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Bellah, Robert N.


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


Cambridge u. a.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press 2011. XXVII, 746 S. Lw. £ 25,00. ISBN 978-0-674-06143-9.


Hans J. Lundager Jensen

Robert Bellah is most well-known for his analyses of contemporary religion and for reviving Rousseau’s concept of a »civil religion«. Classical sociological theories, Weber’s as well as Durkheim’s, have always figured prominently in B.’s works, as it is evident in the useful Robert Bellah Reader (Duke University Press, 2006). But B. also has a solid foundation in contemporary social and cultural anthropological theories of religion. In this new book, he adds new knowl­edge in biological evolution and in cognitive studies to his already wide-ranging inventory of theories.
Religion in Human Evolution is a partial realization of a model for an evolutionary history of religion, published as early as 1964 (»Religious Evolution«, reprinted in the Reader). In the short, but dense paper, B. proposed a model for the whole history of religion, from the earliest forms to modern American religions in the 1960ies. The new, much longer and detailed book only reaches as far as the »axial age«. The axial age is, until the second part of the first Millennium BCE with its new religions and its intellectualist movements, highly independent, yet in certain ways strangely similar, such as Confucianism and Daoism in China, Upanishad philosophy, Buddhism and other new directions in Northern India, certain currents in the Hebrew Bible, and Platonism in Greece. All of them, each in its own way, established a categorical distance be­-tween accepted, trivial values and their own, »true« insights. These movements are still dominant in the modern world; earlier religions and ideologies, though very long-lived and seemingly well-functioning, have been left behind by history. The concept of an »axial age« was minted by Karl Jaspers in 1948 in his book Vom Ursprung und Ziel der Geschichte, inspired not least by Max Weber’s thoughts about a »prophetic age« and the cross-cultural phenomen­on of »world rejection«. Later, a few scholars such as Eric Voegelin, Arnaldo Momigliano, and S. N. Eisenstadt with his circle of other academics continued to work with the concept of an »axial age«, related to Theo Sundermeier and Jan Assmann’s concept of »second­ary religion« – a historically new type of religion, which also, perhaps, appears in the Deuteronomistic and in the Prophetic parts of the Hebrew Bible.
What B. aims at in this ambitious, yet clear and accessible book is nothing less than a history of religion that explains both the origin and the early history of religion. Obviously, religions are cultur­al units, but with a firm base in human psychology. B. first devel­ops a typology of religious representations, derived from the ontogenetic development of human beings, from the newborn’s unitary experiences through the grown-up’s bodily enactments and symbolic orders and up to the mature human being’s conceptual universes. These latter three types correspond to Canadian evolution­ary psychologist Merlin Donald’s model for the development of the modern human mind through three stages of »culture« (that is: intersubjectively shared forms of communication and memory): mimetic, developed by predecessors of homo sapiens, mythic-narrative, developed among homo sapiens by means of natural langu­age, and theoretic, depending on the cultural invention of writing. But this evolution is embedded in and can been seen as participating in the broader biological evolution, which reaches back, not only to the beginnings of biological life on the planet Earth, but ultimately to the big bang of our universe.
For many years in the academic discipline of the history of religion, religions have been treated as basically independent units with their own unique history, each guarded by typically philo­-logically trained specialists with little sympathy for situating the individual religions within more general frameworks. The theoret­ical underdevelopment of history of religion is probably connected to an aversion of anything resembling »evolution« – an anathema in anthropology and religious studies for most of the last century, inevitably tainted, as it seemed, with ideas of Western and Chris­tian moral supremacy, that the horrors of the 20th Century proved wrong. It has, however, always been difficult to avoid using the concept of »evolution« with regard to almost everything else, including man-made techniques, political structures, scientific knowledge, and much else. Hopefully, B.’s book will inspire historians of religions to give up their inherited aversion against the concept of evolution. Evolution is really about the changes of systems in time and their adaptions to ever changing environments, as Roy A. Rappaport, one of B.’s sources of inspiration, argued; evolution can move in all directions, between small and big, between simple and complex, etc. The argument of B.’s book does not even imply that religion is an adaptive system that undergoes evolution; as the title says, it is about religion in cultural evolution.
In Religion in Human Evolution, B. relates religion to the major early types of civilizations in the history of mankind: »tribal religion«, found in hunters-and-gatherers and in early agricultural societies, »archaic religion« as in the early states of the Near East or China, and the »axial age«. An important point is that evolution does not obliterate achievements made in earlier phases; »tribal« effervescent participation and inspired »shamanistic« individuals, or »archaic« mythology, ceremonialism or priestly specialization, are not done away within the run of history; in fact, one basic principle of B. is, that »nothing is ever lost«: history accumulates rather than obliterates.
Tribal religions probe is described through examples from Australia, South and North America and the transition to state societies through examples from Pacific chiefdoms. Examples of archaic societies and their religions are ancient Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and the earliest Chinese dynasties; for the early American states, that could have been very interesting in the general picture of archaic cultures and their religions, B. refers the reader to Bruce Trigger’s Understanding Early Civilizations. The different transitions into the »axial age«, and the different versions of it, which make up the bulk of the book, are treated in chapters on ancient Israel, Greece, China, and India. In dealing with areas afar from his previous expertise, B. seems to have made good use of present schol­arly consensus and state-of-the-art literature. No doubt there are many issues to discuss (e. g., why B. deals so thoroughly with parts of ancient Mesopotamian mythology and so little with the official rituals, which are supposed to be much more relevant for an archaic religion). This, however, does not diminish the overall value of this very important book. It will probably become a classic and a stand­ard reference work; hopefully it will also become a source of inspiration for years to come.