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Review: Religion in Human Evolution

BellahUnlike many attempts to use evolution as a framework to understand religion, Robert Bellah in Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age begins with religion instead of evolution. He wants to start with a solid understanding of religion before worrying about whether religion is adaptive or not. In short, his argument states that the origins of religion are directly influenced by our deep evolutionary history that places its mark on axial religions through play, or ‘offline’ activity. Play or ‘offline’ activity is any activity that is not part of a goal-directed behavior towards survival.

In Chapter one, Bellah defines the sacred as non-ordinary reality. We regularly operate within non-ordinary realities, such as the bounded limits of a football game. These bounded limits – a catch don’t count unless it is in the game space, and the time stops for various reasons – create a reality that is set apart from ordinary reality. Ordinary and non-ordinary realities are not strictly separate, but overlap. After his discussion of the sacred, he develops a typology of religious representations which includes unitive, enactive, symbolic, and conceptual representations. Unitive representations are “representations that attempt to point to the unitive event or experience” (13), and enactive representations are recipes for action. Symbolic representation is necessary for the integration between inner and outer worlds (21), while conceptual representations are representations of something definite which make possible a world independent of subjects (38). For Bellah, these are the building blocks of ritual, myth, and theology.

Chapter two is where much of the heavy lifting occurs. Here he attempts to describe the evolutionary underpinnings for religion that are found in our deep evolutionary history “from single cell organisms to contemporary human society” (44). He does start with the single cell organism, but what is fundamental to his project is parental care. Using theories developed by the human ethologist Eibl Eibesfeldt and without diminishing the role of aggression, he argues that parental care is the basis of group bonding and individual friendship – in short, love. The precursors to love can be found in our earliest ancestors. Parental care can invoke sibling rivalry, which is a precursor to play. Play begins, ends, and is bounded by space. Shared intentions and attention are necessary for play. A final consideration of play is that it is a practice, which is an activity performed for no end except the good of the practice. Different spheres have different practices, and this practice is prior to belief. The purpose of the discussion of parental care, play, and practice is that these aspects of humanity are a precursor to ritual.

Chapters three, four, and five extends this work into tribal and archaic religions. It is here that biological evolution starts to get abandoned in favor of cultural evolution. This is not to say that the biological disappears, but it is relegated to our relationship with other apes. It is also here that Bellah begins to acknowledge our separation from these other species. Here as in the rest of the chapters the concept of play as developed in chapter two is just under the surface. Play or ‘offline’ activity seems to be a necessary precursor to the foundation of myth and theory.  Ritual and myth are pushed to the breaking point in the more stratified societies that practiced “archaic religion”, such as 1778 Hawai’i. These societies are typified by a despotic king who had the final say in matters of life and death, and myth is stretched to defend this social structure.  Chapter five in particular focuses on detailing the relationship between myth and these more stratified societies.

Chapters six through nine introduce these themes of myth, ritual, and play – the latter indirectly – in the context of four axial religions: ancient Israel, ancient Greece, first Millennium China, and Ancient India. Underlying these chapters is the idea that religion is borne out of play. In writings attributed to Confucius and Plato activities that Bellah associates with play or ‘offline’ activities are stressed, such as art and music. The ancient Israelites had a grand metanarrative unrelated or only very tangentially related to direct survival. And the ancient Indians were perhaps the most metaphysically oriented people described in this work. Bellah goes into excruciating detail into all of these axial religions, so much so that a summary is simply not possible here. Given this scope, no one can criticize Bellah for treating these axial religions as if they are all the same.

His concluding chapter is essentially an apology for not putting play and ‘offline’ activity into the forefront of the majority of his book, something which this review has hoped in part to remedy. However, the fact that he does not include this directly himself does pose problems for the interpreter. For instance, how exactly is the concept of God or other religious ideas related to human ‘offline’ activity? I have implied in this review that religion is borne out of play, but this is vague. Also, what is biological about this? It seems that at times biological evolution’s only role is to evolve the capacity for extensive ‘offline’ thinking and language and then the rest is handed over to cultural evolution. The latter does not seem to be well developed.

Moreover, this project was too big to go into the amount of detail that Bellah went into. A better way to manageably do this project would have been to cut back a little on the examples and focus more on the theoretical aspects, which Bellah clearly understood well. However, understanding is much different from organizing theoretical options into a synthesis, which Bellah consistently does poorly. For instance, despite coming up with his own typology of religious representation,  he decides that it would be better to use another analysis in chapter three that is similar to the one developed earlier in the book. Essentially, students of religion and anthropology would be much better served if Bellah rewrote the book with play as the central theme and with a more centralized theoretical focus than what appears in this present volume.

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