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Old 03-09-2009, 02:25 PM   #3
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Join Date: May 2002
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My area of specialty in anthropology and archaeology is religion and cult beliefs, particularly as seen in material record of ancient cultures. But I find it very important to stay abreast of modern religious studies in order to put human behavior in context (presumably, human physiology and neurology hasn't evolved from pre-historic to historic to modern times) and make predictions back and forth between periods.

For those that study religious trends as anthropological and sociological functions (scientific study is the only useful way to study religion) as well as the psychological functions, the trend cited above isn't surprising. This is the sort of thing that has been observed for some time now.

The extent to which religiosity is being reduced and adherence is becoming less stringent, may be debated somewhat though. There have been some recent papers that describe studies which examine the emergence of a "new axial age" in which major religions take a major turn to evolve with cultural progress (i.e. science) or where specific religious cults are abandoned and replaced with new religious thought.

Examples of these are the acknowledgment of biological evolution by the Catholic Church and the increased acceptance of "new age" spirituality.

The Catholic Church still has some progress to make, in my opinion, since there are still some very fundamental concepts this cult still adheres to like its resistance to birth control, etc.; but by and large, Catholics (particularly in the United States) are very liberal in their religious dogma and there seems to be a conscious effort to leverage change within cult doctrine in an effort to mirror secular progresses in science and ethics. Over the next few decades, I suspect we'll see the Catholic Church make advancements and strides in matching secular society in its social progress. Eventually, the Church will need to either loosen up on its dogmatic concepts (like birth control) or fail.

The other example of a "new axial age" is the increased adherence to "new age" spirituality -these are usually westernized eastern philosophies ranging from yoga to trantric meditation to pseudo-Native American practices.

For those curious, "new axial age" comes from the five stages of religious evolution as described by Robert Bellah (1964). In this paper, Bellah suggests that religions begin without hierarchy and priestly classes or even gods, but gradually evolve into cults where, first, gods are presented for worship then shamans as intermediaries then priests as guides and authorities. The cults evolve from primitive to archaic to historical to post-historical to modern, with historical being the first "axial" age where distinct trends in hierarchy and prescribed ritual are established and cult doctrine is established (with the advent of writing). This would be the transition point from an early Judaic to an Early Christian point, for instance.

The post-historical (or "early-modern" as, I believe, Bellah referred to it) would include the Protestant Reformation, leaving the modern stage as the current. In this fifth stage, Bellah suggests that there is a return to a non-world rejecting philosophy -which is seen in modern "new age" spirituality and other liberal religious thought (i.e. environmentalism, green movements, etc.). For this reason, I typically don't see a "new axial age" but, rather, just further definition of the modern stage (assuming that Bellah's model holds, and I think it does).

Incidentally, its at the historical age -the first axial age- where Bellah notes that the crucial characteristic is the rejection and devaluation of this world in favor of a "next world."

Notes: 1. If mimartin is okay with this, I'd like to keep this thread at a purely logical and scientific level, with a priori assumptions about the "truth" of any religious thought left out. In other words, this will be a secular thread. Religious believers, proponents and adherents are welcome to participate, but only to the extent to which they are willing to discuss religiosity from a scientific perspective. I'll PM mimartin to ensure he's okay with this since he started the thread.

2. My use of terms like "cult" are clinical and academic. From a scientific perspective, there is no difference between describing an ancient Sumerian or Peruvian cult center or a modern one. They are temples, places of worship, and ritual behavior. If this offends you or if you cannot accept it as rational and not pejorative, this might not be the thread for you to participate in.

3. The term "liberal" and, while not yet used, "conservative" in the context of the scientific examination of religiosity should not be equivocated with their namesakes used in modern political discourse. While there are some similarities, there are enough differences that the terms are not synonymous.

4. I always enjoy scientific and rational discussion of religion for the reasons I mentioned above. If I end up rambling and not citing a source for you and you'd like more information, please let me know either in-thread or via PM. In some cases I may even have PDF articles (where copyright permits) that I can share either in whole or part (vis a vis Fair Use).


Bellah, R. N. (1964). Religious Evolution, American Sociological Review 29, 358-374

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