Religion in Human Evolution:

A response to three readers

posted by Robert N. Bellah

I am grateful to Mark Juergensmeyer for organizing a panel on my book at the November 2011 meetings of the American Academy of Religion (AAR), only a couple of months after publication. Given a somewhat different response from the American Sociological Association (ASA) I can only say that although I have never taught in a university with a department of religious studies, I am as much a religious studies person as a sociologist. Or perhaps better, I can say that I am a sociologist in the image of my own teacher, Talcott Parsons, who never recognized any disciplinary boundary and tended to define sociology as concerned with the world and its contents.

I am also grateful to the three panelists who spoke so graciously at the panel and who have provided written versions of their comments. I tried to respond to them ex tempore at the event and have seen a video of my remarks, but I will use this occasion to give a more considered answer to the many questions they raised, having to deal with some overlap between them as I go along.

Early on Wendy Doniger calls in question the very idea of the axial age and more generally the very idea of a breakthrough. She writes, “The problem with the idea of a breakthrough is that evolution goes too slowly to be pinpointed in a single age, that change is gradual.” I will first discuss briefly the objection that the fact that change is gradual rules out the idea of moments of dramatic change, of breakthroughs. It is surely the case that much of the time, maybe for millions of years in biological time, change is indeed gradual. Nonetheless there are moments of dramatic change, transitions, in which the emergence of new capacities leads to remarkable new developments. John Maynard Smith and Eors Szathmary, in their book The Major Transitions in Evolution, describe a number of such developments, as I indicate in chapter 2 of my book. No transition is more remarkable or, as far as we know, more sudden, as the transition from inorganic matter to life itself, something that we know happened maybe 3.7 billion years ago, but that no one knows for sure why it happened. The transition from monocellular to multicellular life is another such transition, as is the emergence of almost all the major body plans of multicellular organisms in the early Cambrian period. Perhaps the single most important transition at the level of cultural evolution is the emergence of language itself, the greatest development in human technology in history, upon which all later developments rest, and relative to which the invention of computers seems minor indeed. And, although there may have been something like proto-language, the emergence of fully grammatical language was almost necessarily sudden. So my argument that theoretic culture emerged during the axial age in the first millennium BCE is hardly startling, nor is it undermined by any emphasis on gradual change, which in the area of metallurgy, agricultural technology, urbanism, etc., was indeed also taking place in the same period.

Doniger’s doubts about the actuality of the axial age focus mainly on India: Wasn’t something like theoretic culture, my index for the axial transition, already present in the Vedas, well before the Upanishads and the Pali Canon of early Buddhism, which are usually seen as exhibiting axial traits? My answer is that no, it wasn’t: the Vedas are largely tribal ritual poetry with a few moments of riddling that could be seen later as foreshadowing metaphysical developments, but are not that different from riddles in many tribal cultures. The startling thing is that the tribal poetry of the Vedas remained the basis of later Hinduism, or at least the Brahmins claimed it did, though it took an awful lot of interpretation to make it seem so. Something similar can be seen in the reworking of tribal myth in Genesis in the Hebrew Bible to make it conform to much later ideas.

The axial age is a complex phenomenon and I cannot repeat here all I said about it in the book. But I should underline one point: an axial transition is only possible when an archaic state has come into existence. Aboriginal Australia could never have given rise to an axial age breakthrough. What is most characteristic of archaic states is the emergence of two mutually entailing ideas: gods and kings. Archaic civilizations fuse the ideas of gods and kings in a single cosmology in which kings are gods or children of gods or will be gods when they become ancestors. I argue that tribal societies are basically egalitarian and have neither chiefs nor gods, but do have powerful beings who are not worshipped but rather identified with in rituals. The cosmological fusion of a degree of divine and political power unknown in tribal societies is the necessary precondition for axial breakthroughs, which in every case call into question the fusion of god and king, claim an immediate relation of ordinary people to the divine and question the legitimacy of the political order. In so doing they use abstract reasoning that can be called theoretic in Merlin Donald’s terms. These theoretic ideas can be metaphysical or ethical or both depending on the case. I argue that they are metaphysical in the Upanishads but become also ethical in early Buddhism.

Doniger raises the question of diffusion versus independent emergence, which as far as I am concerned is a valid and still open question. I tried, as much as I could given the patchiness of the data, to discover diffusion, but failed to do so. The four axial cases are so radically different that I don’t see them as versions of a single breakthrough. There are analogies at a high level of abstraction, but not similarities of substance. Doniger raises the idea of reincarnation, which she finds in Hinduism and Buddhism, but also in Plato. Actually Gananath Obeyesekere, in his Imagining Karma: Ethical Transformation in Amerindian, Buddhist, and Greek Rebirth shows that the idea of reincarnation is very widespread among tribal peoples on every continent, but refers simply to the idea that children may be the return of dead relatives, completely lacking the theoretical structure of karma as found first in the Upanishads and then in early Buddhism. Reincarnation in Plato also lacks the structure of karma and it is far from clear how seriously Plato intends it. It never attained the centrality in Greco-Roman culture that it had in India. The specific implications of the idea of karma, namely that your rebirth will reflect how you have behaved in your present or past births, is specifically and solely Indian. It is a theoretical development of the widespread and very simple idea of rebirth.

I must admit to a degree of skepticism as to whether overcrowding had the significant consequences that Doniger attributes to it. I think the renouncer idea, so well developed in India but not missing in any axial case, has much more to do with a rejection of the socio-political status quo than a wish to avoid overcrowding. Actually overcrowding would be just the kind of social condition that I think should be avoided in speaking of the “cause” of the axial transition. I pointed to a number of social, economic, and political conditions that might be necessary preconditions for an axial breakthrough but cannot be seen as sufficient conditions. Breakthroughs do seem to occur in advanced agrarian societies when they suffer serious breakdowns, but here, as I note, breakdowns are much more frequent than breakthroughs so cannot be sufficient conditions for them.

Several commentators implied that I wanted to explain the axial age or religious evolution generally only by means of social conditions, but I never do that. In every case individual agency is critical and the kind of person involved in that agency will have enormous consequences. It is one of the indices of axiality that there were in the axial age individual thinkers with whom we can still argue, persons that are real to us as interlocutors, what Mencius called “friends in history.” It is striking to me and decisive for my understanding of the Axial Age that there are no such figures before the first millennium BCE. Undoubtedly the Epic of Gilgamesh is a great story, but we cannot argue with a story. We can however argue with Confucius and Mencius, with the Buddha, with Isaiah and Jeremiah, and with Plato and Aristotle. They are alive to us in a way that earlier figures are not and it is no accident that all the great traditions that are still alive today begin then and not before.

As to Doniger’s reflections on ethics, I never said ethics emerge only in the axial age—all societies have ethics. I said universal ethics begin in the axial age, and I stand by that. All earlier ethics are particularistic. Doniger herself in The Hindus: An Alternative History argues that Hindu ethics are almost completely particularistic. Nor do I equate universal ethics with Kantianism, which is unintelligible without the background of modern individualism arising from the Reformation and the Enlightenment. Neither Confucian ethics nor Buddhist ethics, nor the ethics of the Hebrew prophets, nor the ethics of Plato and Aristotle are Kantian, but they are all universal. Universal ethics is one important indicator of the theoretic element in axial culture, but it is no more important than metaphysics or cosmology.

Let me now turn to Luke Timothy Johnson. My admiration for Wendy Doniger will be evident to any reader of my book from the many citations to her work in the chapter on India. There are no citations to Luke Johnson in my book only because he writes on a period that I do not reach. Nonetheless, I want to express my admiration for his many books and in particular for Among the Gentiles: Greco-Roman Religion and Christianity, because it is a deeply comparative book that takes Greco-Roman religion as seriously as it takes Christianity and finds many parallels between them in the early centuries CE. It is just such comparative work that I find extremely helpful and seeing a specialist reach out to undertake it is most encouraging.

Johnson has raised five serious questions about my book, and I will do my best to respond to them.

1) He asks if my use of evolution is to be taken literally as applying to cultural as well as biological development. Yes, it is. Language is a biological capacity that turned out to have enormous cultural implications, but culture never ceases to be a biological capacity and is subject to the same evolutionary pressures as are biological organisms (many more than humans have incipient cultural capacities, we should not forget). I say in the preface that we need to understand what religion is before we argue about whether it is adaptive or not, yet the question of adaptation looms over the whole book and does not just return at the end of the conclusion. Even in the preface I ask whether we moderns can adapt to our own adaptations, and here the question is definitely survival. I will return to the question of evolutionary adaptation in my next book, if I live to write it, because it is in the modern era, with which that book will be concerned, that the issue becomes absolutely central. In that book I will point out that natural selection, modified in terms of recent biological theory, applies to religion as much as any other cultural sphere. For example, no tribal religion can survive in today’s world without protection from a modern state, because no tribal society, and religion is the cultural basis of all such societies, can survive in competition with much stronger, more complex societies. A careful reading of my book will find such intimations in many places. For example, I cite W. G. Runciman’s argument that the ancient Greek polis was “an evolutionary dead end.”

2) It surprises me to read that Johnson thinks that I, following one (wrong) reading of Durkheim, place the social group higher than the individual. In the theory of my teacher, Talcott Parsons, culture, society, personality, and the behavioral organism are all equally essential and interpenetrating aspects of human action. Myth and ritual, even among the Australian Aborigines, are constantly changing, and who changes them? Individuals, of course, acting within the constraints of their culture, society, and their bodies, but never without an aspect of independent creativity. And when it comes to my treatment of the axial age, I give the highest priority to creative individuals, always acting in a total situation, but with remarkable ingenuity and innovation. Johnson seems to recognize this in my treatment of the axial cases, but there is no change in my theoretical presuppositions there. Of course it is just in the axial age that we first find identifiable individuals with whom we can converse to this day. But I recognize the dancers of ritual and the reciters of myth as my teachers in my acknowledgements and they are surely individuals.

3) Johnson’s questions about the axial age start with issues raised by Doniger so I won’t go over the issue of radical transitions in biological and cultural evolution. Of course they all have precursors—nothing comes from nothing—but they are still radically new.  But Johnson is wrong in thinking I shift entirely to the cognitive in treating the axial age. In the case of ancient Greece I give quite a bit of attention to the development of the sacrificial system and its unusually egalitarian side, something that helps us understand the emergence of political egalitarianism. And I place great emphasis on festivals, especially the City Dionysia devoted to Dionysus. Here mimesis and narrative are central, not theory, but I see the great dramatists, all involved in religious performance, as narrative precursors of the axial breakthrough.

I insist that nothing is ever lost—that ritual and narrative are reconstructed in the emergence of the theoretic, but that they never go away. The focus on the cognitive, the theoretic, in my treatment of the Axial Age is not because that was all there was but because that was what was new. I did not set out to do a comprehensive history of religion in all its complexity—that would have required a much longer book. I had to focus on what was important in terms of my overall argument. Finally, Johnson argues that I stop too soon, that Hellenistic developments in Greece and postexilic developments in Israel are so important that they shouldn’t have been missed. I have already explained why the book ends where it does and that I hope to continue it in the future. Yet is Johnson right? Who are the greatest figures in Greek thought who influenced Christianity? Surely Plato and the Neo-Platonists, and much later Aristotle. The Epicureans were a largely isolated cult in ancient times and their influence on the Renaissance has been much exaggerated. And I end my Israel chapter with Deuteronomy, the core of the Torah, and not with the prophets

4) Here Johnson returns to a question with which I have already dealt. Play is dealt with throughout the book. But my book is not a history of religion but a history of religious evolution and I must focus on new capacities and the new possibilities, for good and for ill (evolution can end in successful survival, or, much more commonly, in extinction).

5) Johnson’s queries about how my book ends again miss the theme of ambiguity and human involvement with our own evolution that runs throughout the whole book. Evolution is not some absolutely deterministic external force that stands over against us. We participate in our own evolution as have all organisms since the beginning of life. How will we do so? Yes, extinction would be a natural evolutionary outcome, yet changing our ways to avoid extinction would also be a natural evolutionary outcome. My ecological reflections at the end of the book are integral to its whole argument.

Finally, let me turn to Jonathan Z. Smith. It was I who asked that he be included in the panel, and at the event I tried to explain why. For one thing he is a lifelong comparativist, as I have been. I think only such a comparativist knows the agony as well as the delight of doing comparative work, where every move is open to question, but where new insights emerge that give great pleasure.

But there was another reason. Smith had been a very strong critic of my 1964 article “Religious Evolution” and I thought it likely that he would have similar objections to my new book. Academic argument, even civil academic conflict, is essential to the life of the mind. I didn’t want to shy away from disagreement, but hoped the open discussion of disagreement would forward the general discussion. But I am quick to admit that I was happy that Smith took a much more charitable view of my book than he had of my long-ago article, though I am also glad he raised enough points of disagreement to allow a continuing discussion.

I am more than happy to accept Smith’s apology for the intemperate language in his criticism of my 1964 article “Religious Evolution.” I also understand the grounds for that criticism that he spelled out in his comment. I agree that the article was highly condensed and the explications he asked for would surely have helped to clarify what I wanted to say. But at this point that is all water under the bridge, shall we say. My new book goes much more deeply into the subject matter of the earlier part of the original article and the subject matter of the latter part of that article will be developed in dramatically new ways in my next book. I see no value in continuing to discuss an article that had considerable influence in its day, but is now outmoded by my own subsequent work.

Before dealing with the questions Smith raises about my new book, let me offer him thanks for mentioning so favorably an early article of mine, “Durkheim and History.” When putting together two collections of my writings, Beyond Belief and much more recently The Robert Bellah Reader, I seriously considered including that article. I decided against it on the grounds that it was too erudite and too specialized, but I now see that that was a mistake. That essay was based on a complete reading of Durkheim, including a thousand pages of French text not then translated in English. I suspect it was just the erudition of that article that Smith admired and that I should have thought of more highly.

So let me now take up the two questions Smith raises about the new book: the first has to do with the status of the axial age, a concern of all three commentators, and the second with the relation of play and work in thinking about ritual. Smith’s first objection to the axial age idea seems to have arisen from Jaspers’s failure to give an adequate causal explanation for its sudden emergence, dealing with it “more as a miracle than an event.” I have no causal explanation of the axial transition, although I do spell out some of the necessary but not sufficient conditions. The event itself has to do with new ideas that cannot be explained in terms of material or social conditions, though some such conditions may be necessary. Individual initiative in response to similar kinds of social crises in the four cases is surely part of the story, though how “causal” they are is problematic. In general I prefer to deal with the axial age in interpretive rather than explanatory terms, and, as I have said before, I am reassured by the fact that most of the great biological and cultural transitions in history remain unexplained to this day.

Just a word about Smith’s unhappiness that ancient Mesopotamia was not included as an axial case. He notes that I characterize Mesopotamia as archaic, but not axial, and he finds Mesopotamia to be more significant in its religious achievements than the other societies I characterize as archaic. I can see how the little information we have about Shang China, due to the nature of the texts that have survived, would limit comparison with the much richer record in Mesopotamia, but I fail to see why the very rich record of ancient Egypt would give it lesser status. In any case Mesopotamia fits my essential criterion of an archaic society, one in which cosmos, gods, and kings are fused. As Thorkild Jacobsen wrote of Mesopotamia, “the cosmos was seen as a state and the state as an essential element in the cosmos.” It is just that fusion that is broken through in every axial case.

With respect to work and play in relation to ritual I really think that there is less difference between us than Smith seems to see. Even though I quote Friedrich Schiller, I don’t think of play in Romantic terms, and especially not in terms of freedom, at least not exclusively. I see play as involving from its earliest animal appearance what Smith calls “constraint,” and indeed rules. Play requires the constraint of aggression and the maintenance of equality between the players and thus is rule-governed from the beginning. Within those rules and constraint it is true that play is free, is its own reward, but it would not be possible without the presence of constraint and rules. Rather baffling to me is Smith’s readiness to see the relation between ritual and games, but not ritual and play, when, as I think most people would agree, games are a kind of play: we “play a game.” Games indeed have rules, which is, I think, Smith’s point, but so, I have argued, does play. As to the opposition play/work, I think it is preferable to play/reality, for I think play is quite real to the players. But that ritual involves work is certain. In my Kalapalo example, months of work lead up to the great rituals and involve the accumulation of food for those who will attend, the preparation of ritual objects, and a great deal of rehearsal. A Navajo sing, lasting several nights, has been compared to a performance of Richard Wagner’s Ring; plenty of work there. Yet I think that there is a powerful element of play in ritual itself, which often involves dancing, celebration and feasting. As on most issues I am a both/and person rather than an either/or person, so I see ritual as both work and play, though perhaps its genesis was in play. Certainly my thirteen years of work on my latest book involved a great deal of work. Yet it often gave me great joy and I felt it was also a kind of play.

I cannot say how much Jonathan Z. Smith’s various appreciative remarks about my book mean to me. I admire him as one of the great students of comparative religion of our day. If he has found my book useful and even enjoyable, then I am immensely pleased.

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One Response to “A response to three readers”

  1. avatar Celucien L. Joseph says:

    I know Prof. Bellah has passed. I have no intention to respond to his post here. However, I have published a short review of “Religion in Human Evolution,” which I have entitled

    “Africa has no religion! Robert N. Bellah and The Silence of African Religion”

    For those interested….click on the link below to read the review:

    Celucien L. Joseph, Ph.D.
    Assistant Professor of English
    Indian River State College

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