Evans-Pritchard: Mormonism and Theories of Religion VI

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.

Like Eliade, Evans-Pritchard rejected evolutionary, reductionist, and functionalist views of religion. Unlike the other thinkers we have reviewed, he did not think that the “primitive religions” of the people he studied were less logical or coherent than the “civilized nations.” He believed that religions provided a coherent world-view, even though it didn’t seem so to outsiders. For example, he uses this tolerant view to understand the logic of magic. Once the assumptions are accepted, it makes perfect sense. Although he believes it to be mistaken, he seeks to understand it from the point of view of an insider.

Does Evans-Pritchard’s view of religion as a coherent system explain aspects of Mormonism? Do our metaphysical assumption cause us to believe things that simply don’t make sense, or worse, seem irrational to outsiders? Do certain views about authority, heaven and the afterlife affect the way that many LDS understand homosexuality, feminism, or anything else that simply doesn’t make sense unless you are a Mormon?

5 comments for “Evans-Pritchard: Mormonism and Theories of Religion VI

  1. The embodiment and plurality of gods, and the preexistence of spirits come to mind as major assumptions that cause outsiders to scratch their heads, but make everything seem sensible to us. If you accept these ideas, Mormonism makes for a pretty coherent system.
    Homosexuality: “They were normal to begin with (in the preexistence), they’ve just gone bad.”
    Eternal Marriage: Why shouldn’t sex and children continue through the eternities?
    Deification: If we’re of the same stuff God is, then why not?
    Feminism: Gender differences are essential, “Lets not confuse those differences!”
    Priesthood: A finite God depends on organization and authority to maintain order in the universe.

    In conversation, my wife once flippantly said “If I have my own planet some day, then…” It struck me how outrageous that would have sounded to an outsider. Although that statement would make some Mormons squirm in their seats (usually those who like to think we are just another Christian church), if was perfectly rational given our assumptions.

  2. I don’t, really don’t want to hijack this thread and turn it into another SSM or related discussion. I just want to register an objection to the first example that Sheldon gave: though we know that homosexual acts are sinful and though that view of things certainly can only be understood from within the broader framework of LDS belief, we don’t know why people have same-sex attraction. I don’t think we can say that Mormons believe that those with same-sex attraction “have just gone bad.”

  3. “Although he believes it to be mistaken, he seeks to understand it from the point of view of an insider.” and “Does Evans-Pritchard’s view of religion as a coherent system explain aspects of Mormonism?”

    I think what Evans-Pritchard offers is a valuable way of doing philosophy of religion and religious studies in general. The idea here is not to find some common metaphysical or other assumption that unites all religion, but to ask what it means to believe such and such a thing, or what particular beliefs or practices mean to their adherents. This tries to avoid the reduction to a common system that, as you’ve noted in your previous blogs, is found in so many theorists of religion. (

    The strength of such an endeavor is that, on one level at least, one doesn’t have to be a believer or a practitioner of a religious system in order to understand it. (of course, there is understanding and there is understanding.) It takes real effort to give a description of what another believes without simply seeing it through one’s own religious frame of reference, but in terms of what it means to them. (By the way, Taylor, this is why I recommended D.Z. Phillips’ work the other day, because he deals with these issues).

    It is in not trying to understand in this way where others may misread what Latter-day Saints believe, or where we may misunderstand and misrepresent what a belief or practice means to those of another faith. So while others may not understand or see why we practice or believe what we do, if we are aware of this we can help them more clearly see our basic frame of reference or our assumptions (and where we may differ from them) when we engage in inter-religious discussions.

  4. Jim, I don’t want to get this thread off track either, but feel I should explain myself a little. I put quotations around that remark because I don’t necessarily claim it as my own. I’m actually quite sympathetic to those struggle with homosexuality. Many LDS I associate with, however, do think gays have just gone bad and have deviated from genger roles that have existed from before the world. But as you pointed out the issue is much more complicated, and those I was thinking of do not necessarily speak for Mormondom.

  5. I read this post directly after Jim’s post about Mormon weirdness. These two issues are probably related. Are Mormons weird because we have a coherent world-view that departs significantly from other dominant world views? I think so.

    I spend a lot of time thinking about worldly philosophies and theories and so they become very common to me – they sneak into my language even while at church. Yet I recognize that I stick out like a sore thumb when I start speaking “intellectually” (or however you call it) around other Church members. This is probably the same thing that happens when Mormons begin expressing their world view in a non-church setting. What they say makes sense to them, but if you’re outside the community, it appears a little odd, to say the least.

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