Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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J G Frazer (1854-1941)
A British anthropologist, born in Glasgow, Scotland, and educated at the universities of Glasgow and Cambridge, James Frazer was made a fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1879, and Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Liverpool in 1907.

He is widely acknowledged as a pioneer of the new science of anthropology in the19th century. His work covered a wide area of research, but he was especially interested in the study of myth and religion - in his case, from the viewpoint of a person coming from a Presbyterian background.

Frazer rejected his Christian origins early in life. At school he preferred study of ancient Greece and Rome over the Bible. His study of classical languages won him many prizes. From Glasgow University he eventually became a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge. During all his long academic life he never moved from the quiet, stable confines of a protected academic life. All the evidence underpinning his theories was gathered by others and then assembled by him.

He is best known for his book The Golden Bough (1890-1915), a study of ancient cults, rites, and myths, and their parallels with early Christianity. It took him some twenty years to complete. Frazer wrote many other works, including Totemism and Exogamy (1910), Man, God, and Immortality (1927), and Creation and Evolution in Primitive Cosmogonies (1935).

If Frazer was not, strictly speaking, concerned with the Christian faith or indeed with any sort of faith except as it shows up in cultural customs and beliefs, why should he be included here? My answer is that he was one of the first to study human societies from a what he thought was a strictly scientific viewpoint, accumulating evidence and drawing conclusions from it.

Prior to him and his anthropologist colleagues, mankind had always been perceived as God's creation. In that respect, God - not natural processes and change - was in charge. If an eternal and immutable God was top dog, then society was surely at its best when it 
(a) remained similarly stable and (b) embodied in its institutions and laws the "will of God". Believing this, it was possible also to believe that a particular culture could reflect better than any other some degree of perfection. 

As the first anthropologist to be widely read by ordinary people, Frazer's learning and expressive style commended his work to many - as did his conclusions about religion. The 19th century Western society's tendency to think of itself as a cut above all others took its first serious knock when confronted by abundant evidence of the relativity of social form. To understand the ebb and flow of cultural exchange over the ages was, eventually, to give up on the idea that any one culture is intrinsically better than another.

The Golden Bough appeared at a time of great optimism in the West about the future. Many influential people thought at the time that the human race had begun to accelerate its destined progress to better things. Frazer's conclusions helped reinforce this perception - though it soon appeared somewhat hollow as a result of the horrors of the Great European War (otherwise known as World War I).

His main thesis was that humanity has progressed over the ages from savagery to civilisation, and that it was possible to trace this progression through the myths and cultures of those primitive societies which in his time were relatively little-touched by the West.

He was convinced that the future of knowledge was bound up in the fortunes of the scientific endeavour - so much so that

... it is not too much to say that the hope of progress - moral and intellectual as well as material - is bound up with the fortunes of science. [1]

Frazer sought to assemble his data in such a way that common factors and social parallels between various societies and cultures became apparent. In so doing, however, he often stretched apparent similarities too far. For example, he associated Celtic fire ceremonies with similar ones in Scandinavia by firmly stressing similarities and ignoring significant differences. Similarly, he sees in every difference evidence for the evolution of customs and myths from the primitive to the sophisticated. He concluded that monotheism arose from polytheism, not noticing that the former often preceded the latter.

From what he thought were clear similarities, Frazer proposed that humanity has moved through three main stages of development. This was not to say that each stage was necessarily distinct from the others. The first stage could persist in relative isolation from those in the second of even the third stages.

The first stage involves self-reliance through magic. That is, humans seek to control their lives through manipulating the environment in certain ways. "Magic" in primitive cultures embodies two "principles of thought". In noting them it's important to recognise that, unlike less scientific approaches, Frazer's method was to support his conclusions with abundant data.

The first principle of magic is "that like produces like, or that an effect resembles its cause." He calls this the "Law of Similarity". The shaman or magician teaches (and believes) that 

... he can produce any effect he desires merely by imitating it ... to regulate the operations of inanimate nature ... The primitive magician knows magic only on its practical side; he never analyses the mental processes on which his practice is based, never reflects on the abstract principles involved in his actions. [2]

Thus to stab a wax image of a person is to inflict actual physical injury on that person.

The second principle of thought is that 

... things which have once been in contact with each other continue to act on each other at a distance after the physical contact has been severed.

This Frazer calls the "Law of Contagion". This is the kind of magic which leads people to attempt to alter the natural state of things, or to influence others, by manipulating some part of them. To burn someone's hair is to manipulate them in a desired way.

Frazer thinks that the two principles are familiar to "ignorant and dull-witted people everywhere". I think he fails in this respect to recognise what is easier to perceive nowadays - that well-informed and clever people can and do make the same error.

The second stage of mankind's progress involves religion. When it becomes plain that magic doesn't work often enough to be predictably useful, mankind has turned to religion. We no longer rely on ourselves but seek the help of supernatural beings ("invisible beings behind the veil of nature") who have powers we don't. 

If we're ancient Greeks, these gods turn out somewhat capricious (perhaps to explain the unpredictable elements in real life). As Jews the external power is entirely consistent. It is we who, in sinful rebellion, force God to punish us to bring us back to a state in which he can bless us with good things. Plenitude therefore depends on morality. As Frazer shows, the variety of mankind's gods demonstrates our great inventiveness.

In religion we embark on an attempt to win the favour of superhuman beings and because 

... the course of nature is to some extent elastic or variable ... we can persuade or induce the mighty beings who control it to deflect, for our benefit, the current of events from the channel in which they would otherwise flow.

In this sense, religion "stands in fundamental antagonism to magic as well as to science." Despite this, magic and religion are frequently intertwined, as Frazer's many examples show. In turn, religion shares with science the knowledge that nothing is certain, though the former attributes uncertainty either to fickle gods or the superior insights of an all-knowing God [3].

The third stage of mankind's progress is scientific. Religion assumes that nature is "to some extent variable and irregular, and this assumption is not borne out by closer observation." When we observe nature as it really is, says Frazer, "we are struck by the rigid uniformity, the punctual precision with which ... the operations of nature are carried on." In this, he failed to recognise the provisionality of science, the gap between theory as explaining the general, and observation as instances of the actual. The orbit of the moon is in theory precisely predictable; in practice there are always slight variations of observation.

He predicts that as mankind's knowledge of nature increases everything will "reduce from chaos to cosmos" so that we can foresee the course of natural events with certainty and act accordingly. The hope of progress 

... is bound up with the fortunes of science, and ... every obstacle placed in the way of scientific discovery is a wrong to humanity.

Humanity's new reliance on science takes up self-reliance again, in place of the dependence of the religious phase. Exact observation replaces the imaginings of religion. It may be, thinks Frazer, that humanity will once day move on yet again into a new phase which we can't at this point in our development imagine.

Frazer's analysis of magic is penetrating. His perceptions of religion are persuasive and difficult to refute. But his view of science as Newtonian regularity has been superceded in the late 20th century. Perhaps the return of chaos and uncertainty is one of the causes of a perceived return to a so-called "spiritual" approach to the problems of life - from astrology to charismatic healing. It's almost as though humanity, faced by the unknown and unknowable in an unpredictable universe, cannot stand the resulting anxiety.

Frazer's primary importance for Christians today lies in his comparison of Christian belief and practice with other religions of the first millennium. He shows how Christian rituals are frequently derived, with little or no modification, from pagan and other religions. Similarly, doctrines such as the death of a god and his later resurrection are paralleled closely by similar teachings of Persian and other Middle Eastern religions.

Thus as far as Frazer was concerned the whole Jesus story could be perceived as an amalgam of ancient sun, fertility and sacrificial myths similar to that of Adam and Eve in the Old Testament. This is not to say that he thought that Christians had invented the "Jesus myth". Rather, he thought that it is from such sources that they drew some of the images and concepts from which they built up their vision of Jesus.

Despite his personal position, his work was often used by those who wished to dismiss Christian teachings. Albert Schweitzer, for example, includes Frazer in a list of scholars who he thought had contested the historical existence of Jesus.

But there an important caution arises from his work. It is that religious beliefs and science can all-too-easily be thought of as equivalent. In fact, they are perhaps better viewed as differing ways of explaining the world. As John Macquarrie says, religious beliefs

... can be understood only in the setting of the whole religious life, which involves conative and affective elements as well [1]

which inevitably results in a distorted picture of religion as a whole.
[1] Quoted by John Macquarrie in Twentieth-Century Religious Thought
SCM, 1963
[2] The Golden Bough, Wordsworth Editions, 1993
[3] Eight Theories of Religion, D L Pals, OUP, 2006

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