Monthly Archives: September 2015

The Evolution of Religion, Part 2- The ‘Axial Age’

Today’s Post

Today’s post will continue to address the evolution of religion from the historical perspective, as it evolves from laws defining the behavior necessary for order in society to a focus on the human person, his potential and his relationships.

The Axial Age

Karen Armstrong’s study of the birth of the major religious traditions, “The Great Transformation”, addressed the ‘Axial Age’ (900-200 BCE), which she sees as “ of the most seminal periods of intellectual, psychological, philosophical and religious change in recorded history”.  During this period, expressions of belief came to be expressed in terms that were equally applicable to both the common person and the elite.  They not only addressed those concepts which held society together, but also addressed both the nature of the individual himself as well as his potential for ‘fuller being’.   The integrated ideas of ‘person’ and ‘love’ began to emerge.

The Axial age saw the rise of many approaches to the understanding of the reality in which we live:

  • Confucianism and Daoism in China
  • Hinduism and Buddhism in India
  • Monotheism in Israel
  • Philosophical rationalism in Greece.

In this relatively brief span of time, six profound lines of thought emerged in four parts of the world.  This was the period which saw such Axial sages as the Buddah, Socrates, Confucious and Jeremiah, the mystics of the Upanishads and Mencius and Euripides.  Armstrong sees these great thinkers as those whose insights are still relevant because “they show us what a human being should be.”

She also saw the birth and articulation of basic and universal beliefs during this period, such as:

  • The supreme importance of charity and benevolence
  • Reluctance to be dogmatic about a transcendence that was essentially undefinable
  • Recognition that the transformative effect of ritual was far more important than manipulation of the gods
  • Belief that egotism is largely responsible for human violence
  • A movement from sacrifice to a focus on the essential and eternal core of the human person, that which made him or her unique
  • The further belief that this essential core was of the same nature as the ultimate principle that sustained and gave life to the entire cosmos. “This was a discovery of immense importance and it would become a central insight in every major religious tradition.”
  • The further belief that this ultimate principle was an immanent presence in every single human being

She saw that during this formative era:

“…they (the Axial sages) all concluded that if people made a disciplined effort to re-educate themselves, they would experience an enhancement of their humanity.  In one way or the other, their programs were designed to eradicate the egotism that is largely responsible for our violence and to promote the empathic spirituality of the Golden Rule.”

“For the first time, human beings were systematically making themselves aware of the deeper layers of human consciousness.  By disciplined introspection, the sages of the Axial Age were awakening to the vast reaches of selfhood that lay beneath the surface of their minds.  They were becoming fully “self-conscious” “

“When warfare and terror are rife in a society, this affects everything that people do.  The hatred and horror of war infiltrates their dreams, relationships, desires and ambitions.  The Axial sages saw this happening to their own contemporaries and devised an education rooted in the deeper, less conscious levels of the self to help them overcome this.  The fact that they all came up with such profoundly similar solutions by so many different routes suggests that they had indeed discovered something important about the way human beings worked”.

The axial age introduced the concept that there were modes of human behavior which could lead to the fuller being of the individual person at the same time that his relationships were strengthened; even that the deepening of these relationships were key to such fuller being.  Armstrong sees this as the basic nature of morality.  Teilhard terms it the ‘articulation of the noosphere.”

The Next Post

While the Axial Age may have laid the foundation for the major expressions of belief, the transition to contemporary Western religious thinking would take two more major turns.  The next post will begin to explore the first of these: the evolution of Greek thinking from Near Eastern modes to that which was to be the foundation of Western philosophy and science.

The Evolution of Religion, Part 1- The Beginnings

Today’s Post

As a second step towards reinterpreting religion, we will briefly overview the history of religion from the vantage point of evolution.  As Teilhard noted, nothing can be well understood unless it is placed in an evolutionary context, therefore in keeping with the blog’s secular approach to God and religion that is what we will do in the next several posts.  This segment of the blog will look at the evolution of religion from three perspectives:

  • As history
  • As the evolution of thought processes influenced by language
  • As the evolution of thought processes influenced by neurology

While the first perspective will look at religion in the wider sense, the second two will concentrate on the great confluence of Jewish, Greek and Christian thinking that happened in the birth of Western theology.

The Roots of Religion

Religion over many thousands of years can be seen to have accumulated insights and intuitions that are inextricably entwined with ancient beliefs and myths.  Matthew Kneale, in his book “An Atheist’s History of Belief” sees evidence of religious belief in the very first stirrings of human thought.  He notes three objectives present in the earliest religions:

  • healing the sick
  • controlling the movements of hunted animals
  • improvement of weather

He saw religion as, “A way of lessening life’s frightening uncertainties”.  Further, he saw in it the appearance of attitudes which were unique to the human, such as:

  • the ability to deal with the viewpoints of others
  • recognizing and fending off danger from other humans
  • supporting the making of alliance and friendships
  • supporting collaborative activities in such things as protecting and feeding themselves and their children

Kneale saw one manifestation of evolution proceeding through the human as ‘improved quality of life’.  Life improves first for the elite as they begin to speculate about life after death. Their view of it changes from something to fear to something as positive, even if only reserved for the elite.  With the new tier of elite in society, the afterlife begins to be understood as also open to those who merit it.  Kneale sees this as a key thread of evolution: that of ‘morality’.  “Worrying more about the afterlife becomes possible as one worries less about life in this world.”  To him, the invention of the concept of an afterlife is evidence that life is improving.

The Evolution of Laws

Emerging civilizations evolved the need to regulate human relationships as a prerequisite for social order.  As human society began to evolve from small nomadic “hunter-gatherer” clans to larger groups settling near centralized crops with the beginnings of ruling hierarchies, the need for “codes” began to take shape to provide rules for coexistence.  These codes or laws were mostly enacted by the recognized ruler, who also took on the person of the ruling God to insure supernatural authority.

The earliest such set of laws seems to have emerged in the 24th century BCE, and is known as “The Code of Urukagina”. Urukagina was a Mesopotamian ruler, but knowledge of his laws is second-hand, and is derived from later references to it.  Other rulers of the “fertile crescent” also promulgated their laws, such as The Code of Ur-Nammu (Sumerian- 1900-1700 BCE) and The Code of Hammurabi (Babylonian, approximately 1740 BCE).  By the tenth century BCE, rulers were expected to document their rules for societies through such promulgations, leading to the many examples preceding the Mosaic Law as addressed in the Old Testament.

The “Law of Moses” in Ancient Israel is distinguished from other legal codes in the ancient near East by its reference to offense against a deity rather than against society.  This contrasts with the other codes, most of which concern laws dealing with society, regulating the transactions among the citizens, and defining their obligations to the state.  The books of Deuteronomy, Exodus and Kings all offer a version the story of Moses receiving the “laws” (or “commandments” or “words” or “judgments” or “tables of testimony”).  While the details of the stories differ in the four different treatments in Deuteronomy and Exodus, they all include prescriptions for ritual, behavior and worship.

As societies continued to evolve, and distinct classes began to appear, the rules of society evolved with them.  One of the first of this new type of code was “The Law of the Twelve Tables” (Roman, 450-449 BCE), which was written as a result of the long social struggle between the Roman classes of ‘patricians’ (the elite class) and ‘plebeians’ (the working class).  While the patricians ruled society, they were dependent on the plebeians to run the machines of state, who were increasingly unhappy with their treatment.  This code became the foundation of Roman law, and was one of the first appearances of a “constitution”.

These codes, however, while addressing human interchanges at the level of society, as laws of behavior, addressed to a much lesser degree the underlying nature of the human person and the basis of personal relationships.   This was to change in the “Axial Age” (900-200 BCE) in which thinking about the nature of the human person and his relationships began to emerge.

The Next Post

The next post will address the ‘Axial Age’ and its profound impact on the history of religion.