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Axial Age Research from the Perspectives of Indigenous Religions

Chairs: Armin W. Geertz, Jace Weaver

Most scholars in the humanities, including historians of religion, during most of the 20th century explicitly rejected evolutionary theory. The highly speculative, colonial and racist evolutionary schemes in circulation at the end of the 19th century led to this rejection. With Robert Bellah’s book Religion in Human Evolution (2011) and the Axial Age debate that it represents was important because it persuaded historians of religions and other historians to opt more or less directly for evolutionary theory. But there are problems with the debate. One of these is that, once again, contemporary indigenous religions are the turning point of major theoretical schemes promoted by thinkers who are not qualified scholars of indigenous religions. This panel consists of friendly but critical responses to Axial Age theory from the perspective of indigenous religions research by scholars who are specialists in indigenous religions.

Armin Geertz

Critical Reflections on Axial Age Theory from the Perspective of Indigenous Religions

Jan Assmann argued that the Axial Age is a creation of philosophers and sociologists, who are concerned with the roots of modernity. He calls this concern as the quest for beginnings and in this sense it exhibits mythical qualities. I concur with this conclusion and draw attention to the often too confident generalizations about hunter-gatherers. Very seldom do scholars refer to detailed ethnographic studies of particular peoples. “Hunter-gatherers” may be a useful short-hand category, but variations within this category are not insignificant. The problem is that research on them was often carried out with an evolutionary scheme in mind. Furthermore, many authors simply assume a direct transition from hunter-gatherers to complex big god societies and forget about the many transitions to horticulture, small-scale agriculture, small chiefdoms, and so on. This paper will critically discuss hunter-gatherer examples in Axial Age and other evolutionary discourses.

Jace Weaver

Religious Evolution from an Indigenous Perspective

The theorizing of an Axial Age and the evolutionary theory it presupposes is challenged when one examines the indigenous religious traditions of North America. Robert Bellah posits that religious systems move from “compact” to “differentiated”. That is to say, religious systems became differentiated from other cultural elements and social structures. At the same time, a process of individuation occurs and persons come to understand the self as a religious subject. Such a theory is problematic for traditional Native American societies, in which religion permeates every element of a culture, and in which individuals see themselves as ineluctably tied up in the collective. This paper will illustrate this by briefly examining two revolutionary religious complexes that arose in what is today the United States, namely the Mississippian complex (c. 1000-1600) in the eastern half of that territory and the Ancestral Puebloans (c. 700-1300) in the desert Southwest.

James Cox, Suzanne Owen

Indigenous Religions as a World Religion: Challenging the Axial Age Theory

The theory of an Axial Age in the development of the history of religions, as interpreted recently by Robert Bellah, uses what Bellah calls “the largest possible framework for [the] study of religion in human evolution”. This framework appears to place Indigenous Religions at an early, primitive stage of human evolution, or construes them as ‘primal’, as a foundation or base on which the great world religions are constructed. Some decades ago, the category ‘primal’ religion served to bring Indigenous Religions into the mainstream in the academic study of religions; however, it brought with it the essentialisms and arbitrariness contained in such categorisations. This paper critiques primitivist notions of Indigenous Religions and challenges the Axial Age theory by suggesting that Indigenous Religions, when subjected to the same criteria for determining the shift in human cosmologies in a postulated Axial Age, can be interpreted as a ‘world’ religion.

Jan Platvoet

De-centering the Axial Age: Contextualizing History of Religions

I will develop an outline of a long term morphological history of religions that de-centers the Axial Age approach by demonstrating that the morphology of the so-called Axial Age religions is as much shaped and constrained by the history of the societies that produced and practiced them, as are those of preliterate, folk, and post-1800 religions. Secondly, I propose that we term these post-1800 religions the religions of the Second Axial Age, the extra-religious onset of which I locate in the Age of Discovery; and that we term the so-called Axial Age religions the religions of the First Axial Age. The introduction of a second axial age de-centers also the Eurocentric, colonialist use of the Axial Age as the unique transition from “prehistoric” to “historic” and from ‘primitive’ to ‘civilized’, etc. that would explain our ‘modernity’. And it links this macro-historic research to the study of modern non-religion and secularity.

Jack Tsonis

The Marginalization of ‘Non-Axial’ Traditions in the Axial Age Discourse: An Embedded and On-Going Problem

This paper provides a critical intellectual history of the Axial Age narrative in order to critique the distinction between “axial” and “non-axial” cultures. Despite Jaspers’ pluralistic emphasis, this division ultimately corresponds to the same qualitative hierarchy between “historical” and “non-historical” cultures, and thus to the classic division between Kulturvölker and Naturvölker. Given that modern indigenous peoples invariably fit into the category of non-axial, this surely presents a major problem. Yet this point has never been raised in the tradition of Axial Age research, meaning that the current resurgence of the paradigm has carried this baggage along with it. Although Robert Bellah provides a much more nuanced portrayal of “tribal” religions in his recent evolutionary epic (2011), categories such as “axial” and “axiality” retain unintended but pejorative implications about groups now designated as “indigenous religions”. I argue that the only way around this problem is to abandon the categories altogether.


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