Friday, April 4, 2008

Religion and the Origins of Civilization

Christopher Dawson's Progress and Religion is a remarkable book. Written in 1929 when Dawson was not yet 40 it is, in effect, Dawson's attempt at an overall theory of history. While in many ways it addresses scholarship that is now dated, especially with regard to theories of the "origin of religion," it also has much in common with the later work of Mircea Eliade--in fact, in some respects Dawson goes beyond Eliade (whom Dawson preceded by several decades) by more explicitly relating archaic culture to later developments of large civilizations, world religions, and Christianity. (Eliade does seek to draw parallels between archaic thought and modern “existentialist” thought, but fails to fully consider much in between.) Nevertheless, because Dawson lacked an understanding of the archaic ontology of archetypes which Eliade elaborated, he was unable to fully exploit his unquestionably valuable insights. In what follows we will therefore attempt to evaluate Dawson's insights in light of Eliade's understanding of archaic man's ontology of archetypes and repetition.

In Chapter IV, “The Comparative Study of Religion,” Dawson set forth his views on archaic culture. In doing so he was at pains to oppose the materialist views of human culture that were current at the time. Then, in Chapter V, “Religion and the Origins of Civilization,” Dawson addresses the transition from “primitive” societies to the earliest civilizations.