"During this period of intense creativity, spiritual and philosophical geniuses pioneered an entirely new kind of human experience," Armstrong writes. These thinkers, she adds, "can still fill us with emotion because they show us what a human being should be."
What is remarkable about this age is not simply that profound religions were born, but that their essential teachings were so similar. At the core, in astonishingly similar language, stands the Golden Rule. In fact it was Confucius, she writes, who first articulated the rule, emphasizing the import of treating others with absolute respect.
In antiquity, religious rituals focused on the external world. But amid periods of war, intolerance, and disruptive social change, gifted individuals in diverse cultures began to seek the essence of the human being and explore the inner world.
That search spawned the struggle to rise above suffering and to go beyond egotism to empathy.
Armstrong sees a crucial element in those original teachings that she says has since been submerged or lost. Contrary to today's emphasis on doctrine, "what mattered [then] was not what you believed but how you behaved."
Indeed, seeking absolute certainty was considered ill-advised; it was only through living a compassionate life that one could hope to experience the transcendent reality one desired.
This is where contemporary faith has gone astray, Armstrong says, with the rigid adherence to doctrines that foster exclusivist thinking and a demonizing of "the other."