Is Humankind’s Next Stage of Religious Evolution Here?

Robert Bellah, one of America’s most distinguished sociologists, caps off his luminous academic career with Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age, a nearly 800-page magnum opus that delves deep into the roots of humankind’s encounter with mystery and the search for meaning. Underwritten in part by funding from the John Templeton Foundation, Bellah’s book, out this month from Harvard University Press, is the fruit of 13 years of research and analysis. It has been described as “the most important systematic and historical treatment of religion since Hegel, Durkheim, and Weber. It is a page-turner of a bildungsroman of the human spirit on a truly global scale, and should be on every educated person’s bookshelves.”

Guided by the latest findings in the biological and social sciences, Bellah identifies the roots of the religious sense in human biology and culture—but by no means reduces religion to a mere expression of biological determinism or cultural preference. In fact, Bellah is all too aware that a big book with the words “religion” and “evolution” in the title will strike some as a culture-war bunker-buster. He says that both religious and atheistic “fundamentalists” mistakenly believe that both religion and science deal with the same kinds of truth claims and logical system.

“Science operates with scientific method in terms of which different theories can be tested and proved or disproved, though if Karl Popper is right, proof is always problematic and we are safer to stick to disproof,” Bellah tells Templeton Report. “Religion on the other hand is a way of life more than a theory. It is based on beliefs that science can neither prove nor disprove. Its ‘proof’ is the kind of person the religious way of life produces.”

Religion can be better understood not by examining its propositions, but by looking at the way its myths and truth claims are embodied in ritual practice. In the Axial Age—the first millennium BCE, which saw major leaps in religious progress occurring independently but concurrently in Israel, Greece, India, and China—enlightened religious teachers brought a more theoretical approach to myth and ritual, thus laying the philosophical groundwork for the world’s great religious traditions as we know them today.

“This has led some religious people and many secular people to think that religion is only another form of theory alongside philosophy and science,” Bellah says. “But while understanding the theoretical achievements of the great traditions is important, we will not really know what they are about unless we make the imaginative effort to see how the world might seem if we lived in the embodied practices and narratives of these traditions, a difficult but not impossible task. Indeed it is the joy of the study of religion to undertake this imaginative task.” [more]


The Templeton Report