Book Review: Religion in Human Evolution (Bellah)

Religion in Human EvolutionRobert Bellah’s Religion in Human Evolution stands as magnum opus of breathtaking proportions. Developed from the Merlin Donald’s work on cultural evolution, Karl Jasper’s insights on the axial age, and drawing upon a range of historical, anthropological, and biological sources, Bellah traces the evolution of religion within human culture from its origins in primordial play to the theoretical turns of the Axial Age. Central to this argument is that nothing is left behind during the evolution from episodic to theoretical culture through the mimetic and mythic. As a result of this massive study, Bellah argues that the evolution of human religion, which culminated in theoretical religious discourse in axial cultures and refigured preceding mimetic and mythic culture, continues to influence human religion and culture today. Bellah’s latest monograph stands as in-depth treatment of the evolution of human culture that is a must read for those involved in the study of the history and sociology of religions.

A key component of Bellah’s “history of histories” involves understanding religion as world-building, and he devotes considerable space in his early chapters to examining how human religious capacities represent and interact with the world of daily life and contribute to the formation of religion. Through his categories of unitive (episodic), enactive (mimetic), symbolic (mythic), and representational (theoretic) conceptions of culture, Bellah sets forth a typology for understanding the cultural contexts of religion formation, demonstrating that narrative links poetic internal and experienced external worlds which not only influence social and individual identity but also generative conceptual development. Turning next to considerations of religion and deep history, Bellah outlines an overarching scientific timeline including early life on earth, central human processes, and the evolution of new capacities including play, concluding that human beings are embedded in a deep biological and cosmological history that impacts everything that we do.

Bellah’s considerations of mimetic culture in the Kalapalo of Brazil, Walbiri of Australia, and Navajo of the American Southwest demonstrate how ritual and myth arise as well as their narrative functions within tribal religion, as he shows that mimetic culture serves as “an event about an event” which leads to the creation of organized narrative accounts and the development of abstract sign-sign characterizations. Locating examples of the transition from tribal to archaic religion in places like Polynesia and Hawai’i, Bellah notes how the priest-king, unity of sacred and secular, and highly practical rituals and myths convey the shift from tribal to archaic through new understandings of the relationship between cosmos, society, and self. Next turning to archaic societies, those affirming kingship and divinity, Bellah analyzes ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, Shang and Zhou China. Here he notes that archaic religions did not undergo literary revolutions once writing was developed, but rather that the compact symbolism of the divine and human in the central figure of the king, who dominated every aspect of religion practice, grounded a divinely instituted cosmic order where little tension existed between “religious demand and social conformity” (263).

The second half of Religion in Human Evolution, devoted almost exclusively to locating the actual “moments” of axial transition, makes it clear that Bellah views the axial age as the linchpin for understanding our current phase of religious evolution. For Bellah, the central breakthrough of the axial age involved the combination of graphic invention, external memory, and theory construction, leading to the creation of a questioning and reflective milieu that dialogued with existing mythic culture as a means of world creation. Vital to this process is the addition of analytic thinking to narrative thinking, indicating that theoretic culture was added to mimetic and mythic culture, reorganizing these cultural processes, but not displacing them. Following the lead of J.Z. Smith, Bellah uses axial Israel as his methodological test case. While certain early non-writing prophets suggest a fervent devotion to Yahweh somewhat earlier in Israel’s history, Bellah concludes that the Deuteronomistic Revolution’s notion of covenant gave ancient Israel its axial transformation. That is to say, the lasting institutional achievement of ancient Israel was their foundation of society not based upon a priest-king, but a covenant between God and a people. However, even in their transition to belief in a God outside of society which allowed for a fundamental shift in theological reflection, the Israelites maintained the cultural medium of narrative, suggesting that understanding the context of axial emergence remains a vital project for making sense of what makes the axial age axial.

The case of Ancient Greece was considerably more fluid than that of Israel, as Greek culture did not transition directly from an archaic culture of priest-king to axial revelation, instead mediating a route amidst the polis and traversing several stages in the creation of Western rationalist philosophical thought. Bellah notes as vital steps along the Greek axial path the importance of the need for self-understanding evidenced in Greek tragedies and Parmenides’ introduction of an extended logical argument combined with the poetic and mythic. However, it is in the persons and thought of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle that Bellah locates the Greek axial transition. And while these thinkers demonstrated the capacity to “imagine things different from what exists,” they do not reject the mimetic and mythic wholesale, just their received traditions, and instead recast myth, best seen in Plato’s telling of the life and death of Socrates (387-95). This hybrid system, which includes a new synthesis of mimetic, mythic, and theoretic, demonstrates Bellah’s argument concerning that nothing is left behind in cultural evolution and the reorganizational centrality of the theoretic in axial Greece.

Robert Bellah
Robert Bellah

Bellah’s third axial case is late-first millennium BCE China, where the axial transition occurred as “a society ruled by warriors was being transformed into a society ruled by imperial bureaucrats” (400). While discussing at some length the “public” religion of Mozi and “Daoist” privatization of theological reflection, Bellah concludes that these schools of thought fall short of the axial label due to their lack of continued influence on Chinese religion. Instead, after a lengthy investigation into Chinese religion he locates the transition from mythic to theoretic thought within Confucian thought, first developed by Confucius and later systemized by Mencius and Xunzi. In Bellah’s fourth axial case, India, he finds the transformation of mythic to theoretical took place more gradually. The Rigveda, the earliest known Indian text, developed a system that remains archaic for Bellah, despite its subsequent elaborations and (eventually) axial interpretations within the Indian context. In the Upanishads Indian religion began turning to the reflective and theoretical, though only though cryptic metaphors and not systematic reasoning, leaving the foundations of Indian society and ethics fundamentally archaic. While Upanishadic religion did not represent the key moment of transition for Bellah, he argues that the Buddha’s renunciation transformed Indian tradition into a reflective and theoretical religious culture and set the stage for all Indian religions to follow the axial path. Especially important for Bellah’s understanding of the Buddha’s axial insights were his extension of the teachings of liberation to all people, the systematic formulation of Buddhist ethics, and creation of the Sangha.

Bellah concludes by offering three overarching implications which are useful for considering the broader context of the religion in human evolution. First, there is the importance of social criticism within the context of religious thought, since it is only within the axial context that a truly egalitarian ethic develops. Second, the great axial religions bequeathed two distinct forms of theory: great utopian visions and the opportunity for disengaged knowledge, each of which have been applied for good and ill. What is most important for these two kinds of theory, however, are their functions as seedbeds for intellectually and practically ethical lives and the later developments of theoretical metaphor and thought. Finally, he notes the importance of humility within the contemporary religious context of pluralism. A major aim of this work involves showing that “the evolution of life and culture gives no ground for any kind of triumphalism,” and that seeking understanding on the terms of others remains an important implication of theoretical culture (605).

Throughout this study, Bellah demonstrates a willingness to engage in consistent thick description in as many instances as possible, not only in prolonged engagements with axial cultures, but also in the earlier sections on tribal and archaic cultures. He fulfills his stated intention of treating the axial cases with equal respect and value, as his chapters on India and China are the longest and most in-depth of a study unparalleled in breadth and depth. At many points it seems that Bellah offers this work as something of a bridge between science and religion, writing that “big” stories, even if they are scientific, still have religious implications. The rise of theoretical thinking does not negate the truths of the mythic (or mimetic), though Bellah notes that different judging criterion should be used. This connectivity between religion and science is simply another example of how all cultures rest upon the cultures that have gone before them and how nothing cultural is ever left behind.

Bellah’s overarching argument that the evolution of religion has progressed from the episodic to the mimetic, then to the mythic and theoretical, and that nothing is left behind in this evolution, is convincingly presented, even if this larger argument is sometimes lost in the forest of material that he marshals for his evidence. His argument regarding the axial breakthrough, that it involved the “emergence of theoretic culture in dialogue with mythic culture as a means for the ‘comprehensive modeling of the entire human universe’” is equally convincing (273). One thing that would have added to this book was some clarity regarding Bellah’s position on postmodern theory; presented as engagement with earlier cultural systems to inform our current understanding of religion and culture, Bellah remains curiously cryptic concerning the linguistic turn and postmodern anthropological theory.

The sheer volume of this tome accurately reflects the vastness of the overall project, as well as the usefulness of this volume for those interested in the history and sociology of axial and pre-axial religions. Bellah’s insights into the evolution of humanity through episodic, mimetic, mythic, and theoretical cultural forms provide the groundwork for future intellectual projects involving the histories and developments of religions. His argument that nothing is left behind, the interplay between science and religion, and foray into the realm of ritual as play all provide useful sociological entry points into the academic study of religion and will function as useful catalysts for engagement with the religious and culture aspects of axial cultures. Overall, Bellah’s overarching argument remains convincing and useful, namely, that the evolution of human religion, which culminated in theoretical religious discourse in axial cultures and refigured preceding mimetic and mythic culture, continues to influence human religion and culture today and is worthy of our attention.

Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age. Robert N. Bellah. Cambridge: Belknap Harvard University Press, 2011. 746 pages. $39.95


Published by Jacob J. Prahlow

Husband of Hayley. Dad of Bree and Judah. Lead pastor at Arise Church. MATS from Saint Louis University, MA from Wake Forest University, BA from Valparaiso University. Theologian and writer here and at Conciliar Post. Find me on social at @pastorjakestl

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