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.
Religion in Human Evolution
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”