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Peer Reviewed

Marjorie Wheeler-Barclay. The Science of Religion in Britain, 1860-1915. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2010. x+311 pp. $45 (c).

Sebastian Lecourt

Rev. by Sebastian Lecourt
Marjorie Wheeler-Barclay’s The Science of Religion in Britain, 1860-1915 arrives as a welcome addition to the scholarship on Victorian religious thought. For, with a few exceptions such as Robert Ackerman’s The Myth and Ritual School, there has not yet been a concise, focused study of those Victorian intellectuals who sought to explain religion as a generic feature of human society. Although much has been written on figures such as E. B. Tylor and F. Max Müller, the interdisciplinary and indeed pre-disciplinary nature of their work has often seen them relegated to the status of supporting characters in longer histories of anthropology (George Stocking), comparative religion (Eric Sharpe and Tomoko Masuzawa), or mythography (Bruce Lincoln). Wheeler-Barclay’s book, in contrast, takes the study of religion as its subject and Victorian Britain as its defining context.
In her introduction, Wheeler-Barclay sketches several overlapping contexts for the chapters that follow. The Victorian science of religion, she argues, reflected the emergence of a new class of secular intellectuals “who actively campaigned for a diminution of clerical influence in British culture and who sought to promote the intellectual prestige and academic recognition of the natural sciences at the expense of Christian theology” (3). It also, she suggests, served as a medium for the “interrogation of the Victorians’ own culture” and “the critique of specific European—and often Christian—practices” (6). Yet her ultimate claim is that the Victorian science of religion pointed toward “the continued strength of religion in the lives of Victorian readers and audiences” (5) becoming “an alternative locus of discourse about religious issues” (14) that “enabled readers and audiences to participate more fully in the new culture of ‘religious experiment’.” In other words, the Victorian project of accounting for religion in purely descriptive terms reflected what Charles Taylor has described as a distinctly modern way of relating to religion as one possible site of human commitment among many.
The individual chapters that comprise Wheeler-Barclay’s study are written in the idiom of intellectual biography, an approach that can sometimes lead to atomization but that here proves enormously effective, given the sheer amount of intellectual and personal exchange between Wheeler-Barclay’s major figures. The chapter on Max Müller follows Müller’s career from his early philological studies with Schelling and Bopp to his subsequent rise as an academic celebrity at Oxford, and traces the tension that runs throughout his work between his fascination with language’s autonomous growth and his claim that such growth had historically corrupted religious thought. The chapter on Tylor explores how his anthropological account of religion inverted Müller’s essentially Deist values: primitive rituals and fantastic myths, Tylor argued, were not a linguistic distortion of humankind’s “sense of the infinite” but were in fact the raw material out of which all religion had originated. Wheeler-Barclay next turns to Tylor’s main disciple, the London man of letters Andrew Lang, who read Tylor’s model romantically, using the idea that religion was a survival of savage psychology to defend the value of imaginative literature from the earliest fairy tales to the adventure novels of Robert Louis Stevenson and H. Rider Haggard. The chapter on William Robertson Smith explores how Smith moved away from Tylor’s intellectualist conception of religion and toward an understanding of religion as a basis for social organization—setting the stage for Wheeler-Barclay’s last two figures, James Frazer and James Ellen Harrison, who essentially combined the collectivism of Smith with the romanticism of Lang. Frazer deepened Tylor’s rationalistic model of cultural evolution by suggesting how primitive thought-patterns continued to animate popular culture and religion. Harrison, meanwhile, displayed an even stronger attraction to the irrational and collective aspects of religion, anticipating the work of Émile Durkheim by portraying both as essentially redemptive forces in modern society.
Throughout her study, Wheeler-Barclay pays careful attention to the institutions that supported such theorizing in the decades before there were departments of anthropology: general-interest reviews such as the Quarterly and the Fortnightly, learned societies such as the Folklore Society, and congresses such as the World Parliament of Religions at Chicago in 1893. She also gives the reader a rich sense of the literary life of Victorian anthropology, which saw figures such as Lang simultaneously theorize anthropology and literature and thus establish working models not just for later modernists but for contemporaries such as Stevenson and Tennyson.
If The Science of Religion in Britain has a limitation it is that it remains so focused upon anthropology. “[T]he history of the Victorian science of religion,” Wheeler-Barclay reminds us, “cannot be equated with the history of anthropology during the same period” (9) —yet the story she tells is essentially that of how the reaction against Müller’s idealistic account of language and religion gave impetus to a tradition that rooted religion in what Tylor called “culture, or civilization” and would eventually see itself institutionalized as academic anthropology in the 1890s. What gets left out of this narrative are the other lines of inquiry that emerged under the label of the “science of religion” during the nineteenth century. There was, for instance, the protracted argument about race and its relationship to religious systems that preoccupied figures such as James Cowles Prichard and Robert Knox during the 1840s and ’50s. More importantly, there was the enterprise that came to be called “comparative religion,” which sought to study religion through the comparative analysis of philosophical doctrines, sacred texts, and the lives of great founder-figures. Where Tylor’s followers treated religion as a collective outgrowth of society as a whole, texts such as F. D. Maurice’s The Religions of the World and Their Relations to Christianity (1847), Müller’s Introduction to the Science of Religion (1873), and Andrew Fairbairn’s Religion in History and in Modern Life (1893) envisioned something of a humanistic ecumenical theology that would afford neutral terms for inter-religious dialogue. Wheeler-Barclay notes figures such as Maurice and Fairbairn as influences or contexts, but a fully-fledged account of how their discourse interacted with that of Tylor and the anthropologists remains to be written.
Ultimately, though, Wheeler-Barclay has been wise in picking her battles—for the tradition of comparative religion was highly diffuse, growing out of European romanticism and attracting the energies of such diverse figures as Abraham Kuenen in the Netherlands, Otto Pfleiderer in Germany, and Ernest Renan in France. In contrast, the evolutionary anthropology on which Wheeler-Barclay focuses was firmly anchored in the conjectural history of the Scottish Enlightenment and bore fruit as a distinctly British approach to studying religion. This gives her narrative a concentration that many intellectual histories lack, and will make her study an absorbing and pleasurable read for students of anthropology, religious studies, and Victorian literature and culture.
Sebastian Lecourt is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Brandeis University, where he teaches nineteenth-century British literature.  His current book manuscript, Cultivating Belief: Religion, Anthropology, and the Secular Imagination, 1830-1910, explores the relationship between the anthropology of religion and aesthetic thought – particularly the idea of self-cultivation – in Victorian Britain.  His articles have appeared in Victorian Studies and Victorian Literature and Culture.