The Big Bang

Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age BY Robert N. Bellah. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. Hardcover, 784 pages. $39.

The cover of Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age

About an hour into The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick’s meditation on nature, grace, Brad Pitt’s crew cut, and the laying of the foundations of the Earth, I turned to my wife, snuck a Twizzler from the bag in her lap, and said, “I knew this was going to cover a lot of ground, but I really didn’t expect the dinosaurs.”

I should have guessed that for a director obsessed with Big Questions, a family drama set in 1950s Texas would also be an epic about the birth of the universe, the origins of life, and, yes, frolicking CGI velociraptors, which give the film a Land of the Lost vibe that is at once sweetly awkward in its earnestness and strangely enjoyable in its chutzpah. From the big bang to suburbia by way of bubbling lava and primordial soup, it aims so high that getting halfway there might be enough.

I had much the same sensation—minus the Twizzlers—reading Robert N. Bellah’s massive account of how such a peculiar thing as religion could have come to play an enduring role in human history. Despite its generic title, Religion in Human Evolution is not like so many other “science and religion” books, which tend to explain away belief as a smudge on a brain scan or an accident of early hominid social organization. It is, instead, a bold attempt to understand religion as part of the biggest big picture—life, the universe, and everything. Like The Tree of Life, it doesn’t work flawlessly from the titles to the credits, but when it does, it leaves you looking at the world in a different way.

Bellah built his reputation—which, for those outside the realms of sociology or religious studies, is second to none in either discipline—on his ability to locate and examine religion where it is not immediately apparent. The general acceptance of the phenomenon of American civil religion (the notion that there is a genuine religious dimension to patriotism and its exhibition) comes to us thanks to Bellah’s treatment of the subject beginning in the 1960s. Not content to point out the similarities between the rituals of church and state, Bellah pulled back the curtain on the nation’s evolving spiritual tendencies to show how biblical tropes had been transformed into a distinctly American theology—a theology in service not of God, no matter what our money says, but of the apotheosized ideal of America itself. His 1975 book, The Broken Covenant, wondered if the faith of national pride was finished (civil religion at the time, he wrote, was “an empty and broken shell”). But the years since, particularly the last ten, have proved the prescience of his original observations.

Still from The Tree of Life, photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.
Still from The Tree of Life, photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

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.

Stated so plainly, this sounds a bit too simplistic, and it may well be. Supported by both a deep prehistory of play on the one hand, and the ongoing consequences of play on the other (as any Little Leaguer will tell you, play is not always fun), the theory becomes more convincing. Yet one can never shake the sense that the research Bellah wields so effectively comes filtered from hard-science sources through a social-science sieve.

Occasionally he seems too eager to include odd bits of information that a sociologist might think revolutionary, but that a biologist might greet with a shrug. On two separate occasions within forty pages, Bellah informs the reader that human babies are born essentially “premature” so that their big-brain-holding heads won’t grow too large and kill their mothers at birth. Fascinating though this is, its repeated telling is an indication that much of the science in this book is new to its author.

But perhaps all books should have the problem of being too curious about fields beyond their authors’ expertise. Bellah seeks an explanation of religion not because he believes all religions are about kindness, or that they all “poison everything,” as Christopher Hitchens has said. Bellah is less concerned with whether religion is right or wrong, good or bad, perfume or mustard gas, than with understanding what it is and where it comes from, and in following the path toward that understanding, wherever it may lead.

In this, he is unfortunately in the minority among those with something to say on the subject these days. The medieval—or perhaps it is merely adolescent—preoccupation with the truth or falsehood of religious claims displayed by most popular writers on religion would be comical, if it were not such a bore. Bellah avoids such problems because, he says, he observes religion from a position outside the culture war. “I am interested to find myself on both sides of the far too polarized opposition,” he notes, “not only between science and religion, but between the methodologies of scientific explanation and humanistic understanding.”

In a perfect world, the endless curiosity on display throughout Religion in Human Evolution would set the tone for all discussions of religion in the public square. Until then, the ability to see faith from both sides may remain as surprising as a dinosaur in an art film.

Peter Manseau is the author of the travelogue Rag and Bone (Henry Holt, 2009) and the novel Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter (Free Press, 2008). His next book, a history of the US entitled Twenty Gods or None, will be published by Little, Brown.