August 14, 2013


The Big Bang : Robert Bellah's Religion in Human Evolution waxes cosmic on the origins of faith (PETER MANSEAU, SEP/OCT/NOV 2011, BookForum)

Religion in Human Evolution is a continuation of Bellah's project of identifying elements of religiosity that many of us share, even if few of us recognize them as such. This time, he hopes to find a common cause behind all religions, civil or otherwise. To do so, he follows the lead of the icons of the field, dissecting religious environments that are far removed from current concerns. Émile Durkheim had his aborigines, Max Weber had his Calvinists, and Bellah mines data mostly from civilizations of the so-called Axial Age, the period from 800 to 200 BC, during which humanity developed, with near global simultaneity, the capacity for "questioning all human activity and conferring upon it a new meaning."

Like Durkheim and Weber before him, Bellah is not looking for answers to Big Questions, but is instead seeking to disinter root causes. However, in his attempt to place the story of the origins of religion within an expansive history of the world, Bellah takes a longer view than any prior theorist could have imagined. Drawing on hundreds of recent sources, ranging from theoretical physics to evolutionary biology, Bellah reminds us, "Even the possibility of thinking about this story . . . is only a little over 150 years old."

Though his focus for roughly half the book is the Axial period, Bellah shifts freely through the ages. "History goes all the way back," he writes. To him this means, first of all, that "any distinction between history and prehistory is arbitrary"--and, moreover, that in order to get to the bottom of how something came to be, one needs to find the earliest possible point of entry to the problem. "We, as modern humans trying to understand this human practice we call religion, need to situate ourselves in the broadest context we can, and it is with scientific cosmology that we must start."

And so, unlikely as it may seem, Religion in Human Evolution features an account of the universe's origins in its early chapters. Bellah's telling, while compelling, offers nothing new to anyone who has taken an undergraduate astronomy course, and it is framed in such a way that we are to understand that this latest portrayal of the start of things is not so different from previous descriptions. "When it comes to telling big stories about the order of existence, then, even if they are scientific stories, they will have religious implications." Bellah here is not selling crypto-creationism. He is merely suggesting that the cosmos is personal simply because we live in it and make it so.

Bellah makes this same assumption about big stories concerning the development of life in all its variety. One need not believe in intelligent design to look for embryonic traces of human behavior on the lower rungs of the evolutionary ladder. His attempt to do just that, with the help of recent research in zoology and anthropology, results in a menagerie of case studies that provide the book's real innovation. Not only the chimps and monkeys evoked by the word "evolution" in the title, but wolves and birds and iguanas all pass through these pages.

Within such a sundry cast, Bellah searches for a commonality that may give some indication of where and when the uniquely human activity of religion was born. What he finds is as intriguing as it is unexpected: They all like to play.

All animals of a certain level of complexity, Bellah explains, engage in forms of "useful uselessness," the developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik's term for behaviors that do not contribute to short-term survival yet do ensure long-term flourishing. In the play of animals, we can see a number of interesting elements: The action of play has limited immediate function; it is done for its own sake; it seems to alter existing social hierarchies; it is done again and again; and it is done within a "relaxed field," during periods of calm and safety. Put another way: Play is time within time. It suggests to its participants the existence of multiple realities--one in which survival is the only measure of success, and another in which a different logic seems to apply.

From such diverse data, Bellah builds a case that play begot ritual--and that ritual, in turn, begot religion. Seen more broadly: Play both precedes and fosters imagination, and from the ability to imagine--to wonder, to plan, to strategize--civilization follows. Play does not cease at that point, but it does change form as its rules become codified: At this point, it becomes more and more like ritual and religion as we know them.

Which is quaint both for the notion that we thereby designed our own evolution and for the unfortunate fact that none of the other universally playful creatures did so.

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Posted by at August 14, 2013 5:14 AM

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