Book review: A History of Religious Ideas Vol. I by Mirea Eliade

This is my the beginning of my attempt to read Jordan Peterson’s list of 15 books he considers central to his intellectual development, as posted on his website. I recently discovered Jordan Peterson through a recommended Youtube video after watching Jonathan Haidt’s TED talk on the moral divide between liberals and conservatives. I had heard of Jordan Peterson before in the form of a book recommendation for Maps of Meaning, but at the time, my naive religiosity made me think reading such a book would likely turn me into an atheist. My Mormonism was a closed system that didn’t allow for any outside inputs. I like to think my faith is a little more stable now, and that I can deal with real intellectual challenges.

In fact, Peterson puts a trigger warning when he introduces these twelve books. He states:

These are the most terrifying books I have encountered. In the lecture I included with this post, I discuss the suffering inextricably associated with life, attributing some of it to tragedy, the consequence of human limitation, and the remainder to evil, the conscious and malevolent attempt to worsen Being. I suggest that human beings can tolerate tragedy– even triumph over it, if they are guided by truth– but that evil is far more insidious, subtle and damaging force.

Peterson takes a very conservative view of human nature: in one of the first videos I watched by him, he comments how it’s a miracle that all these students were assembled in this classroom and weren’t actively tearing each other from limb to limb. Humans should be mostly defined by their limitations, and not by “limitless potential.” Pulling up one of my favorite books here in Jerry Z. Muller’s Conservatism: Anthology of Social and Political Thought from David Hume to the Present:

Conservatives typically contend that human moral imperfection leads men to act badly when they act upon uncontrolled impulses, and that they require the restraints and constraints imposed by institutions as a limit upon subjective impulse. Conservatives thus are skeptical of attempts at “liberation”: they maintain that liberals over-value freedom and autonomy, and that liberals fail to consider the social conditions that make autonomous individuals possible and freedom desirable.

I chose to read this book first, as I am very much interested in religious ideas and religious history. I also thought that the three follows sounded like a challenge, and I was in the mood for one.


Eliade’s History of Religious Ideas is an expansive work, if the three volumes didn’t tip you off.

Image result for hermione bit of light reading

The first volume doesn’t even get you to 0 AD. The first 50 pages or so haven’t even gotten to historical religion, dealing with prehistoric evidence of religion and ritual. When we enter history, we read about ancient Egypt, Canaan, India, Greece, Iran, and Israel. The book is very dense reading, introducing religious vocabulary at an extraordinary rate. It can be very difficult to absorb it all (and sometimes to stay awake). I particularly struggled with the chapters on the Vedic gods and India, because it was most foreign to me. On the other side of the coin, the chapters on the Greek religion and Israel were the easiest, as I already some a working knowledge.

Skepticism when historic record is sparse

When it comes to reconstructing the religion of prehistoric man, I lean towards skepticism. Eliade sometimes ran on with a lot of “it is probable”s and sometimes it sounded a little hand-wavey. In fact, Eliade seems to lean exactly in the opposite direction. He states:

Certain scholars have preferred to say nothing about the ideas and beliefs of Paleanthropians, instead of reconstructing them by the help of comparisons with the hunting civilizations. This radical methodological position is not without its dangers. To leave an immense part of the history of the human mind a blank runs the risk of encouraging the idea that during all those millennia the activity of the mind was confined to the preservation and transmission of technology. Such an opinion is not only erroneous, it is fatal to a knowledge of man.

I am fine with developing theories, as long as they are recognized as theories. I feel that for the most part, Eliade doesn’t overstate the evidence, often acknowledging a lack of consensus in the field, and offering alternate theories.

As an aside, I lean more towards Chesterton’s approach towards prehistoric man as outlined in his book Everlasting Man. It isn’t as scholarly as Eliade’s approach persay, but I think it keeps things in perspective:

Science is weak about these prehistoric things in a way that has hardly been noticed. The science whose modern marvels we all admire succeeds by incessantly adding to its data. In all practical inventions, in most natural discoveries, it can always increase evidence by experiment. But it cannot experiment in making men; or even in watching to see what the first men make. An inventor can advance step by step in the construction of an aeroplane, even if he is only experimenting with sticks and scraps of metal in his own back-yard. But he cannot watch the Missing Link evolving in his own back-yard. If he has made a mistake in his calculations, the aeroplane will correct it by crashing to the ground. But if he has made a mistake about the arboreal habitat of his ancestor, he cannot see his arboreal ancestor falling off the tree. He cannot keep a cave-man like a cat in the back-yard and watch him to see whether he does really practice cannibalism or carry off his mate on the principles of marriage by capture. He cannot keep a tribe of primitive men like a pack of hounds and notice how far they are influenced by the herd instinct. If he sees a particular bird behave in a particular way, he can get other birds and see if they behave in that way; but if he finds a skull, or the scrap of a skull, in the hollow of a hill, he cannot multiply it into a vision of the valley of dry bones. In dealing with a past that has almost entirely perished, he can only go by evidence and not by experiment. And there is hardly enough evidence to be even evidential. Thus while most science moves in a sort of curve, being constantly corrected by new evidence, this science flies off into space in a straight line uncorrected by anything. But the habit of forming conclusions, as they can really be formed in more fruitful fields, is so fixed in the scientific mind that it cannot resist talking like this. It talks about the idea suggested by one scrap of bone as if it were something like the aeroplane which is constructed at last out of whole scrapheaps of scraps of metal. The trouble with the professor of the prehistoric is that he cannot scrap his scrap. The marvellous and triumphant aeroplane is made out of a hundred mistakes. The student of origins can only make one mistake and stick to it.

Comparative religion and religious syncretism

Perhaps what makes this a “dangerous” book to Peterson to the point where he would warn his readers, is that it challenges traditionally held beliefs. One such idea is the idea of religious syncretism, that religious truth wasn’t revealed in one glorious moment to man, and that it accrued over time, often from different traditions. The idea of the resurrection wasn’t built in to Judaism or Christianity, but originated from the Zoroastrians. Israelites weren’t always monotheists. If you think in this way, it could potentially crush your paradigm of religion.

As a Mormon, I will admit to such fears– hence my apprehension at initially reading Peterson’s book. But I also feel that Mormonism has some built-in wiggle room that other traditions may lack. For instance, Mormonism’s concepts of cycles of dispensations and apostasies. Mormons quite literally believe that religion was indeed revealed to man in one glorious moment, starting with Adam. Adam was taught the gospel of Jesus Christ, was baptized, thousands of years before Christ was born. Any historical shadows or resemblances to Christianity are a result of this fact. To quote one of our sacred texts, the book of Abraham, Pharaoh is one example of a separate religious tradition preserving the form of ur-Christianity:

Pharaoh, being a righteous man, established his kingdom and judged his people wisely and justly all his days, seeking earnestly to imitate that order established by the fathers in the first generations in the days of the first patriarchal reign of Adam, and also of Noah, his father, who blessed him with the blessings of the earth, and with the blessings of wisdom, but cursed him as pertaining to his priesthood.

Hugh Nibley, the great Mormon scholar of comparative religion, used these resemblances to great effect, and some would say he sometimes went over the top. I read his book Temple and Cosmos, where he pretty much reconstructs the Latter-Day Saint temple ceremony through the use of ancient texts from the Near East. Hugh Nibley said:

Latter-day Saints believe that their temple ordinances are as old as the human race and represent a primordial revealed religion that has passed through alternate phases of apostasy and restoration which have left the world littered with the scattered fragments of the original structure, some more and some less recognizable, but all badly damaged and out of proper context…

I remember when I was serving as a missionary in Germany when we were teaching a Muslim student, my companion made the argument that Muhammed was likely a true prophet, but he either fell or later his followers succumbed to apostasy (and if you go back far enough on, you can find Hugh Nibley comparing Mormonism to Islam right in the Church’s publication, the Ensign!)

Perhaps less known to mainstream Mormons is the idea that Joseph Smith himself was a religious syncretizer. We like to think he got all his revelataions directly from God, but that wasn’t exactly what he himself claimed. He was eclectic. I particularly like this passage from Terryl Givens’ Wrestling with the Angel:

Joseph Smith said late in his ministry, “If the Presbyterians have any truth, embrace that. If the Baptists and Methodists have truth, embrace that too. Get all the good in the world if you want to come out a pure Mormon.” Elsewhere, he called it “the first and fundamental principle of our holy religion” to be free “to embrace all, and every item of truth, without limitation or without being circumscribed or prohibited by the creeds or superstitious notions of men, or by the dominations of one another.” Smith was always pushing in the direction of expansive addition rather than contracting reduction: “we don’t ask any people to throw away any good they have got we only ask them to Come & get more.”

This catalog of his liberal statements on religious truth suggests that Smith’s prophetic practice was neither the unstudied and erratic plagiarism of his caricaturists nor always the epiphany-driven receipt of “vertical revelation” imputed to him by his devoted followers. Many modern Mormons imagine a relatively linear process of doctrinal development in the church’s early years, with Smith revealing each new doctrine to the church in orderly sequence. Smith, however, viewed himself as both revelator and inspired synthesist, pulling truths not only from heaven but also from his culture, his background, and his contemporaries, as we shall see. It’s not that Smith’s attempt to reconstitute a perfect theology happened to be impaired by his humanity; his vision of prophets as flawed and fallible vessels, and of restoration as an untidy and imperfect process involving many sources, varying degrees of inspiration, and stops and starts, was itself a theological proposition with him. God’s authorship of the work of restoration was only evident if the vehicle of that restoration was conspicuously flawed like himself. In a revelation as much about striking self-disclosure as God-disclosure, he wrote of the Lord saying to him that “unto this end have I raised you up, that I might show forth my wisdom through the weak things of the earth.” 87 On another occasion he insisted, “A Prophet is not always a Prophet, only when he is acting as such.” Smith believed himself to be an oracle of God, subject to moments of heavenly encounter and the pure flow of inspiration. But he also was insatiably eclectic in his borrowings and adaptations, with an adventuresome mind, prone to speculation and fully comfortable with the trial and error of intellectual effort.

I left reading the book feeling much more informed on the history of many other religious traditions, and wanting to read even more. I want to find a more in-depth book on Zoroastrianism, especially from the perspective of a believer. I may put off reading the second volume for a while, because it is such dense stuff! But I look forward to hearing Eliad’s thoughts on Christianity proper.

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