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Opponents in the field

11 December 2015

David Martin on some anthropologists who disagreed with Frazer


The Slain God: Anthropologists and the Christian faith
Timothy Larsen
Oxford University Press, £25
(978-0-19-965787-2 hbk)
Church Times Bookshop £22.50


THERE will always be those who want a different book from the one under review, for example, a discussion of religion in general in relation to cultural anthropology. Timothy Larsen has a much more focused and limited objective, and one that goes back to his work on doubt in the 19th century.

He begins, therefore, with the two conspicuous doubters who founded the discipline, Edward Tylor initially, and then James George Frazer. Tylor was a lapsed Quaker who brought his inherited prejudices, especially anti-Catholicism, to the original creation of anthropology.

Between them, Tylor and Frazer spread abroad the supposition that Christianity was a survival of more primal religious forms, like the slain and resurrected god. They treated anthropology as an advance guard of the triumph of science over religion.

The core of Larsen’s book concerns the reversal of this secularist perspective by key anthropologists in Britain who became Roman Catholics or vigorously maintained an inherited faith round about the mid-20th century.

Edward Evans-Pritchard and Victor (and Edith) Turner were converts, and Mary Douglas was a faithful birthright Catholic, much to the horror of people such as Edward Leach and Max Gluckman. Leach accused Douglas of bending anthropology to ideological purposes, something to which he was himself notoriously addicted. When the Turners converted, having been part of what was, near enough, a Communist cell in Max Gluckman’s Manchester department, they were virtually forced out and moved to Cornell.

What Larsen provides is a biographical account of his subjects which includes a critical examination of their published works, and of other, often more intimate, documents. He focuses on the development of their anthropological work from its inception to the end, and of the course of their beliefs from childhood onward. This happens to be particularly important in the case of Edith Turner, since her somewhat idiosyncratic anthropology and Roman Catholicism were alike informed by rebellion against her Anglican missionary parents.

Of all Larsen’s subjects, I suspect he has most sympathy with Evans-Pritchard: he gives a moving account of Evans-Pritchard’s last years. With regard to Douglas, Larsen emphasises her commitment to hierarchy as a principle of order, particularly in the two books Purity and Danger and Natural Symbols, which made her a prominent public intellectual.

He obviously has critical reservations about her later forays into anthropological comment on biblical criticism, and her rather strained attempts to save the character of the Old Testament God. With Victor Turner, Larsen shows how Turner neatly reversed some of the criticisms of the founding fathers and provided remarkably rich analyses of "communitas", "liminality", and the ritual process, especially pilgrimage. All this was based on field work in Africa in close cooperation with his wife.

Turner, like Douglas, and a large swath of the RC intelligentsia, had reservations about the likely impact of liturgical change.

Larsen’s book is beautifully written and based on the most patient scrutiny of every scrap of evidence. It provides an authoritative account of some of anthropology’s most influential practitioners.


The Revd Dr David Martin is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics.

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