Müller produced can only be
understood by seeing how his internal piety
played against and along with these exciting
cultural forces. That, at any rate, is what I am
arguing, and what I hope will give students a rich
understanding of arguably the very first religious
studies scholar who “looks” like us.
The Bible and Beyond
In the last chapter, I argued how Higher Criticism
of the Bible succeeded famously in complicating
the reading of at least one cardinal religious text.
In doing so, it changed the face of religion, and
the study of religion in the Atlantic world.
Although the original biblical critics never
Understanding Theories of Religion: An Introduction, Second Edition. Ivan Strenski.
© 2015 Ivan Strenski. Published 2015 by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
Chapter 33
No.: 1 Title Name: Strenski
Comp. by: MUNISAMY Date: 11 Jul 2014
Time: 09:50:13 AM
Stage: Proof
7/11/2014 9:50:13 AM
Page Number: 33
Max Müller
intended to reach beyond the Jewish and
Christian religious worlds, their success made
possible the application of the same techniques to
any and all religious texts. Religious texts now
could be appreciated as human creations, shaped
by historical processes, rather than solely as visitations from eternity. Religious texts continued to
be inspiring, and even inspired. But words of the
spirit often rode the broad backs of rambunctious
political, moral, theological, or psychological
“tigers” as well. Texts came to life; and life came
to texts.
Now, what brings us to the business of the present chapter is that Friedrich Max Müller was
among first to act on the conviction that the critical tools of the Higher Criticism of the Bible
could and should be applied to all the world’s
religious scriptures (van den Bosch 2002, p. 517).
“I had been at a German university, and the historical study of Christianity was to me as familiar
as the study of Roman history… . [It] left me with
the firm conviction that the Old and New
Testament were historical books, and to be treated
according to the same critical principles as any
ancient book” (Müller 2002a, pp. 191–192). For
that one fact alone, we should be eternally grateful to the life and work of Max Müller. But I get
ahead of myself. Müller’s link to the biblical critics
was solid. He even learned the techniques of
Higher Criticism from those close to its founding
generation in Germany. Unlike most biblical
critics, however, Müller looked on all the world’s
religious texts as equally sacred, as “revelations.”
For him, the Bible was a most excellent example
of a sacred text, but there were others as well that
he revered. He thus approached all the sacred
books in a spirit of scientific historical curiosity
and discovery. His goal was to help form a nonconfessional common mind about the sacred
texts of all the world’s religions, and thus a
common mind about religion. It is thus easy to
see why we should revere Müller as one of the
founders of the study of religion. His open, critical approach to religious scripture remains a lasting legacy of his work in the study of religion.
While his stance left Müller open to the charge
of agnosticism, he, nevertheless, accepted it in
good cheer because it gave him an opportunity to
declare his allegiance to a broadly scientific
approach to the subject of religion. “In one sense
I hope I am, and always have been, an Agnostic,”
Chapter34No.: 1 Title Name: Strenski
Comp. by: MUNISAMY Date: 11 Jul 2014
Time: 09:50:13 AM
Stage: Proof
because, as Müller defined the term, an agnostic
is someone “relying on nothing but historical
facts and in following reason as far as it will take
us … and in never pretending that conclusions
are certain which are not demonstrated or
demonstrable” (Müller 1901, pp. 355–356).
Committed to the full exercise of his God-given
curiosity, he lets nothing but loyalty to the evidence stand in the way of his pursuit of truth.
We should, then, think about Müller as joined
in spirit not only to the efforts of the Higher
Criticism, but also to Bodin, Herbert of Cherbury,
and, as we will see later, William Robertson
Smith. He was one of those thinkers I call a
“positive skeptic.” He used curiosity and questioning to deepen his own spirituality. He did not,
for example, engage in destructive debunking or
demythologizing of sacred texts for its own sake.
Müller shared the view of liberal Christians of his
day in believing that the Higher Criticism would
bring out the “original Christian message by
undoing it from the accretions of supernatural
and superstitious beliefs” (van den Bosch 2002,
p. 78). That ultimately may be why Müller
“thought he was right” to pursue his special
approach to the study of religion.
Müller’s Theological Liberalism and
Comparison of Religions
As a typical theological liberal, Max Müller felt
that “orthodox” Christianity was a cramped
Christianity. He wanted to expand it, as we will
discover, by cross-fertilizing Christianity with the
wisdom to be gleaned from the world’s religions.
He was not shy about borrowing ideas from other
religions to adapt to his own religious practice.
Theological liberals like Müller thus typically
rejected biblical literalism, saying that a “belief
that these books had been verbally communicated
by the Deity, simply because it was recorded in
these sacred books, was to me a standpoint long
left behind” (Müller 2002a, p. 192). Müller proudly
chose the path of progressive religion. But, unlike
most theological liberals, he felt that things were
in a long, slow spiritual decline. Civilization was
not advancing forward as the more Protestant
progressive evolutionists thought. The advance of
industry and technology crushed the human
spirit. Social forces like secularism took people
7/11/2014 9:50:13 AM
Page Number: 34
Max Müller
further from a religious sensibility, a reverence for
nature, or a hunger for the divine. Technology and
industrial development despoiled the natural
Yet Müller thought there was hope for the
human spirit in retrieving the sublime glories of
ancient religion of the deep past. At the
beginning of things shone the spiritual light of a
Natural Religion that would magnetize people
into its contemplation. He felt that the new
techniques and scholarship only recently available to him and his generation would make the
best case possible for this earliest and truest
Natural Religion. In his deep religious orientation, Müller again shows how traditions of
sound scientific scholarship have sometimes
been driven by deep religious motivations. In
this, he is in the good company of his forebears
in the study of religion, Herbert of Cherbury
and Jean Bodin.
Despite these progressive values, however,
Müller was reluctant to promote them as an alien
in his adopted country. He certainly never confronted his theological enemies. So, he avoided
confrontation with the established church and
“stood aloof from the conflict of parties, whether
academic, theological or political.” As he tells it, “I
had my own work to do, and it did not seem to me
good taste to obtrude my opinions, which naturally were different from those prevalent at
Oxford” (Müller 2002a, p. 156). But in actuality
Müller’s “own work” turned out to spark a consequential controversy. He went public with his
plan of a universal comparative study of religions
emergent in the publication of his great collection
of the religious scriptures of the world, The Sacred
Books of the East. The Anglican ecclesiastical
establishment that dominated the academic and
religious scene in Oxford in the latter half of the
nineteenth century was, however, alert to the
slightest signs of non-conformity. Anything
which suggested, as Müller’s collection did, that
the religions of the world ought to be regarded as
equals alongside one another was taboo! And so,
despite his precautions, the Church of England
establishment finally threatened to censor
Müller’s work and, effectively, end his career.
The details of this brewing crisis are now well
known. In his introduction to the Sacred Books of
the East, Müller seemed to throw down a gauntlet
to the church. “The time has come,” said Müller,
Chapter 35
No.: 1 Title Name: Strenski
Comp. by: MUNISAMY Date: 11 Jul 2014
Time: 09:50:13 AM
Stage: Proof
“when the study of the ancient religions of
mankind must be approached in a different, less
enthusiastic, more discriminating, in fact, in a
more scholar-like spirit” (Chauduri 1974, p. 352).
Part of Müller’s meaning here came in the form of
proposing to publish the Hebrew Bible and New
Testament in the Sacred Books of the East
alongside all the other scriptures of the world.
Like Bodin, Müller treated Christianity as an
equal among the world’s religions. And however
he might have tried, he could not avoid giving
offense to Oxford’s conservative theological
establishment. In the end, the establishment won,
and successfully blocked the inclusion of the
Bible in the collection (Chauduri 1974, pp. 355–
356). The established church felt that it could not
abide having incomparable Christianity compared with “pagan” (sic) cults. Müller had to settle
for a compromise. He was able to publish his
“Bibles of humanity,” the Sacred Books of the East,
but without the Bible.
Müller’s plans for the study of religion were
essentially a response to the discovery of massive
stores of the literatures of many long-lived religious traditions theretofore unknown in the
West. His approach, the “science of religion,” was
one of the first disciplines successfully to exploit
these new facts. His idea in establishing a “science”
was, at the very least, to form a common mind
about religion, so that scholars and other thinkers
could engage the facts of religious difference and
similarity. No one was barred from this discourse
because of confessional commitment.
A good example of how Müller imagined this
new discourse of religion would go might be
found in his reaction to the critical writing of
David Hume. Recall that Hume had challenged
Herbert of Cherbury’s idea of monotheism, integral to his concept of Natural Religion. Hume
appealed to some of the same new data, available
to Müller, and concluded that it showed polytheism to be the oldest known religion. Answering
Hume’s attacks, Müller argued that the texts of the
most ancient of the religions of India supported a
position more like Herbert’s. On the surface, they
did, in fact, evidence a kind of polytheism, as
Hume had claimed. Yet Müller argued that a
more profound look at the data revealed
something like the Natural Religion of Herbert
and Jean Bodin lurking behind Hume’s polytheism. Müller insisted that the best historical
7/11/2014 9:50:14 AM
Page Number: 35
Max Müller
and scientific evidence we have pointed to a
mystical religion of transcendent and infinite
oneness. (We might look on this as Müller’s
version of Natural Religion.) Hints of this straining for mystical unity showed through the religion
of Vedic nature worship, said Müller. Those texts
themselves seemed to esteem a oneness, analogous to the monotheisms both Bodin and Herbert
proclaimed! The matter would not rest there, of
course, because Tylor was determined to vindicate
Hume against Müller, here by arguing that
animism, a belief in plural spirits – and thus
polytheism of a sort – was the universal and
oldest religion.
A final word: as we can see by the doggedness
of this argument and its attendant emotional
tone, pure science was not in play. Hume and
Tylor were enemies of religion; Müller was a devotee. While Müller may be accused of theological
intentions, Hume and Tylor are no better. They
too play the theological game of requiring ultimate commitment to a particular worldview. In a
sense, they simply play the role of atheistic theologians to Müller’s mystical theism. I conclude
here that Müller’s intense persistence in pressing
his case arose from a genuine conviction of the
actual reality of the Infinite in his own life. He
had reasons “internal” to his life – his own religious experiences – that gave him another reason
to “think he was right” to form a common mind
about his approach to the study of religion. We
will see in our study of Tylor that his motivations
were diametrically opposed. He held a life-long
grudge against religion, or at the very least
established religion of England. He intended his
so-called “scientific” theory of religion to do
nothing less than destroy the Church of England.
The Discovery of the East–West Link
in Sanskrit
Now, how was Max Müller to justify seeing profound unity behind radically empirical plurality?
How was he able to defend his view that a deep
mystical unity in the divinity hid itself behind the
wild and unpredictable polytheism of the ancient
religions of India, and their Indo-European
cousins, the religions of Greece, Rome, and the
Germanic and Celtic worlds? To answer these
questions, we need to follow Müller down the
Chapter36No.: 1 Title Name: Strenski
Comp. by: MUNISAMY Date: 11 Jul 2014
Time: 09:50:13 AM
Stage: Proof
path he blazed in using the historical study of
languages to ground his approach to religion.
And as we should be prepared to expect, for
Müller the starting point for all such inquiries
was the languages of India and their historical
relation to the West.
The growing European consciousness about
ancient India was a principal part of the nineteenth-century European effort to learn about the
civilizations of the ancient world through language. As we have seen, with the biblical critics,
the critical study of languages was fundamental to
humanistic studies. So it was also with India, and
her relation to the West. The West’s new
knowledge of India came at first primarily
through the recovery of ancient manuscripts collected by Sir William Jones, a British jurist posted
to India in the late eighteenth century. Jones was
also the first person systematically to argue that
the ancient sacred language of India, Sanskrit,
was a close relative to Latin, Greek, and even
English. Sanskrit words such as pitar, matar, and
bhartr were simply too close to their Latin counterparts, pater, mater, and frater, and to the
English father, mother, brother, Jones argued, for
it to be a mere accident. There had to be some
kind of – yet unknown – historical link between
East and West. In short, our Western languages
had Eastern origins! Müller joined these efforts to
master ancient languages such as Sanskrit. And
since the British kept the only complete set of
Sanskrit manuscripts of the Rig Veda in Oxford,
Müller abandoned the Continent for England.
Müller succeeded famously in making a new
life in Oxford, largely through his own courage
and effort, but also though the timely aid and
assistance of the sponsorship of extraordinary
patrons. He exploited Jones’ work on the Vedic
texts. And, as a comparativist, he went even
further to parlay that into the claim that ancient
tongues of Rome and Greece, indeed most of the
modern languages of western Europe, constituted
a “family” related to the family of Indic languages
related to Sanskrit.
But just what followed from the fact of such
linguistic affinities between East and West? And
how did this help Müller show that Hume was
wrong about polytheism being the oldest and
most fundamental form of religion? Let me
briefly show how Müller worked toward his
desired conclusions. First step: he sought to delve
7/11/2014 9:50:14 AM
Page Number: 36
Max Müller
as deeply as possible into the meanings of our
modern European words. Consider his example
of the English noun, “divinity” and its verbal
relative, “to divine.” We all know what divinity
means in common parlance. The dictionary
states: “the state or quality of being divine; especially, the state of being a deity.” When we begin
with a simple comparison with a sister language
such as French, a near-perfect cognate occurs –
divinité – meaning deity or god. Likewise, Spanish
yields the abstract noun divinidad of the same
meaning. How do we account for these similarities, at least from the point of view of English?
Either “divinity” originated in one of these
tongues, and then passed to the others, or they are
all derived as equals from a third source. And if
all these words for divinity stemmed from a
common third source, it must indicate that
something important is being retained across all
the linguistic differences of Indo-European.
Next step: what else do these relationships tell
us about the original meanings of such words?
What did “divine” mean originally, especially
since it does not come from Hebrew biblical
sources? If, for example, one of our English words
for God is derived from the Latin, is it not possible that our very idea of God might also be
derived to some degree from Roman ideas of the
gods? Müller answers first by noting that when
we trace such words as “divine” to their Latin origins, we find that they come from divinus. Now,
in the Roman world divus is a soothsayer, and a
veritable god! So, these relations suggest that a
“diviner,” for example, may be one who manipulates godly – “divine” – powers. Here, we might
just recall how someone being inspired by a god
(divus) carries over into our conceptions of, say, a
“water diviner,” someone who finds water with a
“divining rod.”
Next step: Müller was not satisfied only to trace
modern European languages to their Latin roots.
He wanted to trace their origins back into what he
believed to be the ancient source of modern
Western languages, their ultimate Indo-European
roots, by way of Sanskrit, because he thought this
told us about ourselves. What, therefore, are the
root Indo-European meanings of, say, “divinity”
and its relatives, “divine,” “diviner,” and so on?
Müller answered with a remarkable series of
replies. For starters, the Sanskrit word for “god”
was deva – virtually the same word for “god” as the
Chapter 37
No.: 1 Title Name: Strenski
Comp. by: MUNISAMY Date: 11 Jul 2014
Time: 09:50:13 AM
Stage: Proof
Latin divus. At the very least, comparison implied
that classic European and Indian language about
deity may well be at root a common set of concepts, shared all across the 6,000-mile distance
and 5,000-year-long history of the Indo-European
crescent, extending from Sri Lanka to Ireland, or
even across the Americas to Australasia. We are
still digesting the implications of such facts today.
So, when Müller delved into the root meaning of
words like “divinity,” divus, and deva, he concluded that even before Latin and Sanskrit,
another language, Indo-European, must lie
beneath. This root language was the root, mother
tongue of this great “Aryan” (or, now, IndoEuropean) language family. And when he searched
for the root meaning of all these various forms for
“god,” he found the little word, “div.” From this
little particle, “divinity”, deva, and such derived.
But what did “div” mean? “Div” just meant “to
shine” – a radiant, high god was what the IndoEuropeans worshiped, and passed on to us!
So, where then does this leave us? Here, it suggests why so many myths of the Vedas are
addressed to the sun. And since the IndoEuropeans conceived the sun as male, that most
radiant of all shining objects, received their
worship, rather than, say, the earth, our life-giving
home. Müller accepted the patriarchal values
both of his own age and of the Indo-Europeans.
Both held that worship of the sun was the highest
form of nature religion. As Rig Veda X: 1 says:
High has the Mighty risen before the dawning,
and come to us with light from out the darkness.
The glooms of night you, Brilliant Babe,
subduest, and art come forth,
loud roaring, from your Mothers.
Müller’s joy increased, as we will see shortly, when
he also realized that there was a convergence of
this Indo-European solar religious imagery with
motifs in the German Idealist philosophy in
which he had been educated (Voigt 1967, p. 32).
In both of them, the sun was the leading emblem
of an original transcendental, yet natural, unity of
the philosophical ultimate, the Absolute (Mosse
1964, pp. 70–72, 89). Everything was beginning
to fall nicely into place for Max Müller and his
increasingly sophisticated worldview. Müller,
then, felt he had established that an IndoEuropean mentality, detectable and transmitted
7/11/2014 9:50:14 AM
Page Number: 37
Max Müller
in language, lived on in the present in us. In
particular, basic Indo-European ways of thinking
held sway over Western thinking about the divine.
Since our modern languages are rooted in IndoEuropean ones, this linguistic link explained, in
part, why we think about religion as we do. That
is why we in the modern West continue to think
about God as “divinity” analogously to the way
the Indo-Europeans of millennia past did. They
thought their devas were high, often father-gods,
radiant and, as we will see, typically male. Rather
pleased with himself for concluding this deep link
between East and West, Müller asks rhetorically,
“And are we so different from them?” (Müller
1881a, p. 451). Another of Müller’s contributions
to the study of religion, then, was the idea that it
should be studied historically and through language for traces of its ancient formation.
But is Müller right that our thinking owes such a
debt to the ancient roots of our language in IndoEuropean ones? The point remains disputed. But,
at least, he has forced us to consider how language
shapes our thinking, and how it does so across
great historical spans of time. In chapter 16, we will
see how today’s feminist critics and theorists of
religion take very seriously the propositions
embedded in Müller’s great project. Feminist
critics of “patriarchal” religion challenge our
modern Western notion of a father-god and blame
that inscription of patriarchy on our language.
Feminist theorists, like Marija Gimbutas, explicitly
blame Indo-European male linguistic formations
of deva for patriarchy. The feminist critics charge
that our Indo-European “daughter” languages
retain an ancient male-dominated Indo-European/
Aryan conception of divine male power and violence, of a high father-god, such as we see in the
Vedas. Its high god, Indra, lives above in a heavenly
abode, and is at the same time a warrior god. Given
what we know of the structure of Indo-European
ideas of gods/devas, the feminist critics have a
point. Along with them, why should we allow our
conceptions of divinity to continue to be so limited
by their Indic origins? Why not break out of the
straitjacket of language that shapes how we see the
divine? In chapter 16, we will see how the feminists
argue we can escape the confines of the patriarchal
Indo-European ways of imaging the divine. We will
see how they urge adoption of the goddess, a figure
who exemplifies feminine-gendered qualities of
cooperation and love, and who is resident
Chapter38No.: 1 Title Name: Strenski
Comp. by: MUNISAMY Date: 11 Jul 2014
Time: 09:50:13 AM
Stage: Proof
immanently in the earth, our home, rather than
the violence and domination of the Indic high
Max Müller therefore cherished the belief that
the lessons learned from seeking the IndoEuropean roots of our language could reveal the
roots of our religions as well. While Müller honored the Bible and revelation, like Herbert of
Cherbury, he felt that the human mind possessed
a natural aptitude for religion, preparing it to
receive biblical or Vedic or Quranic revelation.
This ultimate root of religion was Müller’s version
of Natural Religion. By the painstaking use of a
comparative method of the study of languages he
thought he could make his case for what he
thought Natural Religion was.
Max Müller’s “Romantic” Comparativism
and Western Imperialism
It is worth noting at this point how Müller, Bodin,
and Herbert of Cherbury all thought they were
right to study religion in a very special way – comparatively and cross-culturally. But the different
times in which they lived pressed them to do so
for different reasons. By Müller’s time, the age of
religious warfare among European Christians
had long passed. Comparing Protestantism and
Catholicism was neither particularly controversial nor really much called for in the mid-nineteenth century. Instead, cross-cultural and
comparative study honed a new edge as a result of
European colonial expansion. Western imperial
intrusions into territories populated by peoples of
other religions sparked feelings of Christian
exceptionalism among the Westerners. British
imperialists tacitly thought that Christianity must
be better than the religions of India or the Near
East because Western powers dominated India
and the Near East economically and militarily.
Also reinforcing Western imperial exceptionalism was the rising prowess of Western science
and technology. Dynamic modern industrialism
seemed, as well, another sign of Western prowess.
That the industrial state itself fed on the resources
extracted from the colonies simply reinforced a
sense of Western, and thus Christian, superiority.
“We” were “winners”; “they,” the “losers.” In
chapter 17, we will see how these Western colonial attitudes of the nineteenth century become
7/11/2014 9:50:14 AM
Page Number: 38
Max Müller
the basis for contemporary post-colonial theories
of the religions of the colonized “Other.”
Müller was prominent in his time because he
swam against the stream of the pervasive Christian
and Western religious exceptionalism. These religious exceptionalists refused to compare
Christianity with other religions in any way. For
them, the two were as distinct as apples and oranges.
Christianity was the exception to the rule, so to
speak, since it was a “revealed” religion, while the
others were simply human creations. Christianity
was, therefore, privileged or incomparable. Now
while it is also true that Max Müller took pride in
his own German Christian background, he did a
great deal to promote the dignity of the religions of
the world, beginning with the religions of India. A
look into Müller’s world might help us see how this
attitude partook of larger changes in the mentality
of the nineteenth-century German world. Why, for
example, was Müller open and generous to religious difference, when all about him raged the
forces of imperial domination and Christian religious exceptionalism?
Müller’s immersion in the German Romantic
movement made exotic cultures like India’s
and its religions attractive to him. But what
was Romanticism, and how did Müller’s
approach to the study of religion participate in it?
Romanticism was a complex and many-sided
cultural movement. When we think of
Romanticism, we should think of the “natural”
look in fashion. Think women in free-flowing,
gauzy gowns instead of stiff, corseted dresses.
Imagine men in elegant frock coats and big,
floppy hats. Recall both men and women
sporting carelessly combed, even slightly disheveled hairstyles rather than the formal powdered
wigs of the previous generation. Romanticism,
thus, not only encompassed literature, such as
the poetry we all read in school, but it also
marked all the domains of life – the arts, such as
painting, sculpture, architecture, and music, but
philosophical, political, and religious thinking as
well. Müller’s remarks on the new valuation of
nature encouraged by poets such as Walter Scott
and Wordsworth reveal how deeply he was
involved in the new Romantic sensibility. He
observes their novelty: they “discovered the
beauties of their native land.” In what others only
saw as “bare and wearisome hills, they saw the
battle-fields and burial places” of gods – “the
Chapter 39
No.: 1 Title Name: Strenski
Comp. by: MUNISAMY Date: 11 Jul 2014
Time: 09:50:13 AM
Stage: Proof
primeval Titan struggles of nature” (Müller 1858,
pp. 114–115).
We can call Müller’s method for studying religion “Romantic” because it shared common
values with the ideals of the Romantic movement.
That massive cultural wave brought with it a host
of external reasons for Müller to “think he was
right” about the way to study religion. First,
Romanticism placed a high value on nature.
Müller’s horror at heavy industry’s destruction of
nature and urbanization’s eradication of intimate
village life conditioned him to yearn for the lost
world of simple piety and the bucolic life. His
nostalgia for the natural environment encouraged him to “think he was right” about celebrating those aspects of the religions of India that
reflected that same affection. In an autobiographical reflection upon his youth, Müller yearns for
the small town of Dessau in which he grew up: “I
was born and brought up in Dessau, a small
German town, an oasis of oak trees … a town
then overflowing with music. Such towns no
longer exist” (Müller 1898, pp. 4–5). Years later,
reflecting on the harshness and depersonalization
brought by the industrial age, he observed with
sadness: “All this is changed now; few people
remember the old streets, with distant lamps
swinging across to make darkness more visible at
night” (Müller 1898, pp. 5–6).
In the imagined world of the ancient religions of
India, Müller rediscovered a distant echo of the
bucolic world of his youth. The Vedas revel in
nature, and imbue it with religious radiance. Fire is
no mere flash of flame. He is Agni, the lord god of
fire. Dawn is no bland description of the time of
day. She is Ushas, the gracious goddess of the new
day, and so on. Second, Romantic sensibility
exalted the non-Western “other.” The Romantics
declared that foreign – “other” – cultures, especially ancient India and its religions – were the
equals of the West. Indian civilization rivaled those
of Greece, Rome, or the Near East. All were “great”
civilizations. Indeed, a veritable “Indomania” raged
across early nineteenth-century Europe. We
should, therefore, see Müller as part of this great
cultural vogue, just as we saw Bodin and Herbert
as part of larger European skeptical movements
(Trautmann 1997, pp. 138–140).
Third, the Romantics preferred a mystical,
monistic sort of spirituality, rather than the
personalized monotheism of the Abrahamic
7/11/2014 9:50:14 AM
Page Number: 39
Max Müller
tradition. They often spoke of desiring to be one
with nature, to lose their individuality in some
metaphysical “All.” When the West discovered
Hindu texts celebrating these ideas, say in the
Atman-Brahman principle of the Upanishads, the
Romantics took special note. Müller’s celebration
of the Infinite as the pinnacle of religious life, is of
a piece with the Upanishadic mysticism broadly
embraced by the Romantics.
Fourth, the Romantics made nationalism a
potent “external” cultural force. To them, nationalism affirmed the local and the rooted. It affirmed
“natural” affinities of common blood and history,
over against the ideal of an abstract humanity of
the Enlightenment. In large part, Müller’s personal
spiritual quest was also enriched and complicated
at the same time by being bound up with emergent
search for a German national soul. This Romantic
theme merged not only with the theme of the
“natural,” but also with others we have already
reviewed. For example, while Müller’s nationalism
was German, it took what seemed a sharp detour
through India. German nationalists felt that they
carried on a common cultural legacy traceable to
ancient India – thus the vogue for Indology in
Romantic Germany. Müller was caught up in this
bizarre, but potent, enthusiasm for a rooted sense
of natural belonging that caused German nationalists to embrace faraway India!
The Search for Germany’s National Soul
in India … of All Places
Max Müller’s interest in India cannot completely
be understood unless we tie his Indian work to
his nationalist feelings for his native Germany.
Nor can his approach to religion be best understood apart from his engagement in the “German
problem.” German intellectuals, especially the
Romantics, were consumed by the quest for
German national unity and deep identity. Despite
what one may think, Germany is actually a young
nation that only attained unity in 1871. England,
France, Spain, Poland, and even the much smaller
Portugal or the Netherlands were centuries ahead
of Germany in achieving national unity. This is so
because, before the late nineteenth century, what
we today understand as “Germany” was no single
polity. Rather, the name “Germany” covered a
loose array of scores of fiercely independent
Chapter40No.: 1 Title Name: Strenski
Comp. by: MUNISAMY Date: 11 Jul 2014
Time: 09:50:13 AM
Stage: Proof
city-states, duchies, principalities, and kingdoms
of various sizes, sometimes bound together in
confederation, but at other times not. The
German Romantics, like Max Müller, felt the pain
of such political disunity, especially in the face of
the general linguistic unity of German-speakers:
how would they deal with it? Müller’s somewhat
alienated existence in England might also be factored into the formation of his mentality.
It may not seem so strange that Romantics like
Müller appealed to India to help remedy the
problem of German national inferiority, since we
already know about Müller’s theories of the IndoEuropean origins of European languages, German,
of course, included. National pride demanded a
strong national identity. But what could the quest
for German national identity possibly have to do
with India? Language already united the disparate
German states. Did spoken German have a noble,
root identity that might speak to the national
identity crisis? The Italians or Spanish could trace
their historical origins to their Latin heritage,
linked as it was to the glories of ancient Rome. But
the Germans seemed thwarted from following that
route because their linguistic roots and historical
ancestry lay with the barbarians that invaded and
then destroyed Rome. Where were the Germans to
find an equivalent classic high-culture ancestor?
This is where the work of Romantics and IndoEuropeanists came in handy. For them, the link
would be direct. By leapfrogging both the GrecoRoman and Jewish sources of Western cultural
identity, the German Aryanists felt that they could
tap the roots of ancient India and its Aryan past.
Best of all, the linguistic scholarship of the IndoEuropeanists gave German Aryan identity a
scientific basis. Müller filled out these links in
terms of cultural – in particular, religious – links
between Germany and ancient India.
German Unity via Hindu Myth
German nationalists, like Müller, felt that the
Germans had finally found the ancient forebears
they sought for yet another reason: not only was
German language derived from original IndoEuropean root stock, where Sanskrit occupied
a privileged position, but the very spirituality of the
earliest strata of Sanskrit religion and literature –
the Vedas – conformed with the Romantic, monistic
7/11/2014 9:50:14 AM
Page Number: 40
Max Müller
sensibility of advanced German thought! The
Vedas spoke to Müller’s own heart. They lent themselves to being read as the perfect expression of a
religion of nature. In Rig Veda I: 113, the Vedic
goddess Ushas – Dawn – is celebrated in rich metaphors worthy of Müller’s Romantic contemporaries:
This light has come, of all the lights the fairest:
The brilliant brightness has been born effulgent… .
Daughter of Heaven, she has appeared before us,
A maiden shining in resplendent raiment.
Thou sovereign lady of all earthly treasure,
Auspicious Dawn, shine here today upon us.
But there is more. Indian scriptures pointed to the
monism at the center of German Idealist
philosophical spirituality. Müller believed that
some of the natural world so transcends human
abilities to encompass it, that it generated in early
people the very idea of a realm radically beyond our
own, where the gods dwelt. For instance, Müller
suggests how early ideas of the transcendent arose
in the Vedic contemplation of objects of great
power and immensity, like the sun, ocean, or great
mountains. Many other peoples knew what the
Vedic sages knew – “unknown … infinite beings …
Devas … the same word which, after passing
through many changes, still breathes in our own
word, Divinity” (Müller 1892, p. 218). Müller
reveals himself in speaking in mystical tones, saying
that in contemplating nature, “do we not feel the
overwhelming pressure of the Infinite … from
which no one can escape who has eyes to see and
ears to hear?” (Voigt 1967, p. 32).
These ideas of cosmic oneness seemed to gain
support from the Vedas as much as did the more
straightforward naturism that they seemed to
confirm. Thus in Rig Veda I: 1, a hymn to the
Vedic god of fire, Agni, the sacrificial fire, is
addressed first of all as a person, then addressed
directly as the personification of the god Agni
himself along with the priest offering the sacrifice.
I extol Agni, the household priest, the divine
minister of sacrifice, the chief priest, the
bestower of blessings …
O Agni, the sacrifice and ritual which you
encompass on every side, that indeed goes
to the gods.
May Agni, the chief priest, who possesses the insight
of a sage, who is truthful, widely renowned,
and divine, come here with the gods.
Chapter 41
No.: 1 Title Name: Strenski
Comp. by: MUNISAMY Date: 11 Jul 2014
Time: 09:50:13 AM
Stage: Proof
Typical of the idealism and Romanticism of his
generation of young German intellectuals,
Müller’s own religion tended in the same way
toward pantheism. He, like others of his class,
much admired the later Vedanta philosophy of
India, where the unity of all things was not merely
suggested in poetic metaphor, as in the Vedas, but
asserted outright. Müller’s religious sensibilities
were accordingly cast in terms of a Romantic
nature mysticism to which the Vedas might be
said to point, married all the while to the constant
philosophical bent of his mind. In one of his last
essays, he rejects with vigor the notion that he is
an agnostic in the vulgar sense of the term. Müller
feels he knows, indeed feels, more of what the
truth of things may be ever to accept that epithet:
“If Agnosticism excludes a recognition of an
eternal reason pervading the natural and the
moral world … then I am a Gnostic, and a humble
follower of the greatest thinkers of our race, from
Plato and the author of the Fourth Gospel to Kant
and Hegel” (Müller 1901, p. 356). Müller is a selfdeclared monist.
Giving the lie, then, to Hume’s belief in the
archaic status of polytheism, Müller is convinced
that humans at their earliest stages of development
were not polytheists, but devotees of a mystical,
monistic unity. “To men who lived on an island,”
says Müller, “the ocean was the Unknown, the
Infinite, and became in the end their God.” For
this reason, Müller could declare the Vedas the
equivalent of the (Hebrew) Bible. Indeed, he
called it the “Aryan Bible.” In Müller’s view,
ancient Aryan myths, such as the Vedas, were a
repository of the ancient wisdom of the Aryans.
In some real sense, then, the deepest content of
the Vedas lay at the root of Western culture, and
thus German national identity. “We are by nature
Aryan, not Semitic,” said Müller proudly in 1865.
I cannot leave the matter of the racist history
connected with Aryanism without comment.
While Müller was an Aryanist, and not free of
anti-Semitism, he distanced himself from explicitly racist/biological interpretations of Aryanist
discourse. He never felt that Indo-European philology had anything to …
Purchase answer to see full

Why Choose Us

  • 100% non-plagiarized Papers
  • 24/7 /365 Service Available
  • Affordable Prices
  • Any Paper, Urgency, and Subject
  • Will complete your papers in 6 hours
  • On-time Delivery
  • Money-back and Privacy guarantees
  • Unlimited Amendments upon request
  • Satisfaction guarantee

How it Works

  • Click on the “Place Order” tab at the top menu or “Order Now” icon at the bottom and a new page will appear with an order form to be filled.
  • Fill in your paper’s requirements in the "PAPER DETAILS" section.
  • Fill in your paper’s academic level, deadline, and the required number of pages from the drop-down menus.
  • Click “CREATE ACCOUNT & SIGN IN” to enter your registration details and get an account with us for record-keeping and then, click on “PROCEED TO CHECKOUT” at the bottom of the page.
  • From there, the payment sections will show, follow the guided payment process and your order will be available for our writing team to work on it.