As Nate mentioned, I am starting my doctorate in Religious Studies this fall. In my first semester I will take a required seminar for new doctoral students Contemporary Issues in the Theory of Religion. We were given some summer reading as a preparation for this course, which included the introductory book on the subject, Seven Theories of Religion, by Daniel L. Pals. He recognizes, and I concur, that these are not all of the theories, and some important thinkers are overlooked, but seven does sound like a nice round(ish) number.
Now, if Nate feels ignorant of fields which are not his own, I feel doubly ignorant of my own field. So I would like to apply these various theories to the study of Mormonism in order to try and learn something. I hope to hear your thoughts on the strengths and weakness, and overall usefulness of these various approaches. In so doing, I will attempt to offer a theory of Mormonism in the voice of the theorist at hand. Due to the constrains of the blog format, these summaries will be of necessity brutally short, but hopefully the comments can spin out the ideas a bit more.
The first theory of religion treated by Pals is attributed to two British scholars in the late 19th c., E. B. Tylor and James Frazer. They adopted an evolutionary view of religion, wherein humans progressed from “primitive” religion to more rational thought (namely, science). For these thinkers, religion arose among primitive peoples as a means to explain the world around them. They used magic to control the forces of nature. Later, religion proper developed as people prayed to God to accomplish their goals in nature. As humanity progresses, still some primitive practices linger. Magic and pseudo-science are still practiced by many “civilized” peoples, but religion itself is simply an outmoded way of explaining the universe. Religion and magic are thus false sciences of prelogical minds to understand the forces of nature.
Such an approach to religion has been applied to 19th century Mormonism and the use of folk magic, most notably by D. Michael Quinn. Though his view of magic is slightly more subtle than Tylor and Frazer, it is not without problems. But I am less interested in 19th c. Mormonism for this project, and more interested in how this may apply to 20th c. LDS belief and practice. To what extent is Mormonism a tool for explaining the natural world, if at all? Do LDS farming communities rely on fasting and prayer to control the crop output? What about the practice of blessings of the sick? Does the theory of Tylor and Frazer about the function of religion as a pre-scientific understanding of how the world works shed light on contemporary LDS beliefs and practices?