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Karen Armstrong on Axial Age

November 20th, 2005 · 9 Comments

What is Enlightenment? magazine, issue 31, has an article on Karen Armstrong and the supposed ‘Second Axial Age’. Text is listed below, after my commentary. This page updates a post from a few days ago, and is also available at
A Second Axial Age?

The use of the term ‘Axial Age’ has suffered confusion, and has degenerated in some accounts into a conception of an age that produced the great religions. But that is not what the Axial Age was. Armstrong’s thinking here needs my eonic effect model!

Armstrong notes in the article that she plans to write a book on the Second Axial Age. Based on the material here, and the earlier material in Armstrong’s books, I would strongly caution against that. It will be a lousy book indeed, although it might well sell in the current postmodern New Age crowd. Armstrong is in over her head on this Axial notion of hers, and even a cursory glance at my eonic model shows the traps involved. The whole question of the Axial Age enters into my work in a marginal fashion, as a descriptive, not theoretical term. From there I completely recast the foundations of the idea. Any attempt to speculate about Big History using the Axial concept is going to be pure nonsense unless you are very careful to indulge at most in empirical periodization, my approach. I doubt if Ms. Armstrong will listen, but if you plan to go over Niagara Falls, I can’t stop you.

Further, her thinking seems to have shifted slightly on this, first was the idea of some kind of postmodern resurgence of religion as the Second Axial Age, then suddenly there was a shift, she speaks of this Second Axial Age starting in the sixteenth and seventeenth century. I was left wondering if she had seen my website! Jaspers himself seems unclear on this, and never quite proposed a second Axial Age.

I am not quite sure of the development of Armstrong’s thinking here. Whatever the case, you can’t have it both ways. The sixteenth and seventeenth century show the passing beyond the so-called Axial religions and the onset of the secular age in the wake of the sole large-scale religious transformation of the modern transition, that of the Protestant Reformation, one of the generators of the early modern, but soon transcending itself in the Enlightenment. We think of the early modern as the onset of our contemporary scientific, secular societies, with their economic emphasis. This leaves a second Axial Age stranded. But the core idea has merit. We must simply remember that the term ‘Axial’ is a descriptive of something in antiquity. If we propose it as one in a series, we may need a new and more general terminology.
We can see the problem. The rise of the modern is the only candidate for some kind of ‘second Axial Age’, but this isn’t the onset or generation of a new religion. The problem is that the idea of a Second Axial Age becomes incoherent. This New Age version of a Second Axial Age is changing the road signs. What happened? What went wrong here? The problem is that the idea of the first Axial Age is itself incoherent, and has suffered a confusion of meaning. It works fine as a descriptive, not as an analytic term. Meanwhile mainstream historians are getting restive here, and are not likely to consider the idea relevant at all, and that’s a pity, because, understood rightly the Axial Age is a real phenomenon, one of spectacular scope, and what is more the best and most convincing evidence of evolution in action. There is the problem with the Axial Age concept. It has become a way to contextualize the emergence of the great religions. But that is not what the phenomenon was, in toto.
The problem in part begins with Karl Jaspers who invented the term ‘Axial’, but gave it a somewhat contradictory definition. His insights were brilliant, but he couldn’t quite define what it was that he grappling with. Further, he calls the onset of Christianity the axis of history, but somehow brings this ‘axis’ concept to bear also on the earlier period, 800-200 BCE.
The confusion of terms forces us to ask the question, what is the relation of the great religions to this Axial interval? If Christianity, and Islam initiate outside the Axial Age, what are we talking about? Even Judaism as we know it has this problem. We should look at proto-Judaism as it is contextualized in the interval we call Axial. Then we see the point. With remarkable timing we see a state religion turn into a source of latent materials able to flow outwards into an environment, there, by another process, to become the raw material for religions to come. We could not allow ourselves to be confused by the retroactive teleological myths constructed around this process.
Furthermore, it seems as if monotheism is born in the Axial period, at least this much seems right. In fact, that’s wrong too. Monotheism was already in existence prior to the Axial Age. So now we are confused. We need the eonic model I have created to easily solve this seeming paradox. But the gist can be more easily seen in the Indian case. There we see that while the traditions of yoga, for instance, are almost primordial in their antiquity, they become amplified in the Axial Age. Renewed, restarted. One manifestation of this is Buddhism, which is really a streamlined version of what was already there before. But for the first time the stream of Indian spiritual consciousness coalesces into a world religion that begins to exteriorize. Now we have the clue to Occidental monotheism. Monotheism predates the Axial Age, in several inchoate versions, more or less, but coalesces into a concentrated exteriorizing form that isn’t at first even a religion at all, but the state history of a minor Middle Eastern kingdom with a state religion. That period is the only one in the Axial interval. Is not the Old Testament a strange book? Actually, it is transparently beautiful in its record of ad hoc incidents that simply record the Axial interval, and annex a lot of earlier material from before the Axial interval. Sorry, but Abraham, if he existed, and Moses, if he existed, aren’t in the Axial interval.
Thus we see nothing of Judaism, Christianity, or Islam until later. But we do see the gestation of these, keeping in mind that there is no simple teleology between the source point, and the results. Note the ambiguity of dates surrounding Zoroaster. He may or may not be part of the Axial Age. It seems probable he predates it. But we can see the gestation of monotheism very clearly in this other case, as an Indo-European mythology starts to monotheize. But it is in the Axial period that the latent indications of all this, Indo-European, Semitic, begin to formalize and generate a new disposition toward religion.
I am sorry, but this changes the picture completely. The religions that came later have no intrinsic Axial anything about them, save that they do proceed as direct descendants from the emergent material appearing in the complex history of Israel, with suspicious strains of Zoroastrianism more than probably mixed in during the Exile. At first this makes no sense. The problem is the way we see it, as later history has defined it. Jump to another Axial instance. In every case, the broad outlines of the process are clear. Suddenly an isomorphic process is transparently visible in the case of India. Much of Buddhism is really recycled yoga. Buddhism is actually quite late. An slightly earlier period, core Axial, shows a virtually seed bed of spiritual movements, philosophies, and sages. What is more the resemblance to Greece, in essence, is remarkable, and synchronous.
Now let us note that the same can be said of China, but that the result remains closer to philosophy than to religion. Then we note the resemblance of China to Greece, and finally we have the whole set of clues. The Axial Age tokens something far more general and abstract than religion. The question of religion is secondary to a process that is far broader in its effect. How broad? If we look at Axial Greece we see, among other things, the first scientific revolution among the Ionians. So our Axial Age is the source of science too! The same could be said of democracy, as it appears in the brief climax to the Greek Archaic period, which is really the most remarkable case of the whole spectrum of Axial phenomena. You see, the terms ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’ are merely our own lenses for something that is unified yet strangely abstract, on its own terms.
The problem, then, is to equate the Axial Age with some spiritual transcendentalism. That approach misses the point. We need finer grained tools to understand this stupendous moment.
We should start over. What is it that grips us as we detect the Axial phenomenon? Synchronous emergentism. We see a host parallel independent cultural innovations and breakthroughs across Eurasia in a very compressed timeframe. We see the effect in China, in India, in the Middle East, in Greece and marginally in Rome. That indicates that these may be the tips of the iceberg, since we can see that the phenomenon is evenly distributed across Eurasia. This is what intrigues us, this enigma of a global something that seems to multitask over a whole continent. We have been so inured to spiritual mythologies that are no longer believed that once we strip the data of these metaphysical trappings, we find to our surprise something more remarkable than what we had before.
What is the meaning of this sudden tiding wave of emergence? As we reflect on it we begin to sense that it is not actually unique. It is true that this period represents a great advance. But it could hardly be unique. Then we get a suspicion about the answer. The effect is one of something in a series. And we stand back to examine world history, and suddenly we see it. If we backtrack 2400 years we come to the birth of civilization, and forwards we come to the rise of the modern. Now we have it, it is a phenomenon in a series. The problem is that the character of each period is different, at least at first. After careful study we do find the common denominator, but it is not a question of religious formations.
What is the common denominator? There are many approaches to that question, but just to suggest one simple idea, think of fertilizer in a garden. We tend to see the flowers, not the general process of growth. We wonder why the roses shows spurts of growth, why the daisies are large in size. But once we know that the explanation is fertilizer, the separate independent developments of the plants in tandem ceases to be a puzzle.
There is a great deal more to be said here. But the basic issue is to consider that positing a second Axial Age tends to break the original concept. We must find a more general formulation. It is not actually hard to see how the modern world in its secularism could be the real ‘second Axial Age’. In fact, as noted, the Axial phase of the ancient Greeks was the first birth of secularism, almost, and this was in the Axial interval! Except that, this still isn’t quite right, because Axial Greece was also a religious flowering. How so? Look closely, and you will see that the Greek polis was in part of religious phenomenon, a last great flowering of polytheism. Such a statement could lead to misunderstanding, unless one examines carefully the nature of the phenomena in question. The Greek case is complex and changes its character very quickly, and in the process gives birth to many of the elements that will then resurface in the modern age.
So our Axial Age is really a massively complex phenomenon that crosses all category boundaries. Once we see the Greek instance in context, we will realize that the birth of the modern world is really a rebirth of many of the Axial Age processes that died out in the middle ages, after the Axial Age. The great religions survived, but democracy did not, science did not. There rebirth in the next phase of our series shows the restoration of lost evolutionary processes.
So much for a postmodern reaction to modernity as a spiritual New Age.
These issues, although not the Axial question, were quite clear to figures such as Kant and Hegel, who saw that modernity was a new foundation, but that Reason and religion required a new creative formulation. Whatever we think of their actual resolutions of these seeming contradictions, the general tenor of their thinking can help us to understand both the limits and future potential of the Enlightenment.
Too much New Age thinking is simply orphaned historical confusion trying spastically to create a future religion, without seeing the paradox that involves, and the unlikelihood that history will repeat itself. We have moved on to a new world, and the restoration of antiquity in the name of a new Axial Age is not likely to happen.
All this barely scratches the surface of a complex question. But the idea that a second Axial Age can spawn a new period of spiritual religion is misleading, and likely to produce contradictory results.

Armstrong interview from Enlightenment magazine

Shortly following the terrorist attacks in Britain last July, I sat with world-renowned theologian Karen Armstrong in her historic London home. As we spoke about the spiritual challenges of our time and why it behooves us to learn from religious history, police sirens blared in the background, a reminder of the violent and unstable conditions we face as a human species at the outset of the third millennium. Driven from a young age by a thirst for the spiritual life, Armstrong entered a convent at seventeen and left seven years later, disillusioned by the traditional structures and mores that, despite her passion for the divine, simply could not bring her spiritual yearning to fruition. In the nearly four decades since then, she has turned that passion into a prolific investigation into the essence and evolution of the great traditions. Her best- selling book, A History of God, now published in more than thirty languages, is a compelling retrospective of religious history. In it, she provocatively and exhaustively illustrates how humans have had to redefine the sacred at critical historical junctures in order to meet new spiritual needs created by changing cultural conditions and large-scale crises.
As we spoke together in an atmosphere permeated by disquiet and uncertainty, Armstrong pointed me back to the dawn of the great religious traditions and simultaneously brought my attention to the present-a time when once again, she believes, we will need to redefine the notion of the sacred so it can become relevant and enter our lives anew.

WHAT IS ENLIGHTENMENT: In your book A History of God, you take us through the emergence of the world’s religious traditions, which occurred during what is known as the Axial Age-a period you feel is particularly relevant to our own time. To begin with, why is this historic era called the Axial Age? KAREN ARMSTRONG: The period 800-200 BCE has been termed the Axial Age because it proved pivotal to humanity.
Society had grown much more aggressive. Iron had been discovered, and this was the beginning of the Iron Age. Better weapons had been invented, and while those weapons look puny compared to what we’re dealing with now, it was still a shock. The first Axial Age also occurred at a time when individualism was just beginning. As a result of urbanization and a new market economy, people were no longer living on lonely hilltops but in a thriving, aggressive, commercial economy. Power was shifting from king and priest, palace and temple to the marketplace. Inequality and exploitation became more apparent as the pace of change accelerated in the cities and people began to realize that their own behavior could affect the fate of future generations.
So the Axial Age marks the beginning of humanity as we now know it. During this period, men and women became conscious of their existence, their own nature, and their limitations in an unprecedented way. In the Axial Age countries, a few men sensed fresh possibilities and broke away from the old traditions. People who participated in this great transformation were convinced that they were on the brink of a new era and that nothing would ever be the same. They sought change in the deepest reaches of their beings, looked for greater inwardness in their spiritual lives, and tried to become one with a transcendent reality. After this pivotal era, it was felt that only by reaching beyond their limits could human beings become most fully themselves.
WIE: Can you further describe the ways in which this ‘great transformation manifested?
ARMSTRONG: Most significantly, it is the time when all the great world religions came into being. And in every single case, the spiritualities that emerged during the Axial Age-Taoism and Confucianism in China, monotheism in Israel, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism in India, and Greek rationalism in Europe-began with a recoil from violence, with looking into the heart to find the sources of violence in the human psyche. The conviction that the world was awry was fundamental to these spiritualities. One of the things that is very striking is that all the great sages were living in a time like our own-a time full of fear, violence, and horror. Their experience of utter impotence in a cruel world impelled them to seek the highest goals and an absolute reality in the depths of their beings. For example, the China of Confucius and Lao-tzu was engaged for centuries in one war after another. The whole of the very ancient civilization of China was becoming more aggressive. And you have that understanding very strongly in Confucius as he looks out on tbe world and laments loudly while, at the same time, he tries to rebuild it by recrafting the old rituals in a way that brings forward their compassionate and altruistic potential. That essential dynamic of compassion is summed up in the Golden Rule, which was first enunciated by Confucius around 500 BCE: “Do not do unto others as you would not have them do unto you.”
On the Indian subcontinent at this time, there was a major economic and political turnaround. Suddenly powerful kingdoms and empires were being created, and they relied on force. People allover India were equating horror with the new violence in their society and in the marketplace, where merchants were preying aggressively upon one another. Many of their philosophies developed a doctrine of nonviolence as a way to counter violence by refusing any form of it whatsoever.
The fifth century was terrifying in Greece as well. While it was a time of great artistic creativity, it was also a time of huge violence. The Greeks were, in many respects, a terrible people, and yet every year in Athens they would stage the political events of that year in their great tragedies. These were written as ways of looking at the tragic implications of what was going on in their midst, of calling everything into question and really plumbing the human experience of suffering. So violence and suffering seem to be a sine qua non of a spiritual quantum leap forward.
WIE: Why do you believe it’s so important for us to reflect upon the traditional religions and the age in which they emerged? ARMSTRONG: Today we are amid a second Axial Age and are undergoing a period of transition similar to that of the first Axial Age. Its roots lie in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries of the modern era, when the people of Western Europe began to evolve a different type of society. Since that time, Western civilization has transformed the world. The economic changes of the last four hundred years have been accompanied by immense social, political, and intellectual revolutions, with the development of an entirely different scientific and rational concept of the nature of truth. But despite the cult of rationality, modern history has been punctuated by witchhunts and world wars which have been explosions of unreason.
So, I feel that we are-all of us-at one of those junctions in history when we are holding ourselves, our past, our future, and our integrity in the palms of our own hands. This is a moment when, if we allow that integrity to fallout, we might never recover it in the same way. Once again, a radical change has become necessary.
WIE: How do you see us responding to our own pivotal moment in history?
ARMSTRONG: All over the world, people are struggling with these new conditions and have been forced to reassess their religious traditions, which were designed for a very different type of society. They are finding that the old forms of faith no longer work for them; they cannot provide the enlightenment – and consolation that human beings seem to need. As a result, men and women are trying to find new ways of being religious. Like the reformers and prophets of the first Axial Age, they are attempting to build upon the insights of the past in a way that will take human beings forward into the new world they have created for themselves.
We have, from the very beginning of our existence as a species, created works of art and created religions to give us the sense that, against all the aggressive and spirited evidence to the contrary, life really does have some ultimate meaning, value, and sacredness. And the notion of the sacred has a history, since it has always meant something slightly different to different groups of people at various points in time. If we look at our three major monotheistic religions, it becomes clear that there is no objective “God”; each generation has to create the image of God that works for them. When one conception of God has ceased to have meaning or relevance, it has been discarded and replaced by a new theology. Had the notion of God not had this flexibility, it would not have survived.
In that context, atheism takes on a different meaning. Atheism is often a transitional state: Jews, Christians, and Muslims were all called atheists by their pagan contemporaries because they had adopted a revolutionary notion of divinity and transcendence. The people who have been dubbed atheists over the years have always denied a particular conception of the divine. But is the God who is rejected by atheists today the God of the patriarchs, the God of the prophets, the God of the philosophers, the God of the mystics, or the God of the eighteenth-century deists? All these deities have been venerated, but they are very different from one another. Perhaps modem atheism is a similar denial of a God that is no longer adequate
to the problems of our time.
WiE: So, we are again at a point when religion and the notion of
God, or the sacred, may need to be redefined.
ARMSTRONG: Religion is highly pragmatic, despite its otherworldliness. It should not only transform us, but it should also transform the world. Religion should make a difference. And as soon as it ceases to be effective, it will be changed. So we should be working now to make our religion and our faith effective in this lost, suffering, and terrifying world. But’ first, before we can make a proper difference, we must transform ourselves. There’s a very good verse in the Qur’an where God says, “Therein God will not change the state of the people unless they change the state of their own selves.” And that what we must do now.
WIE: In what way do you see this occurring?
ARMSTRONG: At this moment in history, I believe that we need a new spiritual revolution. We need a new faith. Now, you can say, ‘ “Look, give us a break. This is hardly the time to start a new spiritual revolution. At this juncture, we’ve got war. We’ve got the prospect of terrorism. The economy is bad. Let’s have a bit of peace and quiet so that we can go up a mountain, collect ourselves, and then begin this spiritual effort.” But suffering, fear, violence, and despair are the prime conditions for such a renewal.
I think the sages and prophets of the first Axial Age knew very well about our destructive potentials. What was happening in their own society was a tremendous shock to them. They had to look into their own hearts, discover what gave them pain, and then rigorously refrain from inflicting this suffering upon other people. In order to counter aggression, they taught their followers to cultivate the habit of sympathy for all living things. They discovered that greed and selfishness were the cause of our personal misery and that egotism imprisoned us in an inferior version of ourselves and impeded our enlightenment. Our present Axial Age is characterized by globalization. We live in one world, and we have to learn to live with difference, at home and abroad. We have to see that we have very big brains and very puny bodies, and because of our big brains, we’ve been able to create a technology that compensates for our small size. But we don’t seem to have the ability to keep our aggression in check. Unfortunately, as our technological expertise advances, our spiritual wisdom isn’t growing up alongside it. Yet that’s what we need now in this world that, as we’re speaking, is falling apart. We’ve seen the bombs here in London, on 9/II, in Auschwitz, in Bosnia. We have lost all sense of the sacredness of human life. And that has to be cultivated.
We can’t think “God” without thinking “human” now. We can’t think “human” without thinking “God.” Because the sacred is not just something tacked on to our natural existence. It’s no longer something out there. The sacred must be that to which we all aspire. It must become, in the best possible sense, deeply natural to us. It should fulfill our being so that we can all, as the Greek Orthodox said, be like Jesus even in this life, if we live right, in this certain way.

During the first Axial Age, the great sages worked at this. Everyone was prepared to be creative and spend as much time on this as people spend today on discovering a new computer. And that requires discipline. But we’ve lost the sense that spirituality is hard work. It is often turned into a commodity to make us feel good. But it isn’t just wandering lonely as a cloud and hoping you’ll see a clump of daffodils to enthuse about, I believe the Dalai Lama was reduced to tears when an American audience asked him how they could get instant enlightenment. He hadn’t realized things were that bad. So we have to make a constant effort of imagination, which is the great religious faculty. As Sartre says, “The imagination is the ability to see what is not present, what is hidden.” We must exercise this faculty fully, whereby we apprehend, in a new way, the inscrutable and ever-elusive divine. . Karen Armstrong has written several books on religion and, culture, including the best-selling A History of God and The Battle for God, as well as lslam: A Short History and Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet.. She is currently working on a new book on the Axial Age. Armstrong teaches at Leo Baeck College’ for the Study of Judaism in London.

Tags: Evolution · The Axial Age

9 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Darwiniana » More on Armstrong’s Axial Age // Nov 22, 2005 at 12:46 pm

    […] Continuing the question of Karen Armstrong on the Axial Age, previous post here, which you can read first. Googling Karen Armstrong’s views on a so-called ‘Second Axial Age’ I find a number of seminars on the subject, with this from a conference of the Jesus Seminar Who should we find present here but Eugenie Scott! Hey wait a minute! I will indulge a moment’s (paranoid) speculation that we are to be treated to a version of the “Second Axial Age” that is sanitized on Darwin. You won’t get away with it. If you propose an Axial Age, or a second Axial Age, you have to declare by what evolutionary dynamic this occurs, and in the process address the issue of Darwinism. Obviously that will kill the sales of Ms. Armstrong’s projected book, and with Eugenie Scott scurrying in the shadows I doubt if we wil hear a peep on evolution. […]

  • 2 Darwiniana » Voodoo Scholarship // Nov 27, 2005 at 2:00 am

    […] What is Enlightenment? magazine, issue 31, has an article on Karen Armstrong and the supposed ‘Second Axial Age’. See post from a few days ago: Armstrong on Axial Age. The issue of the magazine in question raises a sore point: these guru environments are not domains of free discussion, rather, authoritarian control zones where dissent can be dangerous to mental health. WARNING! And the warning is….? You figure it out. You have thirty seconds to get your occult firewall in operation. If you need a warning it is already too late. Catching celebrities in these nets is a tactic that does not bode well for open enquiry. The pioneer here was that ominous figure Gurdjieff who managed to snare two competent mathematicians, Ouspensky and J. G. Bennett, to produce pseudo-spiritual literature in service of hidden agendas, without their quite realizing what the game was. These two figures were intellectually corrupted by the process, but what they left behind, especially in the case of Ouspensky, was a goldmine for shark sufis: a pseudo-spiritual corpus that attracts tens of thousands of people a year. If only a handful fall into the trap, that’s enough. […]

  • 3 Darwiniana » Armstrong’s Religous Revolution // Dec 14, 2005 at 2:19 am

    […] http://darwiniana.com/2005/11/20/karen-armstrong-on-axial-age/ […]

  • 4 Darwiniana » More on ‘Second’ Axial Age // Feb 27, 2006 at 8:27 pm

    […] I have a previous post on Karen Armstrong’s notion of a ‘Second Axial Age’, a completely confused idea, see here. This was an interview at Enlightenment magazine. A letter to the editor in the next issue shows total confusion on the subject. Sit down and stuy the eonic effect, and the eonic model, and the fallacy of Armstrong’s thinking will become clear. My problem with this is the postmodern strategy of the gurus trying to promote these New Age anti-modern religious movements. That, in an off itself, would not be so problematical–apart from mere lunacy–if it weren’t for the concealed anti-democratic nature of the basic initiatives. Armstrong has completely confused the Axial Age as a kind of era of spiritual movements, when its character is far more general. The birth of modern secularism occurs in the Axial Age. The rise of modernity is the only meaningful successor to the phenomenon seen in antiquity. This situation is a pity because we are being deprived of correct knowledge of one of the critical datasets both for history and the question of evolution. The letter to the editor below is full of so many inaccuracies and fallacies I can hardly deal with all of them: a separate post analyzing it would be helpful. […]

  • 5 Darwiniana » Armstrong’s confusion over Axial Age // Oct 21, 2009 at 11:55 am

    […] of the most popular posts on this blog: Karen Armstrong on Axial Age […]

  • 6 Critique of Armstrong link | The Axial Age // Apr 17, 2010 at 3:00 pm

    […] Always one of the msot popular posts at Darwiniana: http://darwiniana.com/2005/11/20/karen-armstrong-on-axial-age/ […]

  • 7 Darwiniana » The public curious, but stymied, on question of Axial Age // May 19, 2010 at 4:20 pm

    […] One of the most popular posts on this blog: Karen Armstrong on the Axial Age […]

  • 8 Darwiniana » Twelve steps of the Jain yogis? // Jun 5, 2010 at 1:51 pm

    […] Here is the post here on Armstrong on the Axial Age, a perennial favorite here at this blog: http://darwiniana.com/2005/11/20/karen-armstrong-on-axial-age/ The Bodley Head is delighted to have acquired UK and Commonwealth rights (excl. Canada) to TWELVE […]

  • 9 Archive for Darwiniana: 2005 start | Darwiniana blog (mirror) // Jul 11, 2015 at 12:52 pm

    […] – See more at: http://darwiniana.com/2005/11/20/karen-armstrong-on-axial-age/#more-165 […]

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