Religious Diversity

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RELIGIOUS DIVERSITY . [This entry examines the origins and differing patterns of development of the world's major religious traditions, as well as the varying patterns of interaction between these religions and the social, political, and economic frameworks with which they coexist.]

Religion and religious conceptions, beyond being systems of belief and patterns of worship, constitute a central component, as Max Weber pointed out, in the construction of the basic symbolic and institutional premises of societies and civilizations. This article shall explore systematically the relationship between several crucial aspects of religions and the construction of institutional features of societies and civilizations.

"Pagan" and "Great" Religions

This article shall concentrate on the analysis of a basic distinction between two broad types of religions: the so-called pagan religions (without, for reasons of space, going into the many differences between them) and the "great" religions (with some distinctions drawn from within the latter). It will explore some of the major ways in which some of the basic characteristics of these religions, especially of the religious belief systems, have shaped the contours of the respective civilizations in which they were institutionalized.

The societies in which different types of pagan religions were predominant have, of course, been many, and they include all tribal or preliterate societies, as well as many so-called archaic ones such as those of the ancient Near and Middle East, South and Southeast Asia, Japan, Mesoamerica, and many others.

The civilizations shaped by the great religions were denoted by Karl Jaspers in his work Vom Ursprung und Ziel der Geschichte (1949), as the "Axial Age" civilizations, including ancient Israel, ancient Greece, the early Christian world, Zoroastrian Iran, early imperial China, the Hindu and Buddhist civilizations, and, though postdating the Axial Age proper, the Islamic world.

The central distinction between these two broad types of religions is focused on the nature of the perception and definition of the relationship between what is mundane, or "given," and what is "transmundane" (otherworldly).

In all human societies, the transmundane order has been perceived as somewhat different, usually higher and stronger, than the mundane one. In pre-Axial Age, pagan civilizations, this higher world was symbolically structured according to principles very similar to those of the mundane or lower one; in other words, there existed a high degree of homology between them. Relatively similar symbolic terms or connotations were used for the definitions of both gods and humans and for both the mundane and transmundane orders, even if there always was a stress on the differences between them. In such societies the transmundane world was usually equated with a concrete setting, "the otherworld," which was the abode of the dead, the world of spirits, not entirely unlike the mundane world in detail.

By contrast, in the Axial Age civilizations, the perception of a sharp disjunction between the mundane and transmundane worlds developed. There was a concomitant stress on the existence of a higher, transcendental moral or metaphysical order that is beyond any given this-worldly or otherworldly reality.

On the symbolic or ideological level the development of these conceptions gives rise to the problem of salvation, to use Weber's terminology. The roots of the quest for salvation are manifest in the consciousness of death and the arbitrariness of human actions and social arrangements. The search for some type of immortality and a way to overcome such arbitrariness are universal to all societies. In societies where the mundane and transmundane worlds are defined in relatively homologous terms, the search for immortality has generally been envisaged in terms of some physical continuity; it is usually seen as conditional to the fulfillment of one's concrete obligation to one's group.

This no longer holds true for civilizations where there is an emphasis on the chasm between the transcendental and the mundane order and a conception of a higher moral or metaphysical order. While the concept of immortality in such civilizations may or may not still be tied to bodily images and to ideas of physical resurrection, the very possibility of some continuity beyond this world is usually seen in terms of the reconstruction of human behavior and personality. This reconstruction tends to be based on the precepts of the higher moral or metaphysical order through which the chasm between the transcendental and mundane orders is bridged; as Gananath Obeyesekere has put it, rebirth eschatology becomes ethicized.

Structure of Axial Age Elites

The conceptions outlined above were developed and articulated by a relatively new social element, a new type of intellectual elite, which became aware of the necessity of actively ordering the world according to some transcendental vision. The best illustrations of such elites are the Jewish prophets and priests, the Greek philosophers and Sophists, the Chinese literati, the Hindu brahmans, the Buddhist sagha, and the Islamic ʿulamāʾ. These new elites, which developed in conjunction with the process of institutionalization of these visions, generally differed from the ritual, magical, and sacral specialists of the pre-Axial Age civilizations. Intellectuals and clerics alike were recruited and legitimized according to distinct criteria, and were organized in autonomous settings, apart from those of their basic ascriptive units. They acquired a society-wide status of their own. They also tended to become independent of other categories of elites and social groups and competed strongly with these others, especially over the articulation and control of symbols and media of communication. Such competition became intensive because a parallel transformation had taken place in the structure of other elites, who also developed claims for an autonomous place in the construction of the cultural and social order. They saw themselves not only as performing specific technical, functional activities, but also as the potential carriers of a distinct cultural and social order related to the transcendental vision prevalent in their respective societies. The nonpolitical cultural elites and the political elites each saw themselves as the autonomous articulators of the new order, with the other type potentially inferior to and accountable to themselves.

Moreover neither of these groups of elites was homogenous. There developed a multiplicity of secondary cultural, political, and educational elites, each of which often carried a different conception of the cultural and social order. These elites were the most active in the restructuring of the world and the institutional creativity that developed in these societies.

Construction of Axial Age Societies

Common to all these elites were several tendencies with respect to the restructuring of the world and the construction of personality, civilization, and social order according to a transcendental vision and the principles of a higher metaphysical, ethical, or sacred order.

The given, mundane order was perceived in these civilizations as incomplete, inferior, and even in need of being reconstructed according to the conception of salvation, or the bridging of the chasm between the transcendental and the mundane orders.

Personal identity was usually taken beyond the definition of humankind in terms of the primordial givens of human existence, beyond the various technical needs of daily activities, to be constructed around the central mode or modes of human action through which the tensions between the transcendental and the mundane order are resolved. Purely personal virtues, such as courage, or interpersonal ones, such as solidarity, mutual help, and the like, have been taken out of their primordial (i.e., given) framework and combined in different, often dialectical, modes with the attributes needed to enact such a resolution. This combination resulted in a new level of tensions in the structure of the personality.

These conceptions also had far-reaching implications for institutions. The most common has been the high degree of symbolic and ideological orientation of the major aspects of institutional structure, manifest in the construction of distinct civilizational frameworks, collectivities, and autonomous centers, as well as the growth of conceptions of the accountability of rulers and new patterns of political struggle.

Civilizational collectivities

Some collectivities and institutional spheres (for instance, political, military, or economic) were singled out as the most appropriate carriers of these attributes that were required for resolution. As a result, new types of collectivities were created, or seemingly natural and "primordial" groups were endowed with special status couched in terms of the perception of the tension between the transcendental and mundane order and its resolution. In this context, the most important innovation was the development of cultural or religious collectivitiesas distinct from ethnic or political oneseven if some embryonic elements of this development existed in some of those societies where this tension had not been institutionalized. The membership of these collectivities tended to become imbued with a strong ideological orientation and to become involved in ideological struggle. An aspect of this struggle was the insistence on the exclusiveness and closure of the group, and on the distinction between inner and outer social and cultural space as defined by it. This led to attempts to structure the different cultural, political, and ethnic collectivities in some hierarchical order, which usually became a focus of ideological and political conflict.

Centers and center-periphery relations

Related to the construction of such major collectivities was the tendency toward the development of autonomous organization of the social centers and toward a relatively strong emphasis on the symbolic distinctiveness of the centers in relation to the periphery. Such centers have been conceived as the major loci of the charismatic attributes of the transcendental vision, and hence also of the construction of cultural and societal orders. These attributes of centrality became naturally related to the institutional spheres that show the closest affinity to the focus of the transcendental tension, and the centers most closely related to these spheres became autonomous and distinct from the periphery.

At the same time, the symbolic differentiation of the center gave rise to its tendency to permeate the periphery and to reorganize it according to its own, autonomous criteria. Carriers of the great traditions attempted to pull the little traditions into their orbit, and the latter tried to dissociate themselves from the great traditions, to profane them, and also, paradoxically enough, to generate their own distinct ideology.

In all these civilizations (as distinct from pre-Axial Age civilizations) there also took place a far-reaching reordering of the relationship between the political and the higher, transcendental order. The political order, as the central locus of the mundane order, was usually conceived as lower than the transcendental one; accordingly it had to be restructured according to the precepts of the latter. Above all, the political order had to reflect the perception of the proper mode of overcoming the tension between the transcendental and the mundane order (i.e., "salvation").

At the same time the nature of the rulers became greatly transformed. The king-god, who embodied the cosmic and earthly orders alike, disappeared, and a secular ruler, in principle accountable to some higher order, appeared. Thus there reemerged the conception of the accountability of the rulers and of the community to a higher authorityGod, divine law, and the like. Accordingly, the possibility of calling a ruler to judgment emerged.

Autonomous spheres of law and conceptions of human rights also began to develop. These tended to be somewhat distinct from ascriptively bound custom and from purely customary law, and while their scope varied greatly from society to society, all were established according to some distinct and autonomous criteria.

Parallel developments have also taken place in the structuring of social hierarchies and the economy, which became imbued in varying degrees and modes with broader ideological dimensions.

Dynamics of Axial Age civilizations

All these modes of reconstruction of the social and civilizational orders were not, however, static; indeed they were the focus of continuous struggle and change, and cannot be understood except in connection with the tensions inherent in the institutionalization of the tension between the transcendental and the mundane order as well as of the quest to overcome it. Such institutionalization generated an awareness of a great range of possibilities or visions of the very definition of such tensions; of the proper mode of their resolution as well as an awareness of the partiality or incompleteness of any given institutionalization of such vision. Historically, institutionalization was never a simple or peaceful process. It has usually been connected with a continuous struggle among many groups and their respective visions.

Once the conception of a basic tension between the transcendental and the mundane order was fully recognized and institutionalized in a society, or at least within its center, any definition and resolution of this tension became in itself very problematic. It usually contained strong heterogeneous and even contradictory elements, and its elaboration in fully articulated terms generated the possibility of different emphases, directions, and interpretations, all of which have been reinforced by the historical existence of multiple visions carried by different groups. Because of this, no single vision could be taken as given or complete.

This multiplicity of alternative visions gave rise to an awareness of the uncertainty of different roads to salvation, of alternative conceptions of social and cultural order, and of the seeming arbitrariness of any single solution. Such awareness has become a constituent element of the self-consciousness of these civilizations, especially among the carriers of the great traditions. This was closely related to the development of a high degree of "second order" thinking, of a reflexivity turning on the basic premises of the social and cultural orders.

Another element common to all these civilizations emerged from the combination of the conception of possible ways of salvation, alternative cultural and social orders, and the structuring of time. This element is the utopian vision: an alternative cultural and social order beyond any given place or time. Such visions contain many of the millenarian and revivalist elements that can also be found in pagan religions, but they go beyond them by realizing the necessity of constructing the mundane order according to the precepts of the higher one, and of searching for an alternative, "better" order beyond any given time and place.

The full impact of these dynamics can be understood only in connection with the nature of the social groups that were most active in the structuring of these civilizations, the major societal elites that developed within them, and the various autonomous intellectual and political elites mentioned above.

Of crucial importance for my analysis are the following facts: these elites were, as has been indicated above, heterogeneous; they were in constant competition with one another; and they were members not only of the ruling coalition, but also were the most active element in the movements of protest and processes of change that developed in these societies. They were above all involved in the construction of new sects and heterodoxies that upheld various alternative visions and conceptions of the social and cultural order and that became closely connected with the struggle among different elites, indeed often becoming the foci of such struggle. Because of this connection there emerged in these civilizations the possibility of structural and ideological linkages among different movements of protest and foci of political conflict (particularly rebellions, central political struggle, and religious or intellectual heterodoxies), and the possibility that all such movements, as well as sects and heterodoxies, would influence the center or centers of the society.

It is thus that there developed a new type of civilizational dynamics that transformed group conflicts into potential class and ideological conflicts and cult conflicts into struggles between the orthodox and the heterodox. Conflicts between tribes and societies became missionary crusades for the transformation of civilizations. The zeal for reorganization, as shaped by each society's concept of salvation, made the whole world at least potentially subject to cultural-political reconstruction. In all these new developments the different sectarian movements and heterodoxies played a central role.

Differences between Axial Age civilizations

Beyond the characteristics common to all the Axial Age civilizations, far-reaching differences developed among them. These were shaped by many conditions, two of which have been of special importance from the point of view of my analysis. One refers to variations in the basic cultural orientations, in the basic ideas or visions concerning civilizations, and their implications for institutions. The other set of conditions refers to different social arenas in which these institutional tendencies can be played out.

First of all, among the various cultural orientations there are crucial differences in the very definition of the tension between the transcendental and mundane orders and the modes of resolving this tension. There is the distinction between those cases in which the tension was couched in relatively secular terms (as in Confucianism and other classical Chinese belief systems and, in a somewhat different way, in the Greek and Roman worlds), and those cases in which the tension was conceived in terms of a distance between basic religious terms (as in the great monotheistic religions, Hinduism, and Buddhism).

A second distinction within the latter cases is that between the monotheistic religions, in which there was a concept of God standing outside the universe and potentially guiding it, and those systems, like Hinduism and Buddhism, in which the transcendental, cosmic system was conceived in impersonal, almost metaphysical terms, in a state of continuous existential tension with the mundane system.

Another closely related distinction lies in the focus of the resolution of the transcendental tensions, or, again in Weberian terms, salvation. Here the distinction is among purely this-worldly, purely otherworldly, and mixed this-worldly and otherworldly conceptions. It is probably no accident that the secular conception of salvation was connected (as in China and to some degree in the ancient world) with an almost wholly this-worldly approach, while the metaphysical, nondeistic conception of this tension (as in Hinduism and Buddhism), tended toward an otherworldly conception of salvation, and the great monotheistic religions tended to stress combinations of this-worldly and otherworldly conceptions.

These cultural orientations, as articulated by different elites, shaped to a very high degree the symbolic autonomy and characteristics of the new types of elites and ruling coalitions that characterized the post-Axial-Age civilizations. That is, they shaped the relations between them, their place in the ruling coalitions, the modes of control of the major institutional spheres effected by them, and the degree to which different ruling elites, secondary elites, and heterodoxies became involved with processes of societal change and transformation. The differences in the cultural orientations and structure of elites in various Axial Age civilizations had far-reaching impact on their institutions, structure, and dynamicsabove all on the structure of centers, of center-periphery relations, and of collectivitiesas well as on patterns of societal and civilizational change.

Otherworldly Axial Age civilizations

In most otherworldly civilizations there developed patrimonial regimes, to some degree similar to those that can be found in pre-Axial Age civilizations, yet with some crucial differences.

Such systems were characterized by a relatively low level of economic development, weak internal markets, a stronger orientation toward external markets, and strong extractive policies as well as, on the whole, a low degree of coalescence between the boundaries of the collectivities and the civilizational frameworks. The predominant coalitions within these systems were composed of relatively nonautonomous political and religious elites. The latter were also nonautonomous in most pagan societies, and in the post-Axial Age civilizations they were autonomous in the religious but not the political field.

In a parallel manner, the patrimonial societies were characterized by a relative lack of structural (as compared with ecological and symbolic) distinctiveness of the center from the periphery and usually by an adaptive attitude of the center toward the periphery. Within these patrimonial societies there generally developed a lower degree of society-wide class consciousness and symbolic articulation of the major types of collectivities.

The major distinction between those patrimonial regimes of the great post-Axial Age civilizations (Hindu, Buddhist, Islamic, and Latin American Catholic) and those that belonged to pagan civilizations lay first of all in the fact that the major types of elites (cultural and political alike) in the latter case were embedded in basic ascriptive frameworks, whereas in the former, the religious elites (and the political ones to a smaller degree, as in the Latin American Spanish empire) were autonomous mainly in the religious sphere. The carriers of the cultural and social order were those cultural elites that developed the great traditions and special, broader civilizational frameworks based on a strong perception of the tension between the transcendental and the mundane orders, the likes of which could not be found among the other pagan patrimonial regimes. Concomitantly, those elites created centers that were distinct from their own periphery in the religious sphere, as well as special interlinking networks between these centers and the periphery.

Hence these societies tended to develop more compact and dynamic political regimes (of which one type was the Theravāda Buddhistic gallactic polity as analyzed by Stanley J. Tambiah) while at the same time the national communities became imbued with stronger universal religious symbols. In times of crisis the religious elites also developed some autonomous activities.

Opposed to this development, in Axial Age civilizations in which a this-worldly orientation (as in China), or a mixed this-worldly and otherworldly orientation (as in the Byzantine and Russian empires and, to a smaller degree, the Abbasid and Ottoman empires) was prevalent, imperial systems, or mixed imperial and feudal ones, tended to develop. Western and central Europe are two important examples of such systems, which were characterized by highly coalescent boundaries of the major collectivities, political centralization, relatively developed economic systems, a preponderance of internal markets, and highly autonomous elites.

Most of the elites in the imperial and imperial-feudal societies tended to define themselves in autonomous terms, having their own resource bases and potential access to the center of society, and to each other. This was above all true with respect to the articulators of the cultural and social order (i.e., the cultural and religious elites), the political elite, and, to a lesser degree, the representatives of different collectivities and the economic elite.

Within these societies, moreover, a multiplicity of secondary elites developed, such as various sectarian groups in the religious sphere, or various social and political groups or movements. These elites impinged on those of the center and the periphery, and shaped protest movements and political activities within them. Each of the primary and secondary elites could constitute the starting point of movements of protest or of political struggle possessing a high level of organizational and symbolic articulation.

These elites also generated specific types of center-periphery relations, the major characteristics of which were a high level of symbolic and ecological distinctiveness from their respective centers and the continuous attempts of the centers not only to extract resources from the periphery but also to permeate and reconstruct the periphery according to their own premises. Thus, the political, religious, and cultural centers constituted the foci and loci of the various great traditions that developed in these societies as distinct from the local traditions. The permeation of the periphery by the centers was manifest in the latter's promotion of widespread channels of communication and in the attempts to break through the ascriptive ties of the periphery.

Closely connected to this type of center-periphery relationship in these societies was the development of a high level of articulation of symbols of society-wide social hierarchies, of some political consciousness of the upper strata, and of high ideological symbolization and mutual orientation among the major religious, political, and even ethnic and national collectivities. Although each collectivity tended to develop a relatively high degree of autonomy, they also constituted mutual referents for each other. For example, being a good "Hellene" was identified, in the Byzantine empire, with citizenship, and vice versa. This high degree of symbolic articulation and distinctiveness of the major institutional aspects of these imperial and imperial-feudal societies, was closely related to certain types of cultural orientations which, as has been seen, were articulated by these elites.

The most important difference between imperial and other types of regimes (such as those that were patrimonial or decentralized) was found in the structure of their ruling elites, the cultural orientations they articulated, the modes of control they exercised, and the relative autonomy of the major social strata. Differences existed between the monolithic elites, usually evincing strong this-worldly orientation, and the more heterogeneous ones, usually carrying some combination of this-worldly and otherworldly orientations. The latter patterns could also be distinguished according to the degree to which heterogeneous elites were segregated or interwoven. Both the monolithic and segregated elites tended to exercise relatively restricted modes of control. While the segregated elites were inclined to exert more intensive control than the monolithic ones, the control exercised by the more heterogeneous and closely interwoven elites was more flexible, though often also very intensive. But these possibilities became more fully developed in a political-ecological constellation in certain types of decentralization. This article shall now turn to the analysis of decentralized political-ecological systems.

Religious and social dynamics in Axial Age civilizations

The different Axial Age civilizations were characterized also by patterns of religious and societal dynamics in general and by the impact of religious changes on societal ones in particular. From the point of view of my discussion the most crucial difference is between those civilizations that can legitimately be called heterodoxies and those that are more appropriately labeled sects.

The term heterodoxy is, of course, applicable only in cases where one can talk about orthodoxy, and this term in its turn implies certain types of organizational and cognitive doctrinal structures. Organizationally the crucial aspect is, of course, the existence of some type of organized church that attempts to monopolize at least the religious sphere and usually also the relations of this sphere to the political powers. But of no lesser importance is the organization of doctrine, in other words, the very stress on structuring clear cognitive and symbolic boundaries of doctrine.

With respect to both organizational and doctrinal aspects, the major difference among the Axial Age civilizations is that between the monotheistic civilizations (Christianity in particular) and Hinduism and Buddhism. (Confucian China constitutes a sort of in-between type.)

Within Christianity, these organizational and doctrinal aspects of orthodoxy, as well as full-fledged churches that constituted potentially active and autonomous partners of the ruling coalitions, developed in the fullest way. In Judaism and Islam these developments were weaker; there developed rather powerful but not always as fully organized and autonomous organizations of clerics.

Similarly, in Christianity, and to a smaller, but yet not insignificant, degree also in Judaism and Islam, there developed strong tendencies toward the structuring of relatively clear cognitive doctrinal and ritual boundaries.

In comparison, in Hinduism and Buddhismdespite a very strong transcendental and otherworldly orientationthe structuring of cognitive doctrines (as distinct from ritual) did not constitute a central aspect or premise. Hence, though it is not impossible to talk about something akin to church in Buddhismalbeit a much more loosely organized one than in the monotheistic traditionsit is very difficult to talk about heterodoxy. At the same time sectarianism abounds, Buddhism itself being, in a sense, a sect developing out of Hinduism.

The various Hindu sects, and Buddhism itself, did indeed have far-reaching impact on the structuring of the mundane spheres of their respective civilizations. They extended the scope of the different national and political communities and imbued them with new symbolic dimensions. They also changed some of the bases and criteria of participation in the civilizational communities, as was the case in Judaism, in the bhakti movement and, above all, in Buddhism when an entirely new civilizational framework was constructed.

Buddhism also introduced new elements into the political scene, above all the special way in which the sagha, usually a very compliant group politically, could in some cases become a sort of moral conscience of the community, calling the rulers to some accountability.

But this impact was of a different nature from that of the struggles between the ruling orthodoxies and the numerous heterodoxies that developed within the monotheistic civilizations. Of crucial importance has been the fact that, in these latter cases, a central aspect of the struggles was the attempt to reconstruct the political and cultural centers of their respective societies and that, because of this, these struggles became a central part of the histories of these civilizations, shaping the major contours of their development.

The impact of religion on society in China and in the Islamic world was greatly shaped by their prevalent orientations and the structure of their respective elites and heterodoxies, that is, by their respective political-ecological settings; by whether they were small or great societies; by whether they were societies with continuous, compact boundaries, or with cross-cutting, flexible boundaries; by their economic structure; and last by their specific historical experience, especially in terms of encounters with other societies (such as mutual penetration, conquest, or colonization).

The interplay between the different constellations of the cultural orientations analyzed above, their carriers, and their respective visions of restructuring the world (and the concrete arenas and historical conditions in which such visions could be concretized), have shaped the institutional contours and dynamics of different Axial Age civilizations, both in the "historical" periods as well as in the transition to modernity, and in the different modes of modernity, that have developed within them.

See Also

Intellectuals; Modernity.


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