The 21st Century Evolution of Religion and Spirituality

Scholars of religion point to “the Axial Age” (roughly the first millennium BCE) as the period of the dawn of the great classical religions that we know today. These days, it’s often suggested that we have entered a second great “turning on the religious axis,” a Second Axial Age. If the first brought the individual to the fore, the latter shifts our focus to the global dimension of ethical, religious, and spiritual awareness and action.


The great theologian Ewert Cousins (1927-2009) believed that the 21st century marked a new evolutionary turning that will reshape religion and spirituality in extraordinary ways.


“If we shift our gaze from the first millennium BCE to the eve of the twenty-first century, we can discern another transformation of consciousness. It is so profound and far-reaching that I call it the Second Axial Period. Like the first it is happening simultaneously around the earth, and like the first it will shape the horizon of consciousness for future centuries. Not surprisingly, too, it will have great significance for world religions, which were constituted in the First Axial Period. However, the new form of consciousness is different from that of the First Axial Period. Then it was individual consciousness, now it is global consciousness.”

(Ewert Cousins, Christ of the 21st Century, pp. 7-8.)


What are the most dramatic changes that might be on the horizon? What is the promise of our evolutionary age? What are the dangers, the challenges, and the opportunities? What does it mean to be at the threshold of a “Second Axial Age?” What commitments to action can we offer?


The Event

Awakened World 2012 will be convened in Rome and Florence, Italy in October 2012. There will be events in both cities (connected by a 1.5 hour express train). The purpose of the gathering will be to explore the evolution of religion and spirituality in the 21st century, as a significant challenge and opportunity for the world. The event will, we intend, set the stage for the next decades of evolutionary activism, and for a “Second Axial Age” in religion and spirituality.


The event will take the form of dialogues (rather than lectures and major presentations) on key changes and opportunities in our time for religious and spiritual evolution and engagement.


Convening Organizations

Three organizations – The Association for Global New Thought (AGNT), The International Committee for the Peace Council (ICPC), and the Interreligious Engagement Project for the 21st Century (IEP21) – will convene the event. They are working closely with colleagues and governing officials in Italy.


Key Participants

Awakened World 2012 will revolve around a Core Group, featuring key members of the International Interreligious Peace Council and their peers from the world’s religious and spiritual communities. Joining them will be respected wisdom leaders drawn from the world’s “guiding institutions,” including in addition to religion: government, commerce, education, the arts, science, intergovernmental institutions, and civil society. Leaders of the convening organizations (AGNT, ICPC, IEP21) will complete the Core Group and provide facilitation for the conference.


The convening organizations are pleased to invite a broadly inclusive Action Group of people engaged in the heroic effort to build a better world, making up the audience for the conference. These individuals will participate fully in working groups with global leaders from the various faiths and cultures. The Action Group will take part in plenary sessions – listening, learning, and helping to frame a strategic action plan for spiritual engagement. In working sessions with leaders, Action Group members will shape programs and help design training to benefit communities at the local and regional levels. Action Group members will come away from the conference equipped with cutting edge knowledge and tools to lead initiatives at home, based on their areas of expertise and the personal passion that calls them. They will remain in contact with peace leaders and conveners through a communications hub that proceeds directly out of the conference.

• Action Group candidates should demonstrate an understanding of and involvement with some aspect(s) of the cultural evolutionary process. Their areas of interest should concern one or more of the Axial Markers which the conference will address. Each should be able to make a positive contribution to the dialogues and to assist in implementing the ongoing process of awareness and action. Finally, these participants should have a strong interest in the theme of evolutionary religion and spirituality.

• A key theme for the Action Group will be linking agreed upon principles to actual responsibilities: in other words, charting an appropriate course of action for the profound yet practical realization of the vision.


The Vision

The dominant characteristic of the new axial period is the emergence of global awareness, concern, commitment, and spiritual understanding. Spiritual evolution unfolds as a key dimension of the process of cultural evolution: the slow, steady (and occasionally dramatically accelerated) shift of prevailing cultural values, assumptions, memes, and behavior patterns toward a closer fit with our best understanding of reality.


“Four strong winds” of cultural evolutionary sea change drive the process and will help to shape the Dialogues:

Complexity: the tendency of human culture to grow steadily more complex and, in the process, more evolved
Chaos to Order: a dynamic system’s inclination move from turbulence to transformation…from apparent chaos to emerging order
Creativity: cultural evolution from the bottom-up, through the astonishing processes of “self-organization” and “emergence”
Cooperation: human social evolution’s inherent bias toward interdependence: the rise of “non-zero-sumness”


Every cultural evolutionary passage needs to find its thematic moment and its first voice. Awakened World 2012 can help to shape a genuine Axial Moment, calling attention to the shifting paradigm, and helping to facilitate the religious and spiritual healing of the world.


Awakened World 2012 will model the harmony of the world’s great religious and spiritual communities – their common ground and the differences that give them unique identities – demonstrating that a shared vision can transcend differences and reveal wisdom. This value of this undertaking will lie in the contribution it can make to global evolutionary awareness and transformative action.