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.
Posts Tagged ‘axial age’
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!
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.”
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.
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.”
Both an influential scholar and a public intellectual, Robert Bellah is one of the foremost sociologists of his generation. His books and articles have set in motion lasting conversations about the role of religion in public life, both in the United States and around the world. Since retiring from thirty years of teaching at the University of California, Berkeley, Bellah has been at work on his most ambitious book yet, the recently released Religion in Human Evolution (Harvard University Press).