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Polytheism As An Evolutionary Stage

Nineteenth-century anthropological theorists adopted the perspective of their Enlightenment predecessors, not to mention their anticlerical biases, by categorizing types of religious beliefs as more or less rational. However, they did not share Hume's pessimism; instead they incorporated such ranking within an overall narrative of evolutionary progress. Sir Edward Burnett Tylor's Primitive Culture (1871) developed the most elaborate scheme of religious evolution. He categorized the most primitive religious beliefs as animism, the idea of a soul whose existence was separate from the body. The idea that human souls survived the death of the body engendered a belief in malevolent ghosts or the veneration of more benevolent ancestors. The notion that animals, plants, and even inanimate objects such as rocks or streams also possessed souls led to the worship of various nature spirits. Genuine polytheism emerged only at a higher stage of human development as distinctions of rank became increasingly important: "As chiefs and kings are among men, so are the great gods among the lesser spirits. They differ from the souls and minor spiritual beings which we have as yet chiefly considered, but the difference is rather of rank than of nature" (vol. 2, p. 334). If monotheism represented yet a higher stage of religious development, it was still characterized by survivals from the most primitive beliefs, not least of all in the soul. For Tylor, as for his contemporaries such as Herbert Spencer or James Frazer, science represented a development of human thought that made all religions, including monotheistic ones, obsolete.

Sigmund Freud's last book, Moses and Monotheism (1939), was the last major formulation of this kind of evolutionary scheme. For Freud, all religions were projections of unconscious facets of the human mind conceived and experienced as external forces. The gods of polytheism represented the multiple sexual urges of the Id, which had in some measure to be appeased if not gratified lest they wreak a terrible revenge, but which were by their very nature amoral at best. Monotheism, invented by the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaton and transmitted to the Jews by Moses, an Egyptian prince, represented a great advance in its worship of one God, a father figure and an externalization of the Superego, the arbiter of good and evil.

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