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Religion and axiality: theological reflections on Robert N. Bellah's Axial Age hypothesis

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  03 February 2017

Niels Henrik Gregersen*
University of Copenhagen, Købmagergade 44–46, 1150 København K,


The article addresses controversial questions related to Robert N. Bellah's Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age (2011), and the sequel, The Axial Age and its Consequences (2012). Discussed is the difference between the macro-historical hypothesis of an axial age and more abstract aspects of axiality. Critical questions are raised about whether Bellah's theory of the emergence of religion in play and ritual does not underestimate the cognitive functions of pre-axial religion. Finally, Bellah's project raises questions as to the creative transitions taking place in post-axial epochs, not least due to the development of canonical traditions in the first centuries ce, and to the emergence of concepts of autonomous individuals in early modernity.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2017 

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1 Bellah, Robert N., Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age [hereafter RHE] (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Bellah, Robert N. and Joas, Hans (eds), The Axial Age and its Consequences [hereafter AAC] (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2012)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2 Bellah, Robert N., ’Religious Evolution’, American Sociological Review 29/3 (1964), pp. 358–74CrossRefGoogle Scholar. This article was indebted to the work Talcott Parsons and Shmuel N. Eisenstadt.

3 AAC, pp. 9–29.

4 Bellah, RHE, p. 266.

5 Bellah, Robert N., ‘What is Axial about the Axial Age?’, European Journal of Sociology 46/1 (2005), p. 70 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

6 AAC, p. 448.

7 Ibid., p. 447.

8 Bellah, RHE, pp. xii–xiii.

9 Ibid., p. 629. See also Bellah, Robert N., ‘Religion in Human Evolutions Revisited: Response to Commentators’, Religion, Brain, and Behavior 2/3 (2012), pp. 260–70CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

10 Bellah, RHE, p. 267.

11 Ibid., pp. 80–90.

12 Ibid., p. 9.

13 Ibid., pp. 76–83.

14 van Huyssteen, J. Wentzel, Alone in the World: Human Uniqueness in Science and Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006), p. 204 Google Scholar.

15 See Bellah, Robert N., ‘Durkheim and Ritual’, in Alexander, Jeffrey C. and Smith, Philip (eds), The Cambridge Companion to Durkheim (Cambridge: CUP, 2005), pp. 183210 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

16 Bellah, RHE, p. 1.

17 Ibid., p. 104.

18 Pannenberg, Wolfhart, The Historicity of Nature: Essays on Science and Theology (West Conshohocken: Templeton Foundation Press, 2008), pp. 7586 Google Scholar.

19 Bellah, RHE, pp. xv–xxii, 5–6.

20 Bellah refers to totemism in passing in RHE, p. 151.

21 Ibid., p. 136.

22 Geertz, Clifford, The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1973), p. 90 Google Scholar.

23 Bellah, RHE, pp. 587–8.

24 Ibid., p. 588.

25 AAC, p. 266.

26 Ibid., p. 267.

27 Bellah, ‘What is Axial about the Axial Age’, pp. 82–3, cf. RHE, pp. 276–8.

28 Bellah, RHE, p. 272.

29 This might explain why Bellah does not refer to two more theologically inclined presentations. The one is Armstrong's, Karen The Great Transformation: The Beginning of our Religious Traditions (New York: Knopf, 2006)Google Scholar, which speaks of the birth of compassion in the axial age. The other is Stark's, Rodney Discovering God: The Origins of the Great Religions and the Evolution of Belief (New York: HarperOne, 2008 [2007])Google Scholar, who argues that ‘all these new faiths discovered “sin” and the conscience, as each linked morality to transcendence. Contrasted with the prevailing conceptions of immoral and amoral Gods, this was revolutionary’ (p. 20). In his response to me in Philadelphia 2012 (see n. 51), Bellah said that he took Stark's position to be ‘a too partisan view’. It is nonetheless interesting that the question of the discovery of universal tendencies towards sin and defilement (not only among the rulers, but also among those ruled) is largely absent in discussions of the axial age.

30 See Donald, Merlin, A Mind So Rare: The Evolution of Human Consciousness (New York: Norton, 2001)Google Scholar.

31 AAC, p. 266.

32 Ibid., p. 70.

33 Bellah, RHE, p. 283.

34 Ibid., p. 409.

35 Ibid., pp. 394–5.

36 Ibid., p. 275.

37 Ibid., p. 278.

38 Ibid.

39 An example of this promiscuous use of axial ages can be found in Lambert, Yves, ‘Religion in Modernity as a New Axial Age: Secularization or New Religious Forms?’, Sociology of Religion 60/3 (1999), pp. 303–33CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

40 AAC, p. 398.

41 Ibid., pp. 398–9.

42 Bellah, RHE, p. 267.

43 This point is made by Christensen, Line Søgaard, ‘Cultural Evolution in the Hebrew Bible: Animal Sacrifices, Blood Sprinkling, Sacred Texts, and Public Readings’, Jewish Studies 50 (2015), pp. 1535 Google Scholar.

44 I am here taking up an expression from my Old Testament colleague at Aarhus University, Professor Hans J. Lundager Jensen.

45 Taylor, Charles, Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity (Cambridge: CUP, 1989), pp. 120 Google Scholar, 131.

46 AAC, p. 35.

47 Ibid., p. 42.

48 Ibid., p. 465.

49 Bellah, RHE, p. 604.

50 Ibid., pp. 604–5.

51 The present article builds on a response to Robert N. Bellah at the Symposium on Spiritual Progress: Honoring the Centenary of the Birth of Sir John Templeton (American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia. 15–17 Oct. 2012), organised by the Center of Theological Inquiry, Princeton. Bellah sadly died in 2013; many of us will miss his generosity and broad-minded scholarship.