The Slain God: Anthropologists and the Christian Faith
by timothy larsen
oxford, 272 pages, $45
The discipline of anthropology is often considered post-religious if not anti-religious. Most working anthropologists profess no religious faith. And anthropologists stand in a structurally and ideologically oppositional relationship to Christian missionaries, who, like them, have taken to the foreign fields to interact with the natives, yet for obviously quite different purposes.
In The Slain God: Anthropologists and the Christian Faith, Timothy Larsen, McManis Professor of Christian Thought at Wheaton College, challenges this view. He explores the personal lives and academic contributions of perhaps the five most eminent British anthropologists to show how religion shaped the field and influences it still.
The anthropologists Larsen studies are Edward Tylor, James Frazer, Edward Evans-Pritchard, Mary Douglas, and Victor Turner and Edith Turner, his wife. The first two took a hostile, debunking approach to Christian faith. The others were publicly and unapologetically committed Roman Catholics. Douglas was raised Catholic in a devout household and convent school and remained piously devoted to traditional Catholicism her entire life. Evans-Pritchard and the Turners converted to Catholicism as adults.
Larsen’s account controverts the standard, modern secularization narrative. The story of British anthropology is not one of an immature discipline initially tolerating childish matters like religion and then gradually sloughing off religion as it developed a mature, scientific rationality. Rather, the early influential anthropologists (Tylor, Frazer) were rigidly anti-religious thinkers, whereas the latter luminaries in the discipline (Evans-Pritchard, Douglas, the Turners) confidently embraced Christian faith. And so the simple idea of secularization theory—that over time modern secularity replaces premodern religious credulity—is negated by an exact reverse in the case of leading scholars in the development of British anthropology.
The methods and theories of the early secular scholars proved to be antiquated and embarrassing to scholars who followed close on their heels; the intellectual contributions of the Catholic anthropologists have better stood the test of time. Studies such as Nuer Religion (Evans-Pritchard), Purity and Danger (Douglas), and The Ritual Process (Victor Turner) are now classics, part of the canon of anthropological literature. It was not the secular rationalists, Larsen makes clear, but rather the Catholic believers who produced the higher-quality scholarship.
This difference is partly an artifact of the different eras in which these scholars worked. Tylor and Frazer practiced Victorian- and Edwardian-era armchair anthropologizing, reading and synthesizing from the safe insularity of their offices in England the reports of other travelers abroad. They also worked at a time when the arrogance of British colonialism and the pre–First World War Enlightenment belief in Progress clouded the visions of many social scientists with value-laden concepts about “savages” and “backward” peoples. Evans-Pritchard, Douglas, and the Turners, by contrast, personally engaged in the messy, hands-on ethnographic fieldwork that later became anthropology’s standard method. And they benefited intellectually from an attenuation of the previous era’s paternalism and naivete toward colonized peoples. This gave them a decided advantage in producing theoretical interpretations of empirical evidence that proved more impressive and lasting.
This difference was not entirely an accident of historical timing. The organizational universalism of the Catholic Church and the ethical universalism of Catholic faith provided these Catholic anthropologists with resources that facilitated their becoming deeply embedded in their fieldwork settings and taking seriously, on their own terms, the lives and cultural meanings of the peoples they studied. In short, Catholicism helped make these scholars better anthropologists.
Religion also profoundly shaped the anthropological work of the anti-religious scholars examined in this book, in ways they themselves probably did not understand. Edward Tylor, for example, had been raised in a devout Quaker family. Although as an adult he rejected the Quaker faith, the particular doctrinal commitments and broad cultural sensibilities of Quakerism governed his anthropological interests and interpretations. Quaker humanitarian concern for mistreated indigenous peoples led Tylor to his interest in anthropology in the first place, and Quaker anti-Catholicism, anti-ritualism, and anti-militarism powerfully shaped his entire theoretical approach. Larsen aptly describes Tylor’s mature scholarship as “Quakerism minus Christianity.”
One of the many virtues of Larsen’s study is its revealing of the “all too human” character of the scholarship of the anthropologists he examines. Far from transcending the “biasing” particularities of biographical experience, in conformity to some positivist notions of “value freedom” and “objectivity,” the academic contributions of each of the scholars studied in this book were profoundly shaped by early childhood experiences, distinctive personality traits, and, as noted above, particular theological or atheological visions, as the case may be.
James Frazer, for instance, suffered a constitutional incapacity to deal with direct relational confrontation and open conflict. This defining personality trait forced him to engage in various forms of self-deception, duplicity, gullibility, and paranoia. He tried to prevent his parents from realizing he had ditched his early Christian faith, and slandered colleagues behind their backs while praising them in print. He selectively used missionary reports from the foreign field when they served his purposes but otherwise dismissed them as useless. He even waited until the death of his mentor, the biblical scholar William Robertson Smith, to introduce into his most famous work, The Golden Bough, a new section that subtly damned the Bible with faint praise, even though Frazer had never learned the languages that would have enabled him to read the Bible in the original. This aversion to direct conflict also shaped his life’s work in anthropology.
The point of this observation is to acknowledge that all sciences, as particular human practices, never finally transcend the humanity of the persons who engage in them. The very human personal characteristics of even the greatest scholars—including their religious or anti-religious proclivities—are often not irrelevant to the kind of scholarship they produce. Religion and science as embodied and advanced by real, living scientists are just not as separable as many would wish to think.
That fact is evident also in Larsen’s account of Evans-Pritchard, Douglas, and the Turners. Their anthropological insights and agendas were profoundly influenced by their experience as Catholic believers and by the Catholic faith itself. Examples include their insights into the rationality of tribal cultural practices, the nature and power of ritual, the constructively ordering power of hierarchy, and the centrality of spiritual concerns in the arranging of cultural systems. Again, had these world-class scholars not been Catholic, their anthropological imaginations would have been much diminished.
Larsen also succeeds in conveying how different were the Catholicisms of the three Christian anthropologists. They did belong to the same Church, and all leaned into their secular university worlds with similarly unapologetic attitudes toward their faith. But in other respects they were quite different from each other. Douglas was a cradle Catholic; Evans-Pritchard and the Turners were received into the Church relatively late in life. Evans-Pritchard was a self-described “bad Catholic”; Douglas and Victor and Edith Turner were pious and devout. When asked to explain his reception into the Church, Evans-Pritchard said in an interview: “I have no regrets. Bad Catholic though I be, I would rather be a bad one than not one at all.” (By “bad,” he seemed to mean that he drank too much and attended Mass infrequently.)
Victor Turner considered Christian faith the most obviously reasonable worldview available, while his wife believed that the most important realities were beyond logic and even the law of noncontradiction, which she considered a Western cultural imposition: “The fact of [religious differences across cultures] is to be celebrated, not deplored, and because religion is beyond logical articulation their differences present no problems on the score of logic.”
Douglas was a stout defender of traditional hierarchy, ecclesiastical and otherwise; Edith Turner was a rebel by nature, fairly anticlerical, and semi-universalistic when it came to the world’s religions. Thinking it “very likely that all religions are based on something shamanistic,” she could remark that a particular instance of Christians glorifying God for answers to prayers “was the old and excellent shamanism.”
In brief, the Catholic Church, from which others were often repelled because of its allegedly narrow rigidity, in fact accommodated very different views and approaches among its faithful, including these intellectuals.
My own view of all of this, as a practicing social scientist interested in the relationship between religious faith and empirical science, is that the general perspective taken by Evans-Pritchard, Douglas, and the Turners is not only entirely reasonable but close to the best account we might give. Scholars like Tylor and Frazer were working with the background assumptions of scientistic positivism and empiricism, which were and are deeply problematic. More adequate is the philosophical view of critical realism, which combines ontological realism, epistemic perspectivalism, and judgmental rationality. From that perspective, one knows that not everything that is real is observable, that even scientific knowledge is partial and fallible, and that religious and scientific truth claims can in principle be perfectly compatible, even complementary.
Furthermore, excellent historical scholarship since the 1970s by researchers such as Ronald Numbers and David Lindberg has shown that the “inevitable warfare of religion and science” is not only a poor framing of the actual historical reality but is in fact an ideology pushed by anti-Christian activists starting in the late nineteenth century. (In my book The Secular Revolution, I take up these themes in much greater depth.) Smart philosophical works on religion and science, including Alvin Plantinga’s Where the Conflict Really Lies, demonstrate as well that the notion of an opposition between science and religion is false.
Although there is much in social science that can add new dimensions to some of the views that religious believers have about how the world works, and in some instances displace those views as inadequate, in three decades of working in social science, I have encountered nothing that in principle makes Christianity impossible. If anything, quite the contrary is true: What good social science tells us about human social life comports well with Christianity’s account of the matter. My observation, in fact, is that, when some social scientists do repudiate religious faith and practice, they are motivated and justified not by social science per se but by their personal, prescientific biases and prejudices. Such people are welcome to their personal views, of course, but they ought not treat them as somehow the logical result of empirical social science.
The idea of the “slain god” was a central theme in Frazer’s Golden Bough, where he argued that Christianity’s story is merely one of myriad “savage” myths and superstitions about deities killed by men. His agenda was to relativize and debunk Christianity in order to make way for the progress of a demystified, secular world. In Larsen’s account of anthropology, we see, to the contrary, that generations of leading British anthropologists have never been able to ignore their slain God, Jesus Christ, but have recurrently and with varying results wrestled with the truth claims of Christianity, often engaging theology as a highly generative intellectual conversation partner. More fascinating than the idea of “primitives” being drawn to the motif of slain gods is that modern “anthropologists themselves, generation after generation, continue to be caught up in the ever-recurring drama of the divine death and resurrection.”
Christian Smith is the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Sociology and director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame.