September 26th, 2019


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Anthropological Studies of Religion: An Introductory Text, by Brian Morris

Second paragraph of third chapter:
The high-level questions about the origins of religion that these Victorian scholars posed and the evolutionary framework within which they set their intellectual problems have long ceased to interest or guide anthropologists; nevertheless, the naturalistic and critical stance they took toward religion has continued to bear fruit. What is of interest is that the men who posed these questions — Tylor, Spencer, and Durkheim, in particular - were not only of the highest intellectual caliber but have had a lasting influence on Western culture, the social sciences especially.
Although I've ended up a political activist and pundit, and my father was a professor of political science, I am not all that well versed in political theory myself. This book takes up all the great sociological and anthropological thinkers and surveys what they said about religion, from Hegel to Levi-Strauss. I found it rather frustrating in that very few of them seem to have engaged with what religion actually does in the real world. I did not see the word "priest" used anywhere, for instance. I got a strong impression that a lot of big names in both sociology and (to my surprise) anthropology seem to have arrived at religion as a thing that they needed to factor into their wider ideas about the structure of society.

One person who does come out of it quite well is Weber, who it turns out did not really believe in the Protestant work ethic as such. The only other writer who I felt inspired to find out more about was Levi-Strauss, who turns out to have been born in Brussels; it seemed to me that he was getting to grips with what religious practitioners actually mean.

The sad thing is that rather few anthropologists (or at least, none quoted here) seem to have spent much time looking at the role of religion in developed societies, which surely must hamper their ability to interpret what is going on in less developed societies.

Anyway, not a book I would especially recommend, but you can get it here.

This was my top unread book acquired in 2011. Next on that pile is Luck and the Irish, by Roy Foster.