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The Essentials Of Religion

A notable early attempt was that of Edmund Burnett Tylor (1832–1917) in his influential book, Religion in Primitive Culture (1871); religion, he argued, was to be defined as "belief in spiritual beings." In this minimalist definition is seen the still common emphasis on an essentially private, intellectual component (religion believing this or that) rather than on, for instance, the behavioral or the social components, as in Émile Durkheim's (1858–1917) emphasis on public ritual and institution in his still influential study, Les formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse (1912). In Tylor's onetime popular definition is therefore found the philosophically idealist remnants of an earlier era in European history, when one's membership within certain groups was thought to be primarily dependent upon whether one believed in something (i.e., a creed). In fact, the presumption persists that "the cumulative tradition" is the deadened expression of a prior, dynamic affectation known as "faith" (e.g., W. C. Smith's 1962 work, The Meaning and End of Religion). In contemporary popular culture, people who distinguish spirituality from the institution of religion are easily found.

With its emphasis on the intellectual component (along with Herbert Spencer [1820–1903] and James G. Frazer [1854–1941], Tylor is numbered among the Intellectualists, a nineteenth-century anthropological tradition), Tylor's work offers an example of a classic definitional strategy: essentialism. Because religions struck such observers as obviously having a number of different characteristics, many of which were understood as mere accidents (i.e., the result of specific cultural, historical, or geographic context), they thought it unwise to define religion based on what they took to be its secondary, external aspects. Instead, Tylor reasoned, one ought to identify "the deeper motive which underlies them." Belief in spiritual beings, he concluded, was therefore the "essential source" for all religions; accordingly, his naturalistic theory of religion sought to account for belief in spiritual beings. Tylor's definition are therefore referred to as essentialist (also termed substantivist): identifying the one essential feature (or substance).

In other words, if, as the German Protestant theologian Rudolf Otto (1869–1937) once argued in The Idea of the Holy (1917), that which sets religions apart is the participant's feeling of awe and fascination when in the presence of what Otto termed the mysterium tremendum (the compelling yet repelling mystery of it all), then without this sense of awe and fascination there is no religion. The feeling of awe (a complex combination of fear, trembling, fascination, and attraction) was, for Otto, the essence of religion. Although Tylor's and Otto's classic definitions are significantly different (i.e., the former is anthropological, interested only in the fact of a belief, rather than its truth, whereas the latter is theological, presuming the object of the belief to exist and to prompt an emotional response), both went about the task of definition in the same manner: the inductive method was used, whereby one compares a number of empirical examples, looking for their underlying similarity. Here is seen the common strategy of employing the comparative method to identify nonempirical commonality, such that difference is understood to be a nonessential feature of contingent history—an approach characteristic of a number of scholars, from Frazer's multivolume The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion (first edition 1890) to Mircea Eliade's (1907–1986) Traitê d'histoire des religions (1949).

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