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.