Week 3: Discussion Forum Intellectualism and Hinduism continued

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The Reading and Study questions for this session focus on Pals’s chapter on Tylor and Frazer, two early theorists of the “scientific” study of religion. Besides being of historic importance in their own right, their work is used by Pals to frame the theorists who follow in the book. So it’s a really good idea to get the big picture of what they are about. Since some students reported delays in acquiring the Pals book, you will find the chapter posted as a PDF in the module.

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Remember that the “Reading and Discussion Questions” are designed to call your attention to issues particularly relevant to the topics for the week. Use them wisely, and not as “questions I have to answer” as if you should be going back and looking for answers to the questions. Try reading without the questions the first time to get an entirely unencumbered initial take. Since the questions usually run in sequence through each chapter of Pals, you might then read again with the questions in hand, where your attention is called to particular aspects of things. It may be wise to read again as your classmates raise problems, make interpretations, and debate issues. (If you do things that way, of course you won’t ever be fully finished with the material; you understanding will always be in process, as it should be.)

Two Tortured Issues

Huston Smith points to two tortured issues about Hinduism, which he talks about but does not attempt to resolve. The first is whether Hinduism ought to be thought of as Polytheistic or Monotheistic. The other is the extent to which personal identity is preserved through the cycle of rebirths – especially at its conclusion. What is it that gives rise to each of these issues? Why does it matter which way each turns out, if it does?


Pals issues an important caution about running to a dictionary for a definition of the word ‘religion’. Defining, he claims, is linked to explaining. What does he mean by that and why is it such an important disclaimer?


What is the doctrine of “survivals”? How is it connected to the idea of intellectual evolution?


Can the study of contemporary tribal societies shed light on ancient history? Or vice versa? In particular, on what assumptions would it seem useful to be explaining the origin of religion by studying contemporary tribal, or “primitive” societies? (By the way, this question is not a ‘no-brainer’.)

Daniel L. Pals: Nine Theories of Religion

Chapter One: Animism and Magic — E. B. Tylor and J.G. Frazer

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