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Human Lifeworlds

The Cognitive Semiotics of Cultural Evolution

Edited By David Dunér and Göran Sonesson

This book, which presents a cognitive-semiotic theory of cultural evolution, including that taking place in historical time, analyses various cognitive-semiotic artefacts and abilities. It claims that what makes human beings human is fundamentally the semiotic and cultural skills by means of which they endow their Lifeworld with meaning. The properties that have made human beings special among animals living in the terrestrial biosphere do not derive entirely from their biological-genetic evolution, but also stem from their interaction with the environment, in its culturally interpreted form, the Lifeworld. This, in turn, becomes possible thanks to the human ability to learn from other thinking beings, and to transfer experiences, knowledge, meaning, and perspectives to new generations.
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Andreas Nordlander - Chapter Seven : Religion: The Semiotics of the Axial Age


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Andreas Nordlander

Chapter Seven

Religion: The Semiotics of the Axial Age

“Religion is more than anything a way of making sense of the world.”

Robert Bellah

What would a theory of religion look like if it took with utmost seriousness the deep evolutionary history of humanity, as well as the cognitive resources with which this history has equipped our species, but without thereby becoming reductionist? This chapter engages such a question in the attempt to understand some of the intriguing features specifically of the religious developments of the so called Axial Age – the formative period of many of the still living world religions, roughly occurring in the middle centuries of the first millennium BCE – and how these features are made possible by the unique semiotic skills of human beings.1

7.1. An Evolutionary Cognitive-Semiotic Approach to Religion

An unobjectionable definition of “religion” is notoriously difficult to produce, and is for most purposes unuseful. However, we do need a basic idea of what we are talking about when we are talking about religion. Simply to get started, then, I shall draw on Clifford Geertz’s notion of “the Problem of Meaning” (1973, chap. 4) and understand religion as the complex process and result of the unique meaning making skills of human beings – members of the species Homo sapiens – both collectively and individually, with respect to questions of ultimate meaning, such as the “why” of existence, the...

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