Religion in Human Evolution:

Dangerous evolutions?

posted by Martin Riesebrodt

Religion in Human Evolution is an immensely ambitious book on a topic only a scholar of Robert Bellah’s stature could dare to tackle. It attempts no less than to explain human biological as well as cultural evolution in one sweep, beginning with early hominids and ending with the “axial age.” Bellah engages evolutionary biology as well as cognitive psychology for the framing of his argument. This is a courageous move of transcending conventional disciplinary boundaries, for which he should be applauded. At the same time, it draws Bellah into positions he might actually not always be comfortable with.

In seven immensely rich and learned chapters Bellah traces the changing forms the production of meaning takes on from tribal to archaic to axial societies. Combining a modified Piagetian model of child development with Merlin Donald’s scheme of cultural evolution, Bellah’s account proposes three stages of development: the tribal mimetic culture, the archaic mythic culture, and the axial theoretic culture. The seven chapters are meant to prove that this scheme is indeed useful, justified, and enlightening. Even if that were not the case, they are all worth reading, especially the four on the axial age in Israel, Greece, China, and India.

Although Bellah claims that this is not a sequence of moral betterment or progress, but only one of expanding capacities, he remains true to his own work over the last half-century as a moralist. In the end, the importance of the axial age lies in the possibility of a universal ethics as well as the emergence of social criticism through either science or utopianism. The axial age in all its varieties lays the foundation for “fundamental human equality” and respect for all human beings. It is hard to imagine that this means for Bellah only an expansion of capacities. However, contrary to approaches that ascribe all these achievements only to the West, Bellah tries to demonstrate that all axial civilizations share them in their own ways.

If the central topic of this book is religion indeed, one cannot avoid asking how Bellah defines it. Ignoring much of the recent debates on the concept of religion, Bellah settles for a somewhat diluted Durkheimian definition, understanding the religious as the other reality that transcends ordinary life. Of course, such a broad notion expands the scope of the book to the study of general modes of consciousness and of worldviews. A narrower definition of religion might have focused on the development of systems of religious thought as they have been institutionalized and expressed in religious practices. But this is not what Bellah chose to do, and here I beg to differ with Richard Madsen’s reading. Although Bellah repeatedly acknowledges the importance of practices, he certainly devotes many more pages to an analysis of philosophies and worldviews than rituals.

Alan Wolfe, in his review, has insightfully noticed Religion in Human Evolution reads at times like a conversation with the late Clifford Geertz. Having been criticized by Geertz after his Chicago lecture in 1963 on “Religious Evolution”(later published in 1964), Bellah tries to persuade Geertz ex post that his criticism was based on a misunderstanding. His evolutionism does not imply any value judgments or ideas of progress, Bellah claims. We do not become superior human beings; only our cognitive capacities expand. One could accept that explanation were there not the celebration of axial consciousness in terms of universal ethics, human equality, and potential for criticism mentioned above and especially the unfortunate parallelism between ontogeny and phylogeny. If “the child” develops in three stages parallel to human evolution, then tribal societies are lagging behind in full development. This seems to imply that adults of tribal societies think like small children in modern societies, and one wonders what “child development” means in tribal societies.

But the problems go even further. Bellah assures us several times that “nothing gets lost,” which means earlier modes of thought don’t disappear, but become integrated in the next phases in good Hegelian fashion. If this is true, what do the often-repeated passages in Bellah’s book, in which he confesses that we have so much to learn from tribal and other societies, actually mean? Moreover, if the axial consciousness of critical thought is widely limited to “intellectuals,” then certain groups and categories of people have not acquired it, which implicitly adds a class and gender dimension to his thesis. I am sure that this is not what Bellah intends to argue, but it is implied in his approach whether or not he wants it.

Like Geertz, I have never been fond of the concept of evolution when applied to human cultures. Bellah is, of course, correct when he insists on the concept of evolution related to the biological emergence of homo sapiens. But to expand it to cultural history causes trouble. Once homo sapiens has evolved, we are dealing with developments within one species not with a further evolution of higher forms of homo sapiens or even of a new species. Either humans are one species “from the Paleolithic to the Axial Age” and beyond, or a Nietzschean “Superman” (“Übermensch”) is indeed a future possibility. In my mind, there exist only humans, who are all equally human.

Of course, I have no doubt that Bellah shares this view morally and he seems to be aware, at least intuitively, that merging biological and cultural evolution creates dangers. Therefore, he tries repeatedly to proactively avert such criticisms. However, it is not Bellah’s own ethos that is at stake here but the concepts he chooses and their (potential) implications. In my mind, there is no need to frame his narrative in terms of evolution; not much would change if he called it development or history.

Superficially Bellah’s opus magnum looks like a synthesis between Durkheim’s “Elementary Forms of the Religious Life” and Max Weber’s “Economic Ethics of the World Religions.” However, one would not do justice to Bellah, Durkheim, or Weber if one reduced this book to such a synthesis. Obviously Durkheim has always been closer to Bellah’s heart than Weber. And in many respects he elaborates a Durkheimian position here. They both share an evolutionary perspective and an understanding of religion that goes beyond most common definitions. For Durkheim it is the sacralization of moral and cognitive principles without which social life would be impossible. For Bellah it is—somewhat more vaguely—a reality beyond the ordinary. Durkheim is also much more systematic in his analysis of beliefs and ritual practices than Bellah, whereas Bellah pays closer attention to changes in religious thought over time. But both are more interested in commonalities than differences, although they do not ignore them. For Durkheim the ideal society is a necessary part of any society; for Bellah, if I am not misinterpreting here, this instead seems to represent an achievement of the axial age.

With regard to Weber, Bellah obviously shares his fascination with the civilizations of ancient Israel, China, and India. Weber’s historicist approach places analytic emphasis on how and to what extent religions affected developmental trajectories of different civilizations. What Karl Jaspers, the admirer of Weber, called the “axial age” is pretty much his reinterpretation and further exposition of Weber’s studies. But Weber asked rather precise sociological questions: who were the carriers of different religious traditions, what attitudes towards the world informed their thinking and acting, and which directions did rationalization processes take in various civilizations? Moreover, did the ethos of religious virtuosi more-or-less remain an elite phenomenon or did it “trickle down” to also shape the ethos of the “masses?”

Bellah focuses on similar axial breakthroughs, but shifts the emphasis. Both perspectives are equally legitimate and interesting. I am also not sure which one is more “modern,” since the concept of “multiple modernities,” for example, successfully combines both. Contrary to Bellah’s claim, shared by many Anglo-Saxon readers, Weber did not measure all religions against ascetic Protestantism and find them wanting. Instead, referring to these grand civilizations and religious traditions, he warned us to keep our petty comments and value judgments to ourselves, as we should in the face of an ocean or majestic mountains. Unfortunately, this rather remarkable statement was somewhat spoiled by Parsons who translated the German “erschüttert” not as “deeply moved” as it should in this context, but as “appalled.”

Be that as it may, with Religion in Human Evolution Robert Bellah has given us a marvelous book written with the wisdom of age as well as youthful enthusiasm. Having discovered the importance of play in human evolution rather late in the writing process, Bellah nevertheless must have internalized it much earlier. All these rich chapters on ancient Israel, Greece, China, and India convey a certain playfulness and intellectual joy, which carry his narrative often beyond the needs of his argument, but stimulate and enrich the reader immensely.

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One Response to “Dangerous evolutions?”

  1. avatar Toon Pepermans says:

    I have two critical remarks:

    1) “Bellah’s account proposes three stages of development: the tribal mimetic culture, the archaic mythic culture, and the axial theoretic culture.”
    This is incorrect, as the mythic appears some 50,000 (or more) years ago in tribal society (with the appearance of syntactical language) and is not “coupled” to the archaic culture.

    2) I don’t see what is wrong with the term “evolution” as used by Bellah, I never get the impression reading him that cultural evolution is somehow (almost) the same as biological evolution, which a lot of other writers do imply more or less. The suggestion to use “development” or “history” begs the question why these terms can’t be used when talking about biological evolution. I don’t see strong reasons why not, so this looks like a mere semantic issue.

    On the other hand, thanks for pointing out the mistranslation of Weber, I tend to have a special interest in these things.

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