Religion in Human Evolution:

State of the Species

posted by Merlin Donald

Human beings live in virtual worlds that define what they value, what they aspire to, and what they are able to imagine. Those virtual worlds are typically shared with fellow members of a given culture, and each culture is a collective projection of the human imagination, instantiated in a way of life. Robert Bellah has written a book whose objective is to understand how those virtual worlds—in other words, those cultures—came into being, and what role religion played in this process.

Religion is a major part of the human story, because it is the institutional manifestation of our first serious experiment in the cognitive governance of large populations. But it is not the whole story, even in a book whose title highlights the word ”religion.” Bellah is going after much more than a revisionist quasi-biological rewrite of the history of religion. Those who think he is just taking another run at redefining the Axial Age, and the so-called tribal and Archaic religions, should take note of this. Religions may be the surface phenomenon under study, but Bellah is also searching for its underlying causes.

In that sense, Bellah`s work is truly interdisciplinary. He is running significant risks here, because he is difficult to classify. This is not sociology, history, or anthropology, as normally practiced; nor is it, strictly speaking, evolutionary or cognitive science. It is all of these, and none of these. Fortunately, Bellah is very successful at navigating his chosen academic minefields, and has done his homework.

His adoption of evolutionary thinking in a sociological and historical study of religion is a far cry from the biological takeover conceived as “consilience” by E. O. Wilson. Bellah respects the logic of both domains, and is not willing to oversimplify the issues at hand. He has had to make some tough strategic decisions, and has done so bravely, despite the fact that his choices will make some people unhappy. To the latter I say: your best response is to try the kind of synthesis that Bellah has attempted, and defend your choice of method by example.

Bellah`s book begins with a broad reflection on biological and cultural evolution, a complex topic with many twists and turns. His account ranges over the vast cultural distances that bridge from the Paleolithic to the Axial Age, and necessarily (and deliberately) leaves out a lot. He focuses on areas where the evidence is most solid. He also avoids the political controversies that would have followed if he had included modern secular religions (on which he has written extensively in any case). He has explicitly acknowledged the time-distorting nature of his methodology, and when he made his decision on where to focus he was fully aware of why he did so, and explains his reasoning clearly.

The idea of ”parsing” religious ritual and customary practice in terms of the intellectual and expressive functions they perform for society—the cognitive work they do for us—is an inevitable move in the study of religion. It is reductive, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. This is social science in the grand tradition of Durkheim and Weber, with a biological twist as well as a scholarly one.

Bellah regards religion as a paradigm that encompasses the whole of human culture, and the fascinating case histories he covers were well chosen. He outlines some of the ”religio-political transformations” that have changed the human world at various times and places. He traces some of the underlying causes back to the strong human tendency toward fantasy play, with the important point that, unlike the representational rituals typical of theatre and art, those of religion are lived, and not seen as something outside of normal everyday life. Thus, when the gods are appeased in religious rituals, or rulers are ceremonially given powers over life and death, the ceremonies are carried out with a serious purpose and considerable anxiety, unlike the rituals of, say, theater or musical performance, which are seen as fantasies removed from life, however compelling and powerfully moving they may be.

Among the many methodological choices Bellah made, he chose to focus on how the psychology of representations played out on the sociological level, and what the consequences were, in terms of social organization. Human beings can create culture in various ways, for various purposes, and religions reflect the nature of that highly creative and interactive process. In that sense, religions have helped human beings construct, cope with, and understand reality. They have also created shared cultural spaces within which life could be lived to the fullest. Religions would seem to be indispensable to human social life, and yet, while some may claim that this is no longer the case, the jury is still out on that question. For one thing, the answer depends on what we are willing to call religion. For another, it may be too early to tell.

I would have preferred to see in Bellah’s book more emphasis on the crucial role that material culture played in ancient religion long before writing, including not only architecture, art, and sculpture, but also music, costume, and spectacle. I would also have welcomed a more extensive attempt to extract general theoretical principles that might throw more perspective on our current cultural drift toward a global society that lacks the kind of conceptual unity we once expected from religion. But this is a small quibble, and reflects my interests rather than Professor Bellah’s stated objectives.

This book could really be regarded as Robert Bellah’s “State of the Species” address, after a life of scholarship and reflection. It is about everything: the nature of knowledge and meaning, and the history of our deepest yearnings and practices, as expressed in our religions. Posterity will decide whether he has succeeded, but the effort is magnificent in its own right. We all speak of doing difficult, disciplined, interdisciplinary thinking. Well, folks, this is what it looks like, down on the ground.

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