The Real and the Significant

In “Human Existence and Sanctified Life,”[i] in particular as it relates to the modern world, Mircea Eliade seems to be suggesting that modern man, insomuch as he has become nonreligious to an extent not previously seen throughout history, is engaged in pointlessly denying something that is still fundamental to his being: his own religious instinct. For Eliade, the profane man “forms himself by a series of denials and refusals, but he continues to be haunted by the realities that he has refused and denied” (Eliade, 204). Implicit then in Eliade’s argument is that there is something very real behind historical man’s religious behavior. Modern man, insofar as he has become nonreligious, can only be denying the existence of something that is in fact really there, not unlike the manner in which many so-called “closet” homosexuals deny their own true sexuality and continue to falsely act and live out their lives as though they were of a different sexual orientation.

What then can be understood of the realities that form the object of the profane man’s denial in Eliade’s theory, and how did Eliade conclude upon the existence of such realities? The “realities” that Eliade is alluding to, the trans-human meanings associated with sacred attitudes and beliefs, are not be strictly defined by Eliade, but there seems to be little doubt to Eliade that those meanings do in any case have ontological status. Eliade in fact frequently associates religion with meaning: in his analysis of the behaviors and attitudes proper to homo religiosus, Eliade concludes that “by reactualizing sacred history, by imitating the divine behavior, man puts and keeps himself close to the gods – that is, in the real and the significant  (my emphasis) (Eliade, 202).” Although he does not spell it out in this chapter of his book, by associating man’s religious behavior in this way with “the real and the significant” it would seem that Eliade at some point in the course of his research was led to the profound conclusion that religion is not merely a fictitious product of the human imagination. By associating religious behavior with the terms “meaning,” “real” and “significant,” Eliade is implicitly suggesting that the religious man somehow possesses a level of understanding of the world not accessible to the profane man, a “superior” understanding of sorts. Although Eliade states that the “existential choice” (Eliade, 203) of the non-religious man is “not without its greatness,” he also at the same time refers to this non-religious existence as “tragic.” And while Eliade is careful not to go beyond describing the idea of an absolute reality as an object of belief for homo religioso, that is to say, something of an unconfirmed truth, he assigns to this belief the function of making the world real for homo religioso (Eliade, 203), once again associating the sacred with the real. 

Furthermore, in describing the nonreligious man’s descent from homo religioso as a “process of desacralization” (Eliade, 203), Eliade contends that nonreligious man is merely “opposing his predecessor,” that is to say homo religioso, and that this amounts to merely a denial of man’s sacred history. Eliade goes on further to say that the religious behavior of the nonreligious man’s ancestors are “still emotionally present to him, in one form or another, ready to be reactualized in his deepest being” (Eliade, 204). But even if this is indeed the case, given the shear magnitude and relative success rate of the process of desacralization observable in modern society, one might wonder for how much longer the non-religious man’s psyche will continue to house these deep-seeded religious impulses? In hypothesizing favorably in this way about the future prospects of modern man’s spiritual tendency and in assuming that such a tendency can be disguised but not altogether extinguished, can Eliade not himself be understood as ultimately having a certain belief regarding the root or origin of the emotional spark that drives man’s religious imagination? Eliade cites New Year celebrations and marriage ceremonies as evidence that even the nonreligious man continues to engage in religious behavior. According the Eliade, “the majority of the “irreligious” still behave religiously, even though they are not aware of the fact” (Eliade, 205). But what religious meaning can these forms of “merrymaking” really have for the nonreligious man who does not engage in them specifically to acknowledge their religious meaning?  How can Eliade objectively conclude on a scientific (or strictly logical) basis that there is any sacred substance to these behaviors of non-religious men?

[i] Mircea Eleade, The Sacred and the Profane :  The Nature of Religion (San Diego : A Harvest/HBJ Book, 1959), pp. 162-213.


Struggling with Incongruities

In “Map is not Territory,”[1] Jonathan Z. Smith argues that myth does not simply function as an explanation for the way things are, since some elements of myth are inconsistent with reality. Rather, the inconsistency or “error” of myth is an intentional mistake designed to produce a certain effect: “Myth is (…) a self-conscious category mistake. That is to say, the incongruity of myth is not an error, it is the very source of its power” (Smith, 299). In Smith’s view, the congruent and incongruent elements within myth interact in a spiritually constructive way: “There is delight and there is play in both the fit and the incongruity of the fit between an element in the myth and this or that segment of the world or of experience which is encountered” (Smith, 300). Indeed, for Smith, this interaction of the congruent with the incongruent triggers the religious imagination of humankind: “I would want to insist that it is precisely the juxtaposition, the incongruity between the expectation and the actuality that serves as a vehicle of religious experience” (Smith 301).

Based on this understanding of myth, Smith questions the widely-held assumption of the congruity of native thought and religion. For Smith, the assumed equation of myth with real life within primitive societies is methodologically questionable: “the categories of holism, of congruity, suggest a static perfection to primitive life which I, for one, find inhuman” (Smith, 307).  Rather, Smith sees myth functioning in much the same way amongst primitives as it does in more evolved societies – even amongst natives, the incongruity between expectation and actuality triggers a rational and creative thought process whereby these inconsistencies between the real and the ideal are acknowledged and dealt with. For Smith, myth “provides the native with an occasion for thought. It is a testing of the adequacy and applicability of native categories to new situations and data. As such, it is preeminently a rational and rationalizing enterprise, an instance of an experimental method” (Smith, 307). For Smith then, the falsely assumed congruity or static perfection of primitive life has served to conceal from scholarly consideration the native’s ability to think imaginatively: “I believe that this assumption has prevented us from seeing the craft, the capacity of thought and imagination, the impulse towards experiment that is awakened only at the point where congruency fails” (Smith, 308).

For Smith, this new understanding of the mechanics of myth calls for a redrawing of our cosmological maps. Under this new scenario, religion is no longer seen as providing the means for escaping the incongruous or “disjunctive” elements of reality. Instead, these elements are allowed to stand and are understood as the vehicles of religious experience themselves: “the dimensions of incongruity (…) suggest that symbolism, myth, ritual, repetition, transcendence are all incapable of overcoming disjunction. They seek, rather, to play between the incongruities and to provide an occasion for thought” (Smith, 309).

For Smith, religion is not a means of escaping the imperfections and injustices of the material world in order to connect with some perfect, transcendent realm. Rather, religion is a rational thought process that is triggered by the complex display of inconsistencies between the real and the ideal that we witness in our everyday lives. Our struggle to reconcile these incongruities manifests itself in the form of religious behavior. Smith therefore posits a view of religion as a fundamentally rational exercise performed by rationally-minded individuals, but does Smith go too far in rationalizing religion? Is there sufficient evidence to support Smith’s application of this theory even to primitive cultures not known to have such a capacity for thought and imagination? In other words, how are we to precisely understand Smith’s qualification of his essay as “’an exaggeration in the direction of the truth’” (Smith, 308)?

[1] Jonathan Z. Smith, 9004504928, Map is Not Territory : Studies in the History of Religion (Leiden : E. J. Brill, 1978), “Map is Not Territory,” pp. 289-309.

Notes on Elie Wiesel’s Night

In his Night, 1986 Nobel Peace Prize winning author Elie Wiesel renders a profound account of his experience as a young Jewish boy from Transylvania who was sent to Nazi concentration camps during the Second World War. In the preface to the book, Wiesel asks “did I write [this book] so as not to go mad or, on the contrary, to go mad in order to understand the nature of madness, the immense, terrifying madness that had erupted in history and in the conscience of mankind” (Night, Preface vii)? Indeed, this is a book about madness. The book, which begins with the deportation of Transylvanian Jews to the concentration camps and ends with the liberation of the camps by the Russian army, describes a degree of mental and physical torture too strong not to overtake even the most resilient of human spirits. In these circumstances, there would appear to be only two available options for the prisoners: madness or death.

One of the things that make this book so gripping is the author’s tone. Wiesel writes in short, factual sentences which convey the simple crudity of the events taking place. He describes the events from a kind of youthful, simplistic perspective, as though he was reliving them once again as a sixteen year old boy. Indeed, from the perspective of a young boy, life tends to be a quick sequence of events, allowing little time for deep reflection.

This is not to say that Night does not reflect on the meaning of the events. Quite to the contrary, in Night Wiesel artfully combines his former youthful perspective on the horrific events that he had to live through as a young boy with the ripened and profound conclusions about those events that he arrived at later in his life. Wiesel conveys the shear physical and mental brutality of the events, allowing them to speak for themselves, but also assists the reader in understanding the psychological coping mechanisms that events of this nature might trigger within the human spirit.

Weisel’s style is also effective in the way it causes the reader to feel very close to the main character and to those surrounding him. This proximity leads the reader to wonder how he/she might have reacted in those same circumstances. The reader is left feeling weak and vulnerable from this experience since, invariably, the reader cannot attribute to himself the same degree of strength and resistance displayed by Elizer (refers to the youthful Elie Wiesel, the main character in the book) and his father throughout their struggle as prisoners in the Nazi concentration camps.

It is of course not reasonable for the reader to expect to feel fit to the task of overcoming such adversity. The Holocaust constituted, to say the least, a set of extraordinary circumstances. Its victims (whether they survived or not) where pushed to the limit of human resistance and endurance. It is therefore very difficult (or impossible) for any bystander to mentally place himself in these circumstances and be able to realistically assess how he/she would have reacted. Consider the following reflection of Wiesel’s towards the end of Night, after the Nazis forced all the surviving prisoners to run over twenty kilometers without rest to flee the approaching Russian army: “We were the masters of nature, the masters of the world. We had transcended everything – death, fatigue, our natural needs. We were stronger than cold and hunger, stronger than the guns and the desire to die, doomed and rootless, nothing but numbers, we were the only men on earth” (Night, p. 87). Who could think they would be capable of this, unless they had actually lived through it?

Another key element of the effectiveness of Night as a poignant display of literary talent is the way the main characters seem to gradually lose touch with their own humanity. Each horrific incident of Nazi abuse seems to effectively distance the characters further from normal human perceptions and reactions. Towards the beginning of the narrative, the prisoners are forced to abandon their material belongings, such as their homes and their suitcases filled with their personal belongings: “it all belonged to everyone since it no longer belonged to anyone” (Night, p. 17). Then, once the prisoners had been transported to the concentration camps, where fellow prisoners would regularly “disappear” (i.e. be exterminated), this initial sense of abandonment transcends to a deeper level: “We were incapable of thinking. Our senses were numbed, everything was fading into a fog. We no longer clung to anything. The instincts of self-preservation, of self-defence, of pride, had all deserted us” (Night, p. 36). As time goes by and the numbers of casualties increase, a deep sense of apathy towards human life starts to set in: “The thousands people who died daily in Auschwitz and Birkenau, in the crematoria, no longer troubled me” (Night, p. 62). Finally, the cruel nature of the ongoing events causes Elizer, and many other victims like him, to question their own religious faith: “Blessed be God’s name? But why would I bless him” (Night, p. 67)?

Indeed, while the religious faith of the Jewish people may have proven to be quite resilient (“Jewishness” was after all the common trait of the victims, and as such it served to further bond them together in the face their common oppressor), in Night there comes a point in time when Wiesel seriously calls that faith into question, his spiritual “breaking point” if you will. It should be noted that Wiesel very carefully arrives at this profound stage of spiritual disconection; he does not precipitate it, allowing instead the sequence of events to naturally suggest it as the normal, reasonable reaction of any sane human being placed in similar circumstances. Weisel’s natural progression towards his eventual questioning of God’s role in the world is so powerful that the reader, perhaps even the devoutly religious reader, cannot help to also question, if only for a moment, why God would allow such a thing as the Holocaust to happen (other, more agnostic or atheistic readers may find themselves more deeply lodged in their ambivalence towards, or denial of, divine agency as a result of reading Night). Interestingly though, from his defiance of God Elizer gains newfound strength: “But now, I no longer pleaded for anything. I was no longer able to lament. On the contrary, I felt very strong. I was the accuser, God the accused. My eyes had opened and I was alone, terribly alone in a world without God, without man. Without love or mercy. I was nothing but ashes now, but I felt myself to be stronger than this Almighty to whom my life had been bound for so long” (Night, p. 68).

To some victims, Hitler’s awesome display of power through his successful execution of such wide-scale atrocities raises questions as to who is more powerful, God or man (i.e. Hitler)? In one of the most profound episodes of the book, Elizer is lying in a hospital bed recovering from an operation to his foot, discussing with another patient lying next to him the probability of an immanent rescue by the Red Army. Elizer’s neighboring patient is unprepared to discount Hitler’s power to still achieve his grand vision of the complete annihilation of the Jewish people: “I have more faith in Hitler than in anyone else. He alone has kept his promises, all his promises, to the Jewish people” (Night, p. 81).

Indeed, to many victims the notable absence of God during the Nazi Holocaust appears to have symbolized God’s death. To Elizer, God appeared to have died along with the innocent young child hung by the Nazis at the gallows erected at the center of the camp on day. Forced with the rest of the prisoners to walk right past the hanging corpse on the way back to their barracks, Elizer was confronted with the brutal fact of God’s death: “Behind me, I heard the same man asking: ‘For God’s sake, where is God?’ And from within me, I heard a voice answer: “Where is He? This is where – hanging here from this gallows… (Night, p.65)”

Modernity and the Holocaust

In Modernity and the Holocaust, Zygmunt Bauman contends that the Holocaust should not simply be understood as an accident along the road to modernity. Rather, Bauman argues that modernity provided the “necessary conditions” (Bauman, 13) for its undertaking. As Bauman puts it, the Holocaust was “a legitimate resident in the house of modernity” (Bauman, 17). To support this contention, Bauman suggests that the principles of rationality and efficiency which so uniquely characterize the modern era may have had, in the case of the Holocaust, some unintended consequences: “at no point of its long and tortuous execution did the Holocaust come into conflict with the principles of rationality. The ‘Final Solution’ did not clash at any stage with the rational pursuit of efficient, optimal goal-implementation” (Bauman, 17). Indeed, for Bauman, it wasn’t so much that modernity caused the Holocaust, but rather that it failed to prevent it. While its execution may have been “long and tortuous,” and while its established goal was no less inhumane than the total destruction of an entire race of human beings, with its emphasis on rational and efficient mechanisms the Holocaust was an evil rendered compatible with modern society. 

To Bauman then, the Holocaust deeply problematizes modernity. While modernity did not cause the holocaust, it did provide a fertile ground for its initial conception and subsequent expansion. As Bauman explains, “it arose out of a genuinely rational concern, and it was generated by bureaucracy true to its form and purpose” (Bauman, 17). Modernity’s strict adherence to reason and the system of bureaucracy that naturally emerges from that adherence to reason are therefore understood to be the key ingredients of that fertile ground.

In his review of Modernity and the Holocaust, titled “Modernity and Its Victims,”[1] Ravi Sundaram understands Bauman’s thesis to be that “the spread of instrumental reason with the rise of capitalism enforced a means-ends to the exclusion of morality from social action. It was this bureaucratic culture which is a condition of modern society in general, which made the holocaust possible” (Sundaram, 459). The force of instrumental reason, then, was so powerful that it managed to displace morality as a factor influencing the actions of society and of those individuals who make up that society. The alluring power of capitalism, indeed the shear “common sense” of capitalism, promoted instrumental reason to such an extent that other, less pertinent, or perhaps even interfering factors such as morality were permanently sidelined, if not forgotten altogether.  The “bureaucratic culture” that set itself into modern society as a byproduct of instrumental reason eventually took on a greater jurisdiction for itself; it became a more pervasive characteristic within society, no longer uniquely serving the interests of capitalism. The bureaucratic culture began to inform all of society’s actions and attitudes, as if morality had never even existed, or as if to adjust for a long-standing overemphasis on morality.

The key message to be had from Bauman’s thesis is not to disregard the significant deficiencies within modernity that the holocaust may be pointing to, lest we condemn ourselves to repeating our own bloody history.  Sundaram points to the fact that “the holocaust provides us with a profound insight into the consequences of the ethically blind pursuit of efficiency and goal-maximisation that informs bureaucratic culture” (Sundaram, 459). In Modernity and the Holocaust, Bauman seems to be similarly suggesting that society in its modern form has been inflicted with a form of ethical blindness. The sense of morality that might otherwise occasionally give pause to individuals and solicit their consideration of the ultimate repercussions of their actions is effectively nowhere in sight. Instead, individuals remain purely fixated on meeting the immediate objectives that have been set out for them in the most efficient possible manner.

This ethical blindness is the immediate effect of the “social production of distance” (Sundaram, 460) which in turn results from the division of labor in modern capitalist society. The functional separation of tasks which has been such an important driver for the efficiency gains that have characterized modernity has also had the undesirable side-effect of distancing each individual actor from the end-product he or she is contributing towards. With this distancing effect, moral considerations which may surround the end-products are themselves also removed from sight. As Sundaram points out, “most people involved in the holocaust simply never faced difficult moral choices” (Sundaram, 460). And as Bauman explains, “the struggle over moral issues never takes place, as the moral aspects of action are not immediately obvious or are deliberately prevented from discovery or discussion” (Bauman, 24). So, not only is the distancing itself an issue, but also the fact that ill-intentioned perpetrators of criminal acts can use such distancing to conceal the moral implications of their actions.

 Bauman’s identification of rationality, efficiency and bureaucracy as the defining characteristics of modern society are supported by the critical theory of Horkheimer and Adorno.  In “The Concept of Enlightenment,” Horkheimer and Adorno engage in a critique of the enlightenment by highlighting, among other things, its dominating tendency. As Horkheimer and Adorno’s argument goes, the main thrust of the enlightenment is the human desire to conquer its fear of the unknown through the accumulation of knowledge.  Within the context of modernity, this knowledge takes on the specific form of technology: “technology is the essence of this knowledge. It aims to produce neither concepts nor images, nor the joy of understanding, but method, exploitation of the labor of others, capital” (Horkheimer/Adorno, 2). Technology, the knowledge of modernity, is therefore understood as a particularly cold form of knowledge. It is a knowledge that is as agreeable to methodological predictability and calculability as it is weary of illusion: “for enlightenment, anything which does not conform to the standard of calculability and utility must be viewed with suspicion” (Horkheimer/Adorno, 3).

From this steadfast human determination to accumulate knowledge, we arrive at the concepts of power and domination. According to Horkheimer and Adorno, “power and knowledge are synonymous,” and “what human beings seek to learn from nature is how to use it to dominate wholly both it and human beings. Nothing else counts” (Horkheimer/Adorno, 2).

To understand nature, that is to say to explain it scientifically, is therefore to control it. But as we gain control over nature in this way, we at the same time distance ourselves from it. Say Horkheimer and Adorno, “human beings purchase the increase in their power with estrangement from that over which it is exerted” (Horkheimer/Adorno, 6). Science, with its emphasis on conceptualization and classification, inherently seeks to diminish individuality. The various objects of nature are defined and classified according to their common traits, as determined by science, and any sign of individuality or uniqueness is deemed insignificant.  This lessening in the importance attributed to individuality, even this scientific denial of individuality, accounts for man’s estrangement from nature.  Furthermore, human beings themselves suffer from the effects of this. According to Horkheimer and Adorno, “not only is domination paid for with the estrangement of humans beings from the dominated objects, but the relationship of individuals to themselves, have themselves been bewitched by the objectification of mind.” As a result, “individuals shrink to the nodal points of conventional reactions and the modes of operation objectively expected of them” (Horkheimer/Adorno, 21).

The modern social characteristics of moral distance and ethical blindness alluded to earlier in relation Bauman’s thesis seem to be directly related to this idea of an estrangement from nature put forth by Horkheimer and Adorno. As the latter two go on to explain, “individuals define themselves now only as things, statistical elements, successes or failures” (Horkheimer/Adorno, 21). This estrangement from nature has therefore led man to focus solely on his own degree of success or failure in relation to some arbitrary standard. He is able to dismiss the moral and ethical considerations associated with his actions insomuch as they do not impact his likelihood of success or failure. And as he systematically dismisses these irrelevant moral and ethical concerns, he effectively distances himself from them further and further, until he can no longer even see them at all.

It was under these circumstances that man committed the unthinkable. Capitalizing on man’s estrangement from nature and his resulting moral blindness, the Nazi holocaust enterprise proceeded towards the Final Solution with all the legitimacy and coordinated efficiency of modern technological industry.

[1] Sundaram, Ramy, “Modernity and Its Victims,” Economic and Political Weekly, February 29, 1992.

What is Religion?

In Chapter 6 of his Conceptualizing Religion: Immanent Anthropologists, Transcendent Natives, and Unbounded Categories, Benson Saler presents “a prototype approach” in relation to our use and understanding of the category religion. According to this approach, the student of religion’s frame of reference is determined by prototypes, that is to say models or best representations of the object of analysis (Saler, 198). The student of religion, informed by his/her own cultural setting, develops conceptual biases which subsequently lay the groundwork for the formation of certain prototypes, which then constitute the student’s general frame of reference with respect to religion, and inform his/her subsequent analysis of religious phenomena. In particular, Saler notes that Western students of religion employ Western prototypes in their approach to non-Western societies: “ideas about the natures and histories of religions in the West serve as what the dictionary calls prototypes – as the first or original models – guiding anthropologists in their development of models of religion among non-Western peoples (Saler, 200).”

For Saler, the universal predicates of the essentialist tradition are not applicable to religious studies. Instead, Saler proposes to view religion as “a network of predicates, criss-crossing and overlapping in their applicability to phenomena that we variously deem better and less-good exemplifications of the category religion (Saler, 201).” For Saler then, there are no scientifically observable religious traits or characteristics that should precisely define what constitutes a religion as such: “the appeal to prototypes eschews the sort of approach that pivots on what Fillmore (1976:24) calls ‘a checklist of criterial properties,’ a list of features that an object supposedly must satisfy if it is to be deemed properly labeled by some word (Saler, 205).” Rather, the goodness of fit of any particular phenomenon associated with religion is determined subjectively by the student of religion in relation to his/her established prototypes: “’By prototypes of categories,’ Rosch writes, ‘we have generally meant the clearest cases of category membership defined operationally by people’s judgements of goodness of membership in the category (1978:36) (Saler, 206).” For Saler, prototype effects, that is to say the variations in individual judgment of the degree of resemblance of any given phenomenon to the category religion, do not in and of themselves prove that “membership in the category is graded and that the structure of the category is given by the prototype effects (Saler, 205).” To the extent that researchers may use different prototypes in their approach to the study of religion, the resulting prototype effects should only be understood as the natural result of the interaction of these various prototypes. They reveal the prototypical basis of the approach, not necessarily the structure of the category itself.

What then can be known for certain about the category religion? Saler’s prototype approach seems to imply that the conceptual understanding of the category religion has very much to do with the particular predisposition of the one attempting to define it, and as such there is no single right answer to the question “what is religion?” Under Saler’s method, the variety of prototypes held by individual scholars and informing their work results in a mass of phenomena indiscriminately deemed predicable to religion, and fails to assist in narrowing down the category to anything specific: “While all of the elements that we deem to pertain to the category religion are predicable of that category, not all of them are predicable of all the phenomena that various scholars regard as instantiations of religion (Saler, 225).” While this approach may be suitable for Saler, who understands the ultimate purpose of scholars of religion as wanting “to say interesting things about human beings rather than about religions and religion (Saler, 226),” it is not especially helpful for scholars who, unlike Saler, are more interested in examining the ontological status of religion itself, and tend to be left unsatisfied with religious phenomena explained solely in anthropological terms. Prototype theory is helpful in understanding the mindset of students of religion and in uncovering whatever conceptual biases may be at play in their work, but at the same time it seems to ignore questions surrounding the ultimate status of religious phenomena considered independently from those individual biases.