Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age

By Webb, Benjamin | The Christian Century, June 13, 2012 | Go to article overview

Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age


Webb, Benjamin, The Christian Century


Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age

By Robert N. Bellah

Belknap, 784 pp., $39.95

Some two decades before Robert Bellah and his colleagues wrote the seminal 1985 book Habits of the Heart, which improved the public conversation about religion and society in the United States, Bellah penned a provocative essay called "Religious Evolution." He has finally returned to that ambitious theme in his magnum opus, Religion in Human Evolution, the fruit of 12 years of research and writing and of a distinguished life as an internationally respected public philosopher and sociologist of religion.

Perhaps only Bellah, with his lifelong passion and depth of curiosity for this huge subject, could synthesize for us such a vast range of biological, anthropological and historical literature that together reveal the origins and cultural evolution of religion, as well as its ongoing potential to transform human beings and societies in both East and West. He shows us how the world's great religions have long demonstrated a remarkable capacity to adapt and renew themselves, while simultaneously contributing to breakthroughs at critical moments in history that have made the moral advance of human civilization possible.

These successive leaps in human moral development were particularly profound during the Axial Age of 800-200 BCE--where this book ends and its unfinished sequel begins--when the four civilizations of ancient Israel, Greece, China and India separately produced towering spiritual leaders and sages who helped move their cultures and us closer to a universal ethic that is still emerging in our day.

Bellah calls up some important witnesses from our deep past to see what they can tell us about "the kind of life human beings have imagined was worth living." The way we all seem to be "driving beyond our headlights" today, as Wendell Berry puts it, is echoed in Bellah's concern that "technological advance at high speed combined with moral blindness about what we are doing to the world's societies and biosphere is a recipe for rapid extinction." While Bellah does not revel in religious triumphalism, he does acknowledge the great moral advances, as well as the deep moral failures, of religion in history.

What especially interests Bellah are the symbolic and behavioral aspects of evolution, in which, he contends, we find most of the resources for religious development. Bellah sees these evolutionary developments as driven not so much by genes, as Richard Dawkins believes, as by the human organism, which is the central unit of evolution because it is capable of learning, changing its environment and increasing its own chances of survival. Religious developments, Bellah argues, shape human capacity as yeast leavens a loaf.

In Bellah's theory, religion and culture have evolved together in stages, increasing capacity along the way. What is gained at each stage is not lost or replaced in subsequent stages but is creatively reorganized under new conditions, because each capacity is central for human functioning. Perhaps this is why Bellah goes looking for "friends in history": to share them with us when the present age seems incoherent, when something is amiss and the Spirit seems elusive, when we seem to be in search of a fugitive faith we've allowed to run away from ourselves.

In the second part of the book, Bellah walks us through the life and history of four Axial civilizations as a new stage of human evolution unfolds. This is where Bellah displays his endless fascination with religion, which is "sociologically interesting," he writes, "not because it describes the social order but because it shapes it." How on earth did four disparate places, without benefit of contact, create figures like the prophets in ancient Israel, Socrates and Plato in Greece, Confucius and Mencius in China and the Buddha in India, all of whom emerged around the middle of the first millennium BCE to confront, renounce and reveal a new world? …

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