Up to now, we have been summarizing Eliade’s findings about religion in what he calls “traditional man.” Recall that this term signifies the mindset of people prior to the time when scientific and Enlightenment viewpoints became dominant among certain groups in Western Europe (around the 18th century). But how does the decline of religion in the modern day affect man?
Recall also that virtually every person at the time of traditional man was homo religiosus. Though Eliade indicates the presence of some philosophical atheism or agnosticism during that time, it was so rare that it did not represent what might be termed a “cultural viewpoint.”
The time of “modern man” is distinct, because a significant percentage of modern individuals are non-religious (16%), and in Western Europe, the percentage is significantly higher (approximately 50%).
Furthermore the perspective of what Eliade calls “modern non-religious man” is becoming dominant in Western Europe, and some of this is spreading to other modern democracies around the world. Do Eliade’s (and Otto’s) findings apply to modern man? Can modern man be considered “homo religiosus”?
Most religious people in the modern world (84%) still possess many, if not most, of the characteristics of homo religiosus. They believe in an absolute transcendent reality that manifests itself in the world, and in so doing, sanctifies the world and gives it significance (ultimate significance).
They also believe that life has a sacred origin (and is therefore sacred) and that human potentiality can only be realized (both in this world and the next) through a vital connection with the sacred transcendent reality. Finally they make recourse to sacred stories, rituals, and symbols to commemorate and re-enter sacred time and place in order to participate in holiness (the sacred) and to be strengthened in their capacity to follow the paradigmatic models provided by the sacred realities entrance into the profane world.
Inasmuch as they exemplify homo religiosus, they satisfy their desire for transcendent reality incited by the numinous experience, and find a source of the ultimate meaning, fulfillment, and reality they yearn for.
This ultimate meaning, fulfillment, and reality does not come from merely intellectual assent to the existence of a transcendent reality, but more from connecting with and relating to the sacred reality (through sacred ritual and sacred writings ) and following the goods, ends, and virtues elucidated by these sacred writings.
Evidently modern religious people experience the same problems arising out of natural causation, economic difficulties, political turmoil, and other worldly challenges as modern non-religious people.
However, religious people have a level of ultimate, transcendent, and sacred meaning, hope, happiness, dignity, and destiny that “modern nonreligious people” have implicitly or explicitly denied.
Furthermore modern homo religiosus has an ultimate and transcendent sense of the good and virtue that “modern nonreligious people” do not recognize.
For Eliade, this absence of the sacred in modern nonreligious people introduces a heightened anxiety about existence, meaning, and reality (what might be called “existential anxiety” ). It comes from “the absence of things yearned for” – that is the absence of the transcendent which we desire implicitly or explicitly (because of the numen’s presence within us).
For Eliade, the more modern nonreligious people reject the sacred and the transcendent, the more acute their alienation from self and reality becomes, which brings with it an increasing sense of existential anxiety.
Does Eliade’s contention here stand up to scrutiny?
Interestingly, it is the hallmark of not only theistic existentialism but also atheistic existentialism (e.g. Sartre, Camus, Kafka, etc.). We will explore existential anxiety in both theistic and atheistic existentialist schools. We will there refer to it as “cosmic emptiness, alienation, loneliness, and guilt.”
These anxieties are frequently alleviated through religious faith. But is there more than philosophical and anecdotal evidence for the efficacy of religion in psychological health?
The 2004 study in the American Journal of Psychiatry correlated nonreligious affiliation with suicide rates and found that nonreligious affiliation was the strongest contributing factor to an increase in suicide (verifying the conjectures and predictions of Eliade and theistic existentialists).
The study concluded:
Religiously unaffiliated subjects had significantly more lifetime suicide attempts and more first-degree relatives who committed suicide than subjects who endorsed a religious affiliation.
Unaffiliated subjects were younger, less often married, less often had children, and had less contact with family members. Furthermore, subjects with no religious affiliation perceived fewer reasons for living, particularly fewer moral objections to suicide. In terms of clinical characteristics, religiously unaffiliated subjects had more lifetime impulsivity, aggression, and past substance use disorder.
No differences in the level of subjective and objective depression, hopelessness, or stressful life events were found.
Next post, we’ll wrap up Section II.C: The Anxiety of “Non-Religious Man” Part 2.