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What is popularly called “the occult” has not yet received much attention by scholars in the field of religion. Those of us interested in this phenomenon, from the perspective of religious studies, are impressed by its relevance to the field. One encounters in New Age most features of what we study in other religious traditions. Whether or not New Age should be classed as one of the world religions remains an open question, however.

Some popular approaches to the study of religion are very helpful, especially those of Mircea Eliade and Joseph Campbell. Both were mavericks who were not held in high regard by the academic community. Neither, for example, had a doctorate. Both were generalists and popularizers. Both were prolific writers, and Campbell was a popular lecturer as well. Both were generalists rather than specialists, and essentially followed their own interests wherever they led, oblivious to professionalism. While both taught for many years in reputable universities, neither produced scholarly articles for learned journals and Campbell, in particular, was hostile to those who did. Both have been rightly faulted for errors in their data, and insights based on only a superficial acquaintance with many of the subjects they dealt with. Neither were good writers; they were prone to rambling and muddled thinking. Indeed, had they not published when they did, it is doubtful that either of them would ever have been published at all since the standards demanded by today’s editors are far more exacting than they were during the 1950s and 1960s, when Eliade and Campbell produced their most insightful books. However, despite their many serious limitations, both were highly stimulating because of the boldness of their ideas.

Mircea Eliade

Of Rumanian origins, Mircea Eliade had an unusual background in religious studies, including a sojourn in India where he practiced yoga. During the 1930s, he became involved with the Rumanian fascist movement, the Iron Guard, and, in various subtle (and sometimes not so subtle ) ways this orientation affected his thinking concerning religion. For instance, he has also been accused of anti-semitism. He spent the war years as cultural attache to the Rumanian embassy in Lisbon, and after the war, lived for a time in Paris. There he wrote Mythes, Réves et Mysteres (1957) which was later translated as Myths, Dreams and Mysteries (1960). An invitation to give a series of lectures at the University of Chicago led to his being appointed as a professor of religion at that institution. He remained there until his death in 1986. During the course of these years, Eliade produced a great number of books such as The Myth of the Eternal Return: Or, Cosmos and History, (1954) , The Sacred & The Profane: The Nature of Religion (1957), Patterns in Comparative Religion (1958), Myth and Reality (1963), and Shamanism:Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy (1964). His critics take him to task for superficiality, over-generalization, and frequent errors of fact. He is often too slick and dogmatic. A study of his sources reveals his excessive dependence on early twentieth century studies. His admirers, however, are intrigued by his insights. He makes interesting comments about myth, for example, defining it as sacred history.

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