What is the Axial Age? Yet something else few of us know about.

What is the Axial Age? Yet something else few of us know about. August 27, 2019

I’m constantly reminded that the more I learn, the more I have yet to learn.

This realization recurred again this week when I learned of a somewhat controversial concept termed the “Axial Age.”

axial age christianity domination atheism
Spanish painter Francisco Goya’s “Scene from an Inquisition,” circa 1812-1819. The Inquisition was a punitive arm of the Catholic Church that arose in the Middle Ages after the faith gained hegemony in Western Europe. (Web Gallery of Art, Public Domain)

It’s an important conceptualization of history that, like many, religion has fraudulently tried to co-opt as its own.

Pioneered by Karl Theodor Jaspers (1883-1969), a German-Swiss psychiatrist and philosopher who is said to have significantly influenced modern theology, the term — Axial Age — corresponds roughly to the six-century span from 800-200 BC.

Jaspers posited that during this period “a shift — or a turn, as if on an axis — reoriented human beings away from more predominantly localized concerns toward transcendence,” privately and cosmically, according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

In Jaspers view, and this is the controversial part, this is not only the epoch when the great world religions and their prototypes were born but that they emerged at roughly the same time due to divine intervention not human direction.

As an atheist and devotee of common sense, it always baffles me why religions constantly try to supernaturalize (if that’s a word) realities that seem so obviously down-to-earth human. Why should it be surprising that more complex explanations for mankind’s existence in the world might naturally emerge as larger and larger groups of human beings began to congregate in vast communities, where commonly accepted rationales would be necessary to maintain peace and tranquility?

Which is not to say that that this historical period was unexceptional — it wasn’t — just that there is no confirmable indication it was God-driven.

“The Axial Age (also called Axis Age) is the period when, roughly at the same time around most of the inhabited world, the great intellectual, philosophical, and religious systems that came to shape subsequent human society and culture emerged—with the ancient Greek philosophers, Indian metaphysicians and logicians (who articulated the great traditions of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism), Persian Zoroastrianism, the Hebrew Prophets, the ‘Hundred Schools’ (most notably Confucianism and Daoism) of ancient China,” Encyclopaedia Britannica explains. “… These are only some of the representative Axial traditions that emerged and took root during that time.”

In my view, this period — Jesus came two centuries later — effected a “critical mass” for humanity, igniting a chain reaction of unprecedented intellectual (e.g., philosophy, religion) and practical (government, technology) advancements in our species. The faith Jesus spawned was thus and offshoot of progress in the Axial Age.

Unfortunately, the Axial Age also was an era when powerful, monolithic governments gained such authority that they could legally and coercively enforce arbitrary rules, including those involving religious faith, throughout often broad realms, even empires, under their control.

Of relevance to 21st-century Americans, Christianity slowly but widely had secured influence after the Axial Age under the Western Roman Empire in what is now Western Europe, and when the empire finally imploded in 476 AD, the faith’s dominance exploded in the absence of imperial authority.

By the end of the Middle Ages, the Christian “Catholic Church” — “Catholic,” meaning universal — enjoyed not only absolute spiritual authority over people in vast realms of the former empire but secular rule as well. During these centuries, popes and kings competed for and sometimes shared power.

Early Christian domination of Western spirituality, as well as Western culture, was so wildly successful that it continued largely unabated into the current millennia, particularly in America.

But some abatement is starting to happen in the United States, as it has, if more so, in other industrialized nations. This “shift” in dominance “centers around the loss of Christians’ onetime powers of coercion,” according to ex-Catholic and ex-Pentacostalist Cassidy McGillicuddy in her Roll to Disbelieve blog.

The dominance was originally spawned in the 4th century AD when Roman Emperor Constantine granted the faith official recognition in the empire, ending its persecution and marginalization.

Ultimately, when Christianity became the official creed of the empire, “all bets were off,” McGillicuddy writes:

They maintained their hard-won dominance through fire and the sword, literally and brutally murdering dissenters whenever possible. Along with that retaliatory power, they exercised almost-complete control of Christianity’s doctrines and practices.”

McGillicuddy believes that the only reasons Christians can’t “outright torture, imprison, and murder” dissenters today is that “governments they once tightly controlled no longer allow them to do that.”

 “Christians didn’t stop hurting people — and condoning this mistreatment — because they heard Jesus telling them it wasn’t loving and therefore he wasn’t okay at all with it. No, they stopped because real people with even more power stopped them.

Consider Pakistan or Afghanistan today to get your head around the difference. In those countries women can still be stoned to death for adultery, and anyone for apostacy.

So the world is just now starting to get a good handle on the worst excesses emanating from the Axial Age — ruthless, monolithic, religious authoritarianism.

It’s now evident that if God had purposely sent us the Axial Age, He’s certainly not a benevolent deity. Indeed, as always, there’s no evidence such a being is even possible in reality.


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