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.