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

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RELIGION IN HUMAN EVOLUTION: FROM THE PALEOLITHIC TO THE AXIAL AGE. By Robert N. Bellah. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 2011. Pp. xxvii + 746. $39.95.

Bellah's magnum opus cries out for adjectives such as magisterial. This book is nearly breathtaking in its scope. Because of this book, many now compare B., America's preeminent sociologist of religion, to Max Weber. Drawing on a vast range of biological, anthropological, and historical studies in the pursuit of his ambitious project, he both locates religion in the cosmic evolutionary process and places the origin of religion in primordial play. For B. ritual (a kind of performative set of practices) predates myth. Practice is prior to belief. He links human initial religions to some emergent properties (for B., evolution is about emergent properties) in humans but carefully also shows overlapping continuities with higher mammals (e.g., in extended child-rearing practices, grooming behavior, and play). B. tries throughout to link emergent new properties of religion to social structural shifts. In his understanding of the pattern of the cultural evolution of religion he postulates a sequence that moves--borrowing language from Merlin Donald--from the mimetic, to the mythic, and then to theoretic culture. B. asserts that these movements can be ranged in an evolutionary order, not in terms of a simple judgment of higher and lower, but in terms of emergent social structural capacities.

Key chapters treat tribal religion among hunter-gatherers and early agriculturalists, focusing on anthropological studies of the Kalapo in Brazil, the Basseri nomads of Iran, the Australian Aborigine Walberi, and some Hawaiian Polynesian tribes. In such societies, explicit religious ethics is missing. They lack a tradition of religious detachment, a class of specialized interpreters, and, perhaps, sufficiently deep challenges to their taken-for-granted world of everyday life. A kind of religious egalitarianism exists in these tribal religions.

Archaic religion emerged with the rise of kingship, cities, trade, the use of animal power for agricultural work, and the growth of monumental architecture. Archaic societies gave rise to specialized priesthoods, separate from the chieftains. The religious focus is on either the divinity of the king or some special nexus between kings and God. In his chapter on archaic religion, B. studies Egypt, Mesopotamia, and the Shang and Western Zhou kingdoms in China. He chose these examples because these archaic societies fed into axial religion, which appeared in four variants in the first millennium BCE. Archaic societies were hierarchical in form. Kings had dominant power, but they were also seen as nurturing, even as good shepherds. …