Essay on the Intellectualist Theories of Religion (1620 Words)

Here is your essay on the intellectualist theories of religion !

Ideas about the origin and development of religion were initially based on the reports of missionaries and adventures about the nature of religion among the primitives. For example, Depresses (1760) advanced a theory that religion had its origin in fetishism (belief in magical fetishes or objects): The Portuguese sailors had 30 reported that the coastal Negro tribes of West Africa worshipped inanimate things and animals. Comte (1908) took up this theory and wrote that in due courses Fetishism was replaced by Polytheism. This theory was superseded by the ghost theory and the soul theory.

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These latter theories are known as intellectualist theories of religion, because both assume that the primitives are rational being, although their efforts to explain natural phenomena are somewhat crude. Before proceeding to discuss the intellectualist theories, we should, however, take note of another very strong theory about the origin of religion.

This belonged to the nature-myth school which had to be challenged before the ghost and soul theories could be popular.’ In terms of the chronology of ideas on religion, the nature-myth school came before the above-mentioned theories.

(1) The Nature-Myth School:

Nature-Myth school was a German School, dealing with Indo-European Religions. According to it, ancient Gods were universally personifications of natural phenomena. Max Muller, a German linguist, propounded this theory. In his opinion grand natural objects gave people a feeling of the infinite as well as acted as symbols of the infinite. The people thought of celestial bodies, such as, moon, start, dawn and their attributes in terms of metaphor and symbol.


With the passage of time, the symbolic representations came to have an independent identity and became separated from that which they represented. The attributes or the symbols became personified as deities.

The human beings and nature stand in a relationship of awe, wonder and terror etc. Early human beings were unable to understand or explain the world of nature. They ended up worshipping it out of fear and awe. According to Muller, the Religion of early man can be studied by looking into linguistic Etymological meaning of the name of Gods and legends associated with them. Max Muller’s contemporaries, Herbert Spencer, Edward Tylor and Andrew Lang were the main critics of nature-myth theories. They criticized the Philological and Etymological approach to Religion.

(2) The Ghost Theory:

Unlike Max Muller, Herbert Spencer and Edward Tylor focused their attention on Religious behaviour of the primitives. In their opinion, primitive societies offered an evidence of the earliest forms of Religion. Spencer published his views in 1882, eleven years after Tylor had published his book Primitive Culture in 1871.


In his book, The Principles of Sociology, Spencer (1876-96) discuss primitive beliefs. He shows that the primitives were rational though with a limited quantum of knowledge. They made reasonable, though weak, inferences with regard to natural phenomena. They observed sun, moon, clouds and stars come and go, and got the notion of visible and invisible conditions. Likewise, they get the idea of a person’s duality from dreams.

The dreams are real life-experiences by the primitives. The dream-self moves about at night while the shadow-self acts by the day. Sleep is temporary loss of sensibilities. The death is a longer period of insensibility. This idea of duality is extended by them to animals, plants and material object.

The appearance of dead persons in dreams is the evidence of temporary after life. This leads to the conception of a supernatural being in the form of a Ghost. The idea of Ghosts grows into the idea Gods and the Ghosts of ancestors become divine beings. The ‘ancestor worship is the root of every Religion’.

The prevalence of the idea of Ghosts of ancestors or other superior beings becoming divinities among the primitives in many parts of the world, shows that Spencer’s theory has some plausibility.

(3) The Soul Theory or Animism:

The word anima, a Latin word means Soul. Sir Edward Tylor’s theory of Animism considers both the origin and “development of Religion”. The Ghost theory explains the origin of Religion in the idea of Ghosts. The Animism or the Soul theory says the same thing in terms of the idea of Soul.

According to Tylor, experiences of death, disease, visions and dreams lead the primitives to think about the existence of immaterial power, i.e., the Soul. Thereafter, this idea of Soul is projected on to creatures other than human and even to inanimate objects. The Soul exists independent of its physical home in the body. Tylor’s definition of Religion is that Religion originated from a belief in spiritual beings.

The Soul theory of Tylor has elements of the sacred and the supernatural. Tylor’s definition being general labels all faiths and beliefs as Religion.

According to Tylor these spiritual beings later develop into Gods. They possess superior powers and control destiny of human beings. This is in brief Tylor’s theory of Animism Critics hold that Tylor’s own thought was projected on to the primitives’ thought processes. We have no means to know if this or something else is what was actually thought by the primitives. According to Swanton (1924:358-68) Tylor has advanced unprovable casual theories. Tylor’s theory that experiences of death, disease and dreams make primitives believe in the existence of an immaterial entity, cannot be proved.

Secondly, the logical process given by Tylor by which the idea of Soul leads primitives to the idea of spirits is not understandable. As a matter of fact, the concept of Soul and the concept of spirit are quite different. Tylor could not see the difference between the two concepts.

Tylor on Magic:

Tylor thinks primitive Religion to be rational and based on observations. He argues that Magic among primitives is based on observation and classification of similar elements. Failure of Magic is due to Magician’s wrong inferences about a mystical link between various objects. A subjective supposition of some connection in terms of ideas is mistaken for an objective link. The primitives do not, for good reasons, see the futility of Magic. Hence when ever Magic fails, its failure is rationally explained as under:

(i) The practitioner forgetting to perform some prescribed act, or

(ii) His ignoring to observe some prohibition, or

(iii) Some hostile Magic checking it in the way.

Criticism of the Theory:

(i) Andrew Lang (1844-1912):

Andrew Lang (1844-1912) a pupil of Tylor, criticized Tylor’s theory of Religion. Lang did not accept that the idea of Gods could have arisen as a late development from a belief in Ghost or spirits. In his opinion many primitive peoples believed in what he called high Gods. Lang (1989:2) argued that the idea of God cannot have evolved out of reflections on dreams and “Ghosts”, because the two have entirely different origins. The belief in a God was first which later became degraded as Animism.

(ii) R.R. Marett (1866-1943):

R.R. Marett (1866-1943), another disciple of Tylor, criticized the animistic theory. He claimed that the primitive belief in an impersonal force preceded beliefs in spiritual beings. He called this impersonal force mana. He argued that belief in mana had both historical and theoretical priority. Marett (1915) held that a belief in man and tabu (or taboo) provided a definition of the Magico-Religious thinking.

4. Dependence on Magic:

Some scholars have argued that Magic rather than Religion is the more primitive way of dealing with crises. The main distinction between Religion and Magic is as under: In the Religion one deals with a supernatural force by submitting to it through prayer, worship and Rituals. In the magic, one tries to overpower or coerce the supernatural force through certain ‘Magical’ activities. Sir James Frazer (1922) in his work, The Golden Bough, wrote about magic and primitive superstition. In his opinion from a dependence on Magic, one would turn to Religion and then eventually to Scientific thinking. Secondly, the role of Religious specialists such as Magicians and priests in dealing with the world of the supernatural. He laid emphasis on Magic and its types and functions.

Frazer saw some kind of a rationale behind Magic. As a result, he referred to it as the ‘bastard sister of Science’. He distinguished between two types of Magic practiced by primitive people.

(a) Homeopathic or Imitative Magic:

This was a situation where Magic had its basis on the principle feat ‘like produces like’ or a law of similarity. For example, in some tribal groups of the Chotanagpur region in India, the belief is that thunder and its rumbling noise arc direct cause of rain. Hence, when the tribals want rain they go to hill top, sacrifice a small animal and throw down rocks and stones from the mountainside. Since, these will make a loud rumbling sound, rain will follow.

(b) Contagious magic:

The second kind of Magic was based on the notion that things that came into contact would remain in contact always. Thus the law of contagion operated here. The basic notion is the belief that any belonging of an individual, somehow represents a part of the person. Even hair and nail clippings represent the concerned person. Often these objects are used by the Magician to influence the life of the particular person, by performing a Ritual act on a piece of clothing or hair or nails.

For Frazer, Magic, was a means of coming to terms with the supernatural and gaining control over the environment that may have spelt danger or disaster for primitive people. When Magic and associated Rituals failed, primitive people’s thoughts, turned to the possibility of a far greater force in the world of nature. They soon came to recognize this force as worthy of worship.

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