Robert N. Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age.
The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011. 746 pages
Review by William Converse
Robert Neelly Bellah, Elliott Professor of Sociology Emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, is a distinguished American sociologist of religion, best known for his work on American civil religion. He was born in Altus, Oklahoma, in 1927 and received both his B.A. degree and his doctorate from Harvard University. He was a student of Talcott Parsons, Wilfred Smith and Paul Tillich. Bellah was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1967; he received the National Humanities Medal in 2000 and the American Academy of Religion Martin E. Marty Award for the Public Understanding of Religion in 2007.
Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age is Bellah’s magnum opus, properly described as “magisterial”; its scale recalls Hegel’s Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion. Bellah stands in the tradition of Émile Durkheim (1858-1917) and Max Weber (1864-1920). He has done for the 21st century what Weber did for the 20th century in the field of the sociology of religion. The project took thirteen years to complete, supported since 2004 by the John Templeton Foundation.
This is an erudite, systematic and historical comparative study of religion from the earliest stages of cosmic and biological evolution to the end of the first millennium BCE. It is a universal history that encompasses the civilizations of ancient China and India as well as ancient Israel and Greece. Bellah makes extensive use of the texts of these religious traditions: the Analects of Confucius, the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, the Hebrew Bible, Hesiod, the Homeric epics and the plays of Euripides.
Bellah traces the biological and cultural origins of religion back 13.5 billion years to the Big Bang and the appearance of unicellular organisms 3.5 billion years ago. He draws on a wide range of anthropological, biological and zoological material to show how certain human capacities developed that made religion possible. He also avails himself of the results of research in cognitive science and evolutionary psychology, especially the work of the cognitive scientist, Merlin Donald, whose evolutionary theories posit three stages in human cultural evolution: the mimetic, the mythic and the theoretic.
According to Bellah, the roots of ritual and myth lie in the natural evolution of humankind. Religion only became possible with the invention of language and the emergence of symbolic thought. Communal dancing, music, and storytelling eventually gave rise to abstract concepts and symbols. Here Bellah plumbs “deep history,” the vast stretches of human existence prior to the invention of writing. As an epigraph to the book he quotes Thomas Mann’s novel, Joseph and His Brothers: “Very deep is the well of the past.”
Definition of “religion” is a vexed question, especially in historical and cross-cultural comparative studies because it is culturally conditioned. Theists and atheists alike expect it to include supernatural beings or their agents, even though there are non-theistic religions, for example, Theravada Buddhism or Jainism.
In the Preface, Bellah adopts a simplified version of Clifford Geertz’s definition of religion from “Religion as a Cultural System” in The Interpretation of Cultures (1973):
“Religion is (1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.”
Bellah paraphrases Geertz:
“religion is a system of symbols that, when enacted by human beings, establishes powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations that make sense in terms of an idea of a general order of existence.”
Bellah notes that there is no mention here of “belief in supernatural beings” or “belief in gods (God).” This is not to deny them, “just that they are not the defining aspect.”
In Chapter 1, “Religion and Reality,” Bellah turns to Durkheim’s definition of religion in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912): “a unified system of beliefs and practices related to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden—beliefs and practices which united into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.”
Bellah modifies Durkheim’s definition: “Religion is a system of beliefs and practices relative to the sacred that unite those who adhere to them in a moral community.” This, in turn, raises further questions: What is the sacred? More importantly, Is there any space for the sacred in modernity? Are we not confined to what Weber called “the everyday,” the world of common-sense objects and ordinary reality? Bellah thinks there is room, citing Alfred Schutz’s analysis of multiple realities: “today we operate all the time in a series of non-ordinary realities as well as in ordinary reality.”
Bellah contends that religion has played an important role in our development as a species and continues to do so. Modernity undercuts religion. The scientific and technological world-view strips the cosmos of mystery, what Weber called “disenchantment.” Transcendence is ruled out in advance; we are confined to the limits of ordinary experience. The upshot of naturalism is secularism. Here Bellah acknowledges his debt to Professor Charles Taylor. In the Conclusion, he writes: “I have also been influenced by Charles Taylor in his work on multiculturalism, but particularly by his treatment of other religions, sometimes only incidentally, in A Secular Age, where he uniformly takes them seriously in their own terms.”
The primary focus of Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age is the emergence of religion in the distant biological past that we share with our hominid ancestors, culminating in “the Axial Age.” Readers of Karen Armstrong’s The Great Transformation: The Beginning of our Religious Traditions (2006) will be familiar with the concept that has gained currency since Karl Jaspers’s The Origin and Goal of History (1949/Eng. trans. 1953). The Axial Age refers to the emergence, roughly contemporaneously but independently, of Confucianism and Daoism in China; Buddhism and Hinduism in India; monotheism in Israel; and philosophical speculation in Greece during the 1st millennium BCE. The major figures are Buddha, Confucius, Mencius; Isaiah and Jeremiah; Euripides, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. He devotes separate chapters to the Axial Age in Ancient Israel (chapter 6), Ancient Greece (chapter 7), China in the Late First Millennium BCE (chapter 8) and Ancient India (chapter 9). These are preceded by the Preface and two chapters, “Religion and Reality” and “Religion and Evolution.” The Preface and the Conclusion are essential in order to follow his complex argument. Yet, Bellah is candid: “I can imagine that there will be readers who will like the cases and throw away the argument, and that is fine with me.”
Bellah recognizes that his attempt to combine evolutionary science and history is likely to produce discomfort:
“Most worrisome to many who fear the merging of evolution and history is the belief that they are based on two incompatible methodologies: evolution is natural science, rigidly deterministic and reductionist, allowing no freedom or creativity, whereas history is a humanistic study in which human freedom is at the center, in both its marvelous creativity and its terrifying violence. Grim determinism is not missing in some forms of neo-Darwinism, might I say the fundamentalist forms, in which the subject of evolution is genes, selfish genes at that, and organisms are only vehicles at the mercy of the blind forces of selection through which genes relentlessly propagate themselves. Richard Dawkins, particularly in his widely known book, The Selfish Gene, is the best-known proponent of this view.”
While Bellah subscribes to “the grand narrative” of Evolution, his understanding of evolutionary theory is suitably nuanced. Unlike Professor Dawkins, he is neither a reductionist nor a determinist:
“I have been trying to suggest that evolution is considerably more complex than what some biologists and many humanists think, there is a place within it for meaning and purpose, and that indeed meaning and purpose evolve. My particular interest in evolution is in the evolution of capacities, which has been a remarkable part of the story: the capacity for creating oxygen; the capacity for forming large complex organisms after a couple of billion years when only unicellular organisms had been around; the capacity for endothermy—the ability of birds and mammals to maintain a constant body temperature that allows them to survive in quite extreme hot or cold temperatures; the capacity to spend days or weeks, in the case of many mammals and birds, or years, in the case of chimpanzees and other apes, or decades, in the case of humans, in raising helpless infants and children unable to survive on their own; the capacity to make atomic bombs. Evolution gives us no guarantee that we will use these new capacities wisely or well Such capacities we can help us or they can destroy us, depending on what we do with them.”
Towards the end of the book Bellah discovered the importance of play, empathy and compassion in human evolution, qualities that we share with other primates. Drawing on Friedrich Schiller’s discussion of play, “On the Aesthetic Education of Man,” and on Johan Huizinga’s classic work Homo Ludens,”Man the Player,”Bellah allows the possibility that religion originated in play. In the Conclusion, he admits that Religion in Human Evolution might have been a very different book had he happened upon this idea earlier:
“Pascal in one of his fragments says something that applies to this book: ‘The last thing one discovers when writing a work is what one should put first.’ After having written Chapters 1 through 9, and in the course of completely rewriting Chapter 2, ‘Religion and Evolution,’ I discovered the importance of play in mammals and the extraordinary way in which play in animals provided the background for the development of play , ritual, and culture among humans. So play, though discovered last, did get in quite early in this book, but then is largely ignored through the whole trek from tribal to axial religions. Play was there all the time, just below the surface, though I didn’t point it out. Because, having been at work for thirteen years, I can’t imagine rewriting the whole book to give adequate attention to play. I will here in the Conclusion try briefly to make up for that deficiency by discussing the importance of play and those things that endanger play in human life.”
Readers may be dismayed by Bellah’s conclusions. These are pessimistic in the extreme. He finds scant evidence of any moral advance or that we are living in a new Axial Age: “Some have suggested that we are in the midst of a second axial age, but if we are, there should be a new cultural form emerging. Maybe I am blind, but I don’t see it. What I think we have is a crisis of incoherence and a need to integrate in new ways the dimensions we have had since the axial age.”
His prospects for humanity are equally bleak: “As some of us know, and all of us should know, we are in the midst of the sixth great extinction event at this very moment—indeed, we have been in it for a considerable time.” However, unlike previous mass extinctions, this one is being caused by human beings. “That cause is us.”
Religion in Human Evolution has over one hundred pages of notes and an extensive, though by no means exhaustive, index. It is written in an academic style that is free of jargon. This is a big book, full of big ideas. It offers fresh perspectives and opens up new vistas. It is a demanding book, but one I recommend for the general reader.
Readers Religion in Human Evolution may also wish to read The Axial Age and Its Consequences, edited by Robert N. Bellah and Hans Joas (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2012).
©William Converse 2013