Religion in Human Evolution:

What should we now do differently?

posted by David Martin

No one reading this seven hundred page book can fail to be impressed with the sweep of its argument or with the range and depth of its scholarship. There is, indeed, nothing like it currently extant and it will take its place as a major landmark study. That range and depth of scholarship may perhaps explain why from time to time I felt as though I were drowning in multiple cross-references and superimposed typologies. Indeed, I was not entirely clear how tight the superimpositions were, or whether they were roughly parallel. For example, I found myself unsure what the relation was between the familiar sequence from hunter/gatherer to tribal societies and from archaic civilisations to the axial age, and the Merlin Donald sequence from the mimetic to the theoretic, and I was equally unsure about how these two sequences related to the sequence of childhood development based in Piaget, Bruner and others.

That is another way of saying that what took Bellah thirteen years to assimilate makes for demanding reading, however pellucid his exposition, and I wonder whether the people who need to take the argument on board are going to make the effort, let alone the average undergraduate. Bellah puts forward the argument that it is the active organism that is most crucial to biological evolution not the genes, yet I doubt whether those biologists who stress the ‘selfish gene’ will have either the stamina or the interest to engage with Bellah’s whole wide-ranging argument.

A related point is that we live in fairly distinct research communities, even within sociology. I have spent half a century on secularisation and a quarter of a century on Pentecostalism, and that gives me some purchase on another wide-ranging landmark study, Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age.  It also brings me into contact with ‘the axial age’ as a governing frame both for contemporary religion and processes of secularisation. But the axial age that provides the point where I begin is where Bellah ends. For my own purposes, which are in principle quite wide ranging enough, I have to get a grip on debates on modernity and alternative modernities, on religion and industrialism, on rival views of the Enlightenment, on fresh assessments of early modernity and the Reformation. Like Bellah I am beholden to scholars in other disciplines, but they are constantly revising previous certainties. The onward march of successive movements of revision and the revisiting of old sites seemingly abandoned, is difficult enough to cope with, without engaging in universal history or what Bellah calls ‘deep’ (pre-historic) history. And yet I have no doubt this kind of work has to be done, and Bellah has gone about his task in a truly impressive piece of universal scholarship.

Reading his text reminds me there are remarkable differences even between closely linked research communities like the British and the North American. If one is writing about evolution in the British tradition one inevitably refers to Herbert Spencer, and Bellah does indeed make some cursory reference to Spencer, but as a young scholar I was exposed to an evolutionary tradition in the work of Hobhouse and Ginsberg that has seemingly disappeared without trace. Who now reads Hobhouse’s Morals in Evolution of 1906? Perhaps these vast tracts of previous pioneering work remain unvisited because sociology has no disciplinary boundaries.

I find what Bellah has to say about pre-human evolution immensely interesting, but exactly what difference does the postulated carry-over into cultural development make when it comes to the way we frame problems in general sociology? For example I re-read W. G. Runciman on The Theory of Cultural and Social Selection as part of my engagement with Bellah,  and I am sufficiently impressed by Runciman’s argument to suppose that there are serious donations derived from biological evolution that bear on cultural development, like domination and aggression, empathy and cooperation. Indeed, Bellah says something very similar. But these generalised donations correspond, if loosely, to what sociologists have long postulated about the prerequisites of society as such, for example some system of authority and some system of defence/attack, and some arrangements to stop things falling apart. In short we are not being told anything we did not know before. Runciman uses the language of selection and survival in discussing issues relating to the rise of Christianity but what he says translates back into standard sociological parlance without remainder. In principle nothing has changed and my understanding of the rise and success of Christianity is only advanced because Runciman happens to be a wide-ranging scholar who knows a lot about it.

I am suggesting that the fairy lights of biological terminology add nothing in principle to the modalities of sociological understanding. I notice that Bellah says he has gained insights from the biological approach and cognitive science but I suspect these insights make little serious difference to how he, and by extension we, frame, pursue and solve sociological problems. Unlike Runciman, Bellah does not convert his cultural sociology about hunter/gatherers, tribal societies, archaic civilisations etc into the language of memes and selection. I find that significant, because I would expect a book that explores the carry-over of the biological into the cultural and the social to be replete with the language and mechanisms of evolution.

Perhaps Bellah has reservations about the approach of Runciman, though the relevant footnote on page 681 is scrupulously neutral. Yet I do know he has reservations about the kind of biologistic approach found in Nicholas Wade’s The Faith Instinct. There is a palpable difference in approach between what one finds in Wade and any sociology of religion engaged in by me and my colleagues. There is first of all a language of function and dysfunction in Wade that I frankly find slippery and obfuscating when applied to culture and specifically when applied to religion, though obviously there are those who use a version of functionalist language in ‘normal’ social science and anthropology.  My problem with any strong notion of a ‘faith instinct’ is simply that the evidence I survey with regard to secularisation makes such a notion unintelligible. I am engaged in tracing variations in faith over time and space and relating them to variables not to constants. I might as well try relating war to the constant of original sin or relating faith to our God-given desire to find our rest in Him, as deploy a biologically donated constant. If ‘faith’ in Holland drops catastrophically from 1965 to now, and particular groups in northern Holland have long been alienated from religion, are such changes to be ascribed to a decline in, or a lack of, the faith instinct? How does it come about that the faith instinct flourishes on one side of the Oder-Neisse and droops and dies on the other?  Richard Dawkins is fond of pointing out that what we believe and whether we believe depends on where we were born and our socialisation: hence the need to stop parents abusing children by socialising them in faith. But how is all this to be made compatible with a biological given? How indeed is condemnation of religion compatible with biological inevitabilities?

I will make just one point about function and dysfunction, to which incidentally Bellah makes an important contribution by deploying Huizinga and relating religion to imaginative play. Indeed, in relation to play Bellah brings out the problem I am alluding to by discussing the functionality of the non-functional.  I would prefer to introduce language from economics to talk about religion, notably cost. Universalism is a ‘gain’ that involves a cost in conflict, just as social solidarity exacts a cost in terms of conflict with ‘the other’. Universalism is not so much dysfunctional: it simply has inherent costs. So has the very idea of truth, because it implies falsehood and the need to propagate truth at the expense of falsehood as, for example, Ikhnaten did when he closed the temples. Again, to take an example in Bellah, when the Israelites devised a written text to embody their Covenant with God, the creation of a text was ‘functional’ because it enabled them to survive anywhere and everywhere. A text also generates thought and intellection because you have to devise a hermeneutic to get round awkward provisions inappropriate to new circumstances. So a text is multi-functional by facilitating movement and intellectual ingenuity. But a text is at the same time dysfunctional precisely because the stability it confers is over-stabilised when you want to ‘move on’. I would prefer to put these gains and losses in the straightforward language of costs and benefits.

I turn finally to a central issue raised by Bellah: the continuing and ineluctable relevance of narrative, and its accompanying rituals, to all our attempts at individual and social self-definition. In terms of the emergence of ‘the theoretic’ identified as the final stage in a sequence from the episodic to the mimetic and the symbolic/narrative, ‘nothing is ever lost’. We are not dealing in supersession but successive enrichments of capacities. The theoretic is presaged in ‘opportunistic science’, rational in the sense that early astronomy and mathematics were rational, whereas theory proper represents thinking about thinking. Bellah’s central and most controversial contention here is that the theoretic mode carries forward all the previous modes, and that narrativity, which likewise carries them all forward, remains a permanent presence in our self understanding. The theoretic itself began in a Platonic narrative partly replacing the Homeric, and we today tell a story about its development that runs from the initial stages in Greece to developments in medieval Europe that presaged the Renaissance, the early modernity of the seventeenth century, the Enlightenment, and in the context of evolution it is interesting that we constantly recite the story of Darwin. One might even say that when it comes to the Founders ‘nothing is ever lost’ and the university itself is a succession embodied in a procession, quite literally.

Bellah’s account of the axial age is weighted to the Indian and the Chinese breakthroughs, but for the purposes of grasping the continuing role of narrativity it may be easier to think in terms of all the consequences that have stemmed from the particular breakthrough that occurred in Israel. For example, the Word as embodied in a text and based on a covenant rooted in love and justice, faithfulness and judgement, underpinned ethical prophecy, and eventually made possible the emergence of the synagogue as an ethical congregation capable of surviving anywhere. God was not argued for theoretically as though he were an ‘ism’ but argued over in a forensic rhetoric of cross-examination capable of raising the issue of theodicy. The long term consequences of the social invention of the synagogue are the Church and the Umma, as well as the USA and Marxism, not to mention the versions of the Promised Land embodied in all the narratives of nationalism. The modalities of modern consciousness are replete with the stories we tell ourselves about how ‘we’ became who we are, how we got where we are, and where we are going. Religion as narrative is concerned with transformation scenes conceived on the social margins by footloose people that are then incorporated in structures of power so that the transforming vision is again taken up on the margins in order to speak truth to power once again.

I have telescoped, glossed and simplified Bellah in order to bring out a central message that seems to me as true as it is controversial.  ‘We’ are inveterate story tellers as well as theoreticians. ‘Nothing is ever lost’. Moreover, the platforms in consciousness from which we formulate our visions of how we might be, and how the world might be, were set up in the axial age. As ever in Bellah, his rigorous commitment to objectivity emits a normative aura: it is not a matter of putting stories behind us as childish but of telling the best stories to frame our collective existence.

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