The history of religion and the Axial Age

One cannot study human history without noticing and learning about the religious beliefs and practices of various people. Religion has been—and remains—a strong motivation for the actions of many people. Sometimes religious differences have led to wars within a group of people or between groups of people. More often, religion has motivated beneficial actions within a group of people or between groups of people.

Scholars who study religion fall into two groups. The first group believes that religious truth is permanent and unchanging. It was known by the earliest people and has been passed down intact from generation to generation; it still exists in the world today. But many people have wandered from the truth. They have added beliefs and practices that differ from the truth, resulting in today’s diverse religious beliefs and practices. Traditional (or conservative) Jews, Christians, and Muslims all accept this concept of a single religious truth, even as they disagree about the content of that truth. I suspect that many traditional (or conservative) Hindus, Buddhists, and followers of other religions have a similar confidence in the existence of one fundamental set of truths.

The second group of scholars believes and teaches that religion evolves. They say that primitive people, having no science, assumed that things they could not explain were caused by spirits living in the observable world. Early religious practices focused on living in harmony with those spirits, cooperating with them, gaining their help when needed, and placating them when they were angered. Over time, according to these scholars, some of these spirits (along with some revered human ancestors) became regarded as gods. That stage of religious belief is called polytheism, belief in many gods. Many generations later, some gods were viewed as more powerful than others, until belief centered around a single central god—often the national god of a powerful nation that subdued its neighbors and built an empire. From that stage, the next step was monotheism—belief in one god, denying the reality of the other gods that once were trusted and obeyed. Following the introduction of monotheism came deism: deists acknowledge a creator god who established the rules of nature and of moral behavior, but the god of deism is no longer involved in the world. That god can be compared to a watchmaker who assembles a watch, winds it, and then steps away. From deism, it is a short step to atheism—the claim that there is no god—or to agnosticism—the claim that no one knows whether a god exists.

It should be noted that, among atheists and agnostics, some are militant and some are quiescent. Militant atheists boldly assert that no god exists, and the battle against all believers who proclaim the existence of a god or of gods. Quiescent atheists also believe in no god, but they do not try to convert anyone else to their belief. Quiescent atheists are content to continue in their lack of belief but do not care what other people say or do about their god or gods. Leave them alone, and they will leave you alone. Quiescent agnostics are not sure if god exists, but they are content to remain quietly in their uncertainty. They do not challenge the conviction of believers or of unbelievers. Militant agnostics say that no one knows if god exists. They equally challenge the convictions of believers and atheists, insisting that all of us are guessing about religious truth, that no one on earth really knows for sure about god.

Both groups of scholars agree that a revolution in religious thought occurred in the world roughly twenty-five centuries ago. Dubbed the Axial Age, this time marked the beginning of several religious movements, including Confucianism, Daoism, Jainism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, and Greek philosophy. Scholars have also sought information about the Axial Age in the Hebrew Bible (which Christians call the Old Testament). Ezra and Nehemiah lived during the Axial Age, as did the prophets Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. Some scholars claim to find evidence of the Axial Age in other Biblical books traditionally regarded as older, such as the writings of the prophet Isaiah.

Axial Age beliefs began, for the most part, in Iron Age cultures long established in the river valleys of Asia, from China to Mesopotamia. Although expressed in a variety of ways in different cultures, they bear a common theme of individuality, of looking within one’s self to find truth rather than seeking it in the surrounding world. These pursuits are credited with stimulating Christianity and Islam in later generations, as well as helping to generate European science and philosophy, beginning in Greece. The Axial Age can be described as a human revolution equivalent to the Neolithic Revolution of ancient times (when people stopped hunting and gathering food and began raising it for themselves in settled areas) and to the Scientific and Industrial revolutions of modern Europe.

Vedic Hinduism in India and Shinto in Japan bear traces of the religious beliefs that prevailed before the Axial Age. So do indigenous religions still followed by small groups of people in Asia, Africa, the southern Pacific, and Native American settlements in the Americas. One common theme among the many diverse indigenous religions (at least in Africa and the Pacific islands) is awareness of a powerful creator god who, like the deist god, created the world and established its rules, but is no longer involved in the world. The religious practices in those indigenous groups involve honoring and seeking the approval of divine beings that are less than all-powerful. Often each of those beings has power in only a single area—planting, harvesting, human health, childbirth, weather, and so on. Christian and Muslim missionaries often win converts among such groups by promising to “eliminate the middle-men,” so to speak. They offer knowledge of the creator god and access to that god—Christians through Jesus Christ and the Gospel, Muslims through the Qur’an.

In coming days I will offer a more detailed study of those Axial Age movements that profoundly shaped the way religious people think and act today. J.

11 thoughts on “The history of religion and the Axial Age

  1. Thank you for replying to my comment.

    In regards to Christianity, perhaps Jesus didn’t die in place of humans as God-mandated payment for their sins; rather, Christ was brutally murdered BECAUSE OF humans’ seriously flawed sinful nature? Maybe Jesus was viciously killed because he did not in the least behave in accordance to corrupted human conduct and expectation — and in particular because he was nowhere near to being the vengeful, wrathful behemoth so many people seemingly wanted or needed their savior to be and therefore believed he’d have to be. Maybe Christ died in large part because people subconsciously wanted their creator to be a reflection of them, and their patriarchy? And, of course, Jesus also offended some high priests, money changers and Romans in-charge.

    From my understanding, the people insisted on a messiah whose nature is of the unambiguously fire-and-brimstone angry-God condemnation kind of creator that’s quite befitting of our Old Testament, Torah and Quran. Judaism’s version of messiah is essentially one who will come liberate his people from their enemies, which logically consists of some form of violence, before ruling over every nation on Earth. This fact left even John the Baptist, who believed in Jesus as the savior, troubled by Jesus’ version of Messiah, notably his revolutionary teaching of non-violently offering the other cheek as the proper response to being physically assaulted by one’s enemy. All that rejection, regardless of his unmistakable miracles — inexplicably healing crippling ailments, the lifelong blind, and most notably defying death with Lazarus — that were quite unlike the many present-day fraudster faith-healings performed.

    Maybe God became incarnate to prove to people that there really was hope for the many — especially for young people living in today’s physical, mental and spiritual turmoil — seeing hopelessness in a fire-and-brimstone angry-God-condemnation creator requiring literal pain-filled penance for Man’s sinful thus corrupted behavior (rather like an angry father spanking his child, really)? He became incarnate to show humankind what Messiah ought to and has to be. Fundamentally, that definitely includes resurrection.

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    • Thank you for your thoughtful comments. As you may have noticed, I often seek a both/and where other people see an either/or. No doubt Jesus was rejected and murdered because people wanted a different God and a different Savior from what he offered. Yet he willingly laid down his life, not merely to show how evil his enemies are, but to give us an escape from evil and death and rebellion and to bring us life and hope. It’s easy to look at humanity and point fingers and say “they” are cruel and rebellious and evil. But you and I are part of the problem. You and I have also fallen short of the perfect love God had in mind when he created us and put us in this world. You and I also deserve to be rejected by God, tossed aside as factory misfits, not suited for God’s world. Taking our place on the cross, Jesus gives us a place in his family and in his kingdom. We can stand with the scribes and Pharisees and talk to God about how bad other people are, or we can stand with the tax collectors and pray, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” We know which voices Jesus hears with grace and which he locks outside of the kingdom, saying to them, “I never knew you.” J.

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      • “It’s easy to look at humanity and point fingers and say “they” are cruel and rebellious and evil. But you and I are part of the problem.” …

        Very true. I feel that ‘civilized’ society should refrain from self-righteously condemning the evil acts of one racial/ethnic/religious/cultural group or another. I once heard a philosophy professor say that every person should avoid believing (let alone saying) that they, as a human being, are not inherently predisposed to committing an atrocity if pushed to their limit. Contrary to what is claimed or felt by many of us, he said, deep down there’s a tyrant in each of us that, under the just-right circumstances, can be unleashed. And maybe even more so when convinced that ‘God is on our side’.

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      • I agree with that philosophy professor. When we are honest about our own tendency toward evil, then we are open to religious answers. While some may be more poisonous than our original problem, we can maintain the hope that genuine light and life and love can be found in a Being greater than ourselves. When we analyze only the followers, we might be mistaken into thinking that all religious hopes are hollow. But when we look at the evidence, I am convinced, we find a genuine Savior in Jesus Christ, the true Light and Life and the only source of unfailing love. J.

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  2. I’ve found that too many monotheists have created God’s nature in their own angry and vengeful image, especially the part insisting that ‘God hates ______’, etcetera. (I personally picture Jesus as being one who’d enjoy a belly-shaking laugh over a good, albeit clean, joke with his disciples, now and then.) I sincerely wonder whether there is any real hope in a furious God who requires pain-suffering sacrifice? I sometimes wonder whether collective human need for retributive justice — regardless of Christ (and great spiritual leaders) having emphasized love/compassion and non-violence — be intrinsically linked to the same terribly flawed aspect of humankind that enables the most horrible acts of violent cruelty to readily occur on this planet, perhaps not all of which we learn about.

    Meanwhile, it seems, when a public person openly fantasizes about world peace, a guaranteed minimum income and/or a clean, pristinely green global environment, many theological fundamentalists immediately react with the presumption that he/she must therefore be Godless and, by extension, evil and/or (far worse) a socialist. This, despite Christ’s own teachings epitomizing the primary component of socialism — do not hoard morbidly superfluous wealth when so very many people have little or nothing. That’s just how upside-down (I’m sad to say) so much of institutional Christianity has become.

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    • I agree with most of what you say. But it is as easy to reduce God to a gentle grandfather who wants the best for us and treasures what is good in us and in the world as it is to reduce him to a wrathful punishing god. He is both–loving his people and wanting to rescue them, and angry at those who hurt each other and damage his world. He appreciates the beauty of His creation and wants us/expects us to take care of it. He wants us to love each other and care for one another. He wants all of us to have joy and peace. To deal with the consequences of our shortcomings and our rebellion, he had to warn us of wrath and punishment; but then he took the burden on himself to offer all of us a way to be reconciled to him and restored to his plan. The perversion of Christianity into fire and brimstone and judging other people distresses God, but so does the perversion that strips God of power to respond to the ugliness of hatred and violence that people bring into his world. We face a both/and, not an either/or, when it comes to God, his love, and his wrath. But, in the end, love triumphs. J.

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