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Primitive Religion

Peter B. Clarke

Subject Religion
Sociology » Sociology of Religion

DOI: 10.1111/b.9781405124331.2007.x


The evolutionary character of theories of primitive religion is present in the sociological literature from the beginning. It is evident, for example, in the writings of the so-called founding father of sociology, Auguste Comte (1798–1857), who believed that religion originated in fetishism or the worship of inanimate things, then developed into polytheism which in turn developed into monotheism ( Comte 1853 ). The view that religion evolved from polytheism to monotheism is, of course, much older than the formal beginnings of sociology and anthropology as academic disciplines. It is present in the Scottish philosopher David Hume's The Natural History of Religion (1759). The nineteenth-century theorists – they would today be classified as armchair anthropologists and sociologists – most closely associated with the construction of the concept of primitive religion were less concerned about religion per se and its nature and more about finding proof with which to discredit the so-called higher religions and in particular Christianity. Their intention was to discover the origins of primitive religion or religion in its most basic or elementary form in order to show that it was profoundly mistaken and arose from ignorance or some emotional need and that the so-called higher religions which derived from such erroneous ideas and behavior did not therefore merit the assent and commitment ... log in or subscribe to read full text

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