Reviewed by Fionnchú
[Snip] I wanted to compare this to Robert Wright’s “The Evolution of God,” Rodney Stark’s “Discovering God” and Nicholas Wade’s “The Faith Instinct” (all reviewed by me in 2011): they explain the hard-wired or embedded models for religious evolution from varying perspectives of economics, markets, and the sciences.
Well, Armstrong does not base her study on any model other than a history of ideas one. Not by diffusion, not by memes, not by franchises, her ambitious survey links China, India, the Middle East, and Greece by a shared shift away from ritual and top-down imposition of belief into a gentler, kinder compassion emanating from self-criticism, introspection, responsibility, and carried into action stressing social justice and practical cooperation. Certainly, this echoes our own times with their progressive bent, and such scholars as Armstrong favor this slant, aimed at a broad audience.
As in her “History of God” and her works on the Buddha and Islam, she packs a lot of learning gleaned from solid research; she tends towards popularizing and summing up scholarship for a wider readership rather than pushing her own original insights. She also leans towards generous sympathy, as in her closing section on Islam. Wright, Stark, Wade advance their own theories more than she does. We need such hefty works as these to inform us of how ancient many ideas we search out in religious traditions today have been, and how often they are suppressed or compromised given the counter-trends (Wright tends to emphasize these) towards doctrinal conformity and social control by these world-shaking religious powers, allied with political clout. Bigotry, as she closes her book elegantly reminding us, can emanate from secular as well as religious fundamentalism. Instead, we all need to look inside ourselves, do right, and share responsibility. Armstrong stresses the turning away from violence and prejudice, and she seeks Karl Jasper’s “a pause for liberty,” non-violence, and the Golden Rule in her study of the Axial Age, extending here to encompass ca. 900-220 BCE.