I recently read a book I should have read ages ago, The Sacred and the Profane by Mircea Eliade. I've read so many works that reference TS&TP that at moments I thought I'd read it already-but I hadn't. I'm glad I've read it now, even though I found it fairly tedious. It's a general overview of the difference between homo religiosus and "non-religious man," first of all, not a detailed history of anything, so it lacks captivating details. More importantly, I personally find the general project somewhat spurious, this business of drawing a distinction between the religious and the non-religious human, as if a thirst for the transcendent is not something essential to human nature, but is instead something tacked on to us at previous points in history, and so can be collectively shed. OK, not every individual cares about transcendence, but as a species, I think we hunger and thirst for it, though we find it in different things: art, or science, or literature, or nature, and so on.
The book also assumes a homogeneity (rather than a variety) of religious experience, asserting that certain uniform and fairly rudimentary attributes are what makes one alive to the sacred, and that absence of these attributes makes one, by necessity, profane. For instance, Eliade seems to believe that one cannot be truly invested and alive to the sacred without a belief in a fairly anthropomorphic god. He asserts that homo religiosus
further believes that life has a sacred origin and that human existence realizes all of its potentialities in proportion as it is religious-that is, participates in reality. The gods created man and the world, the culture heroes completed the Creation, and the history of all these divine and semidivine works is preserved in the myths....
It is easy to see all that separates this mode of being in the world from the existence of a nonreligious man. First of all, the nonreligious man refuses transcendence, accept the relativity of "reality," and may even come to doubt the meaning of existence. [Wow! How utterly, utterly secular, to doubt the meaning of existence! No religious man ever did that, and if a religious man did, the religious culture around him would eschew and erase the question. There's no way, for instance, that a religious text could include the story of a man who feels so cursed and afflicted by God that even his wife and some of his friends suggest that he "curse God and die," like Job, or statements like "vanity of vanity, thus sayeth the preacher; all is vanity and vexation of spirit," like Ecclesiastes.] The great cultures of the past have not been entirely without nonreligious men, and it is not impossible that such men existed even on the archaic levels of culture, although as yet no testimony to their existence has come to light. But it is only in the modern societies of the West that nonreligious man has developed fully (202-203).
I don't buy it. I prefer Karen Armstrong, who argues that "human beings are spiritual animals" and have been since their earliest days. "Men and women started to worship gods as soon as they became recognizably human...not simply because they wanted to propitiate powerful forces" she writes, but in order to
[express] the wonder and mystery that seem always to have been an essential component of the human experience of this beautiful yet terrifying world....Like any other human activity, religion can be abused, but it seems to have been something that we have always done. It was not tacked on to a primordially secular nature by manipulative kings and priests but was natural to humanity (History of God xix).
She also points out that secular humanism is essentially a religion without gods, which tidily refutes Eliade's assumption that religion necessitates and relies on a belief in supernatural deities.
Furthermore, there's an underlying sexism in The Sacred and the Profane that irritated me. The discussion of the sacred nature of women really turned my stomach. But what made me put the book down and swear was Eliade's discussion of secret religious societies for women. He concludes it by writing, "Women's mystery associations of this type [such as the Maenads] were long in disappearing. We need only think of the witches of the Middle Ages and their ritual meetings" (195).
What the fuck! Men's mystery associations still exist in the west-the Mormon priesthood springs to mind, as does the Catholic college of cardinals. Whereas in the same part of the world, women's mystery associations were ruthlessly and intentionally eradicated several centuries ago, through vendettas against women, both because women were sometimes powerful and powerless. But Eliade concludes that "women's mystery associations were long in disappearing," as if the disappearance should have been speedier.
To be honest, the only thing I really liked about the book was the discussion of sacred landscape (which was pretty cool, actually) and a few points where Eliade said things that indicted the spiritual vacuousness of conventional Mormondom. I was recently involved in a nasty conversation about climate change with the stupid friends and family of a facebook friend. These dumb Mormons argued that because god created the earth to fulfill a specific plan, nothing could happen to the earth that was outside that plan; therefore we had no need to change our behavior in any way, shape or form-we could consume and pollute just as much as we want, and it wouldn't change at all the condition of the planet. Their statements revealed such contempt for the planet and for nature (one asshole talked about volcanoes, and commented that "mamma earth has burped up on herself throughout history, and it hasn't changed the planet much," a statement pretty loaded with disdain) that of course I thought of these people and those like them when I read Eliade's claim that Christianity has lost its sense of the sacredness of the cosmos, and that "even for a genuine Christian, the world is no longer felt as the work of God" (179).
I also valued Eliade's observation that the gods are often vicious and cruel, and that this viciousness and cruelty is a model for human behavior:
In judging a "savage" society [like our own], we must not lose sight of the fact that even the most barbarous acts and the most aberrant behavior have divine, transhuman models. To inquire why and in consequence of what degradations and misunderstandings certain religious activities deteriorate and become aberrant is an entirely different problem, into which we shall not enter here. For our purposes, what demands emphasis is the fact that religious man sought to imitate, and believed that he was imitating, his gods even when he allowed himself to be led into acts that verged on madness, depravity, and crime. (104)