Understanding Religion

I’d been interested in religion and mythology long before 2004, when I first read this opening page of Mircea Eliade’s History of Religious Ideas. But from that day until now I have still not come across so brief and powerful a statement about why the study of religion is important, whether for scholars or believers, or for those who are both. All that is good about religion, and all that can poison religious belief, is suggested here; and indeed that is the power of religion, that God and atrocity are not on flip-sides but likely the same side of the coin:


For the historian of religions, every manifestation of the sacred is important: every rite, every myth, every belief or divine figure reflects the experience of the sacred and hence implies the notions of being, of meaning, and of truth.

      As I observed on another occasion, “it is difficult to imagine how the human mind could function without the conviction that there is something irreducibly real in the world; and it is impossible to imagine how consciousness could appear without conferring a meaning on man’s impulses and experiences. Consciousness of a real and meaningful world is intimately connected with the discovery of the sacred. Through experience of the sacred, the human mind has perceived the difference between what reveals itself as being real, powerful, rich, and meaningful and what lacks these qualities, that is, the chaotic and dangerous flux of things, their fortuitous and senseless appearances and disappearances.”

      In short, the “sacred” is an element in the structure of consciousness and not a stage in the history of consciousness. On the most archaic levels of culture, living, considered as being human, is in itself a religious act, for food-getting, sexual life, and work have a sacramental value. In other words, to be—or rather, to become—a man signifies being “religious.”

      – Mircea Eliade, A History of Religious Ideas, Volume 1: From the Stone Age to the Eleusinian Mysteries, tr. Willard R. Trask