Religion in Human Evolution:

Weber for the 21st century

posted by Richard Madsen

For almost one hundred years, all sociologists of religion have taken Max Weber’s great work on comparative religions as a primary point of departure. Whole libraries of scholarship have been produced to explicate Weber, expand on Weber, disagree with Weber, revise Weber. In the next hundred years, I think, the point of departure will be Robert Bellah rather than Weber. Bellah’s new masterpiece, Religion in Human Evolution is comparable in scope, breadth of scholarship, and depth of erudition to Weber’s study of world religions, but it is grounded in all of the advances of historical, linguistic, and archeological scholarship that have taken place since Weber, as well as theoretical advances in evolutionary biology and cognitive science. There is enough complexity in Bellah’s work to generate as many academic inspirations and controversies—and, inevitably, oversimplifications and misunderstandings—as have arisen from Weber’s, but Bellah’s will have more resonance with contemporary issues than Weber’s century-old scholarship. Even more fundamental, however, is that Bellah’s new book is in style and pathos more in tune with the spirit of the early twenty-first century than Weber. What are some of the key contrasts between Bellah and Weber? First of all, having deeply absorbed the perspectives of Durkheim, Bellah is focused much more on religious practice, especially ritual practice. This puts him in line with the dominant contemporary trends in the anthropology of religion, trends that see religions mainly as ways of life rather than systems of ideas. Weber doesn’t ignore religious practices, but puts much more emphasis on the ideas that animate the great world religions. Bellah by no means ignores religious ideas, but he emphasizes how thinking about religion grows out of doing religion.

This emphasis on practice leads to a different style of exposition than Weber’s. Much more than Weber’s (or Durkheim’s or Parsons’), Bellah’s expository style is dominated by narrative. Religion in Human Evolution is a grand story, what Bellah calls a “deep history,” that extends all the way from the Big Bang to the axial age (with suggestive implications as to how the story will unfold in modern times). This leads to a much more fluid account of the origin and development of religions than Weber’s. In Bellah’s telling, religious practices emerge gradually over centuries, in constant interaction with social and political transformations. A good example is his account of the slow and tension-filled development of monotheism in ancient Israel. Weber tends to construct large ideal-typical constellations of ideas and then connect them with class structures and political processes. The effect is to freeze big chunks of historical time and to show how ideas and social structures are interrelated within those chunks, rather than to amalgamate meanings and social processes in the flow of history. Bellah’s privileging of process over structure through narrative makes his work more congenial to the academic currents of this new century.

Another important difference between Bellah and Weber is that Bellah is more inclined to emphasize similarities rather than differences between the great religious traditions. On the one hand, Bellah repeatedly emphasizes that the major religious traditions are different, they ask different questions about life, they arise out of different historical experiences, they are shaped by all the particularities of their origins. Nonetheless, Bellah goes to great lengths to argue that the great traditions of the axial age (precisely those which Weber spent most of his career exploring) share in common certain aspirations to transcendence. The historical, archeological, and textual evidence about the life world of those times contained great ambiguities in Weber’s time and many of these have not been cleared up in the past century. But Weber tends to spin the ambiguous evidence in favor of contrast between the traditions, while Bellah spins it in favor of an emphasis on commonalities. An example is their treatment of ancient China. Weber saw Confucianism and Taoism as religions/philosophies of adaptation to the world that lacked the sense of transcendence that could eventually produce the inner-worldly asceticism of Western Protestantism. Bellah on the other hand, assuredly does see an important aspiration to transcendence in Confucius and in other major philosophers of China’s Warring States Period. But he clearly admits that there are some respected Sinologists who do not see that transcendence. There are ambiguities in the evidence and respected experts on both sides. Bellah stands with the side of transcendence, but Weber could have made a case for the other side.

Part of this difference is connected with their style of exposition. Weber’s ideal types are built around distinctions. Bellah’s narrative style pulls phenomena together. But the difference is also linked to the differences in the grand meta-narratives than underpin each project. Weber’s story is about the rise of capitalism out of the religious traditions of the West, and his work on comparative religions is structured to show that capitalism could not have arisen initially in societies with different religious traditions. Bellah’s narrative rejects the “Rise of the West” story. Rather, he is concerned with parallel developments of human cultural creativity across the whole breadth of the human species.

Bellah’s more ecumenical story better resonates with the ethos of the twenty-first century. Intellectuals in both the west and the rest have discredited any reason for triumphalism about the rise of Euro-America. Meanwhile we are all faced with the urgent political necessity of finding commonalities in the human condition that might help us avoid planetary catastrophe.

Bellah’s account also evokes the pathos of our current condition. In the history of sociology, one can trace a long arc from optimism to pessimism: Comte thought that positive science would create a better world for all; Marx envisioned a brutal revolutionary struggle leading eventually to the promised land of communism; Weber put us in an iron cage; Bellah ends his deep history by evoking the possible extinction of the human species.

This pessimistic pathos is also congruent with the mood of the times. In an era when global capitalism is tearing itself apart while socialism presents no viable alternative, and when the world seems powerless to avert global warming and other ecological catastrophes, the extinction of our species seems for the first time possible, even if we hope not probable. The mood is dark, and will remain so for a long time. Just as earlier generations were drawn not only to Weber’s luminescent brilliance but also to the dark shadows in his portrayal of a spirit-stifling rationalization, so may future generations be both inspired by Bellah’s conceptual brilliance and strangely attracted to his darker thoughts about the fatal flaws in our modernity.

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4 Responses to “Weber for the 21st century”

  1. avatar Hans Eicholz says:

    This is a very helpful review–thank you for writing it.

    For the sake of discussion, it seems to me that his emphasis on the overall structure rather than the component parts of such structures (ie ideal types etc) indicates that Bellah is really continuing down a trend that emphasizes external constraints on volition–and this combined with grand narrative makes me wonder if he hasn’t gone too far down a determinist path–a dreary one at that. My own sense is that we will actually be veering back to a more open-ended narrative that stresses choice and personality once more–the same sort of thinking out of which Weber came.

    But I might be wrong or might have misunderstood, and I thank you for this thoughtful review. I will get my copy!

  2. avatar Sam Porter says:

    Bellah certainly does have some sobering thoughts about the fatal flaws in our modernity. But Religion in Human Evolution is also a rich source in its exposition of cases of some of humanity’s deepest insights about the human condition with all its moral perplexity and ambiguity, cross pressures and dilemmas. Both Bellah and Weber say, at least in my reading, we can draw on, retrieve or critically reappropriate these deep insights to offset our flaws and to make a better if not a good world. In addition to having read Religion in Human Evolution, I’ve been reading and learning and listening to Bellah for decades and it is clear to me that his dialectical way of thinking pretty much precludes the deterministic pessimism of Weber’s iron cage moments. I say “moments” because even Weber, and in this Bellah follows Weber very much, at the end of The Protestant Ethic, talks about the possibility of “a great rebirth of old ideas and ideals” as well as the possibility of “mechanized petrification, embellished with a sort of convulsive self-importance.” So while Madsen is right to highlight the dark side in Bellah and Weber, it’s not absolute for either, nor is it the whole story in Bellah’s grand narrative. In his recent talk at the Beijing Forum, Bellah talks about two of the deepest human dispositions that go back millions of years. One of them is the disposition to domination but the other is the disposition to nurture. I don’t mean to say Madsen is implying otherwise. But Bellah’s story, it seems to me, is very much about the dialectical tension between the two, and not an either/or logic.

  3. avatar Hans Eicholz says:

    That is a nice clarification Mr. Porter. Many thanks. I look forward to the read!

  4. avatar Stefan says:

    I don’t know about the pessimism of either Bellah or Weber, but we are crazy if we don’t recognize that human intelligence is a really big event in the history of the cosmos (perhaps, but probably not, unique). This whole “mind from matter” thing tends to suggest that there are multiple substrates of thought, symbol, and reason (and other stuff we barely glean yet) receding infinitely in both the microcosm and macrocosm (and probably in time as well, why not?). So really, human potentiality must truly be infinite, and it’s all right in front of us.

    Naturally, to make any real headway requires true humility (before the infinitely greater genius of the cosmos compared to our own!) and love (honest and thorough respect for the gift of life itself). So let’s get on with it, humans!

    Of course, this may not be for us to follow, and we may be but mere Neanderthals for some coming thing that will understand how to harness the energy of the stars for good and all. But even that is up to our own free will, if you ask me.

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