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The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions

4.03  ·  Rating Details  ·  2,649 Ratings  ·  205 Reviews
From Karen Armstrong, the bestselling author of A History of God and The Spiral Staircase, comes this extraordinary investigation of a critical moment in the evolution of religious thought.In the ninth century BCE, events in four regions of the civilized world led to the rise of religious traditions that have endured to the present day--the development of Confucianism and ...more
Paperback, 592 pages
Published April 10th 2007 by Anchor (first published January 1st 2006)
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The Case for God by Karen ArmstrongGod's Problem by Bart D. EhrmanA History of God by Karen ArmstrongZealot by Reza AslanThe Evolution of God by Robert Wright
Houston Oasis
29th out of 58 books — 7 voters
1491 by Charles C. MannAfrica by John ReaderA History of God by Karen ArmstrongA Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill BrysonIron Kingdom by Christopher   Clark
World History AP 2013
61st out of 187 books — 15 voters

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(showing 1-30 of 3,000)
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Aug 09, 2015 William1 rated it really liked it
Karen Armstrong takes great mountains, virtual Everests, of wretched scholarly prose and turns them into something highly readable. She is a first-rate disseminator and popularizer of the history of religion. The Great Transformation reviews the history of what Karl Jaspers famously termed the "Axial Age." During this period, roughly 900-200 B.C.E., the foundations for all of our present religious traditions were laid down: Hinduism, Confucianism, Buddhism, Jainism, Judaism, the other monotheism ...more
Apr 03, 2016 John rated it really liked it
The Great Transformation argues that the core religious/philosophical traditions of several major civilizations -- China, India, Greece, and Israel -- emerged at about the same time, for the same reasons, and were preoccupied with the same ideas. The time is what philosopher Karl Jaspers called the Axial Age, the period from approximately 700-200 B.C. when these civilizations all developed philosophical or religious tenets that emphasized what we might now call inner spiritual development rather ...more
Megan Anderson
Jul 14, 2012 Megan Anderson rated it it was amazing
This textbook covers the beginnings and transformation of the major world religions through the Axel Age, from 1600 BCE to 220 BCE, plus an epilogue that brings the history into the current time.

I borrowed this from our friend Steve last fall, and I haven’t had enough brain cells to absorb this much information until now. This was the textbook from one of his religion classes in undergrad (he’s a genius grad school engineer now), and he passed it on to me because he knew I’d love it. I have to g
Much as I’d like to just leave my review to one word, fascinating, I don’t think that would be sufficient.
So, this book left me feeling just a bit uneducated as I know practically nothing about all but one of the religions discussed but I did find it curious, as obviously the author has, that all three would have such similar ideas at approximately the same time. The progression of each religion based on their geographical area and societal influences as well as their ultimate conclusions, whic
Jan 29, 2015 Jason rated it it was amazing
Karen Armstrong looks beyond doctrine to find a common core in the religious and philosophical traditions that emerged during the years 900 to 200 BCE - an era the German philosopher Karl Jaspers called the Axial Age. All around the world at the time, people were trying to address the question of violence and endless war.

What she found in the writings of the great thinkers and sages of Confucianism and Daoism in China, Hinduism and Buddhism in India, Judaism and the precursors of Christianity i
P.J. Wetzel
Nov 09, 2013 P.J. Wetzel rated it liked it
I came to be aware of this book through my research for my distant future fantasy/sci-fi novel 'Ice King: The Last Messiah'. I wanted to understand the origin and evolution of mankind's religious journey in order to project a plausible future. That's a tall order, of course, but for me the study was a fascinating journey. I started by reading Huston Smith's iconic 'The World's Religions' and then began to delve deeper.

Along the way I had a little epiphany: It seemed that many major faith traditi
Nicholas Whyte
Dec 17, 2010 Nicholas Whyte rated it did not like it

This is a rather brave attempt to wring significance out of the fact that Confucius, the Buddha, Socrates and Jeremiah all lived at about the same time, between them causing a revolution in the way in which humans relate to the universe in philosophy and religion. It did not completely work for me. I found Armstrong's account of the evolution of the Old Testament as a product of the Jews' exile in Babylon pretty compelling, and we have a couple more of h
Miroku Nemeth
Jan 28, 2015 Miroku Nemeth rated it really liked it
I have mixed feelings about this book. It's a perspective on history that is interesting in many ways, but very misleading in others. The attribution of nonviolence to peoples who were violent is really quite inexplicable if it was actually a historical analysis of the theoretical "axis age" (that this is a problematic construction is actually borne out by the tortured argument structure of the book), but it is a recurrent theme she uses to support her thesis throughout the 500 and some odd page ...more
Jan 23, 2016 Sarahj33 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
So I bought this book about three years ago at a street festival in Michigan when I was on a big non-fiction kick. I never got past the first couple of chapters because the writing felt pretty dense and seemed to assume that I had a background knowledge of things like the Assyrian Empire and the Book of Deuteronomy. I still don't know anything about those things, but I decided to give the book another go as part of my quest to actually read all the books that are languishing on my shelves before ...more
Beginning with an exploration of Asian religious tradition, Karen Armstrong gradually moves to a general, and rather generic, call for religious tolerance. She focuses exclusively on the religious traditions of the Asian continent, notably Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism, and while she does a cracking good job of it (her explication of Buddhist belief was the clearest I've ever read), she does so to the neglect of the contributions of the West to religious thought, notably Catholicism and post-Re ...more
Charles Matthews
Dec 07, 2009 Charles Matthews rated it really liked it
We can be almost certain that somewhere, at this very moment, someone is committing an act of violence in the name of God. That troubling realization underlies this book, an attempt to reach back 2,500 years and more, to survey our earliest attempts to establish systems of belief that promise a release from human strife.

Karen Armstrong's "great transformation" took place in what the philosopher Karl Jaspers called "the Axial Age" – roughly seven centuries, starting around 900 B.C., in which the
Feb 21, 2012 Kathy rated it it was amazing
I read this book after reading Armstrong's wonderful book, "The Spiral Staircase." As a person who has never studied religious history, I lack the context for assessing Armstrong's treatment of the Axial Age during which major religions evolved versions of the Golden Rule. Her writing is very clear and easy to read, and she provides extensive documentation and explanations at the back. For me, the book was a captivating journey through a dimension of history that has fueled my curiosity. She sti ...more
Apr 10, 2012 Anita rated it it was amazing
The origins of religions have always been fascinating to me. This book does a great job of tracing them all back to the beginning. Very interesting, although the whole chapter on China was a bit long and tedious, and I found it hard to keep it all straight. It's really eye opening though, and leads to a better understanding of what motivates people in the ongoing "my God is better than your God" struggle. When you get right down to it, all religions are based on some type of cult following. They ...more
AC Fick
Jul 13, 2013 AC Fick rated it it was amazing
Armstrong is informed and informative without ever being didactic or preachy. This book, given the vast scope of its subject matter -- across time and space -- is infinitely readable, while always being detailed, specific, and accurate.

If you're intrigued by or interested in the history of the major religious and faith-based traditions in the world, this book is rewarding reading.

In fact, this ought to be required reading for all students of humanity; everyone, every last one of us, ought to rea
Harker US Library
May 26, 2016 Harker US Library rated it it was ok
In The Great Transformation, religious historian Karen Armstrong sets out to analyze the origins of Buddhism, Judaism, Confucianism, and Daoism in the context of political and social strife in the centuries leading up to the Common Era. As a primer to the study of ancient Mediterranean and East Asian philosophy, The Great Transformation occasionally hits the mark: its analyses of the historical realities of the Babylonian Captivity in the Middle East and the Period of the Warring States in China ...more
Carlos Burga
This book was certainly one of the most ambitious books I’ve read; Karen Armstrong sets out to explain the unique epoch known as the Axial Age in the context of some of the most influential civilizations of the time: Greece, India, China and Judea. Since her prose has to be shared between several sophisticated civilizations, the reader may sometimes feel that there is not much depth in the descriptions of the events that took place between c. 1000 BCE and c. 200 BCE, but at least once throughout ...more
Robert Wood
Sep 16, 2015 Robert Wood rated it liked it
Armstrong, looks at ancient Greece, India, China, and the kingdoms of Israel around the time of what Karl Jaspers calls the 'Axial Age' to find a common ethical core to the philosophies of that time. She argues that we should look to these values to resolve our own current problems. That core philosophy is a move a way from a communalistic religion with an immanent conception of god to a individualistic and ethical conception of the self that attempts to transcend its own egotism through a serie ...more
Tim Velden
Sep 11, 2014 Tim Velden rated it it was amazing
The Great Transformation is a fantastic book! It gave me a lot of new insights in how the religions and philosophical ideas as we know them today came into existence.

Upon finishing it I had the idea that I learned a lot about the period 1000 B.C - 100 A.D. The Book covers the Greeks and their invention of the Gods and Titans, and later on discusses the well-known Greek philosophers such as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. It covers the origins of Buddhism, Hinduism and where fore example the word
Martin Council
Sep 05, 2014 Martin Council rated it really liked it
One reads Armstrong not for her mastery of historical detail, but to experience her perspective on the subject matter. She covers vast epochs–periods to which people have dedicated their academic lives–in brief volumes in an effort to comment on trends and influences.. She never pretends to accomplish more. Love her or hate her (I love her) but don't hold her responsible for personal expectations she never sought to satisfy. She thinks well, expresses her thoughts well and has an interesting per ...more
Jun 27, 2011 Lori rated it it was amazing
I have read this two times and now am having it read to me in bed by my husband, a release for gut centered pacifists pained by all these wars.
Oct 16, 2015 Nik rated it really liked it
Karen Armstrong proposes that the test of true religiosity in every single one of the major religious traditions, is to act compassionately and to honor the stranger. She suggests that when looking at the worlds major religious traditions one may discover the spiritual kernel behind all of them when one avoids jettisoning the doctrines within them. She gives a wide and broad view of the axial age within each faith tradition and helps one see the commonality behind this striving for compassion. I ...more
May 24, 2010 Cliff rated it really liked it
A bit dry but very well researched.
Oct 21, 2015 Jo rated it really liked it
Wow, what a book! Very ambitious. Armstrong covers a lot of ground and there were moments when I felt quite overfaced by the quantity of description and information. Equally, there were moments of utter fascination. For me, what made it so interesting was seeing different parts of such a big picture, being enabled to fit certain stories, ideas and people into some semblance of order, and to make some comparisons.

The Greek and Jewish parts of the story were relatively familiar to me, so I was pa
Bill Kte'pi
Jan 17, 2016 Bill Kte'pi rated it really liked it
I'm of two minds here, at least to the extent that I treat a review as a recommendation. On the one hand, Armstrong is one of the best writers of popular histories of Abrahamic religions, and so her overview of one of the most fascinating concepts in the history of religion - the Axial Age, the Big Idea that the first millennium BCE saw similar transformative thinking introduced to the religious and philosophical traditions of many different cultures - is of course invaluable.

On the other hand,
Sep 20, 2011 Daniel rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: own, religion
In the Great Transformation, Karen Armstrong traces the origins and development of spiritual thought during the Axial Age. The Axial Age was a period between approximately 900 - 200 BC, in which new philosophical and religious concepts emerged in four disparate regions - namely China, India, Israel and Greece - and which still have a lasting impact on our world today.

Armstrong does an admirable job of expounding the political and social situations of the period, and how they eventually develope
Apr 19, 2011 Tom rated it it was amazing
It took a long time to finish this book, but it is worth the effort. In its scope and importance, it reminds me of Ideas: from Fire to Freud, another very worthwhile book. However, this one is more focused and, in some ways, more original.

Armstrong deals with what the historian Karl Jaspers calls the Axial Age (that period between 900 and 200 BC) during which the major philosophical and religious traditions that exist today, began. She follows developments in this regard in 4 distinct regions an
Jan 26, 2011 Sean rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
"The Great Transformation: The Beginnings of Religious Traditions" is the sort of scholarship you can come to expect from Karen Armstrong, an independent scholar from Britain who writes extensively on religious topics. She is able to take quite complicated issues and ideas and his able to make them accessible to a wider audience. This really is the biggest job of a scholar, whether independent or attached to a university- to be able to communicate your thoughts and ideas in a coherent way. If yo ...more
Sep 27, 2013 Guillermojimenezespneo rated it did not like it
Mi estimada Karen es autora de algunos libros fundamentales en la historia de esa parte irracional del alma humana llamada religión. Esa estúpida dicotomía que permitió el nacimiento de las religiones de la sangre con su cauda de sufrimiento, dolor y muerte es explorada con claridad, profundidad, respeto y veracidad de una manera que yo no conocía, ni siquiera imaginaba. Como todo lego en los abismos de la esquizofrenia religiosa. Estaba en el canal Jaynes, para quien la religión es un remanente ...more
Jan 09, 2010 Mark rated it liked it
I like reading Karen Armstrong's books. This book is a travel through religious history, especially that of the Judaism and Christianity. It includes Islam, but not to the same extent. The book seems centered around the 'axial' age of religions; that is, the movements,mostly early on, that defined religious belief as a changing phenomenon motivated by individual betterment, rather than traditional acceptance of socially defined belief.

The book starts with the Aryans, around 1600 B.C.E and takes
Choong Chiat
Jul 30, 2011 Choong Chiat rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
In this extensive and intensive historical account of how the spiritual/philosophical/religious beliefs of the ancient Indians, Chinese, Greeks and Jews changed as their respective societal conditions underwent different changes, the author presents an eloquent, albeit implicit and perhaps unintended, case for how instead of Man being created in the image of God, it is more likely that God was created in the image of Man.

More explicitly, the author, in the concluding chapter of the book, recomme
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British author of numerous works on comparative religion.


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“Oedipus had to abandon his certainty, his clarity, and supposed insight in order to become aware of the dark ambiguity of the human condition.” 3 likes
“Shu required that “all day and every day” we looked into our own hearts, discovered what caused us pain, and then refrained, under all circumstances, from inflicting that distress upon other people. It demanded that people no longer put themselves into a special, separate category but constantly related their own experience to that of others. Confucius was the first to promulgate the Golden Rule. For Confucius it had transcendent value.” 0 likes
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