Reason, Religion, and Divine Revelation #5: Magic and the Axial Age

Reason, Religion, and Divine Revelation #5: Magic and the Axial Age

SRFRIBERG-4a-WbMen at all times and under all conditions stand in need of one to exhort them, guide them and to instruct and teach them.


June 31, 2013. We know that we have innate religious drives – I think I may call them that – and we know that they can lead to bad things.

Exhibit number one, of course, is Marxist-Leninism with its cache of unassailable truths, its professional priesthood of vanguard revolutionaries, its strident millenarianism, and its murderous wrath towards unbelievers. Other examples are readily found, ranging from grandiose projects of national, racial, religious, or cultural purity to everyday conflict around the globe.

One such example is the malevolent form that magic, witchcraft, and traditional healing can take.

Belief in Magic

magicBelief in magic is – and in witchcraft – is a universal consequence of our innate religious drives, and it played a widespread role in pre-modern life. Keith Thomas, in his classic Religion and the Decline of Magic, describes how it can turn destructive:

Unexpected disasters, the sudden death of a child, the loss of a cow, the failure of some routine household task – all could, in default of any more obvious explanation, be attributed to the influence of some malevolent neighbour.

Magic continues its influence in the modern world. Consider its effect on the downtrodden, uneducated, the impoverished, and the persecuted, as does Isak Niehaus in Witchcraft and a Life in the New South Africa about the town of Impalahoek in the South African lowveld. A London Review of Books review contrasts the standard anthropological perspective with the grim reality in South Africa:

In the benign anthropological model, the supernatural negotiates the shift from old to new, mediating the familiar and the threatening, reconciling biomedicine and older kinds of healing.

But in Impalahoek, witchcraft and strange forms of monotheism are more likely to be sources of exploitation, confusion and hatred, multiplying the contradictions they ought to resolve.

The Independent, describing a police case a few years back, paints a dire picture:

As South Africa struggles to be seen as a progressive player on the world stage, much of its culture remains rooted in the past. Perhaps the most horrific evidence of this is the continuing kidnapping and murder of children so that their body parts can be used in traditional medicine.

Using children’s body parts as medicine is shocking. But nearly all of the “natural religions” of the distant past – and some not so distant – engaged in acts of magical potency that were much more shocking. Consider, for example, the practice of human sacrifice. It was, once upon a time, nearly universal.

The Axial Age

How are the evils created by the misdirection, the misuse, and exploitation of our innate religious drives – by such things as magic and human sacrifice – to be overcome? How is the dark side of “natural religion” to be mitigated?

Perhaps the most important way – and the most common way throughout history – was through the introduction of advanced religion (or, in what is essentially the same thing, the introduction of the great metaphysical thought systems).

This is what took place in the axial age, according to the renowned sociologist Robert N. Bellah, writing in his magisterial Religion in Human Evolution. The axial age, according to the philosopher Karl Jaspers who coined the term, ran from 800 to 200 BC and was when:

… the spiritual foundations of humanity were laid simultaneously and independently in China, India, Persia, Judea, and Greece. And these are the foundations upon which humanity still subsists today.

Judaism, Buddhism, Greek thought, Zoroastrianism, and Confucianism – to name some of the major axial age religious/philosophical systems – opened human horizons to dynamic systems of thought, to powerful sets of concepts, to levels of organization over large geographical distributions, to great systems of ethics and morals, and to utopian goals and vision of social advancement.

The new axial religious and metaphysical cultures of the axial age were “seedbeds” of change, of growth, and were to lead eventually to the modern world. Bellah again:

The beginnings of science, of a critical view of the world, of knowledge for its own sake, can be found in all the axial [systems] …

These new axial religions and system of thought also displaced the great – and the small – systems of magical and priestly “natural” religions that dominated the countryside and the cities of ancient times alike. Or more accurately, they started the still-ongoing process of replacing magical and “primitive” systems of thought with axial systems of religion and thought based on powerful ideas, book learning, great continent-embracing philosophies and with advanced spiritual practices and systems. They advanced the ideas and concepts that we now recognize as the origins of modern civilization.

And they could do that because they resonated powerfully with the innate religious ideas we all share as part of our “hardwired” makeup. They harnessed our tendency towards belief in God, gods and souls, towards belief in a purpose to life, towards belief in moral and ethical values, towards belief in ritual, sacrifice, priests, shamans, and holy people – to create the great cultures of world.

Beyond the Axial Age

The axial systems gave humanity great utopian visions of better worlds to come, and they also bequeathed powerful techniques of “theory” with which to think, reason, plan, build, and advance technologically. But Bellah considers these gifts as a double-edged sword:

The great utopian visions have motivated some of the noblest achievements of mankind; they have also motivated some of the worst actions of human beings.

Theory in the sense of disengaged knowing, inquiry of the sake of understanding, with or without moral evaluation, has brought its own kind of astounding achievements but also has given humans the power to destroy their environment and themselves.

And clearly, as much as great societies, as great systems of thought and cultural undertaking can grow and progress, they can also fall and decay, and they can fall and decay back to forms of organization that are animated by the dark side of our innate religious tendencies.

What do we do then when the religious intolerance and fanaticism that characterize the dark side of our innate religious tendencies come to the fore and become destructive and damaging?


When confronted with the vagaries and the changing health of religious institutions – or with the loss of vitality of traditions of thought, morals, and ethics – we typically attempt to rectify the problem with actions that can be classified as “reformation,” as “rejection”, or as “renewal”. Next time, we start looking at each of these actions in turn.


This is the 5th in a series of blogs on Reason, Religion, and Divine Revelation. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked at NTT in Japan before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.

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