John Burrow
The Crisis of Reason

Anti-clericalism was a defining characteristic of French Republicanism, whose roots went back to the Enlightenment and the first Revolution. But there was a difference between the two countries epitomized (and exaggerated) in the ideas of Auguste Comte. Where English liberal demands for the ending of religious tests were virtually indistinguishable from those of Protestant Dissenters, Comte and Comtists aspired, as in Comte's System of Positive Philosophy (1854), not merely to eradicate Catholicism but to replace it with literally a new religion of science, progress and humanity, for religion human beings must have. The bizarre neo-Catholic rituals of the Comtist Religion of Humanity were extreme and not widely imitated, but the cultural contexts, Protestant and Catholic respectively, continued to exercise an influence on British and French liberalism, particularly in the disposition of the former to see religion in terms of individual belief, even when investigating it anthropologically, and in the latter to see it in terms of collective ritual and social function. The distinction cannot be applied rigidly, but Durkheim, whose personal background was Jewish (he was the son of a rabbi), is certainly a case, and in the long run a highly influential one, of the latter.

Durkheim's late work Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1917) approached religion not so much as a system of belief but as a body of collective ritual practice. It focused on the totemic rituals of the Australian aborigines and attempted to decode the explanations offered by them. Durkheim's work came as something of a revelation to British anthropologists already in revolt against speculative evolutionism, though the first effect of this was a renewed emphasis on tracing actual cultural connection, spoken of as 'Diffusionism'. The British anthropological approach to religion in the later nineteenth century, with the notable exception of the Hebrew scholar William Robertson Smith (1846-94), who can be seen as a precursor of Durkheim, had been not only evolutionist but individualist, psychological and rationalistic, focusing on belief, magical or animistic, and explaining collective rituals, where they were noted, in terms of beliefs. Durkheim's approach, like that of his mentor at the Ecole Normale Superieure, Fustel de Coulanges (1830-89), in his book on Roman religion and society, The Ancient City (1864), was essentially social. Religion was not speculative in origin, the consequence of savages' poor grasp of causality, it was a whole dimension of the life of a society—any society, not only those of savages, though Durkheim remained enough of an evolutionist to see the latter as providing insight into origins; religion was the realm of the sacred. Asking what the Australians were doing in their totemic collective rituals, Durkheim argued that they were enacting and paying worship to the most important and awe-inspiring feature of their world, the ordering of their own collective life, society itself.

It is a description as applicable, clearly (sceptics might say more so), to singing the Marseillaise as to taking part in totemic dances. It is tempting to say that for Durkheim the religion of Humanity, in localized forms, was not, as for Comte, the culmination of the religious history of mankind but its origin and perennial meaning. There had always, since the early 1790s, been a cultic element in French Republicanism in its attitudes to 'the People', and to the Republic itself, 'one and indivisible': initially it had incorporated an entirely sensible and conscious attempt to appropriate the sanctity attached to kingship and royalty. On 14 July 1790, the first anniversary of the fall of the Bastille, representatives from all over France had gathered to take an oath, affirming their unity, their corporate existence, in the Champ-de-Mars on an 'altar of the fatherland'.

Not surprisingly given 'the warfare of science and religion', the explanation of religion was a central concern of Anthropology in Britain from its origins in the 1860s; its other main preoccupation was with the 'evolution' of kinship systems and hence of property rights. After more than half a century there was a revival of the interest in the psychological origins of religion which had been a feature of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. To explain religion psychologically was, after all, to provide an alternative to the claim that it must derive from an original revelation, later corrupted by superstitions. Other explanations had been current in the eighteenth century, notably the idea of priestly conspiracies, but these had fallen away. From the 1860s until roughly the end of the century in Britain, however, not merely was the predominant explanation of religion conducted in terms of individual psychology as in the eighteenth century, but the psychology itself was still much the same, though now massively documented in examples from contemporary savagery; essentially it was the mechanism of the association of ideas, operating uncritically in simple minds under the impression of fear; religion was the result of an intellectual failure, a failure in the classification of phenomena. Misled by superficial resemblances the savage jumped to conclusions, attributing agency and intent to the consequences of natural laws, and misinterpreting the appearance of the dead in dreams and visions and hence feeling the need to propitiate them.

The latter was Spencer's main theory. The practice of propitiatory magic had been called in the eighteenth century the making of fetishes—a term taken up for different purposes by both Marx and Comte. Later the term 'animism' became current, for the peopling of the world with invisible spirits of incalculable powers and erratic disposition. This was the term used by both Spencer and Tylor (they quarrelled over priority). Edward Tylor (1832—1917), who became the first Professor of Anthropology at Oxford, was the leading British anthropologist in the 1870s and 1880s. He came of Quaker stock, an odd preparation perhaps for a discipline much concerned with the interpretation of ritual; there is evidence that the desire to eradicate surviving ritualism and superstition by exposing their savage origins was one source for Tylor's commitment to Anthropology. He made his name with his The Early History of Mankind (1865) and Primitive Culture (1871). He became particularly associated with the use of the concept of 'survivals' to underpin the claim that modern 'savages' represented past stages of culture. Characteristics found fully at work in modern savagery were also found in residual form in civilized societies, as superstition, ceremonies, folklore—in which Tylor also had an interest. The latter were 'survivals', the equivalent of vestigial organs which Darwin pointed to as evidence for the past of a species. Once functional but now redundant, they were gradually dwindling away. To identify superstition and ritual in civilized society in this way was to predict their eventual disappearance: the death of religion.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.