Religion in Human Evolution

Thirteen years in the making, Robert Bellah’s Religion in Human Evolution reflects a lifetime of scholarship. Exhibiting a deeply interdisciplinary approach that makes use of biology, cognitive science, and evolutionary psychology—and that presents case studies of ancient India, China, Israel, and Greece—the volume seeks to unearth the historical and biological embeddedness of human religion. Bellah follows the evolution of human and religious culture from the Paleolithic to the axial age—mapping tribal, archaic, and finally axial religious forms—and sites the emergence of religion in the evolution of a range of cultural faculties and social arrangements that developed throughout this period. While he states that this is “not a book about modernity,” Bellah holds that there are links “between past and present,” and that “nothing is ever lost.”

July 10th, 2012

Colonialism’s religious domain

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Recently I am struck by the ambiguity of the concept of the religious. Reading Linda Heuman’s review of Robert Bellah’s Religion in Human Evolution, and then turning to Bellah’s book itself, after having been reading Ernst Kantorowicz’s The King’s Two Bodies, I feel as I have before how uncertain it is that we who write about religion in history are all writing about the same thing! Bellah’s book is an attempt to factor that uncertainty into the equation, for sure. In one part of Bellah’s overall reconstruction of “axial transitions” (including the birth of monotheism), he considers three case studies, two Native American and one Aboriginal Australian, with scrupulous care. The idea is to get a picture—before the shift to the ecumenical story, when the forces of the axial age change everything—of developmentally prior, not to say primordial, religions, without adopting anything as distortive as a model or a linear theory.

Read Colonialism’s religious domain.
April 19th, 2012

Good news from the grand narrative

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To be asked to contribute a commentary on Professor Robert Bellah’s magnum opus is a great honor and a privilege that, in the virtual company of intellectuals of the highest caliber, manages to concentrate the mind and at the same time to fill you with despair; not least because Religion in Human Evolution stands as a measure of the distance that lies between routine, or ordinary, intellectual activity, and genuine, indeed extraordinary, intellectual achievement.

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March 9th, 2012

Back to his roots

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When writing about other people, we all should follow Pierre Bourdieu’s advice to not be too fascinated by our human subjects. This is necessary in order to escape the “biographical fallacy,” the temptation to narrate lives as if they were historically continuous and logically consistent wholes. Bourdieu is right. Our lives are a mess of disparate events, novelties and routines, strategic decisions and lapses of reason, chances and regrets, with little, if any, overall meaning. At the same time, as Robert N. Bellah writes at the beginning of his magisterial tour de force, we are narrative animals. We cannot avoid telling stories, and every story has to have a hero, a quest, and a finale. In this brief essay I recount a couple of stories about Religion in Human Evolution, reading through the lines of this fascinating work to find and highlight some of the many threads which connect it to its author’s past.

Read Back to his roots.
February 28th, 2012

A travelogue of ideas

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In a special session at the meetings of the American Academy of Religion on November 20, 2011, Robert Bellah discussed his new book, Religion in Human Evolution, with members of a distinguished panel.… Why was this event so special? It was not just the distinction of the members of the panel themselves, beginning with Bellah, arguably the country’s best known sociologist of religion and author of such seminal essays as “Civil Religion in America” and “Religious Evolution,” and groundbreaking books, including Habits of the Heart and Tokugawa Religion. Rather, the significance of the event lay in its recognition of the importance of the book’s project, a breathtaking survey of the whole sweep of the history of religiosity, which is nothing less than the history of humankind.

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February 27th, 2012

A response to three readers

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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.

Read A response to three readers.
January 5th, 2012

Axial axioms

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The word “magisterial” in publishers’ blurbs usually means little more than “too long,” and indeed Religion in Human Evolution is very long, but it is also magisterial in many of the ways that the Oxford English Dictionary suggests: “Of, relating to, designating, or befitting a master, teacher, or other person qualified to speak with authority; masterly, authoritative, commanding.”   It is certainly all of those, a book full of the wisdom and erudition that comes only when someone quite brilliant has thought about a big subject for many years.

Read Axial axioms.
December 21st, 2011

A damned good read

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When I first received my copy of Religion in Human Evolution by post, the initial impression was of its sheer heft. After opening the package, I turned first, as usual, to its notes and citations. What came immediately to mind was Bellah’s first-person footnote at the conclusion of his article, “Durkheim and History”: “In spite of long-standing opposition…I agree with Durkheim that the problem of evolution, including our own social origins, is central for sociology as a science. To be convincing, this view must be backed by research, a challenge not to be evaded.”

Bellah, this year, in this work under discussion, has responded to, has not “evaded” his own “challenge,” in an exemplary fashion. What is more—given the density of both his data and his arguments, the product of his “research,” apparent on every page—Bellah has attained that rarest of academic achievements, his new book is a damned good read!

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December 15th, 2011

The return of the grand narrative

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The subtitle of Bellah’s book, From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age, indicates that it is about religions between the Paleolithic and the axial ages. Bellah explicitly states that this is “not a book about modernity,” and that he plans to write another, smaller book on modernity. However, I want to suggest that in a very important sense this book is about modernity as well. This is because Bellah believes that there are necessary links “between past and present,” and that “nothing is ever lost.”

Read The return of the grand narrative.
December 9th, 2011

Beyond reductive naturalism

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Future histories may report that the public discourse on religion was dominated by reductive naturalism until Robert Bellah’s Religion in Human Evolution appeared in 2011. One of the most distinctive features of Bellah’s book is his extensive use of the latest developments in the natural sciences, such as biology, cognitive science, evolutionary psychology, and developmental and child psychology. One of his purposes is, as he puts it, “to show how deeply we are shaped by a very long biological history.” This might give the wrong impression that Bellah’s approach is similar to the New Naturalist approach. However, Bellah’s is better characterized as a non-reductive humanistic naturalism, which is a synthesis of the humanistic (interpretative, social, and historical) understanding of religion and the naturalist approach.

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December 7th, 2011

Five questions for Robert Bellah

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It is a pleasure and an honor to engage a book that is truly large in ways beyond its sheer size. It is large in scope, ranging across geological, biological, cultural, and historical phenomena spanning both time and place. It is large in significance, asking how one of humanity’s central yet elusive traits—what might be termed its religious gene—fits within and perhaps contributes to one of science’s dominant theoretical frameworks, evolution. It is also large-minded in its appreciation for the distinct yet interrelated ways in which humans express meaning. Professor Bellah’s instinct, I think, is to be inclusive rather than exclusive, to see how diverse modes meld one into another, and to provide nuanced appreciation more than sharp-edged distinctions.

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November 28th, 2011

State of the Species

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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.

Read State of the Species.
November 23rd, 2011

Dangerous evolutions?

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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.

Read Dangerous evolutions?.
November 18th, 2011

Where religion comes from and leads us

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In seeking to make sense of modernity in the classical tradition of sociology as a field, the body of Robert Bellah’s work spans the social sciences and comparative cultural inquiry to embrace the global diversity and coherence of religion as the key to culture across civilizations and epochs within the framework of human evolution. Formally trained as a student of tribal cultures, East Asian civilization, and Islam, Bellah engages the West, and America in particular, as problematic cases that can only be understood in the broadest comparative perspective on human cultural development. This global perspective informs Bellah’s conceptions of religion and human evolution as they have deepened and grown over a half century.

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November 16th, 2011

What should we now do differently?

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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.

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November 9th, 2011

Weber for the 21st century

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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.

Read Weber for the 21st century.
November 2nd, 2011

Where did religion come from?

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When an interviewer for the Atlantic Monthly blog asked me “What prompted you to write this book?” I apparently replied, “Deep desire to know everything: what the universe is and where we are in it.” I don’t deny that I said it—it’s just that I would have thought I would have given a more pedestrian reply, because I am a sociologist, with a Ph.D. in my discipline and some 40 years experience as a professor at Harvard and Berkeley. And I am quite aware that early in the last century Max Weber, in a famous 1918 talk called “Science as a Vocation,” warned that “science has entered a phase of specialization previously unknown and this will forever remain the case.”

Read Where did religion come from?.