Compare/contrast Max Muller’s Theory Nature Worship With Edward Burnett Tylor’s Theory of Animism

The term “animism” was coined by the anthropologist E.B. Tylor (1832–1917).[1] It considers religion as a belief in spiritual beings.[2] According to Tylor, religious belief came from the primordial culture of attributing life and a soul, or spirit to inanimate objects like rivers, mountains and rocks to name just these few.[3] Naturism is a belief which holds that the forces of nature possess supernatural powers.[4] The theory of naturism was developed by Andrew Lang and Max Muller. This essay will analyse the similarities and differences between animism and naturism. In order to carry out this analysis, it will start by examining animism and naturism. After that, it will proceed to outline the differences and similarities between these two models that attempt to identify the origin of human religion.
Similarity and Differences between Animism and Naturism
Today, animism has been discarded by many in the academic study of religion.[5] It is widely considered as an obsolete term used in describing the belief systems of indigenous people who believe that natural phenomena have souls and spirits. Irrespective of this, animism has persisted in popular usage and religious theories. Muller was a Sanskrit scholar and emphasised that the primary form of religious practice is naturism.[6] He adds that naturism has to do withone’s sensory experience which helps one to make logical deductions.
Animists believe that religious embodiments are visible meanwhile their cause is not.[7] For example, although the rain is visible the factors that lead to rain are not. Similarly, the sun is visible to all. However, man is unable to tell how the sun came into existence although everyone knows that the sun exists. Consequently, man worshipped all the wonders of nature and considered them as powerful. These include the sun, the moon, air and water given that man’s life is largely depended on them. They are considered as great and having a soul. Without these things, man’s life will be exclusively impossible.[8] Out of respect for the role they play in the life of mankind, mankind attributes a lot of reverence to them and hence worshipped them.[9] Man worships them because of fear and dependency because they believe if they fail to do, they can seize to perform the roles they play to keep the human race alive. Animists believe that the initial religious conception is based on the personification of natural phenomena that are beyond man’s comprehension. In this respect, both animists and naturists believe that nature has a spiritual component.
The naturistic school is quite different from the animistic school of thought. To begin with, it is founded in a completely different environment. The animists are mostly comprised of ethnologists and anthropologists. Some of the religions they have examined are amongst the most primitive religions which mankind has ever known or studied.[10] Consequently, great emphasis is laid on the souls of the dead, spirits, demons and all spiritual beings. This can be explained by the fact that these religions know little about the existence of any higher order. On the other hand, these theories are based on the work of scholars who emerged from the great civilisations of Europe and Asia. This makes both models different irrespective of the fact that they have a lot of similarities. Both models are set within different contexts.
After the work of the Grimm brothers, who were noted for emphasising the importance of comparing Indo-European mythologies, many researchers have been shocked by the remarkable similarities found in different mythologies.[11] Many scholars have found that the same ideas were expressed in different many different mythologies although they made use of different names and places. These similarities are believed to be as a result of the fact that many of these beliefs have a common origin.[12] Many scholars believe that although there are some apparent differences in names, places and functions, many of these differences have underlying similarities that outweigh the differences. Such a comparative approach makes it easier for one to go back to the much more primitive religion from which many religious theories such as animism and naturism emerged. This will help to explain the reasons behind the differences and similarities.
Animism and naturism have an underlying similarity which cannot be challenged. After the discovery of the Vedas, more light was thrown on the complex debate about the origin of religions.[13] The Vedas was a written text which cannot be empirically dated back to an exact period.[14] However, it is considered by many scholars as one of the most ancient documents in an Indo-European language. The document was believed to have been written before the era of the Greek poet Homer who lived around 850BC.[15] The document was therefore written before the ancient German society was established. It throws more light on the beginning of religion in the human race given that the Vedas is, without any doubt, the oldest document of its type. This document can be linked to many theories that attempt to explain the beginning of religion. Both the naturistic and animistic models are rooted in this document which suggests that they have a common origin.[16]
Meanwhile Tylor’s theory of animism suggests that human beings and everything that makes up nature had souls, Max Muller’s theory of nature worship believed in the worship of nature. Both theories place a lot of importance on nature. They all believed that nature had both a physical component that is visible, and a spiritual component which can neither be touched nor field.[17] Both theories personify nature, making it to look more alive and comparable to human beings. For instance, while Tylor’s theory of animism holds that everything in the world, including the air, seas, rivers, lakes and mountains are alive and have spirits. Muller’s theory of nature worship personified the triad of the early vedic gods (Agni, Vayu, and Surya).[18] These include the air, sun and fire. Both theories hold that human religionwas derived from their observations of the forces of nature which they respected. The spirits they attributed to these forces of nature could either be helpful or harmful. In order to get the best out of them, they elevate these forces of nature and worshipped them. In this respect, the two theories are similar.
This analysis has found that although there are a few differences between Tylor’s model of animism and Muller’s nature worship model; both have a lot of underlying similarities.[19] For instance, both theories believe that nature is very much alive. They both see religion as the worship of nature, be it the sun, moon, sea, fire and all the forces of nature. The two models consider the forces of nature as powerful considering the fact that nature is indispensible to mankind. They attribute spirits to nature, making the two models more similar than different. The differences between the two models are not too much.
Durkheim, Emile and Swain, Joseph (2008) The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, New York: Dover Publications Inc.
Folie, Sabine and Anselm, Franke (2011) Animism: Modernity Through the Looking Glass, Berlin: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther Konig
Harvey, Graham (2013) The Handbook of Contemporary Animism, Durham: Acumen Publishing Ltd
Monier-Williams Monier, Sir 1819-1899 (2013) Religious Thought and Life in India.PT. 1.Vedism, Brahmanism, and Hinduism, Washington: Hardpress Publishing
Orr, Emma (2012) The Wakeful World: Animism, Mind and the Self in Nature. New Alresford: Moon Books
Phillips, Maurice (2013) The Evolution of Hinduism, Hong Kong: Forgotten Books
Stark, Rodney (2008) Discovering God: The Origins of the Great Religions and the Evolution of Belief, London: HarperOne

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