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Robert N. Bellah
Religion in Human Evolution
Harvard University Press
2011, 784 pp., $39.95 cloth
In an interview with Tricycle almost a decade ago, the sociologist of religion Robert N. Bellah addressed a central problem—perhaps the central problem—facing religious people today. Our modern intellectual inheritance demands a critical approach to received wisdom, yet faith would seem to require the opposite: trust in the reliability and authoritativeness of tradition. How can we approach the study of religion in a way that is both affirmative and critical? Tricycle asked.
Bellah, who is widely regarded as the preeminent figure in his field, agreed that putting our hands over our ears isn’t an option for modern religious people; we must critique tradition thoroughly. But there is a third possibility, Bellah suggested. Taking a page from the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur, Bellah suggested that we can move from an unquestioning acceptance of tradition through a critical investigation and come out the other side to another stage of belief, a “second naiveté.” Second naiveté, he said, “accepts the critical process, yet ‘in and through criticism’ it lets the symbols and narratives embedded in tradition speak again; it listens to what they are saying.”
But how do you do that?
There is a scene in the film Howl—about the obscenity trial of Allen Ginsberg’s poem—in which the prosecutor turns to literary critic Mark Schorer and asks him to translate what Ginsberg meant when he wrote “angel-headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night.” Schorer replies, “Sir, you can’t translate poetry into prose. That’s why it’s poetry.”
Just like poetry, symbols and narratives speak their own language. And in an era of rationalism, these types of truth-accounts, especially in the realm of religion, are no longer our native tongue. Symbols and narratives may still be speaking, but for the most part we are meaning-monolinguists.
Maybe you think the prosecutor was simply square. Then consider this. When you learn that the traditional accounts of the Buddha’s life don’t line up well with the historical facts—or for that matter, when you learn that the scriptures’ claims to historical accuracy are false or, at best, rest on shaky ground—do you feel you have lost something? When you take those accounts out of your category marked “facts” and put them into one marked “stories,” did you move them up or down—promote or demote them? Now, what happens if you think of them as “myths”? How do you value them now?
This is just a surface symptom of a profound and very hard-to-see problem with enormous implications for our own self-understanding and for our potential to understand others. For several centuries, there has been a takeover afoot in the realm of human meaning. In modern Western culture—and increasingly globally—a certain type of rational, theoretical knowledge has come to dominate territory that throughout earlier human history was shared with other modes of knowing, other forms of truth. Cultural forms like poetry, music, theater, and art—which are primarily expressions of meaning—have become second-class citizens, pushed to the margins and required—like Ginsberg’s poem—to speak in the dominant language of fact. Guided by the assumptions of the modern mindset, ritual, symbol, and myth can seem not only inscrutable but superfluous, even worthy of contempt. With this as our condition, it is hard to imagine how a religious person could slam into scientific knowledge and historical fact and come out not just unscathed, but richer for the experience. Ricoeur’s second naiveté sounds—frankly—well, naive.
Robert Bellah is on to that problem.
At the time of the Tricycle interview, he was already years into writing a book that would take up Ricoeur’s challenge. Reflecting on his motivation for writing it, he said, “My scholarly interest in religion stems from my belief that [it] is the primary way we humans have tried to understand the cosmos and ourselves. Seeing how that understanding has changed over time helps us comprehend where we are now.” He called his book in progress a “Bildungsroman of the human race.” This “coming-of-age story” of humanity’s search for meaning, Religion in Human Evolution, was released in 2011. Insightful and magisterial, it is the crowning achievement of a brilliant scholar who is sympathetic to religion and deeply attuned to the problems of modernity.
It is not at all self-evident that a book with the title Religion in Human Evolution would be an inviting read for the religiously sensitive. Nor is it, necessarily. Bellah has written a scholarly, critical book. He draws on scientific explanations and historical facts to present and support a new multistranded theory of religion, one that places the human pursuit of meaning squarely in the context of our social history, which in turn rests in the context of our biological and cosmological evolution.
The book tops out at more than 750 pages, and at times it can be slow going. Many of Bellah’s propositions are controversial. For example, evolutionary theory comes loaded with progress-myth baggage, whether what is evolving are species (simple to complex), cultures (primitive to advanced), or humans (immature to mature). The author is aware of these connotations, of course, and he makes some pretty fine distinctions to distance himself from them. The best thing, I think, is to bracket one’s objections until the end, and let Bellah present his case. It will be worth it.
Bellah sets out ambitiously to answer the question of where religion came from. He focuses on the evolution of capacities in general and more particularly on our multifarious capacities to understand the world and find meaning in it. But because religion is embedded in other dimensions of human experience, the scope of his task quickly escalates from ambitious to dizzying. Bellah at first faces a kind of unnesting, akin to a Russian matryoshka doll: to understand religion, we have to open the question of society; but to understand society, we first have to open the question of biology; but to open biology, we first have to open the question of cosmology. Each single level in turn can be multidimensional: for example, society includes economics, politics, and demographics. Then consider that each dimension changes over time, sending ripples through the others. Bellah tracks these whirling clouds of change against a timeline starting at the Big Bang; he stops just short of the last two millennia—one would imagine, breathless.
Bellah focuses in on breakthrough moments in cultural history—stageshifts—when new capacities emerged, as when we grew from a primitive stage without language in which we communicated primarily by bodily gestures or basic sounds into a more complex one with language and the capacity to speak, tell stories, and understand our world with a new kind of coherence. (Working from the scheme laid out by the evolutionary psychologist Merlin Donald, Bellah calls these stages “mimetic” and “mythic.”) Bellah’s key interest is the most recent shift, which, he argues, happened nearly simultaneously in various cultures worldwide about two and a half millennia ago. At that time, what Donald calls “theoretic” culture emerged out of mythic culture. Humans gained the ability to step back and reflect on their myths and their experience in a new way; they began to reflect on thought itself, to critique their social order, and to imagine alternatives—like spiritual transcendence or social utopias. Bellah uses Karl Jasper’s term for this era, the axial age, and he paints the axial worlds of Israel, India, Greece, and China in elaborate detail. For each, he illustrates how the convergence of conditions on multiple levels led to an axial breakthrough, unique to that culture and time but eerily akin to axial breakthroughs happening elsewhere.