Religious Evolution in the Axial Age

From Shamans to Priests to Prophets

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Stephen K. Sanderson
Scientific Studies of Religion: Inquiry and Explanation
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , January
     320 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Stephen K. Sanderson’s Religious Evolution and the Axial Age: From Shamans to Priests to Prophets is a wide-ranging study of religion, descriptively and theoretically, from “an evolutionary materialist perspective” (176), a perspective reflecting the author’s counsel that scholars of religion ought to be “methodological adaptationists” (148). The central contention is that the rapid evolution of sociocultural conditions during the Axial Age (c. 800-200 BCE) necessitated “a major religious shift” (206) towards “salvation and to some extent transcendence” (104), not to mention“love and mercy—God’s compassion” (212). This shift supposedly answered specific needs arising out of the development of iron technology: iron enabled not only larger and denser communities, but also voluminous bloodshed in war. For Sanderson, who employs Rodney Stark’s exchange theory, Lee Kirkpatrick’s attachment theory, Anthony Giddens’s ontological security theory, and Joseph Bulbulia’s coping theory, such technological and martial developments necessitated religions that could compensate the anxious, human animal. While there must be some truth to this claim, it is an unexceptional proposal: the psychologically compensatory nature of religion is surely a subject upon which as much supportive as critical ink has been spilled. 

Sanderson argues that the past 12,000 years presents an evolution of religion in four stages: shamanic, communal, pagan, and world transcendent, the last characterizing the Axial Age traditions, that is, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism. What is more—and as the subtitle suggests—religious evolution involves a development of religious specialists and their clientele, beginning with the one-off client services and imagistic rituals of shamanism to fully developed religious guilds of priests and prophets practicing doctrinal rituals for the congregants of the world’s transcendent religions. Sanderson similarly notes that the concept of god, that is, the supernatural agent, undergoes a process of “religious abstractification,” a self-admittedly “awkward neologism” (223). The concept of god begins with concrete, physical objects in shamanism (e.g., sun and moon), and progresses through the stages of the biotic world of communal religions (e.g., theriomorphic deities), the human world of paganism (e.g., anthropomorphic deities burdened with human foibles), and finally the suprahuman world of transcendent deities with counterintuitive properties (e.g., omniscience and omnipotence). 

While the transitions between each stage of religious evolution provide material for investigation, Sanderson’s main concern is to explain “the major religious shift” of the Axial Age. According to Sanderson, the social and material realities of the Axial Age proved so evolutionarily novel that our type of animal was simply ill-equipped to handle such tumult. Sanderson writes, “They (i.e., our evolutionary forebears) did not evolve to live in densely packed cities in which most of their social relations were carried on with non-kin and strangers” (209), explicitly noting elsewhere that “the main argument has been that the enormously disruptive effects of large-scale and rapid urbanization and the intensification of warfare during the second half of the first-millennium BCE created new human needs for ontological security, anxiety reduction, and release from suffering” (219). The critical issue here pertains to the novelty and nature of the needs: are ontological insecurity, anxiety, and suffering somehow new to the Axial Age? No—or, at least not all of them, depending on how one defines these terms.

Consider, for instance, the earliest known temple structure, Gobekli Tepe (c. 10,000 BCE). It has recently been suggested that the ancient structure was built, first and foremost, to attend to religious needs such as death anxiety, and that only in attempting to stay in proximity to the structure for such purposes did the development of sedentary lifestyles predicated upon agriculture arise. This suggests that it was precisely religious needs that drove sociocultural evolution in the pre-Axial Age. Likewise, if we consult the earliest epic tale, The Epic of Gilgamesh (c. 3000 BCE), it is clear that death anxieties motivated its author(s). Surely, some types of ontological insecurity, anxiety, and suffering are not unique to the Axial Age.

What perhaps is unique to the Axial Age is a particular type of death anxiety. To be sure, death anxiety studies indicate that one can be anxious about death in three registers: intrapersonal, interpersonal, and transpersonal. While the first two types reflect the concerns of the individual organism with his or her personal being and relationships, the latter reflects a cool, philosophical consideration of how death affects the meaning of life generally. I suggest that it is this shift in death anxiety that characterizes the Axial Age. The founders of the Axial Age religions are perhaps the first to entertain transpersonal death anxiety, and this for all of the right material reasons. 

Sanderson’s employment of Kirkpatrick’s attachment theory, especially his compensation hypothesis, and Giddens’s ontological security theory demands a consideration of the childrearing environment—the environment, to be sure, that calibrates one’s attachments and securities. How did the sociocultural conditions of the Axial Age affect childrearing practices? One might speculate that the material prosperity of the Axial Age, at least among the elite (the authors of the Axial Age religions, according to Max Weber, with whom Sanderson agrees to some extent), was much better than what had come before. In this regard, and in opposition to Sanderson’s claim, perhaps it is actually the ontological securities of the Axial Age elite that permitted a transition from inter- and intrapersonal death anxiety to transpersonal death anxiety: that is, an anxiety particular to those whose material needs are wholly met. In fact, one could argue that “religious abstractification” is precisely what we find as material prosperity increases. While personal saviors are found amidst the lower classes, abstract theological principles are found amidst the well-off; empirical data shows that as material needs are met by government services, religion wanes. In this regard, while some of the dispossessed masses may have suffered coalitional trauma (to paraphrase Pascal Boyer), and thus found compensation in a personal, loving god (a characteristic associated especially with Christianity), surely we find much more transpersonal characterizations of the ultimate in the Upanishads, the Pali canon, the Analects, the Daodejing, and the Zhuangzi. I would argue that these texts are far more representative of the classical Axial Age than the relatively late Gospel of John and the Bhagavad Gita

Religious Evolution and the Axial Age is a work I would recommend for those unfamiliar not only with “world religions,” but also with the fields of sociology and psychology of religion. For those well-versed in comparative religions, as well as method and theory in the study of religion, this book is a good read, but one that does not break entirely new ground. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Thomas B. Ellis is Professor of Religion at Appalachian State University.

Date of Review: 
June 26, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Stephen K. Sanderson is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Research on World-Systems at the University of California at Riverside.


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