The Eternal Return: Mircea Eliade’s Homo Religiosus and the Cognitive Science of Religion

CSS research fellow Jafe Arnold speaks at Amsterdam religious studies conference 

sealBy: Jafe Arnold

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On January 23rd, 2018 CSS research fellow Jafe Arnold delivered a presentation entitled “The Eternal Return: Mircea Eliade’s Homo Religiosus and the Cognitive Science of Religion” at the “Religionism and Historicism” mini-conference in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Organized by the University of Amsterdam’s Religious Studies and Western Esotericism Masters programs, in which Arnold is a student, the conference sought to address the theoretical and practical problems peculiar to the “religionist” and “historicist” approaches to the academic study of religious and esoteric currents.

Arnold’s talk focused on two case studies in this context that are relevant to the research of the Center for Syncretic Studies – the theories of the 20th century Romanian scholar of religion, Mircea Eliade, and the relatively new, interdisciplinary field of the Cognitive Science of Religion (CSR). 

One of the Center for Syncretic Studies’ chief spheres of research is the relationship between different paradigms of understanding human religiosity, their reflections in intellectual discourse, and the possibilities of – as our mission statement says – “promoting an interdisciplinary approach which seeks to develop theory from unique combinations of ideas while also preserving space for and appreciating the utility of established orthodoxies.” As our Center’s name suggests, we are interested in syncretic perspectives on different schools of thought otherwise separated by time and ideological paradigms, especially in relation to the global “de-secularization” process which we believe is a pivotal, defining experience of the present era with profound implications for everything from scholarship to socio-political movements and geopolitics. The reconsideration of Eliade and the rise of CSR can be distinguished within this context of de-secularization. 

The ideas of Mircea Eliade are of interest to the Center not only because they investigated religion as an aspect of human consciousness which might transcend narrow temporal and ideological parameters, but also because Eliade explicitly sought, as we do, to present ideas in a clear and approachable way to an intelligent public. In this spirit, we have reproduced Arnold’s talk below – unedited – in the tense and format in which it was delivered. Furthermore, Eliade is a thinker whose ideas cannot be avoided in any exploration of human understandings of religion in modernity and post-modernity, i.e., those paradigms which we at the Center are engaged in soberly analyzing from a transdisciplinary vantage point. 

The same might be said of the Cognitive Science of Religion, in which we are also profoundly interested as a new field promising unprecedented insights into human psychology, cognition, and evolution, which we believe can critically engage existing theories, as well as shed light on why God and other transcendent phenomena have been an inseparable part of the human mind and humans’ understanding of the surrounding cosmos since time immemorial. Indeed, both Eliade and CSR seek to study this Homo religiosus, albeit from different angles, with different methodologies, and with different assumptions. 

On this note, we are proud to publish below Arnold’s critical discussion of Eliade and CSR as one such instance of syncretic inquiry, and we encourage wide discussion. 





Hello everyone,

As should be clear by now, our conference today is meant to provide critical insights into the religionist and historicist tendencies in the study of religion in general and Western Esotericism in particular. I would like to add a new dimension to this discussion based on two case studies – the theories of Mircea Eliade and the Cognitive Science of Religion – in order to see what new light they might shed on this question, and what dilemmas we face in the scholarly study of religion. Hence the title of my panel for you today: “The Eternal Return: Mircea Eliade’s Homo Religiosus and the Cognitive Science of Religion.”

I did not choose Eliade arbitrarily, because Eliade was one of the most influential scholars of religion in the 20th century, and specifically in the dialectic with which we’re dealing today, he is often treated as the epitome or paradigm of religionism, which is the search for an inner truth of religion that transcends history and historical manifestations of religious beliefs or experiences. Eliade ontologized religion as such, and he was a major figure of the Eranos group in the mid 20th century that shaped religionism as we know it today. Eliade’s most famous work, The Myth of the Eternal Return, includes a manifesto against historicism or, as Eliade called it, the “terror of history.” Eliade proposed what he called Religionswissenschaft – which has been translated or explicated as the “phenomenology and history of religions” or “religious hermeneutics.” [1] We will see shortly what exactly Eliade meant by this, and what it means to us.

Moshe Idel has distinguished three dimensions of Eliade’s corpus – his academica, or theories of religion and the sacred, his literaria, or fictional works which often presented his ideal sacred world, and his personalia, or personal correspondences, journals, and so on which present how Eliade viewed and how he wanted others to view his works [2]. To understand Eliade’s place in religionism, today we’ll look at three central works of his academica: his 1954 The Myth of the Eternal Return: Cosmos and History, his 1959 The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion, and his 1969 The Quest: History and Meaning in Religion.

Eliade’s thesis in The Eternal Return is that the whole point of religiosity as a mode of being is to avoid history, to constantly regenerate the cycles and the perennial and primordial truths of sacred narratives. Eliade illustrates this eternal return with hundreds of examples from both so-called primitive and so-called developed religious systems from throughout time and space. Interestingly enough, we might note on the side, his systematization of religious ideas and practices nearly perfectly fits Antoine Faivre’s seminal four intrinsic characteristics of esoteric spirituality [3]. In my opinion, this is no coincidence, because in employing a vast number of examples separated by time and space, Eliade was trying to get to the inner “esoteric” truth of all religion and categorize such as the sacred, which operates according to the logic of his “eternal return.” In Eliade’s own words: “objects or acts acquire a value, and in so doing become real because they participate…in a reality that transcends them.” [4]

This transcendent reality of the eternal return is contrasted by the “terror of history,” or a meaningless progression of profanely-perceived events in which, having lost a sacred narrative of regeneration and an eternal apperception, humans ultimately lose their own agency to make history. Modern, historical man, or profane man, is therefore a helpless cog in a machine of purposeless chronological drift. The opposite of this was best embodied in what Eliade called “archaic man” or “traditional man” who “tends to set himself in opposition, by every means in his power, to history, regarded as a succession of events that are irreversible, unforeseeable, possessed of autonomous value.”[5] This archaic man opposes history and strives towards the eternal return. “Whether he abolishes it periodically, whether he devaluates it by perpetually finding transhistorical models and archetypes for it, whether, finally, he gives it a metahistorical meaning (cyclical theory, eschatological significations, and so on), the man of the traditional civilizations accorded the historical event no value in itself…”[6] 

But what exactly is the essence of this eternal return? In what terms does this opposition between the eternal and the historical in humanity manifest itself? This is the subject of Eliade’s The Sacred and the Profane, in which Eliade’s thesis is that there are two worlds, two types of civilizations, two narratives, or two types of humans – the sacred world and homo religiosus, and the profane world with profane, historical man. In Eliade’s words: “sacred and profane are two modes of being in the world, two existential situations assumed by man in the course of his history…In the last analysis, the sacred and profane modes of being depend upon the different positions that man has conquered in the cosmos.”[7] The sacred, in this sense, is an “element of human consciousness” that contrasts historical consciousness. It is here that we encounter Eliade’s program for Religionswissenschaft: “Our purpose is to bring out the specific characteristics of the religious experience, rather than to show its numerous variations and the differences caused by history.” In other words, studying religion as a varying historical, mutable phenomenon is ultimately irrelevant insofar as, again, I’ll let Eliade qualify his approach here: “We realize the validity of comparisons between facts pertaining to different cultures” but “all these facts arise from a single type of behavior, that of homo religiosus.”[8] It is homo religiosus, his world of the sacred, and his rasion d’etre of the eternal return which ought to be studied as the essence of religion, which is irreducible to history.

But is this still relevant in historical modernity ruled by the “terror of history”? Eliade answers that the sacred never disappears, even in the midst of profane modernity, which has either replaced the sacred with profane narratives or in which the sacred is camouflaged behind secular shells and from time to time irrupts into human consciousness.

Eliade terms the irruption of the sacred “hierophany” which he sees not only in all religious experiences, but also lurking in the depths of supposedly profane phenomena. After all, since the sacred is a natural, universal element of human consciousness,  it can never fully disappear without humans disappearing altogether. Eliade believes, however, that studying the sacred touches the very limits of scholarship. Therefore, he writes at the end of his work: “Here the considerations of the historian of religions end. Here begins the realm of problems proper to the philosopher, the psychologist, and even the theologian.”[9]

So what can so-called “historians of religion” do? In his The Quest: History and Meaning in Religion, Eliade says that the sum history of religions is “a series of ‘messages’ waiting to be deciphered and understood. The interest in such ‘messages’ is not exclusively historical…they disclose fundamental existential situations…” [10] Here Eliade adds an important qualification: “there is no such thing as a ‘pure’ religious datum, outside of history…But admitting the historicity of religious experience does not imply that they are reducible to non-religious forms of behavior.”[11] Eliade is even clearer when he states later: “We must not confuse the historical circumstances which make a human existence what it actually is with the fact that there is such a thing as a human existence…In other words, the historicity of a religious experience does not tell us what a religious experience ultimately is.”[12] We can summarize: the historian of religions’ job is to demonstrate the existence of the sacred and the eternal return in human actions, which are recorded in history, but their ultimate meaning is beyond history.

Here we can see crystal clear that Eliade’s “the sacred” and “eternal return” exhibit religionism as such. Here we have religion ontologized in itself as the sacred, made autonomous as its own meta-category underlying the meaning of human existence, and here the study of the history of religion is not of religions as manifested in historical circumstances, but their very nature of transcending profane, ephemeral historical conditions.

How might we contextualize this imperative of Eliade’s? Wouter J. Hanegraaff, Moshe Idel, and other scholars have suggested that Eliade’s narrative is a reflection of his own psychology, his own worldview, and his own experiences. In Hanegraaff’s assessment, this is even endemic of a lack of methodology on Eliade’s part, instead being a kind of therapeutic psychological complex cushioned by eclectically selected historical data.[13] Other scholars have suggested that Eliade’s theories were immensely indebted to the 20th century esoteric current known as Traditionalism, while Bryan Rennie has argued that Eliade’s concept of the “sacred” and hierophany is consonant with Eastern Orthodox Christian concepts with which Eliade was raised.[14] In our context, Eliade clearly belongs to the religionist tendency of scholarship.

But regardless of whether these contextual markers are relevant or if this is a heuristic way of approaching Eliade, what is clear is that Eliade is operating with or pursuing what I would call methodological gnosticism. His data, evidence, analyses, and theses are chosen and unified by a quest for the sacred in spite of the “terror of history”, against the bland historicization which for him deprives religion of any meaning. In the best cases, Eliade’s approach produced extremely interesting comparative studies and demonstrated the importance of religion to human psychology; in other cases, it was an eclectic attempt at affirming what could in itself be considered a specific perennial religious worldview reified throughout history, rather than a scholarly category.

If Eliade is operating with methodological gnosticism, then historicism, as advocated in the study of religion and esotericism by Hanegraaff, advocates methodological agnosticism, or an approach which neither affirms nor denies claims of truth or meaning in religion, but says that the only “truth” that is accessible to scholars is the historical development of ideas which we can outline and try to understand.[15] Here we are left with an immensely important conundrum which forms the essence of the historicism vs. religionism debate. Are religion and history opposed to each other? If religion according to Eliade is a transhistorical value, and historicism is limited to chronologies of change, then how can we ever even try to understand religion without either reducing it or ontologizing it?

An extremely interesting attempt at bridging this gap is one of the newest trends in the study of religion – the Cognitive Science of Religion, or CSR. My introduction of CSR here is based on several sources – James A. Van Slyke’s 2011 The Cognitive Science of Religion [16], Edward Slingerland and Joseph Bulbulia’s 2011 “Evolutionary Science and the Study of Religion” [17], Jesper Sorensen’s 2017 “Western Esotericism and the Cognitive Science of Religion” [18], and the contents of the course, “The Science of Religion”, taught by Drs. Slingerland and Shariff and hosted by the University of British Columbia which I took in spring 2017. 

The Cognitive Science of Religion emerged in the late 20th century and has since developed to be one of the fastest and widest growing endeavors in the study of religion. CSR is predicated on the thesis that religion is a natural phenomenon, and, as follows: “there are only two explanations for design in nature: a person made it, or design is the result of evolutionary dynamics”, and CSR therefore seeks to explain “how evolutionary dynamics affect the complex and varying systems that express religious traits in different human populations.”[19] CSR argues that religion is natural to humans since “a powerful, yet ultimately empirically indefensible, sense of ultimate ‘meaning’ or cosmic narrative is a basic human cognitive default.”[20] CSR has produced numerous theories on the naturalness of religion, such as explorations of mind-body dualism, or the natural cognitive intuition that the mind or soul is separate from the body; hyperactive agency detection, which is the human tendency to sense the presence of entities where there are none; or, to give a third example, the hypothesis of minimal counterintuition, which says that religious concepts are a combination of intuitive and counter-intuitive elements that best match the human cognitive architecture.

CSR therefore operates with “methodological naturalism,” and from the very beginning opts for a wide-net definition of religion – in which religion is “best seen as a radial or prototype category anchored by a central theme or cluster of central features,” or, more specifically, as systems of “belief and practice that revolve around commitments to supernatural, anthropomorphic beings (‘gods’).”[21]

CSR has also come around to addressing the question of culture. According to Jesper Sorensen and James A. Van Slyke, two main schools of CSR have evolved, one of which, the “Standard Model,” has been criticized for “ignoring the effects of the cultural milieu on cognitive processing.”[22] It sees religion as an evolutionary by-product which only became natural out of an accident or random mutation in human evolution. So this school tends to focus exclusively on genetic and selective evolutionary processes as functionalist explications of religion. It is essentially causally reductionist.

The other school operates with what Slinglerland calls “cultural co-evolution”, which posits that genes and culture co-evolve, and at some points cultural development can take on a logic and momentum all its own. This means that evolutionary psychology and cognitive science are necessary starting points, but ultimately offer an abnormal picture of the human mind and religion if they ignore cultural variables and processes.

We can summarize CSR’s main postulates as the following: religion is natural, therefore religion should be studied naturalistically. Naturalistic data is necessarily empirical, and empirical data is cumulative. This means that, hypothetically, closed-circuit theories of religion such as Eliade’s might be circumvented by gathering data which can be naturalistically analyzed according to the scientific method. Recognizing the cultural dimension of humans and religion means that the sciences must link with up with the humanities in an initiative that Slingerland promotes as “consilience.” We’ll return to the questions raised by this approach later.

Here I’d like to point out some convergences between CSR and Eliade in the context of religionism vs. historicism.

The first is that for both Eliade and CSR, religion is a universal category – for Eliade it is the sacred, for CSR it is a natural evolutionary phenomenon. Both also work with definitions of religion that are paradigmatic or prototypical as opposed to tuned to historical constructions, deconstructions, deductions, or inductions.

Secondly, both Eliade and CSR’s methodologies have a teleological dimension. For Eliade, the telos of investigating the sacred is finding its non- or even anti-historical truth. For CSR, it is – at least in the Standard Model – determining the evolutionary potential of religion as a product of natural history which serves certain evolutionary ends.

Thirdly, one of CSR’s main raisons d’etre or critiques of existing religious studies is that such lacks cumulative scholarship. According to Slingerland, different theories of religion are thrown around without any set framework of indices for studies to build upon each other. In other words, CSR wants to put the study of religion on a “scientific” basis based on its wide-net definition of religion which is seen as most conducive to gathering data. An interesting parallel can be found in Eliade, who, for example in his A History of Religious Ideas volumes, sought to develop a massive collection of data regarding the constants and changes in concepts of the sacred with regards to material development. It’s important to note here that there is no room in Eliade’s framework for different “theories” of religion – there is only the sacred for which the maximal evidence needs to be collected and interpreted. The same can actually be said of CSR. By adopting a generic “radial category” of religion, CSR is interested in amassing empirical experiments to affirm the starting point of religious cognition, not reconstructing what such a thing as religion might be beyond its psychological, cognitive foundations. This, of course, brings us back to the dichotomy of either ontologizing or reducing religion.

Fourthly, both CSR And Eliade can be said to be rooted in specific ideologies or worldviews. Eliade’s work can be identified as a case study in religionism, or the study of religion for revealing a universal or inner truth. CSR can be seen as a kind of “scientism”, a product of extreme Enlightenment assumptions as to the nature of the world and human beings. In effect, I would argue that both work with certain metaphysical presumptions. Eliade’s metaphysics is that of the sacred; CSR’s is that there is no other reality beyond natural designs as manifested in human evolution. Indicatively enough in this vein, Bryan Rennie has argued that the Cognitive Science of Religion complements, and might even validate Eliade’s “perception of the sacred.”

In other words, I think it might even be possible to say that both Eliade and CSR can be placed on the spectrum of religionism.

Here is where this issue reaches a climax. Somewhat ironically, this brings us back to what I would call the eternal return to history. If Eliade explains religion as such in itself, as the eternal sacred, then what does this mean for the immense mass of transformations, events, persona, and ideas up to our present moment? Is everything that came before us, is everything that we are doing and thinking now, and is everything that will happen in the future, merely an immutable cycle of the sacred? Even if yes, then what is this cycle, how does it operate, how does it reach new and old eclipses, around what does it revolve? And if for CSR religion is a naturalistic phenomenon whose function in the evolution of the human organism and human groups is what should be studied, then what is the actual content of this evolutionary process, what are its different markers in historical texts, events, movements, and ideas, how has it put us in the here and now, and what does it mean for the future of religion and human evolution?

These questions bring us back to the eternal question of history. Eliade’s eternal return and the Cognitive Science of Religion are extremely inquisitive explanations of religious experience and behavior. They offer considerable sets of data and hypotheses which can be extremely useful in investigating certain properties of religious belief, experience, and ritual. But they are not an end in themselves. After all, what are we to test their data and hypotheses against if not historical texts, events, epistemes, and processes?

This brings us to the question of historicism. On the one hand, history is the only matrix of time and phenomena where we as scholars have to look and reference – at people and ideas given real flesh, blood, and agency in space and time. On the other hand, the notion of “history” itself is just as ambiguous and just as debatable as the construct of “religion” itself. As is well known, the post-modern deconstructions of these categories are endless. What is clear is that we need a specifically formulated type of historical approach.

Therefore, I argue that we might gain more knowledge about religion, and transcend the historicism vs. religionism paradigm which both Eliade and CSR approach from different angles, by engaging the notion of Problemgeschichte, or “problem-history.” [23] The historical study of religion means studying how humans have, in various times and places, invented, struggled with, transmitted or denied, extended or reduced the diverse phenomena that are put under the umbrella of “religion.” Religion and history are questions, or problems, and they don’t exist outside of their formulation as problematic concepts or categories in need of explanation. Approaching religion, religious studies, and the historicism vs. religionism dilemma in the framework of a Problemgeschichte, in my opinion, might offer a way out of the circular eternal return of Eliade and CSR which, in the end, leave us with more questions than answers. In the spirit of Problemgeschichte, we should study these questions themselves as both eternal problems and attempts rooted in specific contextual epistemes.

In conclusion, man just might be homo religiosus precisely because he is so endeared to asking the question of religion, posing the problem of religion in order to understand himself, his history, and the world around him. The works of Eliade and CSR are clear reminders of the need to examine scholarship itself as a primary source in the history of religion. One potential candidate for analyzing such sources and such contexts is the Problemgeschichte approach.

Thank you very much.



[1] See Kurt Rudolph, “Mircea Eliade and the ‘History’ of Religions,” Religion 19 (1989), 101-127.

[2] See Moshe Idel, Mircea Eliade: From Magic to Myth (New York: Peter Lang, 2014).

[3]  See Antoine Faivre, “Introduction I,” in: Antoine Faivre & Jacob Needleman (eds.), Modern Esoteric Spirituality (New York: Crossroad, 1992), xi-xxii.

[4] Mircea Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return: Cosmos and History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 3-4. 

[5] Ibid, 95. 

[6] Ibid, 141. 

[7] Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion (Harcourt: New York, 1959), 14, 15, 16.

[8] Ibid, 17-18. 

[9] Ibid, 213. 

[10] Mircea Eliade, The Quest: History and Meaning in Religion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969), “Preface” 2-3.

[11] Ibid, 7. 

[12] Ibid, 53. 

[13] Wouter J. Hanegraaff, Esotericism and the Academy: Rejected Knowledge in Western Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 303-305.

[14] Bryan S. Rennie, “Mircea Eliade and the Perception of the Sacred in the Profane: Intention, Reduction, and Cognitive Theory”, Temenos 43:1 (2007), 79.

[15] See Wouter J. Hanegraaff, “Empirical method in the study of esotericism,” Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 7:2 (1995): 99-129.

[16] James A. Van Slyke, The Cognitive Science of Religion (Farnham: Ashgate, 2011).

[17] Edward Slingerland and Joseph A. Bulbulia, “Introductory essay: Evolutionary science and the study of religion”, Religion 41:3 (2011): 307-328.

[18] Jesper Sørensen, “Western Esotericism and the Cognitive Science of Religion”, Aries: Journal for the Study of Western Esotericism 17:1 (2017): 119-135.

[19] Slingerland and Bulbulia, op cit. “Introductory essay: Evolutionary science and the study of religion”, 309.

[20] Ibid, 315. 

[21] Ibid, 314, 315. 

[22] Sørensen, op cit. “Western Esotericism and the Cognitive Science of Religion”, 121.

[23] My introduction to and understanding of Problemgeschichte as an approach is indebted to Egil Asprem’s dissertation, The Problem of Disenchantment: Scientific Naturalism and Esoteric Discourse 1900-1939 (Leiden: Brill, 2014), particularly the section “From Process to Problem.”


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