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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Thus to stab a
wax image of a person is to inflict actual physical injury on that person.
principle of thought is that
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
results in a distorted picture of religion as a whole.
 Quoted by
John Macquarrie in Twentieth-Century Religious Thought,
 The Golden Bough, Wordsworth Editions, 1993
 Eight Theories of Religion, D L Pals, OUP, 2006