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And it will enable other scholars to build on its insights in further studies of religion past and present. Robert Bellah first searches for the roots of ritual and myth in the natural evolution of our species and then follows with the social evolution of religion up to the Axial Age.

Book review: Religion in Human Evolution

In the second part of his book, he succeeds in a unique comparison of the origins of the handful of surviving world-religions, including Greek philosophy. In this field I do not know of an equally ambitious and comprehensive study. The wealth of reference which Robert Bellah calls upon in support of his argument is breath-taking, as is the daring of the argument itself.

A marvellously stimulating book. The evolutionary story is not linear but full of twists and variations. The human capacity for religion begins in the earliest ritual gatherings involving emotion, music and dance, producing collective effervescence and shared narratives that give meaning to the utilitarian world.

But ritual entwines with power and stratification, as chiefs vie with each other over the sheer length, expense, and impressiveness of ritual. Archaic kingdoms take a sinister turn with terroristic rituals such as human sacrifices exalting the power of god and ruler simultaneously. As societies become more complex and rulers acquire organization that relies more on administration and taxation than on sheer impressiveness and terror, religions move towards the axial breakthrough into more abstract, universal and self-reflexive concepts, elevating the religious sphere above worldly goods and power.

Above all, the religions of the breakthrough become ethicized, turning against cruelty and inequality and creating the ideals that eventually will become those of more just and humane societies.

Evolutionary origin of religions - Wikipedia

Bellah deftly examines the major historical texts and weighs contemporary scholarship in presenting his encompassing vision. Nobody since Max Weber has produced such an erudite and systematic comparative world history of religion in its earlier phases. Robert Bellah opens new vistas for the interdisciplinary study of religion and for global inter-religious dialogue. Bellah breathes new life into critical universal history by making ancient China and India indispensable parts of a grand narrative of human religious evolution.

The generosity and breadth of his empathy and curiosity in humanity is on full display on every page.

The Origins of Religion, Beginning With the Big Bang

One will never see human history and our contemporary world the same after reading this magnificent book. What is gained at each stage is not lost or replaced in subsequent stages but is creatively reorganized under new conditions, because each capacity is central for human functioning. In the second part of the book, Bellah walks us through the life and history of four Axial civilizations as a new stage of human evolution unfolds.

The world of daily life—including the potential to dominate or nurture—is also significantly shaped by religion, which conveys mysteries and meanings to us about another world we live in.


Bellah contends that it is through play and imagination that humans first discover that other world, which is also encountered in the revelatory moments or unitive experiences common to all religions. Play is thus one of the greatest evolutionary capacities in human religious development. That is how they broke the earlier fusion of the divine and human in the person of the king, whose death was previously the greatest threat to human order. So Bellah starts with the common experience of everyday life — an endless round of purpose-driven problem-solving in which our wants can never be completely satisfied.

The first, and almost the most important, point he makes is that everyday life is quite literally intolerable if there is nothing else and no other way to live.

  • Religion in Human Evolution — By Robert N. Bellah — Book Review - The New York Times.
  • | Religion in Human Evolution, Robert N. Bellah | | Boeken?
  • Evolutionary origin of religions?
  • Religion in Human Evolution, part 2: faith, language, music and play.
  • For the Last Time;
  • But, as he goes on to point out, no one has to live like that. It's certainly not the world we live in all the time:. This is important.


    Not only are religions profoundly different from one another, but so are the worlds that they provide escape from and meaning to. There may be — and, in fact, there probably are — psychological or cognitive mechanisms underlying the different ways in which all cultures deal with the world. But these are differently expressed and elaborated, just as languages are, so that you simply can't translate entirely between them. The evolution of language is necessarily closed off from us.

    Religions are different.

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    The big ones have histories, more or less partial and incomplete. Preliterate societies are still to be found and studied. Even though none of them have been untouched by modern industrial culture if only by the fact of being studied , we can still see how they differ from one another, and from us. This is where he starts, in worlds where there are neither gods nor people as we know them. A great part of the story of this book is the co-evolution of gods and humanity.

    Robert Bellah