Religion in Human Evolution

Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age

Robert N. Bellah
Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: Harvard University Press
Pages: 784
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Religion in Human Evolution
    Book Description:

    This ambitious book probes our biological past to discover the kinds of lives that human beings have imagined were worth living. Bellah’s theory goes deep into cultural and genetic evolution to identify a range of capacities (communal dancing, storytelling, theorizing) whose emergence made religious development possible in the first millennium BCE.

    eISBN: 978-0-674-06309-9
    Subjects: Religion, Sociology, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xxiv)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xxv-xxx)
  5. 1 Religion and Reality
    (pp. 1-43)

    Many scholars ask whether the very word “religion” is too culture-bound to be used in historical and cross-cultural comparison today. I cannot avoid the question, but for practical purposes I will use the term, because for the philosophical and sociological traditions upon which this book draws, the idea of religion has been central. The justification for its use will depend more on the persuasiveness of the argument of the book as a whole than on a definition; nonetheless definitions help to get things started. In the Preface I offered a simplified version of Geertz’s definition; here I will begin again...

  6. 2 Religion and Evolution
    (pp. 44-116)

    Chapter 1 was about religion and ontogeny. It was not an effort to understand the development of religion in the life course of the individual, though that would be a valuable undertaking; instead its purpose was to look at human development as the acquisition of a series of capacities, all of which have contributed to the formation of religions. This chapter is about religion and phylogeny, religion in deep history. When did religion begin? If only among humans, were there earlier developments that made its emergence possible, even in other species, and that might help us understand it? If we...

  7. 3 Tribal Religion: The Production of Meaning
    (pp. 117-174)

    In Chapter 1 I offered a typology of religious representation—unitive, enactive, symbolic, and conceptual—to describe the ways in which religions have understood reality. The concepts of enactive, symbolic, and conceptual representation were adapted from the work of Jerome Bruner on child development. According to Bruner, who is in turn adapting his categories from Piaget, the child first learns about the world by acting on it. It is by holding, throwing, reaching for, that the children come to know the objects that surround them. In early language learning the symbol and the object are fused—the sun and the...

  8. 4 From Tribal to Archaic Religion: Meaning and Power
    (pp. 175-209)

    The culture of ritual and myth described in Chapter 3 will eventually come in for dramatic attack—antiritualism and demythologization—from those seeking a more universal answer to the question of meaning (although the attackers themselves will never entirely escape from ritual and myth), but now we must consider how the resources for the production of meaning developed in tribal societies can be expanded to deal with much larger and more stratified societies through the development of new forms of ritual and myth, new understandings of the relation between cosmos, society, and self. These new understandings stretch the resources of...

  9. 5 Archaic Religion: God and King
    (pp. 210-264)

    In my discussion of tribal religion I chose three examples for close examination: the Kalapalo, the Australian Aborigines (the Walbiri), and the Navajo. From the thousands of tribal peoples, this choice could not be defended as “representative,” even though each was chosen from a different continent. In considering chiefdoms as the form of organization intermediate between the tribal and the archaic, I chose to look mainly at Polynesia because of the clarity of the record there in which archaeology and ethnography combine to give a sense of development over many centuries, starting with Neolithic villages and ending with an early...

  10. 6 The Axial Age I: Introduction and Ancient Israel
    (pp. 265-323)

    Ritual in tribal societies involves the participation of all or most of the members of the group—in classic Durkheimian fashion, if the ritual goes well, it leaves the group filled with energy and solidarity.¹ Some are more active than others, but many are involved, and even when, as in the case of the Navajo, the ritual centers around someone who is being cured, the whole network of people with whom that person is involved participates in and benefits from the ritual. In stark contrast, ritual in archaic societies focuses above all on one person, the divine or quasi-divine king,...

  11. 7 The Axial Age II: Ancient Greece
    (pp. 324-398)

    Ancient Greece would seem to be the easy case when it comes to the axial age. Greece gave rise to a form of democracy based on decisions made after rational argument in the assembly; to philosophy, including formal logic (second-order reasoning); to at least the beginnings of science based on evidence and argument; not to mention that it also gave rise to extraordinary artistic and literary achievements. Some have been so overwhelmed by the culture of ancient Greece as to imagine a “Greek miracle” emerging, without forerunners or rivals, full-blown from the head of Zeus so to speak. The Greeks...

  12. 8 The Axial Age III: China in the Late First Millennium bce
    (pp. 399-480)

    One of the more remarkable things about classical Greece is that it seemed to go from a tribal society (actually a retribalized society) to something on the verge of modernity within a matter of generations. The sheer rapidity of the change has been seen as having something to do with the vigor of the ultimate flowering. There had, of course, been a Bronze Age palace society, the Mycenaean, in second-millennium bce Greece, with powerful rulers, monumental buildings, and a written script. All that had been largely forgotten during the Greek Dark Age from roughly 1200 to 800 bce, with only...

  13. 9 The Axial Age IV: Ancient India
    (pp. 481-566)

    It is with more than a little trepidation that I begin this chapter on India in the axial age. Of the four axial chapters, this is the one for which I was least prepared and had furthest to go with my research. In the case of ancient Israel, Greece, and China I had read the major primary texts in translation for most of my adult life and was aware of the major secondary literature. In preparing for those chapters I had to review much that I thought I knew and, in particular, do a lot of reading in recent secondary...

  14. 10 Conclusion
    (pp. 567-606)

    Pascal in one of his fragments says something that applies to this book: “The last thing one discovers when writing a work is what one should put first.”¹ After having written Chapters 1 through 9, and in the course of completely rewriting Chapter 2, “Religion and Evolution,” I discovered the importance of play among mammals and the extraordinary way in which play in animals provided the background for the development of play, ritual, and culture among humans.² So play, though discovered last, did get in quite early in this book, but then is largely ignored through the whole trek from...

  15. Notes
    (pp. 609-714)
  16. Index
    (pp. 715-746)