Where Does Religion Come From?


A conversation with Robert Bellah, author of a new book about faith's place in evolution


Harvard University Press

Religion's place in evolution is a provocative topic to begin with. But when one of the nation's top sociologists produces over 600 pages on the matter from retirement, people tend to take special notice. Yes, that is famed social theorist Jürgen Habermas you see providing a back-cover blurb.

Robert Bellah, the author of this new book, Religion in Human Evolution, spent his career at Harvard and Berkeley as a sociologist of religion, displacing plenty of rhetorical water in the late sixties with his essay "Civil Religion in America." There, he identified a number of American symbols and principles, "biblical archetypes" and ethical values, cohering into something of a national creed. This time, the scholar's microscope is trained not on the nation's political rhetoric, but on the very heart of human religious experience.

Starting with the Big Bang, and reviewing tribal religion, "archaic" religion, and finally the crucial "Axial Age" of classical Greece, ancient Israel, Vedic India, and Confucian China, Bellah—a religious man himself, but by no means beholden to modern belief's sacred cows—advances a whole host of dinner-discussion-worthy arguments. To name a few: Religion may emerge out of the mammalian "play" instinct, "sheltered ... from selectionist pressures"; ritual has functioned as crucial social glue, enabling the expanded social groups integral to humanity's rise; God, on the other hand, is far from necessary, where human religion is concerned.

In advance of the book's September 15 publication, we talked to Bellah about his recent work and some of his more provocative arguments.

What prompted you to write this book?

Deep desire to know everything: what the universe is and where we are in it. The meta-narrative that is really the only one intelligible to all well-educated people everywhere in the world is the meta-narrative of evolution, which is in turn embedded in a narrative of cosmological development since 13.7 billion years ago in the Big Bang.

I wrote an article on religious evolution which was published in 1964, but I got hijacked by America. That was the problem with my "Civil Religion in America" essay—it got such an enormous response at a time when things were pretty critical, towards the end of the Vietnam War. I never intended to work on America but then I got hauled into America for decades. So it wasn't until I retired in 1997 that I finally had time to do what I'd been wanting to do all my life, which is write a big book about the evolution of religion and religion in human evolution.

You mention play as a way of getting out of normal working consciousness, and religion emerging from the play instinct, a mammalian characteristic common to sparring puppies and humans experiencing art.

Play is a very elusive idea because it comes in so many forms. It's hard entirely to put them all under one category. Johan Huizinga's work was a great help to me, because he makes a strong argument that ritual emerges out of play. I'm a practicing Episcopalian and they call Sunday School "holy play," which seems to me a little bit cuckoo but there's some sense to it; in a sense what we're doing in the liturgy is a kind of play, a profound play.

Where do we draw the line between religion and play? How is a Hindu wedding ritual or a Catholic Mass different from experiencing art or drama?

But when you're watching a play by Schiller or Tennessee Williams, the audience is observing it but is not part of it. We can identify with it to some extent but there's a split. Nietzsche pointed out--Nietzsche was crazy as can be but he was damn smart--that if you look at the beginning of Western drama, which is the Greek tragedies, the audience was in it. The chorus was the audience. The chorus represented the citizens of Athens. And furthermore, Greek tragedy was presented at the festival of Dionysus, and it was a sacred event. You had to be there at the crack of dawn and it was all day long. And so the beginnings of drama, of plays, were so close to ritual that the difference between the actors and the audience was minimal. We walk out of the theatre and we say, "Well, that was quite moving, but it's only a play. It's not real life." But for the Athenians, it was real life. It was a form of self-criticism, Greek drama.

The idea of utopia is always a kind of play, because we know it's not real--it's just what we can imagine. But it has the serious possibility of saying, "Look, the world the way it is didn't have to be that way. It could be different." And that's something I think becomes more possible after the Axial Age. With ancient Australian traditions daily life and mythic life are so closely embedded in each other that you really can't think of anything being any different.

Speaking of Nietzsche: He's known for his criticism of Judeo-Christian ideology, arguing that these are the religions of the weak, and passive-aggressive egalitarianism. Are you agreeing or disagreeing with Nietzsche in this work?

I respect Nietzsche—he's a genius—but the last thing in the world I am is a Nietzschean. If you want to place me philosophically I would be in the tradition of Kant and Hegel and perhaps in contemporary life, the two first blurbs on the back of my book: Jurgen Habermas is a Kantian and Charles Taylor was a Hegelian. That would be where I stand.

Religion is drawn into legitimating the powers that be, but that's where protest and heresy and things like the Reformation come in. Of course, when these things win, they can also be oppressive, but religion is never static, it's always changing. People my age can hardly believe what goes on in this country in religion right now.

In public debate today, it's sometimes suggested that belief in God and rituals of the afterlife are a personal grasping at straws. You seem to suggest that death rituals and ideas of the afterlife are not so much personal desperation as a way for society to reassert itself in the face of disruption—you mention this regarding the rites for Egyptian pharaohs in particular.

Obviously, a funeral is not going to do too much good to the person who died, but really is a very important thing for survivors, even in our society. On the other hand, I do think with the Axial Age, the emergence of a deep, personal piety comes along. Something like that's there in shamanism much earlier, but it certainly gets more developed in the axial traditions.

So much of what's written about religion is written from the point of view of a certain understanding of Christianity and often of Protestant Christianity and it simply doesn't work for most of the world. There are so many religions where the afterlife is not central. This is true of Judaism. Judaism in the late period and certainly among the Pharisees at the time of Jesus did have some sense of the afterlife, but if you look through the Hebrew scriptures it's hard to find much about it. And even contemporary Judaism. There's this wonderful book by Robert Putnam and Harold Campbell called American Grace. He shows a tremendous range of beliefs in America and one of the things that's reasonably clear is that Jews to this day really don't believe in the afterlife. It's never been central in Judaism. So the idea that religion is basically about the afterlife, which comes out of a certain type of Christianity, is simply not true.

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Heather Horn is a former senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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