Marjorie Wheeler-Barclay argues that, although the existence and significance of the science of religion has been barely visible to modern scholars of the Victorian period, it was a subject of lively and extensive debate among nineteenth-century readers and audiences. She shows how an earlier generation of scholars in Victorian Britain attempted to arrive at a dispassionate understanding of the psychological and social meanings of religious beliefs and practices—a topic not without contemporary resonance in a time when so many people feel both empowered and threatened by religious passion—and provides the kind of history she feels has been neglected.

Wheeler-Barclay examines the lives and work of six scholars: Friedrich Max Müller, Edward B. Tylor, Andrew Lang, William Robertson Smith, James G. Frazer, and Jane Ellen Harrison. She illuminates their attempts to create a scholarly, non-apologetic study of religion and religions that drew upon several different disciplines, including anthropology, sociology, the classics, and Oriental studies, and relied upon contributions from those outside as well as within the universities. This intellectual enterprise—variously known as comparative religion, the history of religions, or the science of religion—was primarily focused on non-Christian religions. Yet in Wheeler-Barclay’s study of the history of this field within the broad contexts of Victorian cultural, intellectual, social, and political history, she traces the links between the emergence of the science of religion to debates about Christianity and to the history of British imperialism, the latter of which made possible the collection of so much of the ethnographic data on which the scholars relied and which legitimized exploration and conquest. Far from promoting an anti-religious or materialistic agenda, the science of religion opened up cultural space for an exploration of religion that was not constricted by the terms of contemporary conflicts over Darwin and the Bible and that made it possible to think in new and more flexible ways about the very definition of religion.

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