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.
Posts Tagged ‘Robert Bellah’
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.”
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.
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.