Religion in Human and Cosmic Evolution: Whitehead’s Alternative Vision

This was an early draft of a paper I presented at the 10th International Whitehead Conference. For video of the actual presentation, click HERE.


Abstract: This talk compares several approaches to the emergence of religion in human evolution. I contrast Robert Bellah’s and Alfred North Whitehead’s pluralistic, cosmologically oriented accounts to Daniel Dennett’s reductionistic, adaptationist account. Following Bellah and Whitehead, I root the emergence of religion in the ritualized play of our hominid ancestors. Foregrounding the importance of play behavior (instinctive in all mammals)  is a direct challenge to adaptationist explanations of religion in terms of its sociobiological utility. I then argue that the history of human religious expression should count as data requiring interpretation within any adequate cosmological scheme. Materialistic approaches seeking to “explain away” religious expression stem from an incoherent bifurcated image of nature, wherein dead matter is given explanatory priority over life and consciousness, which are relegated to the status of improbable epiphenomena. This approach, which ends up claiming that the emergence of human consciousness and its attendant religious experiences are an improbable accident, provides the exact opposite of a proper scientific account. Bellah and Whitehead in their own ways re-imagine the materialist’s bifurcated image of nature, making it possible for the project of “naturalizing religion” to proceed in a non-reductionistic way. The guiding research question is no longer “how can the history of human religious experience be explained away as a product of mechanical forces?”, but instead becomes “what must the universe be like, such that human religious experiences are possible?” 

My talk today will explore the evolutionary origins of human religion. As many post-colonial anthropologists have pointed out, “religion” is a highly contested term that cannot be unproblematically deployed as a transhistorical, universalist catch-all category. Although I’ve chosen to use the word, I agree with this problematization of a priori definitions of religion, which all too often blur our perception of the multifaceted richness of human spiritual expression by forcing it to submit to the discursive categories of modern scientific and sociological methodologies. I include the term “spirituality” here to indicate that by “religion” I don’t just mean a set of clearly articualted dogmas in which one believes with certainty, but a creative and experientially grounded orientation to the mystery of being alive. Whatever religion, and the spirituality at its core, are, they are more than can be captured by a fixed definition. They are interrelated dimensions of an ongoing cosmologically embedded activity, not simply a set of verbally professed beliefs. Like Augustine said of time, when it comes to religion and spirituality, “I know what it is if no one asks; but if anyone does, then I cannot explain it.” Instead of trying to explain religion by reducing it to the favored terms of modern biology, psychology, sociology, the aim of this talk is to let it reveal itself by situating it within the long evolutionary account offered by Robert Bellah and the alternative cosmological scheme provided by Alfred North Whitehead.

Inquiring into the origins of religion—and connecting those origins to the evolutionary emergence of our species—is necessarily to step beyond the bounds of strictly empirical or positivist science and into the domain of myth-making. It is important that I be upfront about this, since it does a disservice to the phenomenon in question to pretend that what is essential to it could be accessed in an impersonal or objective way. Religion, now and in the past, has more to do with matters of concern than with matters of fact. Inquiring into its nature will never be a dispassionate affair decidable by mathematical proof or experimental refutation. At the same time, human religious concerns and values are themselves matters of fact that have arisen and continue to arise in the course of cosmic evolution. As such, they require interpretation within any adequate cosmological scheme.

Even the most sober-minded, materialistic scientists, whenever they offer evolutionary accounts of the origins our species, or of our universe, inevitably become myth-makers. Bellah makes this quite clear when, in the early chapters of his 2011 book Religion in Human Evolution, he examines the popular works of scientific luminaries like Steven Weinberg, Richard Dawkins, and Jaques Monod. It became even clearer to me when I watched the philosopher and author of The Atheists Guide to Reality (2011) Alex Rosenberg during a recent conference presentation introduce Charles Darwin and Lord Kelvin as “old testament fathers” and describe images of a leaf insect, a double helix DNA molecule, and a chamber full of gas particles as “iconography”—that is, religious icons whose contemplation is supposed to convert you to the laws they express. Each of these supposedly scientific thinkers ends up offering their own physical or biological sermon, pretending all the while to have achieved some sort of heroic post-religious and so purely scientific rationality. The implication of course is that they are adults while the rest of us are cowardly children afraid to accept the pointlessness of our own existence, terrified of the fact that we are, as Monod put it, “[gypsies living] on the edges of an alien world” (48).

In contrast to these scientistic thinkers engaged in what Whitehead referred to as “heroic feats of explaining away,” my own approach, building on Whitehead and Bellah, is motivated by the search for some sort of cosmological reconciliation between scientific theorization and religious mythopoiea. I hope to show that the forced choice between religion and science is a false one, and that the emergence of an ecological civilization will depend upon our ability to construct a cosmological outlook that does justice to both scientific facts and religious values, and that recognizes the various ways facts and values overlap.

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Perhaps the most well-known attempt to “explain away” the phenomenon of religion is the philosopher Daniel Dennett’s book Breaking the Spell (2006). He begins his book by comparing religion to Dicrocelium dendriticum (lancet fluke), a tiny manipulative parasite that infects the brains of ants, compelling them to climb to the top of the nearest blade of grass so as to get themselves eaten by a cow, thereby transporting their fungal stowaways into the nutrient rich environment necessary for the completion of their reproductive cycle. Religion is explained, not as a genetic parasite, but, building on Richard Dawkins’ well-known and largely discredited meme theory, as a memetic parasite, a sort of mind disease. By analogizing cultural evolution to the blind process of natural selection, even mind is explained away as mere mimicry. Monkey see, monkey do. Humans, like every other organism from the neo-Darwinian perspective, are not granted evolutionary agency, but are reduced to lumbering robots accidentally shaped by a multigenerational battle to the death with a harsh environment. So-called religious “memes” are said to spread and survive today not because people find them deeply meaningful and potentially transformative but because they have succeeded in their “competition for rehearsal space in the brain” by getting copies of themselves made. Their transmission from brain to brain, and from generation to generation, has been, as Dennett puts it, “transmission without comprehension.”[1] Now that humans have woken up to  the all-comprehending light of scientific rationality, and have come to know the universe as nothing but a large, complicated, purposelessly operating machine, religion has worn out any usefulness it may once have had and must be gotten rid of. Maybe it served our species initially as a sort of “morality prosthesis” or “nurse crop” for civilization, to use Dennett’s words again. But we are grown ups now and need to accept that existence—that of humanity and of the cosmos itself—ultimately comes to nothing. Nihil. Or so the modern scientific materialist story goes.

To be fair to Dennett, his book is less an attempt to provide the definitive explanation for the evolution of religion than it is an argument that religion ought to be studied scientifically as a natural phenomenon. He admits that the memetic theory he puts forward is probably wrong, but at least, he says, it gives others something to fix. Fair enough. Following thinkers like Bellah and Whitehead, I am sympathetic to the call for a naturalization of religion, for a scientific study of it as a phenomenon emergent from and continuous with its wider biological and cosmological contexts. But of course, it all depends what we mean by “science” and what we mean by “nature.”

The problem, obvious to anyone who has studied Whitehead’s work closely, is that Dennett’s approach to the evolutionary emergence of religion presupposes what Whitehead’s philosophy of organism so passionately protests against: the bifurcation of nature.[2] For Dennett, to count as a scientific explanation, the cultural meanings of religion must be reduced to the natural mechanisms of biology. All the seemingly intrinsic values of our human existence must once have been of merely instrumental survival value, otherwise they could not have been preserved by the Darwinian mechanism of natural selection. All seemingly intrinsic value is then explained away as a mere “psychic addition” to what is really the purposeless exchange of genetic or memetic material across the generations.

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The contrast between such reductionistic biological accounts of religion and Bellah’s and Whitehead’s more cosmological approaches could not be starker. Dennett mentions and even praises William James’ radically empiricist approach to religious experience (a major influence on Whitehead), only to dismiss it as inadequate for his own, more reductionistic purposes. Dennett instead trades in James’ psychological microscope for what he describes as a wide-angle biological and social (or sociobiological) lens. For Whitehead and Bellah, biology, psychology, and sociology each have important contributions to make to the study of religion, but in the end the proper lens to take is that of the telescope: human religious expression must be understood in the broadest context we are capable of imagining, namely, the cosmological.

“Cosmology,” says Whitehead, “is the effort to frame a scheme of the general facts of this epoch, of the general character of the present stage of this universe. The cosmological scheme should present the genus, for which the special schemes of the sciences are the species” (The Function of Reason, 77). He goes on: “A cosmology should above all things be adequate. It should not confine itself to the categoreal notions of one science, and explain away everything which will not fit in. Its business is not to refute experience, but to find the most general interpretive system” (ibid., 86).

So long as nature remains bifurcated, reductionistic explanatory strategies like Dennett’s will continue to handicap scientific investigation into the evolutionary emergence of religion. Instead of trying to explain away religious behavior as the accidental result of blind biological forces, we must treat it as a genuine flowering of the universe we find ourselves living within: not as accidental, but as essential. Human religious experience, in other words, should count as part of the legitimate data that must be included in any adequate account of this universe. To treat religion naturalistically, we need not explain it away as epiphenomenal. We can instead inquire into the cosmic conditions of its possibility. From the perspective of Whitehead’s cosmological scheme, the history of the human species’ religious experience “consists of a certain widespread direct apprehension of a character exemplified in the actual universe” (Religion in the Making, 74).

Stated in more general terms, instead of following the typical, reductionistic logic of evolutionary explanation that would seek to make life and mind mere epiphenomena accidentally emergent from what remains in reality a dead material universe, we can adopt the alternative, no less scientific, Whiteheadian approach.

“Mankind has gradually developed from the lowliest forms of life, and must therefore be explained in terms applicable to all such forms,” admits Whitehead. “But why,” he continues, “why construe the later forms by analogy to the earlier forms. Why not reverse the process?” (The Function of Reason, 15). That is, why not give up the polemical desire to explain away the more complex by reducing it to the less complex by recognizing that, if phenomena like life and mind (and with them, human religiosity) are present in today’s universe, they must have in some sense been prefigured from the beginning.

“In the course of evolution,” Whitehead asks, “why should the trend have arrived at mankind, if his mental activities…remain without influence on his bodily actions?” In other words, the question we should ask ourselves is “what is this universe such that something like human organisms with their religious mentalities are possible?” Whitehead’s answer is that “…some lowly, diffused form of the operations of [mentality] constitute the vast diffused counter-agency by which the material cosmos comes into being” (ibid., 26). This “counter-agency” is counter to the otherwise entropic tendency of the physical universe, which I should point out Whitehead has no interest in denying. Much of the cosmos, including the Sun that feeds all life on our planet, he readily admits, is decaying and will eventually return to chaos. He invokes a counter-agency only out of explanatory necessity, since the mere mechanics of efficient causality cannot account for the current highly organized state of the universe, for the fact that a star like the Sun feeding a living planet like the Earth should have been possible at all. Physicists now understand that far from equilibrium systems are not in fact disobeying the 2nd law of thermodynamics, but more efficiently realizing it. But why must we emphasize entropy as the sole causal tendency, given that physicists now also understand our universe to be self-organizing at every scale? Why not also identify “centropy,” the tendency of the universe to organize itself into ever-more complex forms or centers of agency? Alongside efficient causality, formal and final causality are also evident in the creative urge of the universe toward as yet unactualized possibilities of self-organization. If we deny a cosmic ground to agency, purposiveness, and value, logical consistency requires the absurdity that we deny it in ourselves, as well. For we are the children of this universe. Whitehead defines religion at one point as “the wider conscious reaction of [humans] to the universe in which they find themselves” (Religion in the Making, 31). Following Whitehead’s reversal of the usual logic of evolutionary explanation, we can recognize the emergence of religion in human beings as evidence that something more than blind chance and inexplicably imposed physical necessity is at work—or, as we’ll see—at play in the evolution of our universe.

Bellah, like Whitehead, grounds his account of the emergence of religion in the broadest possible context by situating human evolution within so-called “Big History”: he spends the first 40 pages of the second chapter of his book, called “Religion and Evolution,” laying out the course of cosmogenesis from the first few seconds after the big bang, through the formation of galaxies and stars, to the solidification of the Earth, to the appearance of the first single-celled procaryotes, to eukaryotes, metazoa, reptiles, mammals, primates, and finally Homo sapiens. He is less confident than Whitehead when it comes to attributing some “metaphysical direction” to the over-all arc of the evolutionary process. He does, however, approvingly reference a comment in The Origin of Species, where Darwin admits that “a little dose…of judgement or reason often comes into play, even in animals very low in the scale of nature” (208). Purpose does seem to operate, then, at least at the scale of individual living beings. In contrast to Dennett’s mechanical, gene-centric view, Bellah’s is certainly an organism-oriented understanding of biology. But it is not yet a full-fledged ontology of organism like Whitehead’s. More on this later.

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Although he of course recognizes important distinctions that make humans unique among other members of the animal kingdom, even reproducing Terence Deacon’s statement that our species represents an entirely new phylum, Bellah nonetheless dwells at length on the many pre-existing mammalian capacities that prepared the way for us, including extended parental care, empathy and shared attention, ethical relations (including ritualized aggression and mating), and most significantly, the capacity for play. Play becomes especially prominent in young mammals because of the “relaxed field” provided by prolonged empathic parental care. This period extends even more as evolution draws nearer to Homo sapiens, who are born exceptionally prematurely and remain in the childhood phase longer than any other species. Play is not initially a functional capacity that might be selected for by the normal Darwinian mechanisms. It appears to be engaged in purely for its own sake as an end in itself. Play has nothing to do with sexual reproduction or eating (though it may be erotic and enjoyable), nor can we play while fleeing or fighting for our lives. This is not to say that play may not become functional later on. Bellah cites numerous ethologists who describe the way bouts of playfulness in some primate species leads to the neutralization of hierarchies and physical inequalities among play partners, such that a sort of proto-justice appears to emerge. More than any other animal behavior, play requires the capacity, not only for shared attention, but for shared intention. Shared attention and intention (in a word, empathy) are the precondition for any form of sociality.

Here is where Bellah’s approach becomes really interesting. He posits that early hominids developed the first ritual activities out of complexified forms of mammalian play. The source of the complexification was the ramping up of empathic sociality among humans, eventuating in what Bellah (quoting Sarah Hrdy) calls “emotional modernity” (85). Homo sapien minds, due to their tendency to play ever-more intimately, have become uniquely vulnerable to possession by the power of symbolism—the power of words and images to bind us to certain political and cosmological worlds, worlds we literally create through the ritual enactment of myth. This power of symbolic binding transforms ritual play into religion. It is important in this context to admit, as Whitehead reminds us, that “we should not be obsessed by the idea of [religion’s] necessary goodness. This is a dangerous delusion.”[3] Despite the fact that religious symbolic consciousness was born out of our unprecedented capacity for social intimacy, once it has emerged, it has the power to detach us from one another just as readily, generating the worst kind of in-group/out-group discrimination, and, as has become more apparent in the modern, industrial era, symbolic consciousness also has the power to produce civilizational myths that are entirely detached from the ecological context of the living planet that sustains us.

What is clear is that religion grows out of the soil of collective ritual. Religion is not therefore primarily something you merely believe in: it is something you are and do. The essential thing about religious life is not mindless, ranting about dogmatic creeds, but sincerity in its engagement with symbolic forms of ritual play. A religious symbol “[has] the effect of transforming character when [it is] sincerely held and vividly apprehended,” according to Whitehead.[4] Early rituals, we can speculate based on the archeological evidence, emerged out of collective celebration involving song and dance. Most probably, these celebrations were in tune with lunar and seasonal rhythms. The earliest religious rituals were cosmologically embedded celebrations of the cycles of life, death, and rebirth. These ritual celebrations were not based on beliefs in supernatural beings, but on deep perception of and desire to participate in the rhythms animating the plants and animals on the earth and the shinning orbs in the sky. The human being’s religious impulse, growing out of ritual play, is to “recreate” the harmonies of these cosmic beings in symbolic form, to refashion them into myths for the guidance of our civilized societies.

Bellah’s argument draws extensively on the cultural historian Johan Huizinga’s book Homo Ludens (1938), from which I quote at length: “Archaic society…plays as the child or animal plays…Only in a later phase of society is play associated with the idea of something to be expressed in it and by it…Then, what was wordless play assumes poetic form. In the form and function of play…[humanity’s] consciousness that it is embedded in a sacred order of things finds its first, highest, and holiest expression.” (Homo Ludens, 17-18).

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Rooting the emergence of religion in ritual play short-circuits any attempt to explain religion in terms of biological utility, since by definition play is not about working as a means to the ultimate end of survival, but about sheer enjoyment as an end in itself. Further, because of the important role of play in the evolution of our species, and because it depends on shared attention/intention and basic ethical relations, it provides clear evidence contrary to Dennett’s view that organisms are just mimicry machines. “In acknowledging play,” says Huizinga, “you acknowledge mind, for whatever else play is, it is not matter.”

“Even in the animal world,” he continues, “[play] bursts the bounds of the physically existent. From the point of view of a world wholly determined by blind forces, play would be altogether superfluous. Play only becomes possible, thinkable…when an influx of mind breaks down the absolute determinism of the cosmos. The very existence of play continually confirms the supra-logical nature of the human situation. Animals play so they must be more than merely mechanical things. We play and know that we play, so we must be more than merely rational beings…” (Homo Ludens, 4).

Huizinga here almost slips into Whitehead’s fallacy of bifurcation by reifying the difference between mind and matter. Elsewhere he asks “would it be too absurd to assign a place [to play] outside the purely physiological?” I’d say yes, it would be absurd, or at least incoherent, to suppose the playfulness of mind-bearing organisms somehow exists separately from their physiological make-up. The physiological need not be equated with the mechanical.

Even though I’m critical of Huizinga’s slippage toward bifurcation due to his tendency to reify culture and mind as entirely “outside” of and set apart from mere “nature,” I still acknowledge and gladly inherit from him his other, underemphasized but no less profound intuition, that the efficacious reality of play in human and nonhuman lifeforms entails that we inhabit a sensitive and playful universe, not a dull, deaf, and dumb one. As we’ll see in a moment, I have similarly mixed feelings about the residue of bifurcation in Bellah’s more phenomenological approach to religion.

We might also describe ritual as serious play (following Huizinga who points out that the opposite of play is not seriousness, but work). That animals should engage in play behavior is already a sign that reductionistic accounts of biological evolution miss something when they ignore organismic agency and focus exclusively on the struggle for existence and fitness to a pre-existing environment. Life, as Whitehead also knew, isn’t just about mere survival. The urge of life seeks more than mere survival: it seeks to thrive, to “live well, and to live better.”[5]  If survival was the name of the game, matter would have done better to remain in rock form, for compared to million year old minerals, life is deficient in survival value.

Whitehead, like Bellah and Huizinga, also roots religious behavior in ritual forms of play.[6] Both he and Bellah offer strikingly similar accounts of the stages of religion’s evolutionary emergence:

Whitehead: ritual play<>emotional evocation<>mythical belief<>rationalization

Bellah (drawing on Merlin Donald’s work on the evolution of human cognitive capacity): mimetic/ritual<>mythic<>theoretic

Both acknowledge that ritual is widespread among mammals. Early humans were no different, but because of their increasing emotional and cognitive sensitivity, began to recognize that certain emotional states, enjoyable for their own sake apart from the needs of biological survival, could be reliably reproduced through collective ritual enactment. Only later, once the capacity for symbolism had emerged, were mythic beliefs articulated in an attempt to account for the purpose of ritual practices and their attendant emotional quality. Myths then contributed through a kind of feedback loop to the intensification of the emotional qualities. Notice that the arrows in the diagram point both ways, which is meant to prevent us from thinking that the emergence of a new stage means the prior stage is forgotten or transcended. Early stages are still present with and necessary for the expression of later stages. This is true even with the final stage of rational, philosophical, or theoretical reflection upon religious rituals and myths. Religion of the theoretic or rational type (the sort we are most familiar with today) grows out of and remains dependent upon non-rational forms of mythic speech and ritual play. Again, an adequate account of the emergence of religion in human evolution makes it clear that it is not primarily about what one believes, but about who one is and what one does. The fundamentalisms of our late modern age, whether atheist or creationist, tend to neglect the ritual and mythical dimensions of religious life. Instead they focus almost exclusively on the cognitive components of belief systems, which are often only the dead products excreted by a more primary, living process of cosmic participation.

Bellah describes ritual play as an experiential opening transporting us into a non-ordinary reality, a reality transcending the everyday world of “work” or mere survival. Bellah’s understanding of religious experience as one among a variety of cultural realities (differing from that of science, aesthetics, politics, and so on) is drawn largely from the phenomenological approach of Clifford Geertz and Alfred Schutz. While I think this sort of approach provides a helpful critique of and alternative to more scientistic explanations, allowing us to examine religion on its own terms, because it leaves the question of the cosmological basis of religious experience unanswered if not also unasked, I believe a Whiteheadian supplement is necessary. Taking a phenomenological look at religious experience by bracketing other cultural enactments of reality risks leaving the bifurcation of nature from culture intact. Whitehead allows us to grant the validity of multiple cultural realities while also acknowledging human culture’s continuity with the rest of the cosmos. This will become clearer as I conclude this talk, but for now let’s stick with Bellah’s account of ritual play (and the religious experiences it is associated with) as transcending the everyday world of work.

The idea is not to transcend work entirely,  which would be impossible, but to recognize its relativity in regard to all the other experiential realities that we participate in. A certain degree of work will always be necessary for survival, but the question remains what we are to survive for: if not to engage in ever-more ingenious forms of play, then for what? And what does it mean that ritualized play, and the spiritual efflorescence it generates, is at the historical origin and remains the existential core of our cultural lives?

One way we might apply Bellah’s theory is to consider what it tells us about the history of work, in particular as it relates to the shift in socio-economic organization represented by the agricultural revolution. “Göbekli Tepe,” a gigantic, 12,000 year old temple structure uncovered by archeologists in Turkey in the 1990s, provides us with a counterexample to the standard, technocentric account of human evolution. As the standard account goes, human beings needed to technologically secure their basic survival needs buy domesticating plants and animals before the supposedly superfluous activities of ritual, art, and religion (all closely related for archaic consciousness) could flourish. The existence of Göbekli Tepe suggests, instead, that these cultural activities pre-dated the shift to the agricultural mode of production. Evidence at the site shows conclusively that the people who built this temple were hunter-gatherers. It does not seem such a stretch to suggest in light of the age of this site that the need for stable religious expression made the labor intensive shift to agriculture more worthwhile than it otherwise would have been for hunter-gatherers, the “original affluent society” (as the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins has argued). The great deal of detailed planning and hard work required to construct such a temple—a structure we may suppose produced for the people who constructed it a ritually enacted relaxed field of spiritual and artistic play—makes clear that no necessary separation exists between the serious and the playful. Human beings are quite willing to work harder in order to secure time and space for more elaborate forms of play. Not only religion, but science and art, too, are born out of our innate playfulness. Humans aren’t the only beings who play, but surely we have taken play more seriously than any being before us.

This understanding of the origins of religion (and culture more generally) in ritualized play provides a powerful critique of the economic values guiding our contemporary civilization, where it seems that work has become an end in itself, and where play, when we find the time for it, has little connection to the rhythms of the earth and wider cosmos in which we are embedded. The contemporary world’s obsession with sports may seem like an exception, but I’d argue they are usually engaged in, not as ends in themselves, but as means for social prestige or to fulfill moral expectations of success. The question remains: Are we here to toil extracting Earth’s resources, competing with one another for more money to consume more products, or are we here to ritually participate in the renewal of cycles of cosmic creativity?

Part of what makes so many scientific materialists averse to accounts of the evolution of religion like that of Whitehead and Bellah is that the latter seem at first to be both anthropocentric and anthropomorphic. When Whitehead claims that photons, protons, electrons, stars and galaxies are species of organism in possession of feelings and desires, and that their ecological evolution is analogous to that of bacteria, plants, and animals, isn’t he just projecting human or at best vital capacities onto a dead, inanimate collection of objects?


That is, unless we are willing to reconsider the incoherence of modern science’s bifurcation of nature. What if the scientific attitude of “austere objectivity” makes the scientist constitutionally immune to infection by the subjectivity of the universe? Overcoming the incoherence of the bifurcation of nature will require a new scientific outlook, since the materialist interpretation of science makes it impossible to understand how life and consciousness (not to mention religious expression) could be a part of this universe. We are left having to claim they are astronomically improbable accidents, which to my mind is the exact opposite of an adequate scientific explanation. What if, instead of turning our own existence into an absurdity, we look again at the universe and ask:

“What is this universe such that something like human organisms with their religious mentalities are possible?”

This is not to center the universe on the human, or to make the universe in the image of the human, it is only to admit the evident fact that we are the children of this cosmos. For better or worse, the space-time of this world is our parental unit. We are not an accidental appearance in this world, we are what the universe has come to be doing here and now, the most genuine expression of its essence we could ever hope to discover.

Bellah is not as metaphysically confident as Whitehead about the cosmic extent of meaning or the anthropic tendency of the cosmos. But he is by no means a cosmic pessimist like Weinberg, Monod, or Rosenberg. Bellah takes his stand not on an ambitious metaphysical cosmology, but on the phenomenological theology of Martin Buber (thereby potentially helping him overcome the residue of bifurcation resulting from his reliance on Geertz and Schutz’ more cultural approaches). Buber distinguished the two fundamental ways of relating to reality: 1) the I-It relation, which objectifies the world into dead things to be manipulated, and 2) the I-You relation, which perceives the world as full of subjectivities, and as itself a subject (i.e., God, the “eternal You”).

Building on Buber, Bellah argues that it is not at all surprising that for a “supersocial” species like us, an “I-You relation would at the highest level of meaning trump the I-It relation.” He continues: “To put it bluntly, there is a deep human need—based on 200 million years of the necessity of parental care for survival and at least 250,000 years of very extended adult protection and care of children, so that, among other things, those children can spend a lot of time in play—to think of the universe, to see the largest world one is capable of imagining, as personal” (104).

Understanding how religion could have emerged from mammalian play requires shifting from the I-It to the I-You mode of relation. “In the observation of play,” says Bellah, “and even more clearly in actually playing with an animal, it is almost impossible not to have an I-You relation, which arouses suspicions that one is not really doing science” (82). The I-It relation leads the scientific materialist to a view of evolving organisms as passive machines, rather than creative actors. Grasping the creative, purposeful, playful dimension of organic life requires that we adopt the more participatory I-You relation to evolution, which is what Whitehead invites us to do when he reverses the typical logic of evolutionary explanation. This is very different from Dennett’s I-It approach, which is predicated upon the idea that the best way to study the evolution of religion is to imagine we are aliens from another planet trying to gain a view of it “from the outside,” as it were. To approach human religion from such an alienated perspective is to seriously handicap the pursuit of a naturalistic account of its evolutionary emergence. If we want an account of religion’s emergence that is immanent to cosmogenesis and avoids the undue imposition of other-worldly transcendence, then we’re going to need to study religious experience from the inside out.

“The final principle of religion,” says Whitehead, “is that there is a wisdom in the nature of things, from which flow our direction of practice, and our possibility of the theoretical analysis of fact…Religion insists that the world is a mutually adjusted disposition of things, issuing in a value for its own sake. This is the very point that science is always forgetting.”[7]

Science deals with the facts, but in its immature and hubristic rush to overthrow the religious social matrix from which it emerged a few hundred years ago, it has neglected to include the values of the universe alongside the facts, or rather, to include these values as among the facts. “We have no right,” says Whitehead, “to deface the value experience which is the very essence of the universe.”[8] For what is a fact, metaphysically speaking? Whitehead’s non-bifurcated image of nature is a rejection of the fallacy of vacuous actuality. To be actual, to be a fact, for Whitehead, means to experientially enjoy existence as an end in itself, to value oneself as an actuality and to be valued by other actualities. Without the value-experience of human and nonhuman organisms, “there is nothing, nothing, nothing, bare nothingness.”[9]

Whitehead’s cosmology is an invitation to move beyond the modern bifurcation separating nature from culture, fact from value, and mechanism from meaning. Moving beyond the bifurcation of nature to grasp the cosmological significance of religion, and the religious significance of cosmology, will require re-evaluating metaphysical assumptions that have been woven into the very fabric of the scientific worldview for hundreds of years. The originators of this worldview, the original myth-makers responsible for initiating the Scientific Revolution, conceived the universe as a machine and imagined God as its transcendent designer. Though they differ in the details, this was the imaginative background informing the thoughts of Newton, Descartes, and Kant. Nowadays, scientific materialists no longer have any need for the “God hypothesis,” but the imaginative background informing their ideas remains the same. The universe is still to be understood by analogy to a machine, only now it has become a purposeless machine. Understanding this cosmic machine requires purifying our perspective of any hint of emotion, value, or appreciation, since these merely subjective qualities can only contaminate an impartial view of reality. Whitehead ontology of organism provides us with an alternative.

“The metaphysical doctrine, here expounded,” he says in the final pages of Religion in the Making, “finds the foundations of the world in the aesthetic experience, rather than—as with Kant [and many contemporary scientific materialists]—in the cognitive and conceptual experience. All order is therefore aesthetic order…The actual world is the outcome of the aesthetic order, and the aesthetic order is derived from the immanence of God” (91-92).

To draw this talk to a close, I want to draw a parallel between Whitehead’s aesthetic ontology to Huizinga’s understanding of play. Huizinga locates play within the field of aesthetics, and suggests that playing is inherently creative of order. “Play,” he says, “has a tendency to be beautiful.”[10] Huizinga goes on, in Whiteheadian fashion, to describe ritual  acts of play as cosmic happenings, as continuous with natural processes.

Would it be too absurd, following Whitehead’s rejection of the bifurcation of nature in favor of an aesthetic ontology, to assign a place [to play] within the evolution of the universe itself? Might we come to understand the whole of the cosmos at every level of its self-organization as an expression of divine play? Might Blake have been right, that “energy is eternal delight”? Instead of God the disincarnate transcendent designer of a clock-work universe, or a meaningless machine-world running down toward heat death, might we interpret the scientific evidence otherwise? Might it be, as Whitehead suggests, that “the world lives by its incarnation of God in itself,” that “every event on its finer side introduces God into the world,” that “every act leaves the world with a deeper or a fainter impress of God” (140, 143)?   For those with an allergy to the G word, we should remember that Whitehead’s philosophical intervention into traditional theology aimed to transform the transcendent God of “coercive forces wielding the thunder” into the creaturely God of persuasion, “which slowly and in quietness [operates] by love.”[11] The ultimate religious theme in Whitehead’s cosmology is this divine Eros, the counter-agency that saves the world from decay into irrelevance by luring organisms toward more creative forms of organization. Whitehead’s God is not a big boss in the sky who designs and determines everything, but the poet of the world, who through aesthetic sensitivity beckons all beings toward the highest beauty that is possible for them, given the limitations of their finite situation. Beauty is the teleology of the universe. This, at least, is Whitehead’s alternative cosmological interpretation of the facts and values of the history of human religious expression. Whether or not we seize this alternative vision will determine the future of our civilization, if indeed it is to have one.
Further resources:
On the ideological sources of the selfish gene approach to biological evolution:
Bruno Latour. “How to make sure Gaia is not a God of Totality, with special attention to

Toby Tyrrell’s book On Gaia.” Written for the Rio de Janeiro meeting “The Thousand Names of Gaia,” September 2014.

On the geochemical inevitability of the emergence of life on earth (life is no accident):

James Trefil, Harold J. Morowitz and Eric Smith. “The Origin of Life: A case is made for the descent of electrons.” American Scientist (Volume 97), 2009.

On the importance of love in biological evolution:

Humberto Maturana Romesin and Gerda Verden-Zoller. Origins of Humanness in the Biology of Love. Imprint Academic, 2009.

[1] 2010 talk at Sante Fe Institute

[2] see The Concept of Nature

[3] Religion in the Making, 3.

[4] Religion in the Making, 5.

[5] Religion in the Making, 8.

[6] Religion in the Making, 10.

[7] Religion in the Making, 128.

[8] Modes of Thought, 111.

[9] Process and Reality, 167.

[10] Homo Ludens, 15.

[11] Adventures of Ideas, 166; Process and Reality, 343


15 thoughts on “Religion in Human and Cosmic Evolution: Whitehead’s Alternative Vision

  1. Very interesting presentation on an fascinating topic. Recently I read another point of view on the origin of relition and our species: Lets not forget that in the neolithic , small scales human socieites were not patriarchal but matriarchal with the main goddest of fertility. Things went very bad when a bunch of animal breeder with metal weapon destroyed all these early forms and then changed all the religions to mostly patriarchal deities aways from nature. I personally think that our first religion was a first form of female leadership based on love and dansing singing practice. (See singing neanderthal) This new way to unite the tribe is our first art, language,religion. Religion is basically what generate our species. Through this singing dancing practice we gradually learned to use what mammal partially used in play and dreams: the mammalian imagination which is way to learn through self-enactment. Mammals can only use this in dreams and plays, the dancing singing practice has gradually allow this self-enactment capacity to be under conscious controled and so we through this cultural religion practice found the way to our full fledge humanity. What differentiate us from our ancestor is this shift from biological evolution to cultural evolution. Mammalian evolution was heading all along in this direction by being driven by evolution of learning from experience through self-enactment. This has led to the creation in our primate ancestor to a full fledge self-enactment (theory of mind) capacity. LIke the bonobos, the homonins evolution have been driven by a right brain hemisphere of female leadership. The switch to male leadership is what lead us out of nature and to the destruction of this planet.

  2. Excellent and fascinating. Bellah’s thoughts on play as serious is not new to me: David Steindl-Rast has often spoken of this. I’m finishing a book that ends on this note of play — play is about meaning, work is about purpose. Thanks!

  3. Very nice, Matt. A good talk. let us know how it goes. It made me think of the other inflections of the word “play”, one of which (straight from google) is “4.

    the space in or through which a mechanism can or does move.
    “the steering rack was loose, and there was a little play”

    synonyms: movement, slack, give; room to maneuver, scope, latitude
    “there was a little play in the rope”

    •scope or freedom to act or operate.
    “our policy allows the market to have freer play”

    synonyms: movement, slack, give; More
    room to maneuver, scope, latitude

    “there was a little play in the rope”

    •light and constantly changing movement.
    “the artist exploits the play of light across the surface”
    ….. and I recalled reading somewhere, and I must paraphrase, that where thoughts don’t provide openings for the production of novel thought, then autopoiesis is at risk. In the well known “waterfall” film, one sees that Gaia herself provides events and spaces for events where this occurs; I love Goodall’s comments; . Sorry about the special play in the google paste.

    1. Wow that Goodall video is wonderful. I might have to play part of it in my talk! It so perfectly illustrates the way human religion could have evolved from the ritual play of our primate ancestors. Evolved… and also devolved in some respects.

  4. First of all, thank you for this presentation, it makes for an invigorating reading. I have to admit it is the first time I see Alfred North Whitehead’s work analyzed in this way but it is a pleasure to find such an open-minded yet scientifically rigorous approach.

    I know the day of your talk is drawing very near but I will try and comment on a few aspects of your text.

    – I believe you are making a strong case for a work of epistemological reevaluation that could indeed be based on Whitehead’s philosophy. Namely, on the idea that instead of reducing the most complex and subtle elements of our cosmos, like the human mind, to the processes of the simpler ones, we should instead seek how these highly complex principles were necessarily present and in action since the beginning of this cosmos.

    Keeping this in mind, it becomes quickly obvious that any attempt at providing a scientifically adequate understanding of the world cannot reduce human consciousness (and all of its activity, including the scientific research itself) as irrelevant epiphenomena and/or statistically improbable accidents.

    But I should point out that Whitehead was not alone in giving such an analysis and in underlying the need for reevaluating our epistemology.

    For example, this is very similar to Goethe’s own approach of scientific research, as it can be attested by both his “Theory of Colors” (where he does not hesitate to describe colors as actions and passions of Light) and his “Metamorphosis of Plants” (perhaps the most decisive attempt to show the unity of the biological evolution of plants).

    More generally, unveiling an ontological and cosmological system, that would be scientifically and philosophically coherent and that would not create a “bifurcation of Nature” was a major aspect for several German philosophers such as Schelling and Hegel (and even Schopenhauer in some regards).

    – Based on what is said above, and using the very same epistemological reevaluation you found in Whitehead’s work, I think there is a possibility to constructively criticize Robert Bellah’s approach of play.

    If we posit that the emergence of religion has some roots in ritualistic play behavior exhibited by mammals, then all the complex principles that will appear in latter developments of religion (all the power of conceptual activity, all the sentimentality, all the ontological stability, all the desire for universal truth) must already be active and in action since these early stages.

    In this light, even lighthearted play should appear to us as very serious indeed.

    I will stop here: it turned out to be a pretty long comment but it was worth the effort! I would love to read your response.

    All my best wishes for your talk.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Jonathan. I of course agree that Whitehead is not alone. I continue to learn a great deal from my study of the German thinkers circa 1800, Goethe and Schelling especially. I’m writing my dissertation on the role of imagination in Schelling’s and Whitehead’s philosophies of nature. I’m also in the midst of creating an online course for undergraduates called “Mind and Nature in German Idealism” (7 of the 10 planned lecture are here: I’m very excited to begin trying to spell out all the overlaps between these two schools of thought (Whitehead is, on the face of it, an empiricist, while Schelling, again on the face of it, is an idealist–but just beneath the surface, they are profoundly resonant thinkers).

      1. Thanks for your reply. Yes, I had noticed your online lectures on this subject and it sounds very promising. I am only at the beginning of this series but I will soon find time to watch the rest.

        While the “German Idealism” denomination has its merits, it tends to overshadow the fact that most German thinkers of this period of time worked to develop a vision able to encompass all areas of knowledge.

        Hegel and Schelling were both known for the numerous experiments in biology and physics they conducted. At the time, there were also the renowned mineralogy courses given by Gottlob Werner in Freiberg: they had a profound influence on remarkable philosophers and artists, such as Novalis and Franz von Baader who studied there.

        Ultimately, I think the divide between idealism and empiricism can be overcome and that Hegel’s phenomenology is holding great promise in that regard.

        It would be the subject of full dissertations so it is difficult to elaborate here and now but I hope to have the opportunity to discuss it further with you.

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