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The Science of Religion in Britain, 1860–1915

The Science of Religion in Britain, 1860–1915

Marjorie Wheeler-Barclay
Copyright Date: 2010
Pages: 328
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    The Science of Religion in Britain, 1860–1915
    Book Description:

    Marjorie Wheeler-Barclay argues that, although the existence and significance of the science of religion has been barely visible to modern scholars of the Victorian period, it was a subject of lively and extensive debate among nineteenth-century readers and audiences. She shows how an earlier generation of scholars in Victorian Britain attempted to arrive at a dispassionate understanding of the psychological and social meanings of religious beliefs and practices-a topic not without contemporary resonance in a time when so many people feel both empowered and threatened by religious passion-and provides the kind of history she feels has been neglected.

    Wheeler-Barclay examines the lives and work of six scholars: Friedrich Max Müller, Edward B. Tylor, Andrew Lang, William Robertson Smith, James G. Frazer, and Jane Ellen Harrison. She illuminates their attempts to create a scholarly, non-apologetic study of religion and religions that drew upon several different disciplines, including anthropology, sociology, the classics, and Oriental studies, and relied upon contributions from those outside as well as within the universities. This intellectual enterprise-variously known as comparative religion, the history of religions, or the science of religion-was primarily focused on non-Christian religions. Yet in Wheeler-Barclay's study of the history of this field within the broad contexts of Victorian cultural, intellectual, social, and political history, she traces the links between the emergence of the science of religion to debates about Christianity and to the history of British imperialism, the latter of which made possible the collection of so much of the ethnographic data on which the scholars relied and which legitimized exploration and conquest. Far from promoting an anti-religious or materialistic agenda, the science of religion opened up cultural space for an exploration of religion that was not constricted by the terms of contemporary conflicts over Darwin and the Bible and that made it possible to think in new and more flexible ways about the very definition of religion.

    eISBN: 978-0-8139-3051-0
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-16)

    Loss of faith in traditional Christian beliefs and the accompanying erosion of the intellectual and cultural authority of the churches have long been central problems in the history of Victorian Britain. Historians have approached the topic from several angles, examining the complex causes and sources of unbelief, pursuing an understanding of its impact through biographical studies of famous “doubters,” and more recently, turning to the investigation of surrogate religions such as spiritualism, eugenics, and the Comtean “religion of humanity.” One problem that has so far attracted little attention, however, is the relationship between this cultural upheaval and the creation of...

  5. 1 The Study of Religion before 1860
    (pp. 17-36)

    To characterize the science of religion as a response to secularizing trends within a single national culture may seem myopic from the perspective of a more cosmopolitan history of the human sciences. After all, it was not only in Britain that religion became an object of supposedly scientific scrutiny. To name just a few of the more prominent thinkers—Emile Burnouf and Ernest Renan in France, Cornelius Tiele in the Netherlands, Ludwig Feuerbach, David Friedrich Strauss, and Wilhelm Mannhardt in Germany—these men made distinctive contributions to the field and their influence was strongly felt in Britain.¹ Nevertheless, in terms...

  6. 2 The Annunciation of a New Science
    (pp. 37-70)
    Friedrich Max Müller

    In 1845 and 1846, F. D. Maurice preached a series of sermons entitled “The Religions of the World and Their Relations to Christianity,” the aim of which, as he said, was not to “search” for the “absurdities” of non-Christian faiths but to discover the “living wants” and the permanent “necessities of man’s being” that all religions were called upon to satisfy.¹ The project had been an extremely difficult one, he admitted, because the availability of information, even on the great historical religions of Asia and the Middle East, was very limited for anyone unfamiliar with Oriental languages. For “Mahometanism” there...

  7. 3 The Forging of an Anthropological Orthodoxy
    (pp. 71-103)
    Edward B. Tylor

    Among the many observers who hailed Max Müller’s “science of religion” as a welcome sign of the times, few displayed greater enthusiasm than Edward Burnett Tylor, the man who was to become the founding father and first academic representative of British social anthropology. Tylor, writing in 1868, saw in the public response to Müller’s work an unmistakable indication that “there is in England at this moment an intellectual interest in religion, a craving for real theological knowledge, such as seldom has been known before.” What was more, this desire for knowledge had never until the present “had such opportunity of...

  8. 4 The Antipositivist Critique
    (pp. 104-139)
    Andrew Lang

    In the end, the most searching critique of Tylor’s message came not from Christian thinkers or their allies, but from one of his own earliest and most ardent disciples, Andrew Lang. But then Lang was always somewhat out of place in the role of “jackal” to Tylor’s “lion.”¹ Tylor had journeyed from liberal Dissent via an intentionally modern, science-oriented program of selfeducation and had arrived finally at an alliance with cultural reformers of agnostic and positivist inclinations. Lang pursued a more traditional literary and humanistic course. Starting with a conventional liberal education, he had followed through with a stint as...

  9. 5 A New Departure
    (pp. 140-180)
    William Robertson Smith

    In his attempt to defend the autonomy of religion from an all-embracing evolutionism, Andrew Lang had lashed out against the anthropological establishment that had grown up in Britain during the 1870s and 1880s. Of course, his attitude was an ambivalent one, for while attacking the positivistic tendencies which seemed to him to be gaining ground in the new field, he also treasured his personal ties with men such as J. F. McLennan, E. B. Tylor, and R. R. Marett and often regretted his own failure to dedicate himself full-time to anthropology. Similarly, ambivalence marks the career of Lang’s fellow Scot,...

  10. 6 The Orthodoxy Monumentalized
    (pp. 181-214)
    James G. Frazer

    In a memorial tribute to William Robertson Smith written in 1911, the French scholar Salomon Reinach concluded a recital of his subject’s virtues and accomplishments by pointing to the greatest achievement of all—“Genuit Frazerum!”¹ Forty years later, it would have been difficult to find many anthropologists or sociologists who would agree with the implied judgment on the relative merits of Robertson Smith and his protégé, but at the time, even Robertson Smith’s own biographers did not dispute the claim. Reinach certainly intended no insult to the memory of the departed scholar, and his remarks do no more than echo...

  11. 7 The Redefinition of Religion
    (pp. 215-242)
    Jane Ellen Harrison

    The work of Jane Ellen Harrison, pioneering female classicist and contemporary of Frazer, regularly met with caustic criticism from well-established male colleagues. For example, in a letter to her friend and intellectual ally Gilbert Murray, Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, the famed philologist, dismissed Harrison’sThemisthus: “In matters of religion I remain old-fashioned. . . . It does not interest me much how Hecuba’s grandmother felt; not Plato’s for that matter. She was only an old woman and her faith a hag’s. . . . I can’t get along with historians of religion; not with those who really dispose of everything...

  12. Conclusion
    (pp. 243-256)

    In 1962, the distinguished anthropologist E. E. Evans-Pritchard delivered a series of lectures entitled “Theories of Primitive Religion” which included a historical survey and critical analysis of the contributions of British scholars during the period from about 1850 to the First World War. His concluding judgment was harsh: the theories themselves were as “dead as mutton,” and it was difficult to believe that such “inadequate, even ludicrous” ideas had ever commanded the attention that at one time they did. Perhaps they still retained some interest as “specimens of the thought of their time,” but for the contemporary working anthropologist, “it...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 257-288)
  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 289-304)
  15. Index
    (pp. 305-312)
  16. Back Matter
    (pp. 313-314)