Magic, Religion and Science

Author: Ian Taylor

The broad definition of religion has been given as a system of beliefs held to by ardor and faith, and this would apply as much to the atheist as it would to the most pious saint. Both believe in something that can neither be proved nor disproved. The majority position acknowledges belief in a Higher Being and in survival of consciousness after death. To these are often added the beliefs in punishment and rewards for deeds done in life, and in a personal resurrection at some future date. In contrast, the atheist fervently believes that there is no god and no afterlife. The origin of these highly sophisticated and un-provable ideas has long been a puzzle to the atheistic or agnostic mindset, which comes to the problem by first dismissing the claim of a Higher Being or that such a Being would reveal special knowledge to humanity. The origin of religion without revelation was thus a particularly difficult problem for the followers of Darwin.

The study of the origin of myths and religion has been the preserve of the classics scholar, usually found cloistered within the ivy-covered walls of the older universities. The teaching had always been that in the dim and distant past there had been a Golden Age where the gods had spoken to humans and taught them great things, much of which has now been forgotten. The Greek myths spoke of this, and so had the theologians who referred to it as the Garden of Eden and the Fall of Man.

When exploration in the 18th and 19th centuries discovered tribes of human beings living in abject ignorance and steeped in superstition, it was argued that isolation of the tribe had caused it to “fall” further than the rest of humanity. As “fallen” as they might be, however, missionaries and anthropologists reported time after time that even the most backward tribe had some kind of religion; much of their folklore included accounts of creation and the flood or blood sacrifice that were remarkably similar to the Judeo-Christian account. Most 19th-century classicists had reasoned that these people had shared, if only obliquely, in the original divine revelation made to early humans; their religions therefore had begun as monotheism, only to be degraded later into a farrago of superstition and polytheism. The entire thesis was called variously the Diffusion Theory, indicating a single source of esoteric knowledge, or degeneration, which emphasized humanity’s fallen nature.

The most concerted attack on the Christian religion came from an exceptionally erudite academic who was both a classics scholar and anthropologist. That individual was Sir James George Frazer (1854-1941), who more than any other man popularized the notion that religion, which of course included Christianity, was merely an intermediary step in human evolutionary progress from magic to science. Implicit, though unstated, was the conclusion that Christianity was rapidly becoming redundant to modern needs.

To the Victorian mindset, however, Christianity was deeply ingrained and a more subtle, step-by-step approach was necessary in order to liberate the modern mind from what were perceived to be the “trappings of superstition.” Retracing those same steps, we will see just how religious beliefs, and Christianity in particular, were undermined by a handful of men, each convinced they were heralds to the brave new world as it approached the 20th century.

When James Frazer was a boy in Scotland, Sir John Lubbock in England had in 1865 laid the evolutionary groundwork for archaeology for the next century by his book Prehistoric Times. Lubbock, a thoroughgoing Darwinian, had cleverly used the word “primitive” in two senses at the same time. By using primitive to mean “very early” and “crude,” he was thus able to persuade himself and many since that whenever they found a crude idea or a crude artifact, they are near to the beginning of something. This is a fallacy. While it may not be quite true to say that crude is always degenerate, it is not far from the truth. A visit to any museum of modern art or glance at modern poetry will amply confirm that even cave paintings or Roman graffiti were more sophisticated! Nevertheless, the idea of a primitive society and of humanity making “progress” was emphasized, and the march of technology in the 19th century seemed to exemplify this nicely. Archaeological artifacts could thus be ranked according to technological sophistication: Stone Age to Bronze Age to Iron Age. Although the idea was first proposed by Christian Thomsen in 1837, it was now given authority by Sir John Lubbock. Following on Lubbock’s heels, Edward B. Tylor, the son of a wealthy Quaker family, expanded and developed Lubbock’s notion in his book Primitive Culture. Appearing in 1871, the same year as Darwin’s Descent of Man, the book argued that since even the earliest humans had some form of religious belief, religions could be ranked in a series according to intellectual sophistication beginning with animism. Animism is the doctrine that all things, both animate and inanimate, have souls. Later religions were said to be derived from this primitive system of theology and had retained traces of this origin. However, this did not explain the origin of the actual idea of the incorporeal soul, and it was loosely suggested that dead ancestors appearing in dreams could have been the source.

The next step was taken by James Frazer, who added the practice of magic to animism as the foundation for religion. In 1898 he wrote to his friend Baldwin Spencer: “… if we define religion as the propitiation of natural and supernatural powers, and magic as the coercion of them, magic has everywhere preceded religion. . . . The order of evolution, then, of human thought is, magic, religion & science. We in this generation live in a transition between religion and science …” (Marette 1932, 41). As a classics scholar, he was able to cite dozens of Greek and Roman myths from the remote past that had elements of every doctrine found in the New Testament. These included the virgin birth and the ritual death of the god/king. The entire thesis was written in the most elegant prose and with massive documentation not only from the classics but from modern ethnological sources supplied by explorers and missionaries. Frazer’s work, titled The Golden Bough, was first published in two volumes in 1890, but rapidly expanded to 12 volumes by 1911-1915. By the 1920s, it had been abridged to a single volume and translated into Swedish, German, French and Italian. James Frazer received two honorary doctorates and a knighthood for his part in helping to exchange religion for science as the 20th-century belief system.

Before leaving Sir James Frazer, we should examine his use of the contemporary method developed in Germany earlier in the 19th century. Franz Bopp was one of the first to use this method for the study of languages and, in 1816, successfully demonstrated that the Indo-European family of languages, of which English is a part, had a common origin. Later William Robertson Smith (1846-1894), a Scotsman and philological prodigy who had studied in Germany, used the comparative method in an evolutionary anthropological approach to the study of an entire family of Semitic religions. Smith was a full professor of Hebrew and Old Testament at the age of 23. He was also an accomplished archaeologist and anthropologist. However, his views were somewhat liberal for his Scottish church, and this led to an uproar in which he was the subject of the last heresy trial to be held in England. At this point he was just 29 and, having lost his professorial position, gravitated to Cambridge as a Reader, where he became Frazer’s great friend. It was Smith who introduced the classics scholar to anthropology and the comparative method.

The comparative method analyzes multiple sets of facts, such as words, from different cultures to find the common source and, where possible, to fill in missing data. The method had proved to be very useful for language studies, but when applied to religions and anthropology, it was quite a different matter and certain assumptions had to be made. Language has rules and structure, but religions are based upon belief systems, which can neither be proved nor disproved and have no rules. All that can be said about religions is that they are either true or false according to whichever standard is chosen. Even so, Smith, then Frazer and others, applied the comparative method to their work. They began with the unspoken assumption that evolution is true and that humans had progressed, and they further assumed that if there is a God, He has not revealed Himself to humanity.

Although Frazer had studied the Bible extensively in the original languages, he was by his own confession not a Christian (Ackerman 1987, 169). Nevertheless, he could see more clearly than many of England’s senior clergy that the comparative method posed a severe threat to the Christian establishment. In the preface to the second edition of The Golden Bough, he wrote of the comparative method, “… much that we are wont to regard as solid rests on the sands of superstition rather than on the rock of nature. . . . the battery of the comparative method should breach those venerable walls . . . of the tower of belief upon which society rests [i.e., Christianity]. . . . at present we are only dragging the guns into position, they have hardly yet begun to speak . .” (Frazer 1900, 1:xxi). The reader can perhaps glimpse the beautiful use of metaphor even in this very contracted quote, and this is likely the reason for the popularity of his Golden Bough rather than the actual content, for, as we shall see, it does not stand up well to scrutiny.

In the light of this brief historical account of the way in which the religious beliefs held to by society for nearly two millennia were systematically undermined, it is interesting to see the modern trends in anthropology. Professor Adam Kuper of Brunel University and editor of Current Anthropology is England’s senior spokesman for the anthropological fraternity. In his book The Invention of Primitive Society (1988), he traces how the idea of Darwinian progress of humans from primitive society was introduced and points out that there is no evidence whatsoever to support this notion. His book is concerned with how a false idea can be promoted and eventually dominate the entire field of work. Although he cannot being himself to subscribe to the Diffusion Theory, he reports that university courses ceased teaching Darwinian “Primitive Society” over two decades ago and today, at least in England, now teach that there is simply no way of knowing how society began. So much for Lubbock and Tylor’s work.

We now come to Frazer’s Golden Bough and discover that it has never been accepted by the anthropologists, and it received very severe criticism. Andrew Lang was a noted classics professor at Oxford and within just a few months of the appearance of the three-volume second edition, he had checked every major reference and produced his book Magic and Religion (1901), which totally demolished Frazer’s entire thesis. Ackerman (1987, 172) has conveniently summarized Lang’s critique in the following words: “Frazer’s entire argument ranging from the priest at Nemi to the priority of magic to the analysis of the pagan festivals and especially that of the biblical narratives is a concatenation of unsupported conjectures, self-contradictory statements, and confused and naive thinking. Frazer has engaged on a grand scale in tendentious reporting and suppression of evidence unfavorable to his views.” In spite of this devastating exposure of faulty scholarship from the beginning, Frazer’s masterpiece was still being reprinted as recently as 1977 and doubtless is still being purchased by the theological libraries.

Ackerman, Robert. 1987. J.G. Frazer: His Life and Work. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Frazer, James G. 1890. 1900. 1911-15. The Golden Bough. London: Macmillan. 2, 3 and 12 vols.

Kuper, Adam. 1988. The Invention of Primitive Society. London: Routledge.

Lang, Andrew. 1901. Magic and Religion. London: Longmans.

Lubbock, John. 1865. Prehistoric Times. London: Williams and Norgate.

Marette, R.R., and T.K. Penniman, eds. 1932. Spencer’s Scientific Correspondence . . Oxford.

Tylor, Edward B. 1871. Primitive Culture. London: John Murray. 2 vols.


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