Clifford Geertz is the last thinker discussed in the series here. This is not necessarily to imply that his approach is the best. However, his understanding of religion as a cultural system may be especially useful for understanding Mormonism and Mormon identity.
E. E. Evans-Pritchard is one of the most important anthropologists of the last century. Unlike many of his predecessors (and contemporaries), he actually went to live with the people he studied and meticulously detailed their beliefs and practices. If he teaches us nothing else, it is that close research is vital to understanding religion.
Unlike the other thinkers we have reviewed so far, Mircea Eliade was a religious person himself. Perhaps for this reason his sympathetic approach to religion has been extremely well accepted by Mormon scholars. When reading his books for the first time, I couldn’t help but feel a strong kinship with him, as if his interpretation of religion was written about Mormonism itself. I once advocated in an EQ lesson that Eliade was essential reading for all Mormons.
My titles were too long and hard to distinguish in the “Recent Comments” section, so I have switched the order around. The next theory in this series is that of Marx, just in time for the lifting of the ban on socialism! Like the others, Marx’s theory is reductionist. As a former Marxist myself, I find this particular kind of reductionism unpersuasive. However, this theory of religion became more than just a theory. For a good part of the 20th century a huge portion of the earth’s population subscribed to this theory. For this reason alone it derserves to be seriously considered.
I have been thinking about the international church lately. This is a field that has practically been ignored by LDS and non-LDS observers alike. This is pretty sad since we are growing so much more quickly internationally than domestically. There is a marked increase in attention paid to such areas by church leadership, but since we have really only begun this process of introspection, we have a long way to go. I have two thoughts on the international church right now:
This follows up on the previous entries in this series here and here. Emile Durkheim is one of the most important founders of modern sociology. He is also one of the most important figures in the study of religion. Like Tylor, Frazer, and Freud, his theory of religion is also reductionist. It seeks to explain religion by pointing to something other than religion itself.
This is the second installment in this series, begun here. Freud has had a huge impact on thought in the 20th century. He was a truly revolutionary thinker, to such an extent that the statement “We are all Freudians now” certainly rings true. Among the many subjects he treated, religion was a particular interest for him. He dealt with it in three books, Totem and Taboo, Future of an Illusion, and Moses and Monotheism.
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.
I recently finished Jon Krakauer’s book about Fundamentalist Mormons, called Under the Banner of Heaven: The Story of a Violent Faith (I know, I know, I am about a year behind in my reading list). The book was a fascinating read, though often frustrating for its reductionism, historical inaccuracies, and sometimes sophomoric view of religion. However, he does seem to make an interesting point about what I like to call the Anarchy of Revelation.