For the Ages: Robert Bellah's "Religion in Human Evolution"

RELIGION IN HUMAN EVOLUTION:From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age By Robert N. Bellah 746 pp. The Belknap Press/Harvard University Press. $39.95.

RELIGION IN HUMAN EVOLUTION:From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age

By Robert N. Bellah

746 pp. The Belknap Press/Harvard University Press. $39.95.

A word of warning.  There is a bit of false advertising in the subtitle of Robert Bellah's new book, Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age.  For one thing, Bellah does not begin with the Paleolithic Era (2.6 million years ago - 10,000 BCE).  He starts much earlier.  In fact, he starts in the beginning, with the Big Bang, before there was an earth and all the various forms of life that inhabit it.  For another thing, he ends much later than the so-called Axial Age, a period around the 6th-4th centuries BCE when the forms of conceptualization we are familiar with today were first awakened within human consciousness.  His book is not only about our ancestors in the deep past.  It is, more accurately, about us.

Throughout the book, Bellah slowly paints a picture of the shape of our modern collective self-understanding.  The current state of many scientific disciplines (physics, evolutionary biology, sociology, child psychology, neuroscience, linguistics, etc.), the debate between science and humanistic fields, our uneasiness with harmonizing our religious/cultural narratives with the theory of evolution, the dynamics of globalization, the great conversation between the "East" and the "West"—all this falls under Bellah's critical gaze.  And so when he was asked why he wrote this book, Bellah justifiably responded that it was a "Deep desire to know everything: what the universe is and where we are in it."  It is safe to say that the 85 year-old sociologist from Berkeley has written a book that really does evidence such a deep desire.  

At the center of the book, however, lies Bellah's search for the defining features of the "Axial Age".  And to make an incredibly long and complex story very, very short, according to Bellah, the Axial Age just might be the recognition of a difference between the way the world is and the way it ought to be.  It is this discovery that allowed the conceptual space to open up, eventually, for our current techno-scientific worldview. And while it is true that we have known about the recognition of this distinction for some time, what makes Bellah such a good read is just how fascinating the story of its discovery actually was.  It stretches way back to the emergence of life on earth, to our mammalian ancestors who first engaged in play, to our early homo forbears, who discovered dance and other types of mimetic acts and, by an improbable feat, began speaking to one another.  It snakes its way through tribal hunter-gatherer societies and their elaborate rituals, and works through the relationship between archaic polities and the gods, where "the king through ritual was responsible for the maintenance of cosmic order."  

But, and even more fascinating, the majority of the book hinges around four main chapters on the four cultures that achieved the Axial breakthrough, each long enough to be a monograph on its own.  Here, discussing ancient Israel, Greece, China and India, Bellah is at his scholarly best, judiciously combing through all the cutting-edge research by specialists in these cultures and distilling them down to a compact but multi-valenced history of their path to the Axial breakthrough.  Bellah's narrative is sweeping, not only because of the large chunk of time he covers, but more importantly because of the trove of details he provides as he discusses this most epic event human history.

In fact, if there is one criticism that is consistently found among reviewers of the book (see the list below), it is that Bellah gets so lost in the details that he fails to make adequate sense for us just what this story in fact means.  The brilliant narrative falls short of the analytical work needed.  Surely there will be critiques of Bellah's work, and rightfully so. But the suggestiveness of Religion in Human Evolution and the paths it opens up testify to its status as a game-changer.  For many years to come, scholars and educated people alike will find this suggestiveness irresistible.  

And in part because of this:  Bellah thinks that his research is not without practical force.  Only by attempting to understand a religion, a culture or people from the "inside" would we be able to avoid the widespread conviction that one religious or philosophical position is better than another, which is the ideological aspect of racism, imperialism, and colonialism. 

So it is our task, right down to the individual believers who are never exactly the same as any other believer even in their own faith, to try to understand such believers in what they share and do not share but above all in their terms not ours.  

Bellah stands as an example of just what it is to attempt such a task.  Without jettisoning his own cultural background, narrative, and theoretical framework, he stretched himself to enter into these older religio-cultural forms, to the point where, after spending a year writing the four main chapters on the great Axial cultures, he felt a certain sadness about having to leave them behind.  But surely, however, the joy he found while he was with them have left their mark on every page of this incredible book.

 

An internet guide to Religion and Human Evolution

For those who lack the time or the concentration to read through such a large tome, luckily there are a number of quality responses (both positive and negative) to Bellah's book.  Here's a sampling of what people are saying:  

Where Does Religion Come From? A Conversation with Robert Bellah  // Interviewed by Heater Horn on The Atlantic

Religion in Human Evolution - An Eight Part Summary  // by Andrew Brown on The Guardian 

The Origins of Religion, Beginning With the Big Bang // Review by Alan Wolfe on The New York Times.

Review of Religion in Human Evolution  // by Steven Horst on Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews 

The Big Bang  // by Peter Manseau on Bookforum

Exchange on The Immanent Frame  // with Robert Bellah, Richard Madsen, David Martin, Steven M. Tipton, Martin Riesebrodt, Merlin Donald, Luke Timothy Johnson, Yang Xioa, Jonathan Z. Smith, Wendy Doniger, Mark Juergensmeyer, Matteo Bortolini, Manussos Marangudakis, Paul S. Landau

The Archaic and the Axial // Review by Johann Aranson in The Review of Politics

A Conversation with Robert Bellah  // Interviewed by Hans Joas for The Hedgehog Review 

Review of Religion in Human Evolution  // by Mathew Mutter in Common Knowledge

Review of Religion in Human Evolution  // by Linda Heuman in Tricycle Magazine 

 

Bellah, in his own words

Finally, here is a rather long panel discussion with Robert Bellah on his book hosted by the America Academy of Religion. The panel took place on November 20, 2011.