Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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(1846-1894) Scots philologist, physicist, archaeologist, and biblical critic controversial for his applications of "objective" scientific analysis to the Hebrews of the Old Testament. He sought to document what he saw as the pagan origin of ancient Hebrew rituals.

Smith was a major figure in the development of the functionalist view of religion and society, being among the first theorists to suggest that religious rites are primarily social in nature and have the primary function of strengthening group solidarity. His ideas had a profound impact on Émile Durkheim and Sigmund Freud. Smith also attained notoriety for his attempts to document aspects of totemic belief in early Semitic ritual; particularly in Hebrew rites of sacrifice. In consuming the totemic animal, he contended, members of a tribal group dramatize their unity with their God. He suggested that symbols of divinity are ultimately drawn from earth symbols and/or "natural symbols," thereby anticipating the arguments of Mary Douglas (1970).

See also Functionalism

Stephen D. Glazier


M. Douglas, Natural Symbols (New York: Random House, 1970)

W. R. Smith, The Religion of the Semites (New York: Schocken, 1972 [1889]).

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