Sunday, July 19, 2015

“E.B. Tylor: animism and the origin of religion”

As I was reading the excerpts from Tylor’s writing it was important to remind myself that this was written in Victorian times by a man whose concern was to move out of the middle age thinking dominated by Christianity and intolerance and gain respect and understanding for the human intellect again, even if that meant defining religion as an evolution in human society. I was almost disturbed by the very first paragraph of the selected writing by the sentence: “Few would dispute that the following races are arranged rightly in order of culture: Australian, Tahitian, Aztec, Chinese, Italian.” I had to remind myself that I had to keep on reading within the context of the time of his writing and not read through my current understanding or beliefs. It was an interesting reminder in fact that what creates judgment is beliefs held to be true and that it is our point of view that makes us feel self-justified and superior rather than accepting and inclusive. So when I hold the perspective that this is a historical read I can definitely appreciate the deep and original thinking and categorization of Tylor.

Tylor set the stage to explain the functional basis of religion and how it was an integral part of the evolution of society. Many social anthropologists since then have spent their entire careers studying the demarcation between science, religion and magic. Tylor set the stage for a very important debate that has lasted until today. I believe that through his work, Tylor invented the science of anthropology as a dispassionate observer. In the world as it was then it was important to simply observe the various new cultures that were being introduced as opposed to impose Christian beliefs to them. I do wonder what the world would look like today if Tylor had not brought his input into the fabric of reality. I also have to say that the examples he brings to his study seem interesting and relevant to me today. I like his comparative approach to studying the customs related to topics that can be as mundane as sneezing. Yet the multicultural comparative approach he brings is very thorough and shows that there seems to be a similar pattern throughout religions. I have to say that it is interesting that Tylor presents an explanation that is not satisfying at times yet he seems to tie these explanations to historical facts as he presents them so it is difficult to argue as to their accuracy and relevance. The approach that Tylor sets is so contemporary that it is hard to imagine a world where this sort of data is not presented in this fashion and where such explanations are not used. 

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