Robert Bellah on Religious Evolution

In less than a month, we will be able to lay our hands on Robert Bellah’s much anticipated Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age.

It will be the latest in a string of books over the last decade which purport to explain the origins and development of what we today call “religion.” These books can be roughly divided into two types.

The first usually revolves around a particular author’s research specialty and generalizes from this focused research to religion as a whole. While these books contribute something of importance to evolutionary religious studies, religion is not going to be explained monocausally. The second type is an adaptive design metanarrative, in which religion holds the (magical) key to human evolutionary success. These books usually amount to mere storytelling.

If Bellah’s 1964 article on “Religious Evolution” is any indication, his forthcoming book may transcend this tired typology. While my hopes are high, I am not sure what to expect. I know that the Templeton Foundation gave Bellah a large grant for the book and Templeton grants are not disinterested.

In a recent interview with The Atlantic, Bellah confesses he is a practicing Episcopalian and metaphysical idealist (i.e., “Kantian-Hegelian”). This is the sort of sophisticated belief much beloved by Templeton grantors. It remains to be seen how Bellah’s a priori commitments affect his evolutionary account of religion.

Aside from Bellah’s grudging admiration for Nietzsche’s genius, this part of the interview caught my attention:

But dealing with a complex band of people you don’t know if you can trust or not, and you love some of them and you hate some of them—that’s a pretty high demand on your cognitive growth. I think the brain grows fast when groups get larger and more complicated and maneuvering yourself in a social world starts to be at the heart of what your life is all about.

This suggests there is a correlation between bigger brains and bigger groups. While there is some support for this idea, we have little or no evidence to suggest that hominin group size increased during the course of the Paleolithic in conjunction with increases in brain size.

Hunter-gatherer group sizes seem to be fairly consistent across time and space (varying primarily in accord with local environments and ecology). Group sizes increase only when people settle down and become agriculturalists. This began to occur about 12,000 years ago during the Neolithic Transition and was an uneven process. One thing is certain: this increase in group size was not triggered by an increase in brain size. In fact, human brains appear to have been getting smaller over the past 15,000 years.

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