It’s useless to try to define something like religion. James Frazer says all he’ll do is say what he means by it, and then try to be consistent in using the term throughout his work.
By “religion”, Frazer means
A propitiation or conciliation of powers superior to man which are believed to direct and control the course of nature and of human life.
He goes on to say that, according to this definition, there must always be both a theoretical and a practical side to religion. There must always be a theoretical because one must believe in a higher power if one is to feel compelled to attempt to appease it. There must always be a practical side because appeasing a god always involves some kind of work, whether that be ritual or merely living a “good” life – a life in accordance with the preferences of your god.
Frazer believes that the religious world view is superior to the magical world view that came before it. The magicians believed that they could control nature, performing rituals to cause rain, to make crops grow, and so on. Religion comes about when human beings start to notice that the magic doesn’t always work like it’s supposed to – it doesn’t always rain when the magician says it will rain, the harvest was bad again this year – and they come to doubt their own powers to cause desired outcomes in nature. Religion is born of “a confession of human ignorance and weakness.” What follows from this confession is the imagining of a power greater than they, against which they are helpless, but which might be merciful and grant human beings what they need if they behave rightly.
To believe in the existence of gods is more rational than believing in magic, Frazer tells us. We can prove that magic doesn’t work, but it’s more difficult to refute religion. Spirits and gods can be fickle, and a failure on the part of the priest to produce the desired outcome might be viewed as proof of the displeasure of the god, rather than of the non-existence of that god. And yet, according to Frazer, the religious view has been slowly eroded. Little by little, it has become apparent that nature behaves in a more or less orderly and fixed way. Gradually humankind has come to see that nature does not look like something governed by the whim and caprice of spirits. Increasingly, the scientific world view has come to prevail.
For Frazer, the scientific view is similar to the magical. Both views are opposed to the religious belief in fickle spirits. Both claim a regularity in nature. The magicians claimed that they knew the laws of nature and through this knowledge could make predictions and bring about desired effects. The scientists make similar claims. The difference between the two is that science seems to be effective, whereas humankind has gradually come to believe that magic is not.
The triumph of science is not final and absolute, for Frazer. Magic, religion, and science all have in common the fact that they are theoretical ways of viewing the world. The belief in magic and religion were only very slowly eroded over time, as gradually it became apparent that they did not explain the world. Frazer leaves open the question whether the belief in science might go the same way.
For Frazer, science appeared when humankind started to doubt whether the world was governed by the caprice and whim of invisible powers. The arrival of science brought with it a confidence in the fixity and predictability of things, in the human being’s power over nature and assured place in the world. But however things might have looked to Frazer, today we live in a world of uncertainty. Isn’t it starting to look, to many of us, as though the world is not quite governed by law in the way we were told? That decision-making is impossible in a world of information, with so many variables to hand? That with so much misinformation out there, truth and falsity is beginning to look like a matter of personal preference? Perhaps amid this uncertainty we are heading once more towards a world governed by whim and caprice, and towards a world view that looks a little closer to the religious than the scientific.
(I’ve been reading The Golden Bough by James Frazer.)