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Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age Hardcover – 2 Sep 2011

4.7 out of 5 stars 3 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 736 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press; First Edition edition (2 Sept. 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674061438
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674061439
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 17.1 x 24.1 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 470,531 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Bellah's book is an interesting departure from the traditional separation of science and religion. He maintains that the evolving worldviews sought to unify rather than to divide people. Poignantly, it is upon these principles that both Western and Eastern modern societies are now based. What strikes the reader most powerfully is how the author connects cultural development and religion in an evolutionary context. He suggests that cultural evolution can be seen in mimetic, mythical, and theoretical contexts.--Brian Renvall"Library Journal" (08/01/2011)

Of Bellah's brilliance there can be no doubt. The sheer amount this man knows about religion is otherworldly... Bellah stands in the tradition of such stalwarts of the sociological imagination as Emile Durkheim and Max Weber. Only one word is appropriate to characterize this book's subject as well as its substance, and that is "magisterial."--Alan Wolfe"New York Times Book Review" (10/02/2011)

"Religion in Human Evolution" is a near-exhaustive examination of the biological and cultural origins of religion...Bellah gleefully plunges into the past, from the Big Bang to the first millennium B.C. in Israel, Greece, China, and India. For him, cosmology, cosmogony, mythology, ontogeny, and phylogeny all belong in the same chapter, or in some cases, the same paragraph, right alongside Hegel, Dawkins, and an astounding array of writers, scientists, sociologists, and philosophers. Although the tome stops short in the first millennium (leaving the last few thousand years for other scholars, or a future volume), its overall narrative does not feel incomplete. Expect to spend a long time reading this book--and expect to see the world differently when you finish.--Benjamin Soloway"The Daily" (09/18/2011)

One might best see this work as an attempt to do for the 21st century what the great sociologist of religion Max Weber did for the 20th in treating Judaism, China and India.--Pheme Perkins"America" (10/17/2011)

You can't accuse Robert Bellah of thinking small. The University of California, Berkeley, sociologist set out to cover "from the Palaeolithic to the Axial Age" and he does. (The Axial Age ran from about 800 BC to 200 BC when the first major religions got going.) The result is a deeply thoughtful discussion of how evolution and religion went hand in hand, each influencing the other, from humanity's earliest days. It's like a chat with a great thinker who takes one engaging tangent after another.--Leigh Dayton"The Australian" (11/26/2011)

"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...One need not believe in intelligent design to look for embryonic traces of human behavior on the lower rungs of the evolutionary ladder. [Bellah's] 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...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 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.--Peter Manseau"Bookforum" (09/01/2011)

An audacious project..."Religion in Human Evolution" is no simple effort to "reconcile" religious belief with scientific understanding, but something far more interesting and ambitious. It seeks to take both religion and evolution seriously on their own terms, and to locate us within the stories they tell about the human condition in a way informed by the best emerging research on both terrains...The result is a grand narrative written in full understanding of the failures and limitations of recent grand narratives. "Religion in Human Evolution" is a magnum opus founded on careful research and immersed in the "reflective judgment" of one of our best thinkers and writers...This is a big book, full of big ideas that demand sustained attention and disciplined thought. But in my view it repays a reader's effort in full...For over half a century, Robert N. Bellah has set his extraordinary mind out on the frontiers of human knowledge and has written back to make that knowledge accessible to the educated reader. This remarkable book finds him nearing the close of a long and fruitful life, and generously giving it back to us in love.--Richard L. Wood"Commonweal" (10/21/2011)

"Religion in Human Evolution" is an immensely ambitious book on a topic only a scholar of Robert Bellah's stature could dare to tackle. It attempts no less than to explain human biological as well as cultural evolution in one sweep, beginning with early hominids and ending with the "axial age." Bellah engages evolutionary biology as well as cognitive psychology for the framing of his argument. This is a courageous move of transcending conventional disciplinary boundaries, for which he should be applauded...With "Religion in Human Evolution" Robert Bellah has given us a marvelous book written with the wisdom of age as well as youthful enthusiasm. Having discovered the importance of play in human evolution rather late in the writing process, Bellah nevertheless must have internalized it much earlier. All these rich chapters on ancient Israel, Greece, China, and India convey a certain playfulness and intellectual joy, which carry his narrative often beyond the needs of his argument, but stimulate and enrich the reader immensely.--Martin Riesebrodt"The Immanent Frame" (12/05/2011)

Robert Bellah's magnum opus does far more than just satisfy. It provides a transformative and thrillingly interdisciplinary account of the evolution of religion itself...So expert and simultaneously readable is Religion in Human Evolution--a model of academic writing--that it effectively banishes the paltry efforts of Daniel Dennett and Pascal Boyer and Robert Wright.--Scott Stephens"Australian Broadcasting Corporation's Religion and Ethics blog" (02/10/2012)

This book could really be regarded as Robert Bellah's "State of the Species" address, after a life of scholarship and reflection. It is about everything: the nature of knowledge and meaning, and the history of our deepest yearnings and practices, as expressed in our religions. Posterity will decide whether he has succeeded, but the effort is magnificent in its own right. We all speak of doing difficult, disciplined, interdisciplinary thinking. Well, folks, this is what it looks like, down on the ground.--Merlin Donald"The Immanent Frame" (12/05/2011)

The new magnum opus of a great contemporary sociologist...Bellah is one of those rare social scientists who not only studies the origins of our religions but who also participates in an active Christian congregation in his University of California neighborhood. Because he appropriates so wide a range of contemporary evolutionary sciences, in the 600 pages of this book a reader is likely to experience a great depth of gratitude for our debts as humans to our ancient lineages--to all the beings who are responsible for the explosion of our fellow species on our earth...If we read this book, adherents of every modern religion--especially Jews, Christians, and Muslims--will find vast new reasons for gratitude for our ancestors human and extra-human. We meet in these pages eloquent summaries of how the evolution of the human mind may be the greatest mystery of all.--Donald Shriver"Tikkun" (04/30/2012)

Insightful and magisterial, it is the crowning achievement of a brilliant scholar who is sympathetic to religion and deeply attuned to the problems of modernity...[Bellah] draws on scientific explanations and historical facts to present and support a new multistranded theory of religion, one that places the human pursuit of meaning squarely in the context of our social history, which in turn rests in the context of our biological and cosmological evolution.--Linda Heuman"Tricycle" (06/01/2012)

Religion in Human Evolution is an immense work; it would merit description as the achievement of a lifetime, were it not actually Bellah's second such achievement...What does it amount to? Quite a lot, actually: effectively, a history of the world up to about 2,000 years ago. The book has a James Michener-esque scope, proceeding effectively from the Big Bang forward. The only comparisons I can come up with are Hegel's magisterial but fragmentary notes for his Lectures on the Philosophy of Religions, or Weber's monumental works on the Sociology of World Religions (which got through China and India and ancient Israel, but no further). Bellah is definitely playing major league sociology...Both in the scale of its ambition, and in the degree to which that ambition is realized, this is a book that will outlast its critics...Each moment in his account invites further reflection, deeper immersion in the realities under study, a richer, more empathetic comprehension of what it is like to be these people. For all these reasons, I hope that future work in evolutionary theory and religion will learn from Bellah's example.--Charles Mathewes"American Interest" (07/01/2012)

Robert Bellah's "Religion in Human Evolution" is the most important systematic and historical treatment of religion since Hegel, Durkheim, and Weber. It is a page-turner of a bildungsroman of the human spirit on a truly global scale, and should be on every educated person's bookshelves. 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. One will never see human history and our contemporary world the same after reading this magnificent book.--Yang Xiao, Kenyon College

This great book is the intellectual harvest of the rich academic life of a leading social theorist who has assimilated a vast range of biological, anthropological, and historical literature in the pursuit of a breathtaking project. 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. 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.--Jurgen Habermas

This book is the opus magnum of the greatest living sociologist of religion. 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.--Hans Joas, The University of Chicago and the Freiburg Institute for Advanced Studies, Albert Ludwig University of Freiburg

This is an extraordinarily rich book based on wide-ranging scholarship. It contains not just a host of individual studies, but is informed with a coherent and powerful theoretical structure. There is nothing like it in existence. Of course, it will be challenged. But it will bring the debate a great step forward, even for its detractors. And it will enable other scholars to build on its insights in further studies of religion past and present.--Charles Taylor, author of "A Secular Age" and "Dilemmas and Connections"

"Religion in Human Evolution" is a work of remarkable ambition and breadth. 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.--John Banville, novelist

Bellah's reexamination of his own classic theory of religious evolution provides a treasure-chest of rich detail and sociological insight. 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. Bellah deftly examines the major historical texts and weighs contemporary scholarship in presenting his encompassing vision.--Randall Collins, University of Pennsylvania

About the Author

Robert N. Bellah is Elliott Professor of Sociology Emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley.

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Format: Hardcover
There is no doubt that this book is magisterial. There are a few publication issues though. First, there should have been a good editor to iron out all the simple grammatical and spelling mistakes. Second, a bibliography should be essential in a work of this magnitude.

The book itself is grand. If you want to learn about religion in the axial age this is the book for you. Yes, it is hard going at times, but it is written in a simple direct way, which most people interested in this topic should be able to master. I have to say I was spellbound by it.
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Format: Hardcover
This book is the end point of many years of research by Bellah and the scholarship is good.
The style is not too academic but it's not an easy read either. Sometimes, I feel he loses the thread of his thesis, especially during the chapters on axial societies. These are informative but go well beyond the central ground of the evolution of religion. I feel that better editing could have reduced the length of this book and given it a sharper focus without losing anything critical to the thesis.

Having said that, his thesis is certainly enlightening though I doubt it's the last word on this complex and controversial subject.

In conclusion, I would say this book is a "must read" if you have a keen interest in the subject, which I do, but you may find it hard going otherwise.
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This is an absolute gem; full of insights. Despite its great size it is immensely readable. The range of erudition Bellah summons is remarkable. All those words like "magisterial" and "magnum opus" which are rather abused these days are amply earned by this book.
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Amazon.com: 3.9 out of 5 stars 47 reviews
98 of 106 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Critical Retrieval 1 Sept. 2011
By Samuel C. Porter - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
This is a critical, historical sociology of religion of the highest order. Whether you're secular or religious or a bit of both or neither, I highly recommend reading this book.

There is much going on in this text on multiple levels, theoretically and empirically. In brief, it puts into helpful perspective a lot of questions many of us have about religion. You will learn from this book a lot about how some of the major cultural traditions of the world have developed. Robert Bellah has been thinking about the topic at least since 1964 when he published "Religious Evolution" in the American Sociological Review. In a way, Religion in Human Evolution is a general theory of religion; and, while written over the last 13 years, Bellah has been developing his theory of religion for more than 40 years of a distinguished teaching and writing vocation at Harvard and the University of California at Berkeley.

Bellah's approach recognizes the importance but partial independence of all the variables: cultural, biological, social, political, economic, etc. - but his focus is on "religion" broadly and carefully defined.

The book's subject is the way religion creates multiple realities and how those realities interact with the reality of daily life. Bellah begins with "the reality of life in the religious mode" and emphasizes that "religious evolution does not mean a progression from worse to better." Religion adds capacities to our cultural repertoire, so to speak, "but it tells us nothing about how those capacities will be used."

In part, this book is a work of critical retrieval of what in the traditions of ancient Israel, Greece, China, and India might speak to us today. It is also informed by an Enlightenment critique of tradition. It tells a very human, grand story. It helps us to understand - in wide perspective - where we've been and where we might be going and "asks what our deep past can tell us about the kind of life human beings have imagined was worth living." The book is not about modernity. But it holds a mirror up to our modern selves in a vivid comparative-historical perspective that illuminates our modernity and its meaning in a coherent, wholistic way.

A passage from the Analects of Confucius reads: "He who by reanimating the Old can gain knowledge of the New is indeed fit to be called a teacher." Bellah is such a teacher. He treats the ancient religious traditions of Israel, Greece, China, and India not as embalmed museum pieces, but as working traditions in need of reinterpretation - traditions that tell us much about who we are and the world in which we live. For Bellah, reinterpreting these traditions doesn't involve making them mean whatever we wish. It means listening and letting them open our eyes to things we would not see otherwise. Rightly interpreted, they can make us better able to deal with contemporary life. Religion in Human Evolution is such an effort.
85 of 99 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Viewed as a forbidden theory of the origin of religion that goes deep into cultural evolution 3 Sept. 2011
By Didaskalex - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
"Robert Bellah's Religion in Human Evolution is the most important systematic and historical treatment of religion since Hegel, Durkheim, and Weber... Bellah breathes new life into critical universal history by making ancient China and India indispensable parts of a grand narrative of human religious evolution." -- Prof. Yang Xiao, J. Comparative Philosophy

Bellah's research project, using the insights of biological and cultural evolution to explore the development of religion from as early as the Paleolithic Era, continuing through tribal, archaic, historic, and modern societies, was supported by the John Templeton Foundation. Dr. Robert Bellah's research focuses on the Axial Age, the first millennium BC, when religions developed around the world that transcended the archaic fusion of divinity and kingship. It was a period of great empires in Mesopotamia, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, and Greece declaring the possibility that ordinary human beings could relate directly to a transcendent reality. The results of this research constitute the book, Religion in Human Evolution.

Anthropologists have found that virtually ancient state societies and chiefdoms have been found to justify political power through divine authority. States founded out of the Neolithic revolution, as Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, were theocracies with Chieftains, kings and Emperors performing dual roles of political and religious leaders. This proposes that political authority co-opts collective religious belief to bolster itself. Bellah's work, of exceptional erudition, is a wide-ranging project of distinction in meaning, and expression, that probes our biological past, to discover the kinds of lives that our early human ancestors, have most often thought were worth living.

The study offers what is generally viewed as a forbidden theory of the origin of religion that goes deep into cultural evolution. Bellah's treatment of the four great civilizations of the "Axial Age, in ancient Israel, Greece, China, and India, demonstrates that all these existing religions, were rooted in the evolutionary story he chronicles. The Axial Age is the period from 800-200 BCE when certain inspiring people arose around the world; figures like Buddha, 650 BC, Confucius, 550 BC Socrates, 470 BC, arguably three of the most influential individuals in human history, who have cast shadows on history, and other inspiring leaders who convinced people it made sense to make religion, not war.

But to Bellah, the term and period primarily reflect a turning point in religion, he would deliberately start as far back as one can get to tell a story of multiple successive beginnings. These beginnings of play, ritual, myth, theology, extend to include the beginning of religion. He offers both a general theory of religion as a cultural systems and a full account of his general theory of religious evolution. Religion in Human Evolution, both prophetic and mystic, supports the call for a critical history of religion based on the full spectrum of human culture and traditions. While bands and small tribes possess supernatural beliefs, these beliefs do not serve to justify a central authority, justify transfer of wealth or maintain peace between unrelated individuals.

Randall Collins, author of The Sociology of Philosophies, sums it up eloquently,"Bellah's reexamination of his own classic theory of religious evolution provides a treasure-chest of rich detail and sociological insight. 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."

The Search for God in Ancient Egypt
33 of 38 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The evolution of religions in human societies 4 Jan. 2012
By W. Cheung - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
This is not an easy book to read. Its subject matter is indefinite, its scope extremely wide and deep, and it is very long (it took the author 13 years to write it - see page 567). Saying that, it is engaging (most of the time) and with patience (lots of, I have to say) one can see its underlying themes and ideas.

To understand it, firstly one need to understand the definition of religion in this book: "religion is a system of beliefs and practices relative to the sacred that unite those who adhere to them in a moral community" (page 1) and "the sacred" is "something set apart or forbidden" (same page). It does not matter whether you agree with this or not - I resoundingly don't! - but this needs to be kept in mind when one tries to comprehend the next 600 pages.

Next, the concept of "play" is introduced and is very important to the author. Again, I cannot agree with him entirely but this idea is prominant and pervasive throughout. He believes religion is a kind of "serious play" (page 109-116 and 569-576). That, I think, is contestable.

Another key theme is the gradual development of a "theoretical" view of the world on top of a "mimetic" and "mythic" culture, i.e. the ability to reflect and abstract ideas concerning in particular society and religion. However, no matter how much we want to be "rational", we retain the innate desire to form narratives. But the ability to reflect facilitated the blossoming of egalitarianism and democracy, so the author claims, limited and feeble as they were.

The main bulk and main theme of the book (pages 175-566) describe how the structure of a society influences that of its religion, and vice versa - this is the "evolution" bit in the title. There is a sense that the very first communities were comparatively egalitarian. Then hierarchies developed but later on more "democratic" and thus more "egalitarian" cultures prevailed again. The author claims that we can observe similar developments in their associated religions. Examples to illustrate this are drawn from ancient Middle East, Greece, China and India.

After expounding all of the above views, in the conclusion (Ch.10), the author exalts religious pleuralism and tolerance and thus finishes the tome.

So what's the verdict? This is a giant behemoth at times almost chaotic that is worthwhile to conquer but it will take much time and effort. Four stars.
19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars From primordial soup to Brazil nuts: an in-depth review 1 May 2012
By John L Murphy - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
"Even though, as it is widely believed, morality and religion are evolutionary emergents, evolution cannot tell us which one of them to follow." (48) This "discouraging but indisputable truth," for Bellah, demonstrates the challenge of finding meaning "only in evolution" for today's scholars and thinkers. This review, in-depth as far as small space allows, looks at how Bellah's work compares to recent surveys by other scholars of the Axial Age. A life's work, for a sociologist born in 1927, remains a formidable contribution in six-hundred narrated pages and, as he acknowledges, stopping 2,000 years before our era, it's long enough. It gives prolonged attention to what Max Weber and Emile Durkheim pioneered: the study of religious aspects as they culturally evolved.

Of course, it's bolstered by what science knows now vs. when his predecessors labored to make sense out of religion's roots and branches. His opening starts slowly, as "Religion and Reality" shuffles various capabilities of how we know concepts which in turn will contribute to varieties of religious experience. It's not as compelling as I wished, but chapter two, about evolution's "metanarrative," picked up the pace.

Still, Bellah admits he's as baffled by cosmology as we are, while he tries to cover the enormous span of physical evolution in an alternately meticulous and halting manner that doesn't do as much justice to his primary concerns as they merit. He proposes that we regard ancient accounts as "true myths," and he urges respect for religion on its own terms the same as science, revamping Stephen Jay Gould's "non-overlapping magisteria" as overlapping, each sphere usefully based in not reductionist but emergent explanations, to borrow from biologists, that take on the field at its own level. Science and religion both, Bellah notes, appeal to a sense of awe when their most eloquent advocates attempt to articulate the persistent mystery at the heart of how each field of inquiry unfolds over eons.

These eons, as empathy in its "motor mimicry and emotional contagion" shows over a hundred million years of primate evolution, stretch into pre-linguistic ritual and what Bellah regards as "sacred play" in such activities. While Bellah correctly critiques in passing both Nicholas Wade's "The Faith Instinct" and Robert Wright's "The Evolution of God" (both reviewed by me in 2011), I think Bellah's analysis wanders into territory that the main narrative did not need, and that Wade offers a more cogent popularization of the pre-linguistic stages, despite the monotheistic limits of both Wade and Wright which Bellah attempts to counter with his massive analysis and compendium. I still did not find as clear an explanation of ritual play as I expected, even after a lot of research here. But I did learn how only our species can march in step or dance as one troupe...

He applies, loosely, Merlin Donald's mimetic, mythic, and theoretical stages of human culture (these augment the hybrid system we have that diverges from the episodic consciousness we share with higher mammals) to parallel his own enactive, symbolic, and conceptual religious representational types. This chapter uses three traditional societies today which offer glimpses into mythic cultures once upon a time. The Kalapalo of Brazil, the Australian Aborigine Walbiri, and the Navajo demonstrate how ritual and narrative produce meaning. Bellah seemed more confident in this chapter, as after all he draws on the Navajo, the subject of his earliest research decades ago.

Tribal egalitarianism, he posits, does impose the will of the collective on the will of each, and its intermediate position between the despotism of primates and that of archaic states gains coverage with two Polynesian entities, Tikopia and Hawai'i, where a comparatively better documented record survives of what a kingdom bent on imposing its will on a people subjected to a relentless social system under brutal control under dominant males meant, in terms of taboo, ritual, and--as with many such societies--human sacrifice. There's no romanticizing "pre-contact" Polynesia in these pages.

With the Hawaiians, we benefit from a written history of what was still oral memory via David Malo's testimony; for Mesopotamia, the records of course exist, but much about belief must be extrapolated from tablets and archeological sites. Next, Bellah contrasts the Mesopotamian "heterarchy" with the Polynesian archaic states; as for the Egyptians, we are "creatures of myth" as inescapably as they were, for after all, "we are what we remember." (228)

Archaic states, with "vertical" enforcement where the king acts in league with the gods to order the cosmos and the polity, replace the imposed solidarity of tribes. In turn, the axial age enables the "moral upstart who relies on speech, not force," appears to stay alive long enough to appeal to ethical standards and to call for reflection. Karen Armstrong's "The Great Transformation" (reviewed immediately prior to Bellah's book) reminds us of this shift towards compassion and self-analysis. Bellah favors a more academic tone than Armstrong, and the details she highlights tend to be overshadowed by the scholarly colleagues Bellah introduces and answers in his dense discussion. However, Bellah cites Karl Jaspers: "The Axial Age too ended in failure. History went on." (qtd. 282)

While Armstrong, as Rodney Stark's "Discovering God" (reviewed also in late 2011), prefers a more optimistic, if guarded, spin on the meaning of the Axial Age if we regard it as beneficial. Bellah opts for nuance. A clan of frontier Canaanites worshipped a generic, or a high, god "El" from the pantheon, but El did not seem to matter much "at the level of family piety." (qtd. 288) He and Asherah have children, including Baal and Yahweh; gradually as a jealous "god among gods" Yahweh shoves aside and then denies the other gods until only he is regarded as legitimate.

So, how did these marginal hill-dwelling Israelites grab so much attention? By using the tension between particularism and universality. Hostile prophets provoke Israel and Judah to repent; the kings lose clout as exclusive mediators with the divine powers. Monarchs weaken; a covenant model based on fidelity to "Yahweh alone" rallies Judah's bastion against the Assyrian empire. Yet, the twist comes as the prophets assert Assyria's also subordinate to Yahweh, who punishes Israel via that empire for infidelity. The Deuteronomists promote Moses as half-Lenin, half social-democrat, to borrow Michael Walzer's critique. Still, Moses refused to be a king; the people make the covenant.

Bellah takes Stephen Geller's argument that the norms of the Torah supplanted priestly sacrifice as the central way the "chosen people" communicated with a just God. Yahweh internationalizes (as Stark and Wright agree), and this relationship, as a covenant, enables Jewish success even in exile. Narrative is employed to force the archaic trio of God, king, and nation into ethical freedom. We inherit a "metanarrative" that justifies moral, social, and political programs, ever since the Bible. The Muslim Umma and the Christian Church emerge from this "entering wedge" of a people defined without a monarchy, who submit to rule by divine law instead of the machinations of a secular state.

Ancient Greece features a warrior cult and in the polis a steady evolution from pre-state. I wish we knew more of Anaximander with his "boundless" apeiron preceding creation, or Xenophanes' skepticism: if horses and cattle could draw, their gods would resemble them. Bellah's presentation lacks Armstrong's knack for the telling anecdote or excerpt from a primary source--he likes citing scholars--but it's similar in scope; with Heraclitus we approach "mythospeculation," the verge of philosophy. Plato reforms the synthetic hybrid system with theory but does not replace it--Bellah cautions that this had to wait until the "emergence of Western modernity" in the 17c. (395)

Back to China, while Plato followed the Seven Sages, Confucius preceded all major Chinese thinkers. Ritual was analyzed, meritocracy grew, and nobility turned into a status that birth alone might not attain, but adherence to an elitist, elaborately implemented, top-down mandate from heaven (mixed in Mencius with populism). But, Bellah mentions (more as an aside) how universal values embed themselves in the Analects. Warfare also depended on merit in a fluctuating time, and Mozi's contributions towards "right views" of rulers and a utilitarian concern towards all are less remembered today, thanks to Confucian rivals. The Dao, in #6, 15, 28, gains welcome if brief explication for its evocations of how weak overcomes strong; oddly #53 may in its primitivism find common ground with Legalism, if a small patch.

Xunzi as a final "Warring States" moral reformer merits mention: "I once spent a whole day in si 'reflection,' but I found it of less value than a moment of xue 'learning.' I once tried standing on tiptoe and gazing into the distance, but I found I could see much farther by climbing to a high place."(qtd. 474) Bellah integrates more primary passages in discussing the Dao and Xunzi, sharpening his study.

As Bellah tells us at the end of this Chinese chapter, the problem with Greece and Israel is that we are so familiar with the latter cultures compared to Asia, that it is tempting in those two "to find what at the moment our culture wants to find." (475) This can be charged to Armstrong, Stark, Wade, and Wright, naturally, and all of us as reader-critics. He notes how all he can do is give an interpretation. At least with China, its distance from our cultural legacy forces Westerners to approach cautiously. The question persists: who rules? Is a "junzi/ gentleman" from a hereditary caste, or a moral elite?

Bellah opens the Indian chapter confessing freshman-level instead of grad-student competence. He covers the standard Vedic formulations, and he considers India in Upanishadic times as religiously axial, but archaic in ethics, social structure, and rational discourse (as in Japan). The Buddha's breakthrough as a teacher of ethics accessible to all remains that tradition's axial contribution. Bellah quotes Steven Collins on the path demanding action, leading to nirvana, the "city without fear." Ethical universalism, in turn, sparked a similar promotion by theistic Hinduism and King Ashoka.

He comes around to serious play in the conclusion, realizing accurately it demanded more depth. He looks at renouncers as "moral upstarts" in archaic states who paved a stealthy way for social protest in the axial centuries by prophets, reformers, and teachers. Their utopias--Plato's Republic, Aristotle's Lyceum, Buddhist parables or Second Isaiah--combined political criticism and religious reform. Bellah transfers this to animal play, "flow," and "theoria" as a heightened consciousness. This last chapter, for those pressed for time, serves well as a coda and an exegesis of the major narrative's themes, especially the "relaxed fields" of play and culture which were sometimes buried in the text.

Summing up, Bellah explains how he gave the West less attention than China and India. While parts of this feel like other, shorter texts in their necessarily wide-ranging "metanarratives" from primordial soup to Brazil nuts, and while parts could have been edited (as in frequent give-and-take with his colleagues), it remains a valuable reference, for it brings into one big book the gist of such research.

He ends by warning us that we face the sixth extinction moment unfolding now, as we destroy our planet, in our deep history. He finds some hope that today's serious sociologists of religion do not elevate Christianity above all other faiths, and that in such acceptance a mature pluralism might allow us to advance in understanding on each others' own tolerant, peaceful terms. No universal category, by its very nature, after all, can free itself from its own particular emphases. He rushes past this admission, but he closes by acknowledging that theory needs to remain anchored in a cultural context, lest it "can assume a superiority that can lead to crushing mistakes." (606)
16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Ambitious but disappointing 10 Dec. 2014
By Esther Cameron - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
This is an ambitious but disappointing work. To start out with what may seem a petty gripe: the work lacks a bibliography, which in a work of this scope is an indispensable courtesy to the reader. By listing the titles of works consulted under their authors' names, a bibliography helps the reader to a clearer idea of where the information is coming from. This work brings together the ideas of a numerous scholars and thinkers, but the material is not digested so as to form a new whole -- the book makes the impression of a gigantic patchwork.
The subtitle seems to promise a chronological survey of human religious development, insofar as it can be traced, up to the "Axial Age." What Bellah does in fact is to try to identify the "capacities" involved in religious activity and summarize some theories of how they evolved. Then he discusses, as first stages, "tribal religion" and "archaic religion," mostly as observed in present-day or recent primitive societies, which stand in for the Paleolithic and the Neolithic. This seems to me highly questionable. Many things besides technology change over time, and nothing from the societies he discusses resembles the Cro-Magnon cave paintings or the figurines from Old Europe, or Minoan culture which he barely mentions. Admittedly, inferences about religious practice from the archaeological evidence are questionable, but so are conclusions from the present about what took place 50,000-10,000 years ago.
Speaking of Old Europe, Bellah does not see fit to mention Marija Gimbutas, whose Gods and Goddesses of Old Europe makes a solid case for an early stage of religion that was less androcentric than the Australian and Polynesian societies from which Bellah draws his conclusions. Nor was Gimbutas the first -- Bachofen's Das Mutterrecht and Erich Neumann's The Great Mother are other classics on the subject. Bellah gives the topic of "the Goddess" short shrift, and says almost nothing about the female deities that were worshipped for millennia alongside the male ones. His interest in warriors and chieftains causes him to overlook the fact that even where warfare became an overriding concern, nurture continued to hold a place in human devotions.
After this skimpy treatment of prehistory, half of the book is devoted to the "axial age" -- in Israel, Greece, China and India -- and often seems to be more about history than religion. Again, the androcentric bias is glaring; for instance, the discussion of Greece there is no mention of the Eleusinian mysteries, which persisted through the "axial age." The "axial age," by the way, is a term that has been widely questioned. First coined by Karl Jaspers, it posits a religious "breakthrough" that took place in widely separated cultures at the same time and gave rise to something like a universal ethic. But this breakthrough was by no means the whole story in any of those cultures.
Come to think of it, the book's main title is a rather odd one, since by the time religion got started evolution had pretty much finished with us -- except for the intergroup pressures favoring increased aggressiveness, which religious development both mirrors and resists. But Bellah's suppression of the feminine side of religious history prevents him from confronting this honestly. There is need for a book that would bridge the gap between our knowledge about our evolution and the way religion has taught us to regard ourselves. This is not that book; if a better attempt has been made, I would be very much interested to hear about it.
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