Bellah’s Reading on Religious Evolution

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.

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4 thoughts on “Bellah’s Reading on Religious Evolution

  1. Sabio Lantz

    (1) I am glad you were not scooped.
    (2) Looking forward to your book !!! Not only is your writing style superb, but your analysis methods are very clear to me.
    (3) I enjoyed Pascal and felt his book was not pointing at a huge theory, but (as you say), point at part of the influence in the evolution of religions.
    (4) I am very skeptical of anyone presenting a general theory of religion, because “religion” is not a real thing but is instead a rather artificial definition (as you have written about before, I think). Instead, to be fruitful, we need to examine module by module — but then Bellah (backed by the Templeton Foundation) would not surprisingly disagree.

    [after months gone, still sorry to see I can’t follow comments here]

  2. Stewart Guthrie

    I think Bellah’s claim that Boyer & Atran assume a module for the supernatural is, if not quite accurate, also not quite baseless. B & A do see supernatural beliefs as explained by their “minimal counter-intuitivity” and thus memorability. Minimal counterintuitivity comes from minimal violations of our expectations about “ontogical categories” (e.g, inanimate objects, plants, animals, people; for example, a tree that talks minimally violates the category “plant”). The intuitive features Boyer posits for each of his ontological categories are relatively few, and the conditions of their violation are module-like at least in being universal, single-item and either-or.

    I don’t think B & A overestimate the role of hyper-active agency detection (aka “HADD,” Justin Barrett’s version of my account of anthropomorphism), since I think that something like such detection is basic in religion. Their problem is, instead, HADD’s conflict with Boyer’s major contribution to CSR theory, namely his counter-intuitivity hypothesis. Though unremarked by B & A, this conflict is basic: HADD is, even in their own presentation, intuitive not counter-intuitive. HADD and counter-intuitivity are, as accounts of religion, in a see-saw relation: the more one is used, the less the other can be.

  3. Stewart Guthrie

    Allow me to temper my unintentionally curt (in retrospect) remarks above by noting that they were directed only partially to your commentary, which in any case was put with your customary grace and clarity. Their proper target was more the books in question, whose evidence and arguments–and centrally the counter-intuitivity hypothesis–I find unconvincing.

  4. Cris Post author

    They didn’t strike me as curt in any way. I too find those books unconvincing, though I have never spent much time thinking (or writing) about why I don’t care for them. Even though I’m not a religionist (like Bellah), I can appreciate his assessment that these theories don’t have a very good underlying grasp or understanding “religion” as lived, practiced, and experienced by most people. This critique aside, I’m just not convinced by the memory and counter-intuitiveness stuff; I don’t even find it useful as a heuristic. It seems to bleed into, or borrow from, the epidemiology of ideas paradigm, and perhaps even culture meme theory — all of which I find tedious and speculative.

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