Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age, by Robert N. Bellah. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press 2011. ISBN 9780674061439. 784 pages.
Religion in Human Evolution is a work of extraordinary ambition—a wide-ranging, nuanced probing of our biological past to discover the kinds of lives that human beings have most often imagined were worth living. It offers what is frequently seen as a forbidden theory of the origin of religion that goes deep into evolution, especially but not exclusively cultural evolution.
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.
Robert N. Bellah is Elliott Professor of Sociology Emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley.
“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
“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, author of A Secular Age and Dilemmas and Connections
“This book is the opus magnum of the greatest living sociologist of religion. Nobody since Max Weber has produced such an erudite and systematic comparative world history of religion in its earlier phases. Robert Bellah opens new vistas for the interdisciplinary study of religion and for global inter-religious dialogue.”—Hans Joas, The University of Chicago and the Freiburg Institute for Advanced Studies, Albert Ludwig University of Freiburg
“Robert Bellah’s Religion in Human Evolution is the most important systematic and historical treatment of religion since Hegel, Durkheim, and Weber. It is a page-turner of a bildungsroman of the human spirit on a truly global scale, and should be on every educated person’s bookshelves. Bellah breathes new life into critical universal history by making ancient China and India indispensable parts of a grand narrative of human religious evolution. The generosity and breadth of his empathy and curiosity in humanity is on full display on every page. One will never see human history and our contemporary world the same after reading this magnificent book.”—Yang Xiao, Kenyon College
“Religion in Human Evolution is a work of remarkable ambition and breadth. The wealth of reference which Robert Bellah calls upon in support of his argument is breath-taking, as is the daring of the argument itself. A marvellously stimulating book.”—John Banville, novelist