Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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(1832-1917) Founder of British anthropology. Tylor was the son of a Quaker brass-founder. The most complete presentation of Tylor's concepts is found in his work Primitive Culture (1871), reprinted as Religion in Primitive Culture (Harper 1958). He published many major articles as well as the first general anthropology textbook (1881).

Tylor gradually gained recognition for his work, received an honorary doctorate from the University of Oxford in 1875, became keeper of the Oxford University Museum in 1883, reader in anthropology in 1884, and was knighted in 1912. Tylor's major contribution was his theory that all religions are based on animism . Although his evolutionary orientation appears ethnocentric to modern readers, he had a major impact on the development of anthropological thought with regard to religion.

Tylor defined religion as "the belief in spiritual beings" and argued that this belief exists in all known societies. Although Tylor did not invent the concept of animism, he gave it added scope. He defined animism as having two parts: belief in the human soul that survives bodily death and belief in other spirits, including deities. Tylor hypothesized that animism was the foundation of all religions.

Tylor argued that the development of belief in souls was a natural result of attempts to explain such phenomena as dreams, trances, apparitions, visions, shadows, reflections, loss of consciousness, and death. He provided many example cases from a wide variety of societies exemplifying the forms of behavior and faith associated with acceptance of souls. The hypothesis that belief in souls evolved from naturally occurring phenomena explains the fact that all known societies have conceived of the notion that humans have souls.

Tylor suggested that belief in spirits and deities was an outgrowth of belief in souls. He cited many accounts of beliefs regarding soul travel, souls lingering about the deceased, restless souls of the dead whose objectives during life have not been accomplished, and a wide variety of funeral rites. The souls of departed relatives are a target for propitiation and worship. Spirits may take over a living body, creating shamanic possession, a phenomenon prevalent in many societies. Numerous societies believed that the souls of the dead could associate themselves with objects and, consequently, these objects came to represent spiritual entities. This led to the doctrine of fetishism: veneration paid to animals, trees, fish, plants, idols, pebbles, claws of beasts, sticks, and so forth.

According to Tylor, this concept was extended to veneration of specific spirits and gods less attached to objects. As a consequence, primitive people devised the concepts of gods, demons, spirits, devils, ghosts, fairies, gnomes, elves, and angels. A further development is the association of gods with the concept of good and evil, a duality leading to belief in highly powerful deities. An alternate pathway to development of powerful deities is the seeking of "first causes" for reality. Such questions, coupled with fusion of lesser deities, may result in the concept of a Supreme Being. Tylor argued that "Animism has its distinct and consistent outcome, and Polytheism its distinct and consistent completion, in the doctrine of a Supreme Deity" (1958:422).

Tylor felt that "savage animism is almost devoid of that ethical element which to the educated modern mind is the very mainspring of practical religion. . . . The lower animism is not immoral, it is unmoral" (1958:446). The practices of prayer, sacrifice, fasting, "artificial ecstasy," and purification rituals were associated with consideration of moral issues.

Later anthropologists took issue with many of Tylor's arguments. Robert Marett (1936 [1914]) argued that not all primitive people felt that the spirits in inanimate objects were equivalent to souls; he hypothesized that supernatural forces probably had a variety of origins other than the concept of the human soul. Andrew Lang argued validly that supposedly "low" races of humans had belief in "high" gods that were neither ghosts nor spirits. Modern anthropologists criticize Tylor for ignoring the many economic, political, and psychological functions that religions fulfill. Tylor's work is often regarded as naively evolutionistic and overly intellectual.

David Hufford (1982) and James McClenon (1994) provide a theory that is parallel to some of Tylor's arguments. They suggest that certain primary elements within some anomalous experiences (for example, sleep paralysis and near-death experience) support and, in some cases, produce belief in souls, spirits, life after death, and anomalous abilities. Although Tylor's orientation viewed primitive people as unable to distinguish objective from subjective perceptions, Hufford's and McClenon's orientations portray the development of religious sentiment as a rational process. Within this theory, extrasensory perceptions, apparitions, out-of-body experiences, sleep paralysis, and contacts with the dead had effects on primitive people similar to the effects they have on modern individuals; experiences lead to belief in spiritual forces. This perspective coincides with Tylor's theory in seeking to understand the religious repercussions of people's anomalous perceptions.

See also Animism

James McClenon


J. W. Burrow, Evolution and Society (London: Cambridge University Press, 1966)

D. J. Hufford, The Terror That Comes in the Night (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982)

R. R. Marett, Tylor (New York: Wiley, 1936 [1914])

J. McClenon, Wondrous Events (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994)

E. J. Sharpe, Comparative Religion (New York: Scribner, 1975)

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