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.

And as you point out, neither is the monotheistic version of God central: "God is not primordial in the evolution of religion" is the wording you use.

The notion of God as a kind of absolute person in control of everything all comes from one place and it isn't found anywhere outside it. Of course, since Christianity and Islam picked this idea up it's become very widespread. But it certainly isn't inherent in religion, per se. And it's not very obvious in Confucianism or Buddhism or any of the non-Abrahamic religions.

So given your view of ritual and religion as this intensely socially embedded sort of practice, but also that you don't necessarily see the idea of God as being crucial to the idea of religion, are atheists antisocial? Or can atheists be religious without being theistic?

Well, in the first place, we've seen since 1990 a rise in people when asked what their religion is saying none. It went from 2 or 3 percent to something like 17 percent, which is a rather stunning development in 20 years. But when you ask further, only a tiny percent of the nones claim to be atheists or even agnostics. What they're not is they're not "organized religion."

And for those who are atheists, I think there are two kinds of atheism. There's one kind that says, "Give me a break, I don't care about that whole thing. It doesn't mean anything to me." But there are also people who don't believe in God but have deep moral commitments and have very strong views on what is good and what is evil and who even may devote themselves to good causes. Atheism per se certainly doesn't mean that people are antisocial. It just means they have found other symbols. The traditional religious symbols have lost their meaning to them but they still believe in social good, etc.

There's obviously a range of degrees of sensitivity to large-scale moral-spiritual questions in any society at any time. If we imagine that people in the Middle Ages were all deeply religious—forget about it. Most of them, if they went to church, they went to church because they thought it was going to be good for the crops or the baby would be well or something. There are always great saints and mystics and so on, but there's never been a period in which everybody was engrossed in religion.

Charles Taylor's point in A Secular Age is that the modern age is secular in that there's no presumption that you will be religious or be religious in a particular way, but that doesn't mean you won't be religious. It means there's an element of choice. In earlier, more conformist times, it was taken for granted that you would be of whatever religion you grew up in in your family and that was that. But now it's a question. It's a question whether you're religious or not religious: You have to think about it if you're serious at all. And all kinds of new possibilities arise in religion once we're free from the conformity of taken-for-granted religious practice. Habermas has said we live in a post-secular age. What he meant is we have to understand religion as not dead—though it may be pretty dead in Europe—and we'd better realize it's something we have to wake up and take seriously, because it's certainly alive and well in much of the world.

If we have this religious diversity, does that mean we've lost the ability to create meaning in society through shared religion? Can we still experience what you call "unitive" events?

Of course you know I wrote that essay a long time ago—that essay that I have sometimes wished I never wrote, called "Civil Religion in America." Civil religion in America is still alive and well. Obama not only now faithfully wears his flag pin—which I hate—he ends any serious intervention by saying "God bless you and God bless America." What is that? You never find an inaugural address without reference to God. You won't find one referring to Jesus either, because that's not part of the civil religion. But religious symbols remain in American public life come hell or high water—you just can't get rid of them, and they do provide some sense of common language. I don't think Martin Luther King would have had the impact that he did if he'd spoken only in secular terms. His great speeches are full of reference to American civil figures, but they are also deeply Biblical. So all our diversity doesn't mean that we don't understand certain things in common—even if we don't accept them in the absolute way.

So one of the other things you brought up was this I-You versus I-It: Humans have a preference for the personal in cosmology. Is the implication there that it's not necessarily fear or search for meaning which propels the creation of God figures but rather a human tendency towards anthorpomorphism?

Well, I raise that issue in the evolution chapter because of the fact that there seems to be a consensus among people who study early human life and ask the question, "Why are we so intelligent?" It used to be thought we were so intelligent because of technology—we learned how to chip stones. Well, chipping stones does not take rocket science, actually; it can be learned by imitation. But dealing with a complex band of people you don't know if you can trust or not, and you love some of them and you hate some of them—that's a pretty high demand on your cognitive growth. I think the brain grows fast when groups get larger and more complicated and maneuvering yourself in a social world starts to be at the heart of what your life is all about. Since our intelligence grew above all in relating to other people, it is natural that we think of the world in general in interpersonal terms. If you ever have been to Japan or know anything about Japanese religion, what is called Shinto, a waterfall, a beautiful tree, these are kami. Yes, you can call them gods, but they're certainly nothing like Yaweh. They're spirits, they're alive. That notion that nature is alive, that there's a spiritual element everywhere.

The physical world is not as dead and quiescent as Newtonian physics would have us think. And we still don't know where life came from. I don't think anyone in their right mind thinks God came out of somewhere to create life, but the emergence of life from inanimate matter does remain a bit mysterious. I'm not saying it won't be explained in perfectly good natural scientific terms, but it involves things that are not your usual run-of-the-mill behaviors you'd expect to see. The world is full of questions and we can't take anything for granted, because the more we know, the more questions are raised.

That's as good a conclusion as any. Anything you'd like to add about the book?

Well, just one last reflection. If you look at the conclusion you'll know I end on a fairly somber note, the "sixth great extinction," and so on. I think our cultural change has sped up to the point where it really is surpassing our evolutionary capacities for dealing with it. We need to be aware of where we came from, because that tells us who we are. And there are things that don't change, there are things we need to hold on to. We think, criticize, reapply, but we can't imagine that the latest technological development is going to solve everything. We need to understand the past out of which we came and in particular the great Axial traditions which are still alive to us. Good philosophers read Plato not as historical texts of the past but as words that speak to them and have something to say to them. Aristotle's ethics are taken seriously as one of the great alternatives to philosophical ethics today. So these Axial figures are still around and may help us. We certainly need help, as we don't seem to be doing very well. So this book is again a plea for rooting ourselves in an understanding of the deep past.

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

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