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Axial Age Research from the Perspectives of Indigenous Religions

28-106 | Friday, 9 a.m. | HS 5
Panel Chairs: Armin W. Geertz

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. 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 W. 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.

James L Cox

From ‘Pre-Axial’ to ‘Axial’: The Error of Minimising the Indigenous

In a recent article (2012), the sociologist Ann Swidler analyses the Axial Age in relation to Africa by asking: ‘What ... does it mean to say that a “Civilization” is Axial or pre-Axial?’ Swidler clearly associ-ates an ‘Axial Civilization’ with the ‘world’ religions. She observes, ‘There is no question that Africans have joined the Axial Age’, a fact confirmed by the ‘large and ever growing number of adherents’ to Christianity and Islam whose faith has been transformed by ‘forces beyond the local, interpersonal world of the village’. This paper critically examines the assumption that Africans (and by extension Indigenous peoples elsewhere) have moved under the forces of modernity from a ‘pre-Axial’ civiliza-tion into the ‘Axial Age’. Exemplified by my field studies of a Christian healer in Zimbabwe, I argue that the division between Axial and pre-Axial erroneously minimises the power local, culturally restrict-ed traditions exert over missionary religions.

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. The category ‘primal’ religion (oddly resurrected by Arvind Sharma in his A Primal Perspective on the Philosophy of Religion, published in 2006) once served to bring Indigenous Religions into the mainstream in the academic study of religions; however, it brought with it the essen-tialisms and arbitrariness contained in such categorisations. This paper critiques primitivist notions of Indigenous Religions while challenging the Axial Age constructions of “world religions” more generally.

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.