Religion in Human Evolution
From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age
by Robert N. Bellah
(Harvard University Press, September 2011)
How did our early ancestors transcend the quotidian demands of everyday existence to embrace an alternative reality that called into question the very meaning of their daily struggle? Robert Bellah, one of the leading sociologists of our time, identifies a range of cultural capacities, such as communal dancing, storytelling, and theorizing, whose emergence made this religious development possible. Deploying the latest findings in biology, cognitive science, and evolutionary psychology, he traces the expansion of these cultural capacities from the Paleolithic to the Axial Age (roughly, the first millennium BCE), when individuals and groups in the Old World challenged the norms and beliefs of class societies ruled by kings and aristocracies. These religious prophets and renouncers never succeeded in founding their alternative utopias, but they left a heritage of criticism that would not be quenched.
Bellah’s treatment of the four great civilizations of the Axial Age — in ancient Israel, Greece, China, and India — shows all existing religions, both prophetic and mystic, to be rooted in the evolutionary story he tells. Religion in Human Evolution answers the call for a critical history of religion grounded in the full range of human constraints and possibilities.
1. Religion and Reality
2. Religion and Evolution
3. Tribal Religion: The Production of Meaning
4. From Tribal to Archaic Religion: Meaning and Power
5. Archaic Religion: God and King
6. The Axial Age I: Introduction and Ancient Israel
7. The Axial Age II: Ancient Greece
8. The Axial Age III: China and the Late First Millennium BCE
9. The Axial Age IV: Ancient India
This is an extraordinarily rich book based on wide-ranging scholarship. It contains not just a host of individual studies, but is informed with a coherent and powerful theoretical structure. There is nothing like it in existence. Of course, it will be challenged. But it will bring the debate a great step forward, even for its detractors. And it will enable other scholars to build on its insights in further studies of religion past and present.
- Charles Taylor
This great book is the intellectual harvest of the rich academic life of a leading social theorist who has assimilated a vast range of biological, anthropological, and historical literature in the pursuit of a breathtaking project. Robert Bellah first searches for the roots of ritual and myth in the natural evolution of our species and then follows with the social evolution of religion up to the Axial Age. In the second part of his book, he succeeds in a unique comparison of the origins of the handful of surviving world-religions, including Greek philosophy. In this field I do not know of an equally ambitious and comprehensive study.
- Jürgen Habermas
Robert N. Bellah is Elliott Professor of Sociology Emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley.
See an interview with Robert N. Bellah on his new book: "Where Does Religion Come From?" (The Atlantic, August 17, 2011).
See also an interview from 2008 on "Rethinking Secularism and Religion in the Global Age" [pdf]
Post by Robert Bellah at "The Immanent Frame" on his new book: Where Did Religion Come From?
An interview with Robert Bellah on his book here (60 minutes).