It is a pleasure and an honor to engage a book that is truly large in ways beyond its sheer size. It is large in scope, ranging across geological, biological, cultural, and historical phenomena spanning both time and place. It is large in significance, asking how one of humanity’s central yet elusive traits—what might be termed its religious gene—fits within and perhaps contributes to one of science’s dominant theoretical frameworks, evolution. It is also large-minded in its appreciation for the distinct yet interrelated ways in which humans express meaning. Professor Bellah’s instinct, I think, is to be inclusive rather than exclusive, to see how diverse modes meld one into another, and to provide nuanced appreciation more than sharp-edged distinctions.

His thirteen years of labor on this monumental study have yielded rich analyses on an impressive array of topics. Among my favorites are his deeply informed preliminary essays on “religion and reality” and “religion and evolution”—each carried out in close conversation with experts—his argument that play is an element of continuity among primates and humans, and his discrete studies of society and religion among the Kalapalo in Brazil, the Navaho in the United States, the Walbiri in Australia, as well as among discrete Polynesian populations in Tikopia and Hawai’i. These separate and highly detailed analyses of the mimetic and mythic dimensions of religion provide balance and depth to his argument concerning the “breakthrough” of the theoretical or critical dimension that is claimed to characterize the so-called axial age in Israel, Greece, China, and India. My admiration for the scope and detail of these individual studies is sharpened by my awareness of being only reasonably competent in two of the religious traditions he surveys.

My response, therefore, will take the form of five observations/questions at the level of the larger argument rather than at the level of specific assertions. I am emboldened to ask such questions because of the clear sense given by Professor Bellah himself that, at the end, he was not altogether happy with some of his choices, or wished that he could have pulled some elements together more coherently.

My first question is fairly fundamental. How literally is “evolution” to be understood in the analysis of cultural/historical phenomena? Is the evolutionary paradigm more than a helpful analogy when looking at changes in society and religion? Or is Bellah committed to it as a scientific thesis to which both his inquiry and his subject adhere? On one side, Bellah seems to think of evolution as literally operative, as when, at the beginning of chapter two, he characterizes his work in the first chapter as looking “at human development as the acquisition of a series of capacities, all of which have contributed to the formation of religions.” He then shifts from ontogeny to phylogeny in asking “when did religion begin?” and “were there earlier developments that made its emergence possible?” All this sounds very much like Bellah is considering religion as an aspect of evolutionary development; there is no religion until there is the development of capacities. Fair enough. But then, following such a scientific inquiry, should not an evolutionary consideration turn to how “the acquisition of [religious] capacities” is somehow adaptive or maladaptive? But we find nothing along these lines. When Bellah describes the transitions from episodic culture to mimetic to mythic to theoretic/critical, likewise, the discussion is not in terms of adaptation for survival, but rather adaptation to changing social forms… so that evolution seems here more as an analogy than as literal mutation. Can the author clarify?

My second question concerns the commitment—utterly understandable for a disciple of Émile Durkheim—to the social group rather than the individual. I take this to be analogous (again) to the author’s preference in evolutionary theory for the organism over the “selfish gene” as the entity that adapts. But when it comes to religion, is it the case that religious expression is always epiphenomenal to social form? Sometimes in Bellah’s book, the link seems to be drawn too strongly. Are tribal religions mimetic because of tribal organization? Is myth a corollary of empire? Is theory unthinkable without cities? And is the secondary position of the individual religious experience and expression always justified? Bellah’s opening set of unitive experiences would suggest not. And in some cases, as in ancient Israel, can it not be argued that the experiences/conviction of the prophets help determine social forms, rather than the reverse? Again, within evolutionary theory, the role of individual mutant genes is part of the mix. Indeed, in the attention given to Jeremiah, Confucius, Plato, and others of the axial age. Bellah’s attention seems to shift almost entirely to such mutants.

My third set of questions, in fact, concerns Professor Bellah’s commitment to the notion of an axial age, which dominates the book (with some 300 pages devoted to it), yet occupies an oddly awkward place within the argument as a whole. The term follows Karl Jaspers in locating an independent “breakthrough” to critical thought in disparate parts of the world between 800-200 BCE, that influenced all subsequent philosophy and religion.

1. It forces a series of qualifications concerning anticipations (“breakouts”which are not quite “breakthroughs”) and remnants of earlier phases that persist.

2. It represents almost totally a shift to the cognitive, so that the new element becomes the defining element in religion—here, there is a real break with the wonderful analysis of play as the anticipation of religion’s ritual. In the study of the axial age in Greece, for example, we learn about a series of critical thinkers more or less “relative to the sacred,” but we lose sight of the other modes of religious practice continuous with play that persist in Greece among the vast majority of people. Plato and Aristotle may represent an interesting new wrinkle but they do not represent a “new age” in Greek religion. In my own analysis of Greco-Roman religion, I would identify them as one sort of religious sensibility—but other sensibilities were just as important—if less available to the student of ancient literature.

3. It stops with the axial age, without making clear whether the “breakthrough” represented by critical thought was a permanent mutation or only an passing phenomenon. In Greece, for example, if we move just slightly past Aristotle, we find on one side the description of the superstitious man in Theophrastus’ Characters, and on the other side, Epicurus’ Sovereign Maxims, which advance an attack on religious belief and practice that far surpasses anything in Plato or Aristotle. One could argue, indeed, that Epicurus’ “breakthrough” is far more influential on religion within modernity than the form of critical thought Bellah locates in the axial age. Similarly, in Israel, the prophetic breakthrough, while certainly important, was not defining of Jewish religion nearly so much as was the religious practice centered in the temple and torah.

My fourth observation follows from the previous one, and picks up from Professor Bellah’s intimation that he might have done better to follow through the very intriguing link established between the play of primates and the play/ritual of humans. I think this might indeed have been a more capacious—and more consistently evolutionary—framework for the analysis of religion in diverse social settings. This would enable the inclusion of all those modes of social and individual activity that usually are recognized as religious but are not necessarily verbal or conceptual—sacrifices, festivals, dance, painting, healings, ecstatic babblings—and also enable the recognition of the religious element in philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle simply as one “way of being religious” among others.

My fifth and final observation concerns the two aspects of “practical intent” with which Professor Bellah concludes his book. I am completely in agreement with his desire that people be more accepting of each other’s religions, and have argued a similar position in my recent book on Christianity and Greco-Roman religion. But I fail to see how such a desirable disposition follows necessarily from an evolutionary understanding of religion. A rigorous historical-comparative analysis could lead to the same conclusion. But neither analytic approach enables an automatic turn from what is to what ought to be.

Still less do I grasp how a moral posture toward climate change arises from evolutionary theory. If, as Professor Bellah states, the catastrophic disruption of the eco-system began as long as 100,000 years ago with the invention of agriculture, and if, as he also states, the proliferation of the human species at the cost of other species is a consequence of the success of human adaptation—and adaptation to adaptation—then it would seem that a properly evolutionary perspective would be one of wonderment or resignation (the bacteria win in the end anyway), but not one of moral indignation. Indeed, a robust theology of creation might more logically lead to a moral stance with regard to the excessive exploitation of the earth’s resources, but a strictly evolutionary perspective should—unless I have badly misunderstood things—lead only to applause at our species remarkable cunning in survival—up to now!

I have posed some questions concerning Professor Bellah’s argument, but I want to close by repeating my admiration for his accomplishment. This book rewards close reading by enriching the reader in many ways. It has been a challenge to read, but also a stimulus to serious thought on truly important questions. In a season of small and careful statements, such a bold, sweeping, and genuinely passionate argument deserves all the honor it will undoubtedly receive.

This essay is a slightly revised version of remarks delivered last month in San Francisco, at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion.—ed.