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About the Author
Hans Joas is Permanent Fellow at the Freiburg Institute for Advanced Studies and Professor of Sociology and Social Thought at the University of Chicago.
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From Chapter Two: What Was the Axial Revolution? (Charles Taylor)
The full scale of this far-reaching change becomes clearer if we focus on some features of the religious life of earlier, smaller-scale societies, insofar as we can trace this. There must have been a phase in which all humans lived in such small-scale societies, even though much of the life of this epoch can only be guessed at. If we examine (what we know of) these earlier forms of religion (which coincide partly with what Robert Bellah called “archaic religion”), we note how profoundly these forms of life “embed” the agent. And that happens in three crucial ways.
First, socially: in Paleolithic and even certain Neolithic tribal societies, religious life is inseparably linked with social life. This meant first of all that the primary agency of important religious action—invoking, praying to, sacrificing to, or propitiating Gods or spirits, coming close to these powers, getting healing, protection from them, divining under their guidance, and so forth—was the social group as a whole, or some more specialized agency recognized as acting for the group. In early religion, we primarily relate to God as a society.
This kind of collective ritual action, where the principal agents are acting on behalf of a community, which also in its own way becomes involved in the action, seems to figure virtually everywhere in early religion, and continues in some ways up till our day. Certainly it goes on occupying an important place as long as people live in an enchanted world. The ceremony of “beating the bounds” of the agricultural village, for instance, involved the whole parish, and could only be effective as a collective act of this whole.
This embedding in social ritual usually carries with it another feature. Just because the most important religious action was that of the collective, and because it often required that certain functionaries—priests, shamans, medicine men, diviners, chiefs, and so on—fill crucial roles in the action, the social order in which these roles were defined tended to be sacrosanct. This is, of course, the aspect of religious life which was most centrally identified and pilloried by the radical Enlightenment. The crime laid bare here was the entrenchment of forms of inequality, domination, and exploitation through their identification with the untouchable, sacred structure of things. Hence the longing to see the day “when the last king had been strangled in the entrails of the last priest.” But this identification is in fact very old, and goes back to a time when many of the later, more egregious and vicious forms of inequality had not yet been developed, before there were kings and hierarchies of priests.
Behind the issue of inequality and justice lies something deeper, which touches what we would call today the “identity” of the human beings in those earlier societies. Just because their most important actions were the doings of whole groups (tribe, clan, subtribe, lineage), articulated in a certain way (the actions were led by chiefs, shamans, masters of the fishing spear), they couldn’t conceive of themselves as potentially disconnected from this social matrix. It would probably never even occur to them to try.