I’ve finally gotten round to reading Robert Bellah’s Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age (2011). I’ve been avoiding it for fear it would infect, in a good way, my own thinking and writing on the subject. I’ve long been using his seminal 1964 article, “Religious Evolution,” as a source of some key but undeveloped insights and was concerned that Bellah had done the same and essentially scooped me with the publication of what is being called his magnum opus. I needn’t have worried, as Bellah has gone off in some different idealist and symbolic directions that, while fruitful, are a bit opaque.
Comfortably retired from his position at Berkeley and generously funded by the Templeton Foundation, Bellah has been working on the book for many years and done lots of reading in preparation. While discussing some of that reading, and influences on his thinking, Bellah summarily dismisses “some [books] that have not been helpful at all, especially those coming from a particular strand of evolutionary psychology” (p. 100). To this he affixes a footnote, number 154.
At footnote 154 on page 629, Bellah states:
“I have found particularly unhelpful those who think of the mind as composed of modules and of religion as explained by a module for supernatural beings. Representative works in this genre are Pascal Boyer, Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought (2001) — the reference to thought and not practice in his title is indicative of the weakness of this approach; and Scott Atran, In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion (2002). B.H. Smith, though giving an appreciative reading of these books that would have been hard for me, has described at length their tendency toward speculative theorizing and their lack of insight into religion as actually lived.”
While I agree that Boyer’s title over-promises and under-delivers, Bellah is being unduly harsh and underestimates the empirical support for those two books. Neither Boyer nor Atran reduces religion to an evolved brain module for the supernatural, though both may overestimate the role of hyperactive agency detection in religion. While I don’t think that either Boyer or Atran comes close to fully accounting for religion, and that both books can leave the reader feeling rather cold (i.e., that neither Boyer nor Atran has quite gotten to the heart of lived religion), they have made important contributions that are pieces of the larger puzzle. By dismissing them in this manner, Bellah disserves himself and weakens his argument.