Reflect upon the distinction between “being religious” and “studying religion” as discussed in class. Does one’s own faith (or lack thereof) affect one’s scholarly
understanding of religion? How so? Discuss this issue by making specific reference to one of the theorists in the module, making sure to outline the main principles of this theory.



Frazer and his insult to religious sensibilities


There is an important difference between “being religious” and “studying religion”. When a person is religious, he immerses himself in the precepts and spirit of his religion, and aims for spiritual improvement, whether it be by overcoming desire, as in Buddhism or entering into a personal relationship with God, as in Christianity. Religiosity, by definition, commits one to accepting the truth of one’s religion and subscribing to it only. Thus, no matter how introspective and thoughtful theology might be, it is still predicated on the truth of a particular religion and as such unable to view it with an outsider’s eye.


Studying religion, on the other hand, brings religion into an academic setting where it may be studied more objectively and different religions compared. Yet, a religious academic’s biases might still affect his analyses and conclusions. This might not be such a problem when using the analytical frameworks of theorists such as Mircea Eliade or Clifford Geertz, which take a phenomenological perspective of religion, but adopting James George Frazer’s perspective is another matter.


The overriding principle in Frazer’s analysis of religion was the application of the scientific method: gathering a wealth of information drawn from reports from correspondents, travelers and such, he would then form hypotheses about religion. Indeed, his magnum opus, the Golden Bough, painstakingly compiled over more than 25 years, ran to 12 volumes and had a wealth of supporting evidence drawn from such disparate cultures as Ancient Rome, the Inuit and the Kayans of Borneo. Frazer also worked on the assumption of naturalism: it was assumed that supernatural forces were not at play in the world. Under naturalism, the scholar of religion would assume that the Australian Aboriginal dreamtime did not really happen, and aboriginal tales and traditions regarding it could be explained within an anthropological framework, perhaps as a metaphor for the past of the aborigines rather than as a matter of historical fact.


In studying religion, a religious person would disavow the scientific method and naturalism: the very nature of religion is that it requires an appeal to the supernatural, for religion, according to Frazer’s definition, involves a “propitiation or conciliation of powers superior to man which are believed to control the course of nature and of human life”[1]. For example, according to Sikhism, Nanak was appointed God’s Supreme Guru and founded the religion with the help of divine revelation, yet applying a naturalistic perspective, some scholars see Sikhism as a syncretic blend of Muslim and Hindu influences[2]. Assuming naturalism might seem unfair to the religions being studied, but it is an assumption shared by all the social sciences, and is the only epistemological framework by which we can compare different religions objectively, since it relies on objective facts which may be verified.


As for the scientific method, while it stresses the primacy of evidence and facts, in religion, faith and relying on spiritual revelation are far more important; as the early Christian writer Tertullian wrote, “Certum est, quia impossibile est” [3] (It is certain because it is impossible). Religion does not rely, like science, on forming hypotheses and testing them, for at best this is irreverent and at worst blasphemous.


The Theory of Evolution, propagated by Charles Darwin, also influenced Frazer, for he saw that just as species might evolve, so too might religions. Just as vestigial organs in an organism were clues to a species having evolved from an earlier form, so too did religions have survivals – traces leftover from an earlier form of the religion. From the fact that figures of Osiris filled with grains of corn were buried in Egyptian tombs, for example, Frazer inferred that Osiris was an evolved form of a corn god[4].


Adherents of some religions, especially those of a fundamentalist bent, would categorically rule out any suggestion that their religions had evolved from earlier versions, since fundamentalism is predicated on returning to some halcyon religious state through rigid adherence to what are perceived as the original perfect or near-perfect principles of a religion. If religions do evolve, then the idealized religious principles and state can never be found and attained, if they even existed in the first place. Religious evolution would also imply that their religions were contaminated by the influences of other religions, rather than being directly inspired by divine revelation.


However, to others the evolution of their religion might be seen not as a suggestion that it was originally false or misguided, but instead as a sign of progress: that its adherents were advancing in their quest to find truth. Jainism, for example, is comfortable with the idea that it evolved from Hinduism[5]. Alternatively, some religions hold that the truth is manifold, and religious evolution might merely uncover another facet of the truth rather than obviating the truth of past religious beliefs; Hinduism, which is best described as a henotheism (“a belief that affirms one deity without denying the existence of others”[6]), is an example of a religion with such a philosophy.


Evolution also influenced Frazer in developing his theory that as a way of understanding and controlling the world around him, Man had first relied on Magic, then discarded it when it was found to be fallible and then moved on to Religion, which he considered an improvement. Frazer posited that the last stage of this evolutionary chain was for Man to discard Religion and put his faith (so to speak) in Science, and that by doing so, progress would be achieved[7].


Initially, devotees of a religion would certainly be up in arms at this suggestion. The suggestion that their belief system was outmoded and irrelevant and should be replaced by Science would be much disputed by them. However, they would agree with Frazer that with religion, as opposed to magic, one cannot force the powers superior to man to do one’s bidding: they “control nature’s forces for their interests, not ours”[8]. One might be able to persuade or cajole them, but never to compel them, unlike in the system of Magic. Importantly, one corollary of Frazer’s theory of religion is that religion cannot be falsified – if prayers or sacrifices fail to have their desired effect, one cannot then say that the gods to which they are dedicated do not exist or are impotent, for after all, the gods do not suffer mankind its attempts to control them. After their initial discomfort, religious people would not disagree with this.


Additionally, one function of religion in times past, like that of Ancient Greece and Rome that the classically trained Frazer was intimately familiar with, was to attempt to control and explain the natural world. Religious magic is very much associated with religions like Taoism[9], and Taoists would not disagree with Frazer’s theory of Magic and Religion; in modern Christianity and Islam though, prayer is supposed to be more a way to communicate with God than to ask him to control the natural world for their benefit - ideally, it is more a spiritual anchor and security blanket. Yet, even with the advent of modern science, which gives Man a more reliable way to control the natural world, science is not omnipotent[10] and besides engaging in communion with their gods, adherents of the two religions still pray for boons to be granted them; the Muslim prayer before the performing of ablutions asks for prosperity, for example[11]. Though believers might not agree, Frazer would still consider their religion as a form of controlling the natural world, talk of communication with their god notwithstanding.


Another aspect of religion that Frazer touches on is how, as magicians gained temporal power by virtue of their magical art, when Magic gave way to Religion, religious leaders (which he refers to as priests) inherited this mantle of power[12]. The suggestion that religion was just a means by which priests gained dominion over their fellows would scandalise religious devotees, as religion would then just be a means to a very mundane end.


Frazer also had an intellectualist view of religion: religion was “a matter of beliefs, of ideas that people develop to account for what they find in the world[13]” originating in individual minds. The objection religious people would have to this would be similar to their objection to naturalism: in their book, religion arises not in the minds of individuals but from divine revelation. They would thus reject this aspect of Frazer’s theory out of hand without first considering its merits (or lack thereof).


We have seen how Frazer’s theories of religion might be distressing to those of a religious persuasion. Of course, it might be objected that there are those who view religion as a metaphor for humanity’s condition, and religious teachings as figurative; they believe that all religions are the same, and also in the transcendental unity of religions. It is likely that their religious beliefs can be reconciled with Frazer’s views of religion, but as Sigmund Freud observed of such believers,


“Philosophers stretch the meaning of words until they retain scarcely anything of their original sense. They give the name of ‘God’ to some vague abstraction… their God is now nothing more than an insubstantial shadow and no longer the mighty personality of religious doctrines… such a man is… irreligious in the truest sense of the word.”[14]


Thus, for all intents and purposes, we can still conclude that there is some tension between Frazer’s ideas and an individual’s religious sensibilities, depending on what one’s religion is and whether one takes a liberal or fundamentalist stance.


Be that as it may, does one’s own faith affect one’s scholarly understanding of religion? To answer this question, one can read how Bruce M. Metzger, a Biblical scholar and a believer to boot, opined that although many elements of Christianity which Frazer might label survivals – resurrected savior-gods, sacramental meals and the initiating of new members through a baptism of sorts - were shared by the religions and Mysteries of the ancient world, he concludes that Christianity, the newer religion, did not engage in substantive borrowing[15]. One cannot help but wonder if his religion had affected his analyses, for such an argument would hold no water in a court hearing on patent or copyright infringement.


It is possible for one to have a religion and critically analyze religion in general, yet one has to guard vigorously against cognitive dissonance setting in when what one knows academically and intellectually conflicts with what one believes religiously. Detachment from one’s own religious perspective is essential, but this is not always possible. Being religious is one matter, but it should not affect the way one studies religion, for that does a disservice not only to the religious scholar himself, but the academic community at large and perhaps also humanity in general. In the final analysis, academic rigour in the study of religion might best be ensured by considering the input of non-religious scholars, as well as scholars from different religions.





Bartlett, John (comp.), Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919), (Accessed 16/10/2005)


Frazer, James George, The Golden Bough, Abridged ed (1922), Macmillan and Company limited: Great Britain


Freud, Sigmund, The Future of an Illusion, (Accessed 17/10/2005)


Maulana Muhammad Rafeeq Hathurani, Essential Dua's in Islam (Prayers, Supplications), (Accessed 18/10/2005)


Metzger , Bruce M., Methodology in the study of the Mystery religions and early Christianity (1968), (Accessed 16/10/2005)


Pals, Daniel L., Seven Theories of Religion (1996), Oxford University Press, inc: New York


Matthews, Warren, World Religions, 3rd ed (1999), Wadsworth Publishing Company: Canada

[1] Frazer, James George, The Golden Bough, Abridged ed (1922), Macmillan and Company limited: Great Britain, pp. 50

[2] Matthews, Warren, World Religions, 3rd ed (1999), Wadsworth Publishing Company: Canada, pp. 190

[3] John Bartlett comp., Familiar Quotations, 10th ed.,

[4] Frazer, pp. 378

[5] Matthews, pp. 189

[6] Matthews, pp. 113

[7] Frazer, pp. 712

[8] Pals, Daniel L., Seven theories of religion (1996), Oxford University Press, inc: New York, pp. 36

[9] Matthews, pp. 210

[10] As such, it is not surprising that Frazer’s prediction that religion would make way for science has not and might never come to pass.

[11] Essential Dua's in Islam (Prayers, Supplications),

[12] Frazer, pp. 90

[13] Pals, pp. 45

[14] Sigmund Freud, Future of an Illusion,

[15] Bruce M. Metzger, Methodology in the study of the Mystery religions and early Christianity