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Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Ageby Robert Neelly Bellah
Synopses & Reviews
Religion in Human Evolution is a work of extraordinary ambition—a wide-ranging, nuanced probing of our biological past to discover the kinds of lives that human beings have most often imagined were worth living. It offers what is frequently seen as a forbidden theory of the origin of religion that goes deep into evolution, especially but not exclusively cultural evolution.
How did our early ancestors transcend the quotidian demands of everyday existence to embrace an alternative reality that called into question the very meaning of their daily struggle? Robert Bellah, one of the leading sociologists of our time, identifies a range of cultural capacities, such as communal dancing, storytelling, and theorizing, whose emergence made this religious development possible. Deploying the latest findings in biology, cognitive science, and evolutionary psychology, he traces the expansion of these cultural capacities from the Paleolithic to the Axial Age (roughly, the first millennium BCE), when individuals and groups in the Old World challenged the norms and beliefs of class societies ruled by kings and aristocracies. These religious prophets and renouncers never succeeded in founding their alternative utopias, but they left a heritage of criticism that would not be quenched.
Bellah’s treatment of the four great civilizations of the Axial Age—in ancient Israel, Greece, China, and India—shows all existing religions, both prophetic and mystic, to be rooted in the evolutionary story he tells. Religion in Human Evolution answers the call for a critical history of religion grounded in the full range of human constraints and possibilities.
"In this magisterial effort, eminent sociologist of religion Bellah (Habits of the Heart) attempts nothing less than to show the ways that the evolution of certain capacities among humans provided the foundation for religion. He traces three stages of cultural evolution that give rise to various types of religion. Thus, mimetic culture was primarily gestural and nonverbal; dance might have been one of the earliest forms of such culture. Mythic culture arises as language develops and complex explanatory narratives emerge. Archaic religion evolves out of the capacity for mimesis and myth, but as society becomes more complex, religions attempt to clarify the differences between themselves, to question old narratives, and to call into question the old hierarchies in the name of spiritual and ethical universalism. Within this new theoretic culture, the great axial religions of the ancient Near East,Â China, Greece, and India combine the capacities for myth and ritual even as they develop the capacity to theorize.Â Bellah brings his thesis to life by illustrating profusely this development in each type of religion. Those with the stamina to trudge through Bellah's dense prose will be rewarded with a wealth of sparkling insights into the history of religion.Â (Sept.)" Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
Book News Annotation:
Bellah (emeritus, sociology, U. of California-Berkeley) explores how religious observances change people's perception of the world, and argues that the change is intertwined with human evolution for as far back as there is evidence for it. He covers religion and reality; religion and evolution; the production of meaning in tribal religion; meaning and power in the shift from tribal to archaic religion; god and king in archaic religion; and the axial age in Israel, Greece, China, and India. Belnap Press in an imprint of Harvard University Press. Annotation ©2011 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
This ambitious book probes our biological past to discover the kinds of lives that human beings have imagined were worth living. Bellah’s theory goes deep into cultural and genetic evolution to identify a range of capacities (communal dancing, storytelling, theorizing) whose emergence made religious development possible in the first millennium BCE.
About the Author
Robert N. Bellah is Elliott Professor of Sociology, Emeritus, at the University of California, Berkeley.
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