E. B. Tylor

Edward Burnett Tylor, one of the founders the modern academic discipline of Anthropology, belongs to a generation of academics known as the Intellectualists which includes Müller, Spencer, and Frazer, all of who helped pave the way for the modern academic study of religion. Raised and educated among Quakers (known also as the Society of Friends) and possessing no formal higher academic education, Tylor left his father's business in his early twenties and began his scholarly career doing fieldwork in the mid-1850s in Mexico under the guidance of the amateur British ethnologist (a scholar of cultural origins and functions) Henry Christy (1810-1865). In 1875, Tylor received an honorary doctorate from Oxford University where he was keeper of the Oxford University Museum (1883) and Britain's first (indeed, the first in the English-speaking world) Professor of Anthropology (1896), until his retirement in 1909. Tylor--who famously defined culture as "that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society"--held an evolutionary view concerning the development of culture and religion, arguing that animism (belief in spirits) was the earliest form of religious behavior. Despite his interest in what was then commonly known as "primitive religion" (an interest motivated by the 19th century quest for the origins of religion), unlike some of his contemporaries, Tylor argued for a "psychic unity of mankind," assuming that, despite differences in the stages of their evolutionary development, all humans (past and present) shared common cognitive functions (such as a curiosity to explain unexpected events in their environment). The goal of anthropological study, for Tylor, was to develop a framework in which the evolution of culture could be explained and the nature of its origins understood.

Major Works

Anahuac, or Mexico and the Mexicans, Ancient and Modern (1861)

Researches into the Early History of Mankind (1865)

Primitive Culture
(1871; the 1873 edition was divided into two volumes, The Origins of Culture and Religion in Primitive Culture)

Anthropology: An Introduction to the Study of Man and Civilization (1881)


"Scientific progress is at times most furthered by working along a distinct intellectual line, without being tempted to diverge from the main object to what lies beyond, in however intimate connexion.... My task has been here not to discuss Religion in all its bearings, but to portray in outline the great doctrine of Animism, as found in what I conceive to be its earliest stages among the lower races of mankind, and to show its transmission along the lines of religious thought."

- from E. B. Tylor, Religion in Primitive Culture (1873)

Select Web Resources on Tylor

"E. B. Tylor and the Anthropology of Religion" by Benson Saler

Secondary Literature on Tylor and Religion

Eric J. Sharpe, Comparative Religion: A History, pp. 53-58. Open Court, 1986.

Brian Morris, The Anthropological Study of Religion: An Introductory Text, pp. 98-102. Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Walter Capps, Religious Studies: The Making of a Discipline, pp. 78-86. Fortress Press, 1995.

Malory Nye, Religion: The Basics, pp. 102-3. Routledge, 2003.

David Daniell, "Tylor, E. B.," The Encyclopedia of Religion, 2nd edition. vol. 14, pp. 9424-9425. Macmillan Reference USA, 2005.

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