History, Evolution, and The Darwin Debate

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Armstrong review

March 18th, 2006 · No Comments

A Guardian review of Armstrong’s new book has some useful criticism.
The eonic model, a generaliztion of the Axial Age concept, that ‘does it right’, survives every one of these criticisms.
Please note that the establishment will publish Armstrong, and then critique her. My version they will try to ignore, because then they would have to take the questions seriously.

How handy to have Armstrong around: discredit the whole idea, so Darwinian dogma can rest in peace.

Karen Armstrong continues her expanding project of explaining religion to the modern world. Having produced so many worthwhile books on Islam, Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism, it was almost inevitable that she should seek to synthesise all that previous discussion. She adopts the hypothesis first proposed more than half a century ago by the German psychiatrist and philosopher Karl Jaspers: world religions experienced an “axial age”, in which four civilisations, Israel/Judah, Greece, India and China, for the first time in human development, all discovered certain great religious themes: self-reflection, scepticism about defining truths about the absolute, willingness to embrace suffering and compassion. Armstrong writes with her customary elegance and lucidity and bases her account on a great deal of up-to-date reading and careful thought. It would be hard not to learn a lot from this substantial book.

But I really don’t buy the axial age. I started reading Armstrong with keen anticipation, and my scepticism grew the more I read. The Jaspers thesis is a baggy monster, which tries to bundle up all sorts of diversities over four very different civilisations, only two of which had much contact with each other during the six centuries that (after adjustments) he eventually singled out, between 800 and 200BCE – note those six centuries! In other words, the distance between Guardian readers and the Battle of Agincourt, during which we westerners alone have packed in several reformations, a technological or industrial revolution or two, a clutch of enlightenments and a few great dictators. At least the west had some collective shared memories, on which it built when the next phase happened: not so among the philosophers of China, India and the Middle East who form the Amalgamated Trades Union of Axial Age Thinkers and Innovative Religious Operators. In Armstrong’s hands, Jaspers’s axial age gets baggier still, gobbling up Judaism’s Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai, Jesus Christ and Muhammad, thereby gaining an indigestible extra eight centuries on top of Jaspers’s six. Moreover, even during the Jaspers centuries, Armstrong constantly awards brownie points or black marks to thinkers or cultures for their nearness to or remoteness from “the axial vision”, which may suggest that the axial vision hypothesis doesn’t explain very much at all.

I suggest (hardly originally) that we are seeing an optical illusion in the apparent start of the axial age. Here is an alternative origin-myth for the enhanced sense of altruistic self and the mystic universality of divinity amid the pointless tragedy of existence. A hunter-gatherer heard that the other hunter-gatherers had started sniggering at his claim that he was the Chosen One among deer-hunters, in succession to his Chosen-One father before him. He retired to his brushwood shelter in deep humiliation, folded his legs, closed his eyes and perceived a new approach to the absolute. Or maybe his wife told him in no uncertain terms to go off and do some hunter-gathering, and she did the perceiving for him. Unfortunately neither of them had invented writing to tell us about it, and their abstract insights have evaded the trowels of archaeologists, unlike their hand axes. When in the end, various humans did invent writing systems, they generally did so out of a pressing need to describe, control or celebrate a complicated infrastructure that might otherwise get out of hand – how many cattle have we got? Or to be a bit more profound, how many cattle does the big warrior-god want us to sacrifice? By contrast, scepticism or mysticism don’t generally require or leave much infrastructure. Only gradually did the sceptics and mystics usurp the aristocrats, hierarchical priests and bureaucrats who had invented writing, got their hands on the new technology and recorded their thoughts. Over the previous millennia all is now silence, because we cannot now hear the cacophony. Human beings have been physically much the same and have enjoyed the same brain capacity for around 150,000 years. It is to exercise the worst sort of condescension of posterity to think that only in the last 3,000 of those long years did humankind jack itself up to think creatively and variously about the tragedy of existence.

These may seem harsh words for a survey of wide horizons which has many virtues. But Armstrong’s account is dangerously over-tidy. We may read, for instance, her rather detailed reconstruction of the daily life and inner feelings of the Arya people on the steppes of southern Russia from the fifth to the third millennium BCE: a clear and at first sight plausible account, which is nevertheless derived largely from back-projecting elusive resonances in much later sacred books, especially those of the Zoroastrians. There is a danger in all this of creating new myths: new sacred stories pregnant with meaning, on the basis of the centuries of accumulated religious myth in sacred scriptures which are a major part of Armstrong’s raw material. Myths are always created for a reason, and in Armstrong’s case the reason is wholly admirable and welcome. Much modern religion is ignorantly dogmatic, especially inclined stridently to proclaim how right it is and how wrong everyone else is. We now face very serious danger from it, whether it calls itself Christianity, Islam or any other label. To stand up to it is a duty of civilisation. Armstrong has been a major voice in the effort to talk about religion in a more thoughtful and open way. But I wish that she had not relied so heavily on the Jaspers myth in this rich and deeply felt book.

· Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Reformation: Europe’s House Divided is published by Allen Lane.

Tags: Evolution · The Axial Age · The Eonic Effect

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