Robert N. Bellah: The Big History of Religion in Human Evolution.

I just returned from a lecture by the sociologist of religion Robert Bellah. He was invited to speak about his book Religion in Human Evolution (2011) by the Dominican University of California. The University has just started a program in Big History, which concerns not only the study of human culture (east, west, and indigenous), but the history of life on earth and of matter and energy in the universe. Bellah spoke to an audience of perhaps 400 people not primarily about religion, but about science. Bellah’s lecture might be best characterized as a “biological sermon” (as one attendee suggested). He began by establishing the common ground of evolution. Most educated people, he said, can agree on the basic scientific story of evolution. We human beings all descend from a common ancestor. At one time, tens of thousands of years ago, we were an endangered species.  A few thousand of us inhabited the African sub-continent. A few million years before that, we were primates, swinging in the trees of a pangean jungle. Before that, we were reptiles; before that amphibians; before that fish, and before that plants, photosynthesizing bacteria, cells, amino acids, molecules, elements, particles, photons.  If we trace our genealogy back far enough, we come to the beginning of the universe itself. Everything that exists now was implied in the initial moment of creation. All of it enfolded.

Our human existence–and the human, I think Bellah would say, is that being who knows it exists–is no less significant than the big bang. Cosmos and Anthropos are metaphysically basic. The universe, as we know it, cannot but be human; of course, the human with all of its religion and culture, is no less natural than the seagull or the stellar nebula. Anthropos (and Logos) is written into the universe from the beginning. That which is most human in us is most cosmic in the universe. Stars, carbon atoms, and cells are intelligent actors in and producers of this world, alike in kind to Christ, even if not alike in power.

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10 thoughts on “Robert N. Bellah: The Big History of Religion in Human Evolution.

  1. Whats the point of making everything a derivation of religion again? Should we be excited by this? I also like how we start with an agreed upon scientific story and end with “and this means that carbon atoms are like christ.” I can really see that going over well in most scientific circles.

    Surely there is value in considering the enmeshed character of cultural value systems (sciences and religions and this case), but this basically smacks of an inability to think anything outside of religion.

    Seems off to me. Philosophy? Its a religion. Science? Its a religion? Confuscianism? Its a religion. Theory? Its a religion. Kind of flat, no?

    • I don’t think his point is to say that everything is religion so much as to argue that religion is an ineradicable aspect of human nature. We are animals that ritually orient ourselves to the transcendent through symbolism of different kinds. We are embedded in story and narrative at every turn, and “theory,” rather than a radical break out of story into the clear light of truth, is more like a form of “mythospeculation,” a way of telling the story of stories.

      Bellah spent most of his talk trying to walk the tightrope between cosmic optimism (e.g., Teilhard, Berry, etc.) and cosmic pessimism (Monod, Dawkins, etc.). The optimists, he says, read too much Christian providentialism into the cosmos, while the pessimists see the cosmos only in terms of the fall. The bit about carbon being Christ-like is not a comparison Bellah made–he went to great pains to respect the difference between theoretical science and the various sorts of religious and/or symbolic responses we might have to it (“the universe is cold and indifferent and only human have a chance to rebel against it!” -Dawkins; “The human is a creative flowering of the dynamics of the universe itself, and so all our culture and religion should be universe-referent” -Berry).

      Flat? I’m not sure. I think part of what he is trying to do with his new book is challenge the secularist assumption that religion is just bad science, that is it primarily a set of theoretical claims that one believes or disbelieves. He wants to root religion in something deeper than belief. He roots it in practices, in play and ritual, especially those rituals that are widespread socially. This makes it seem like something inescapable, though of course we might not want to say that Super Bowl Sunday, just because it is highly ritualized, is therefore a religious event. Or would we?

      • We could also make a further point here — if Bellah is interpreting the secular, scientific story as a kind of pessimism, and the religious story as a kind of optimism (with the former associated with the fall and the latter with redemption) than how is that not turning religious categories into arche-concepts? I doubt Dawkins thinks of himself as a pessimist nor do most secular scientists. Not everyone needs christian narratives/practices to have a good time.

      • Bellah wasn’t equating cosmic pessimism with science. Brian Swimme’s cosmology (also in attendance at the lecture) is an example of how the scientific evidence can be read in a different way, not exactly secular, but not religious, either.

        As for turning religious categories into arche-concepts, I would probably want to argue that this is an appropriate move in some cases. The death-rebirth mystery, for example, seems to be a widespread motif present in all the world’s religious and indigenous traditions. It seems to be a fundamental concept in all religions. Such religious expressions have their roots deep in human nature, reflecting real aspects of our existential situation, so its no surprise that, despite claims of secularity and modernity, we see the same arche-concepts cropping up again and again.

        Dawkins is probably not the best example to use to argue that not everyone needs Christian narratives. Here is the systems biologist Brian Goodwin writing about Dawkins:

        “To give a very brief summary of the way he presents neo-Darwinism in The Selfish Gene and The Extended Phenotype, let me mention four points he makes: (1) Organisms are constructed by groups of genes, whose goal is to leave more copies of themselves; (2) this gives rise to the metaphor of the hereditary material being basically selfish; (3) this intrinsically selfish quality of the hereditary material is reflected in competitive interactions between organisms, which result in survival of fitter variants generated by the more successful genes. (4) Then you get the point that organisms are constantly trying to get better, fitter, and — in a mathematical, geometrical metaphor — always trying to climb peaks in fitness landscapes.

        The most interesting point emerged at the end of The Selfish Gene, where Richard said that human beings, alone amongst all the species, can escape from their selfish inheritance and become genuinely altruistic, through educational effort. I suddenly realized that this set of four points was a transformation of four very familiar principles of Christian fundamentalism, which go like this; (1) Humanity is born in sin; (2) we have a selfish inheritance; (3) humanity is therefore condemned to a life of conflict and perpetual toil; (4) but there is salvation.

        What Richard has done is to make absolutely clear that Darwinism is a kind of transformation of Christian theology. It is a heresy, because Darwin puts the vital force for evolution into matter, but everything else remains much as it was. I suspect that Richard was at one stage fairly religious, and that he then underwent a kind of conversion to Darwinism, and he feels fervently that people ought to embrace this as a way of life.”

      • A couple of points here:

        (1) By suggesting that religion is an “arche-concept” I mean more in the sense of how any discipline or practice, when dominant, can distort the terms by which other disciplines or practices can be enacted (and this what christian narratives have done, irrevocably). I would distinguish this definition of arche-concept from the fact that there may be certain constants in human experience (e.g., such as the death-rebirth mystery). In this sense I’m happy with the idea of recurrent existential situations deeply rooted in human experience, but I still wouldn’t necessarily want to say that such constants have to be religious in nature, or even that religions per se provide the most interesting stories about such experiences.

        (2) I’m fulling with you on the links between certain strands of secular materialism and christianity. In fact, much of what I’m interested in pursuing in this dialogue is the possibility of a secular or a religious worldview that actively disrupts the sacred-secular salvation stories so deeply embedded in the West. Thats why I like Brian Swimme’s cosmology (though I think he falls into the Christian narrative quite readily as well–I’d like to rethink that part).

        In this sense…

        (3) Dawkins is a good example of someone who is struggling to think the world without God (which I think is a great thing to do), but a bad example of someone trying escape the sacred-secular salvation narrative. On this note, there has been extensive research done on sacred-secular narratives by our friends Foucault and Haraway. Here we find many links with Goodwin’s analysis above, but also to Bellah. Foucault in particular links the sacred-secular issue to rituals and practices, rather than just beliefs. But the real clincher is that, in trying to think the world apart from the history of sacred-secular redemption narratives, we end up pursuing the very kind of purity we are trying to get away from. Gasp!

        So, perhaps my discontent is aimed more at your phrasings of these issues (here and elsewhere), rather than what Bellah himself presents. What I’m looking for is a thinking about religion that ruptures the sacred-secular dyad (which I think we agree are both sides of the same, uninteresting coin) and leads to genuine surprise or astonishment, and not the same old predictable stories.

  2. Matt your last sentence is very interesting, and in reading Adams comments I can see how it reads as if Bellah was reducing everything to religion or Christ… He was not of course, and I don’t think you meant your post in this way… One of the interesting things from Bellahs talk is his stance on multiple realities. Science and religion working in different worlds… But maybe even a stronger claim of differently enacted realities…. Keeping this strong reading and your last sentence in mind with regard to Bellah’s defense of bacteria and their importance… Who has more “power”. Christ or the bacteria…. I think Bellah’s talk opened the door to consider a more egalitarian reading of where the power to create lies…. What if the bacteria created us so we could creAte Christ for example?

    This might be too much for Bellah but i think he would find it fascinating none the less : )

    • Zayin — hello!

      Yes, truth be told I have not read Bellah’s books. However, the clip above does seem to paint religion as some kind of arche-concept rather unnecessarily (a point I disagree with both philosophically and methodologically). In this sense, I’m with you on the issue of enacted realities, a concept I often resort to as well. Even here, though, I find myself worried that I lean too hard on multi-perspectivalism to sort through the issues–I’m worried about reducing the real to perspectives of the real.

      I love your idea about Christ and the bacteria. If, as Matt says above, that electrons are Christ-like then it follows that Christ is also electron-like (i.e. mundane, secular, physical etc). Though I’m pretty sure thats a heretical statement. But then I have to ask — don’t both perspectives point to an unwarranted teleology? Matt and I tend to differ on this point as he sees things much more teleologically than I find tenable. At the end of the day I’m looking for an egalitarian reading as well, and I think the talk initially set me off because of what seemed like a rather coarse reading of science, religion, and philosophy.

      Interested in hearing more from both of you.

    • Hey Zayin,

      Yes you’re right to point to Bellah’s insistance on different but overlapping realities. I think the word “power” is perhaps misleading. I think of Christ’s power not in terms of creative force or might, but in terms of love. Eros (which can be both attractive and repulsive, both creative and destructive) is operative at all levels, from microcosmic electromagnetism, to macrocosmic gravitation, to mesocosmic human compassion. But it seems that the symbolism surrounding Christ is trying to point to an outpouring of love unmatched at any other level.

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