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While there is no universally accepted definition of ”primitive religion,” typically it is understood to mean beliefs and practices in nonliterate, small-scale societies with limited technological and material culture. Nonetheless some contemporary social scientists are ill at ease with the label ”primitive” because of its pejorative connotations and a legacy of western observers misreading the social and cultural patterns to which the term is supposed to refer. At times ”primitive religion” appeared almost as a blank slate for developing theories ultimately to describe contemporary societies.
Some of the pioneering efforts in the sociology of religion were motivated by analyses of so-called primitive religions, often as part of a social evolution theory. Such early figures as British anthropologists Edward B. Tylor and James G. Frazer developed controversial theories that attempted to explain primitive cultures and at least implicitly contrast them to European patterns. Most famously, Durkheim in his Elementary Forms of Religious Life drew extensively on accounts of aboriginal Australians and Native Americans to advance his thesis about the nature of all religion.
However, problems became apparent with those theories. First, they sometimes equated present-day simple societies with historic or prehistoric times, even though such a claim rests on unproven assertions that present-day groups and patterns exist unchanged relative to a remote, often poorly understood past. Second, the theories tended to gloss over two important questions of context: whether western ideas of religion were meaningful in non-western societies and whether the contemporary images of religion were applicable to the distant past. Each case could represent an unwarranted projection of the researcher’s cultural context onto the ”primitive” sources. And third, by the mid-twentieth century, closer studies of cultures labeled as primitive revealed considerable complexity and adaptation which was overlooked before.
Thus subsequent scholars rejected the early theories as overly simplistic. Edward Evans-Pritchard derided the dualism that pitted ”primitive” versus ”modern,” which he argued was rooted in a colonial and even racial discourse of western societies. He and other scholars dismissed as speculative the quest for discovering the origin of religion by using ”primitive” analogies. And Mary Douglas suggested that despite western scholars’ conventional wisdom, if they looked closely they might find that the ”primitives” were less religious than moderns.
Still, a variety of later and respected studies employ the notion of primitive religion. Robert Bellah wrote in an influential essay that the primitive was the first stage of religious evolution. Adopting Clifford Geertz’s view of religion as a symbolic system, Bellah explains religious evolution as the rising complexity of religious symbolization. Hence ”primitive” refers to the least complex and least differentiated stage. He writes that in its primitive form religion is fully integrated with other areas of social life and, as a result, does not cope well with social change or give rise to political alternatives. Bellah asserts his five stages could apply to present-day religions and required neither a strict chronological sequencing of the stages nor a value judgment favoring one over another.
In another example, French political scientist Marcel Gauchet argues that primordial religion consists of an attitude of absolute disempowerment of humans relative to the supernatural. Gauchet then uses this definition as a foil for arguing that Christianity, especially through the Reformation, provided the opposite attitude, absolute empowerment, which enables the ”exit” from all religion — in other words, secularization. While Gauchet does not claim to be a specialist in primitive religion, his theory stakes out a new dimension for contemporary researchers to consider.
- Bellah, R. (1991) Beyond Belief: Essays on Religion in a Post-Traditionalist University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.
- Evans-Pritchard, E. E. (1985) Theories of Primitive Religion. Greenwood Press, Westport, CT.
- Gauchet, M. (1997) The Disenchantment ofthe World: A Political History ofReligion. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.