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.
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.
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.
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!
Any authors would be pleased by an array of laudatory and thoughtful comments on their work, especially by a group of critics as distinguished and diverse as this. We are grateful for the care and attention our commentators have taken with American Grace, especially given that they are outside of our own discipline of political science. In writing this book, our hope was to speak beyond disciplinary boundaries. It is thus particularly gratifying to read John Torpey describe American Grace as “public sociology.” This is precisely what we hoped to achieve. We believe that more social science should be directed toward informing our public discourse, and that rigor versus relevance is a false choice.
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.”
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.
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.
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 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.