Sunday, August 12, 2012

Religion in Human Evolution, part 1: the co-evolution of gods and humanity

This is the first of a 3 part series.

Robert Bellah's important book is an account of ways in which human beings have made religions and religions have made us

I am not fully recovered yet from my heart attack, but have been occupying my convalescence with Robert Bellah's book Religion in Human Evolution, and it's so powerful that I am going to write about it anyway. It is an account of some of the ways in which human beings have made religions and religions have made us. The process continues, of course. If there are two faculties that make us into people, they are narration and contemplation. Religions unite them, and stimulate both. But it does much more than that.

The book makes a change for this series: it only came out this year, and the author, a distinguished US sociologist, is still very much alive. But I think it is as important here as any of the classic authors we have dealt with before. That's a large claim. But Bellah offers a perspective on the various phenomena we call religion that unites history (in so far as we have it) with psychology and sociology. Any overarching theory must be this ambitious, because religion is complicated. It is something that people do to themselves, and to their societies, and at the same time something that whole societies do to themselves, to each other and to their constituent individuals. It has – sometimes – theoretical aspects. It has ritual aspects too. Even within Christianity, which is what most of us in the west know best, there are elements of dance, of play, of the exercise of power, of logic, poetry and morality; there are hermits and popes, inquisitors and housewives: all of these can be found without even mentioning myths.

Such an enormous diversity of roles is, of course, dependent on a diverse and complex society. You don't find popes, priests or inquisitors among the Bushmen, nor anywhere in prehistory. If we're looking for something common to all expressions of religion, it will not be sufficient to describe any single one. So Bellah starts with the common experience of everyday life – an endless round of purpose-driven problem-solving in which our wants can never be completely satisfied. The first, and almost the most important, point he makes is that everyday life is quite literally intolerable if there is nothing else and no other way to live.

But, as he goes on to point out, no one has to live like that. It's certainly not the world we live in all the time:

"Among language-using humans, however, the world of daily life is never all there is, and the other realities that human culture gives rise to cannot fail to overlap with the world of daily life, whose relentless utilitarianism can never be absolute.

"In spite of its 'apparent actuality', the world of daily life is a culturally, symbolically constructed world, not the world as it actually is. As such, it varies in terms of time and space, with much in common across the historical and cultural landscape, but with occasional sharp differences."

This is important. Not only are religions profoundly different from one another, but so are the worlds that they provide escape from and meaning to. There may be – and, in fact, there probably are – psychological or cognitive mechanisms underlying the different ways in which all cultures deal with the world. But these are differently expressed and elaborated, just as languages are, so that you simply can't translate entirely between them.

The evolution of language is necessarily closed off from us. With the possible exception of Pirahã, all the languages spoken today seem to be on a similar level of complexity, and we can't reconstruct how they got there. Religions are different. The big ones have histories, more or less partial and incomplete. Preliterate societies are still to be found and studied. Even though none of them have been untouched by modern industrial culture (if only by the fact of being studied), we can still see how they differ from one another, and from us. This is where he starts, in worlds where there are neither gods nor people as we know them.

A great part of the story of this book is the co-evolution of gods and humanity. Although he finishes in the "axial age", when modern religious and philosophical thought first appeared, and with it universalist ethics, he avoids the slithery optimism of Karen Armstrong. What we have are numerous universalist ethics, not just one. What got us here was not progress:

"No serious reader of this book can think it is a paean to any kind of religious triumphalism."

He writes:

"That religious evolution is simply the rise, onward and upward, of ever more compassionate, more righteous, more enlightened religions could hardly be farther from the truth."


Brown, Andrew. 2012. "Religion in Human Evolution, part 1: the co-evolution of gods and humanity". The Guardian. Posted: July 16, 2012. Available online:

No comments: