Both an influential scholar and a public intellectual, Robert Bellah is one of the foremost sociologists of his generation. His books and articles have set in motion lasting conversations about the role of religion in public life, both in the United States and around the world. Since retiring from thirty years of teaching at the University of California, Berkeley, Bellah has been at work on his most ambitious book yet, the recently released Religion in Human Evolution (Harvard University Press).

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NS: Can you say a bit about what you’re hoping to tell us with Religion in Human Evolution?

RB: The purpose of the book is to show how deeply historical—beyond what we normally think of as history, or even prehistory—and how biological human religion is. We have to understand ourselves as a part of the narrative of evolution. And evolution never stops. The notion that human evolution at some point stopped and “history” took over is absurd, though it is widespread among various social scientists and humanists.

NS: Reaching so far back in time, how did you go about marking your story’s beginning?

RB: The advent of helpless infants who require intensive, long-term parental care as long as 200 million years ago is an absolutely critical first step. I don’t say that religion appears there, but without it the religious culture that appears much later just isn’t possible. Think about it. The central icon of Catholic Christianity is mother and child. That motif is so deep in not just our human experience but in our animal, biological past. For much of evolutionary history, the period of helplessness was very brief. Most animals become autonomous and able to fend for themselves very quickly. Reproduction comes in a matter of months for many mammals. In larger and more complex mammals, the period of parental care grew longer and longer. There was a quantum leap among the great apes, and with us it became really long. Imagine, an animal that can’t take care of itself until age 21! It’s a weird thing, biologically. But it allows for the development of what the ethologist Gordon Burghardt calls the “relaxed field”; relieving the more brutal pressures of the struggle for existence and opening the possibility for a great deal of experimentation, creativity, and innovation.

NS: And what about the story’s end?

RB: The book actually ends two thousand years ago, and some people may wonder why I would do that. Christianity and Islam aren’t even in it. Between you and me, I’m so glad they’re not, because I don’t have to fight any stupid battles of the culture wars. But the real reason it ends there is that life is finite. I just couldn’t get through the last two thousand years without writing two volumes, and that was more than I could imagine, but I hope to write a smaller book dealing with the recent past.

NS: Still, you insist, almost as a refrain, that “nothing is ever lost.” What does that mean about the connection between this distant past and the present?

RB: “Nothing is ever lost” means that what we are now goes all the way back through natural history. We are biological organisms and not simply computerized brains. By focusing totally on the present, thinking only about science and computers, and forgetting four billion years of life on this planet, we are losing perspective on who and what we are. We’re running great risks of doing things that will not be good for us. The cost can be very high indeed if we reach the point where we can’t adapt to our own increasingly rapid adaptations. We run the risk of early extinction. So this certainly isn’t a triumphalist story, but it is trying to get at what, in the very long run, leads to the amazing creatures that we are.

NS: How would you characterize the progress of your own thinking between the 1964 “Religious Evolution” paper and Religion in Human Evolution?

RB: Well, that paper was one of the first things I ever wrote. Actually, the first draft of it was written when I was a postdoctoral student at McGill around 1955. In the back of my mind, religious evolution was the thing I cared about most. It always structured my most frequently-given and most well-received undergraduate course on the sociology of religion. I referred to evolution from time to time, but between that 1964 essay and this book, although I was thinking and learning about religious evolution, other things became more urgent. I finally retired at 70 in 1997, and for the first time in my life I could devote myself to this book as I have for the last thirteen years.

NS: How did those other more urgent concerns present themselves?

RB: I was pulled by external forces. The whole preoccupation with America was particularly ironic because it was the one society I didn’t want to study. I chose to be a Japan specialist in graduate school to get as far away as I could! But once the “Civil Religion in America” paper came out in 1967, all kinds of nonacademic groups wanted to hear from me. I thought, well, this crazy country is all mixed up, and if I can help clarify things I should respond. That led to The Broken Covenant, and then the Ford Foundation asked to fund Habits of the Heart. They were worried about what was happening to the American middle class. I didn’t ask for money for Habits; they pushed it on me. I found four really amazing younger colleagues who did most of the fieldwork. In that way, I got distracted by various things that were intrinsically important—so important that I gave them high priority—but that kept me from doing what my life’s work was meant to be.

NS: What has occupied you most during the last thirteen years that you’ve been working on this book?

RB: I was learning an enormous amount. All my life I have been deeply interested in ancient Israel and ancient Greece, and my graduate degree was in sociology and Far Eastern languages, so I knew a lot about ancient China. Back then I read Confucius and Mencius in their original classical Chinese. Since, I’ve had to catch up with current research in each of those fields. India, though, was the one place where I really started almost from scratch, like an undergraduate. That turned out to be utterly fascinating. I knew a lot about Buddhism because Buddhism is important in East Asia, particularly in Japan, but I didn’t know early Buddhism, and I didn’t know much about what we call Hinduism. Then I discovered the cognitive neuroscientist Merlin Donald’s notion that human culture, in evolutionary terms, moves from episodic, to mimetic, to mythic, to theoretic—that made all kinds of sense. To some extent, ontogeny repeats phylogeny, because children go through something like the same thing. So it’s a deeply interdisciplinary study. I’m drawing on biologists, evolutionary psychologists, and child-development researchers all in order to understand the deep roots of what would ultimately become religion. I’ve learned so much. It has been a deep pleasure to write this book.

NS: What about Jaspers’ notion of the “axial age,” that crucial period in the first millennium BCE when each of these civilizations flowered? Has it been framing your thinking since the beginning?

RB: It’s already there in the 1964 article. Benjamin Schwartz, a leading scholar of ancient China, organized the first discussion of the axial age in American academic life, I think, in an issue of Deadalus quite early on. Ben was my teacher and my colleague, and I was very influenced by his reading of Jaspers. So Jaspers goes all the way back, but of course I never really applied his insights in detail until I wrote this book. More recently, there was a conference in 2008 at the Max Weber Center at the University of Erfurt in Germany, for which my axial age chapters were provided as a base for discussion.

NS: Karen Armstrong’s The Great Transformation has recently helped renew public interest in the axial age concept too. What do you think of that book?

RB: I’ve been with her up on the platform, and I know she’s a very intelligent person. But she doesn’t know much about the axial age. For her, it’s all about compassion. Compassion is a great thing, but that just won’t do! When she ends up excluding Greece from the axial age because there was no compassion there, I thought I would pull my hair out. It’s so simple-minded. In terms of the big picture, I don’t see any other book that does anything like what I’m trying to do.

NS: Comparisons like axial theories can allow differences between cultures to be obscured by ostensible similarity. How do you address the danger of such universalism?

RB: The problem of the universal is difficult in every case. The universal and the particular can never be separated; they always go hand in hand. But if you read my four axial chapters you would never think that these cultures are all the same. They are very, very different. I never want to talk theory without giving really detailed ethnographic examples. Here, I learned from my friendship with Clifford Geertz. From our graduate school days on, I always admired Cliff as an ethnographer. Do you know Talal Asad’s essay about Cliff?

NS: The one in the Genealogies of Religion volume?

RB: It’s full of things that are just plain false. It attacks Cliff as an Orientalist and cites Edward Said. I went back and looked carefully at Orientalism. Cliff Geertz is one of the few people whom Said completely exonerates, but you wouldn’t dream that this was the case by reading Asad. I’ve actually been warned by former students not to make Geertz so important in my preface because Geertz is in the doghouse now. Well, I want to bring him out of the doghouse! Cliff always insisted on the really deep detail—the “thick description”—and there’s a hell of a lot of that in this book. I had to educate myself on every one of these societies, both theoretically and in terms of ethnographic details.

NS: Religion in Human Evolution is an incredibly broad and ambitious work, so unlike much of the scholarship being done right now. Do you think there is too much pressure to narrowly specialize in the academy today?

RB: Tell me about it. The pressure to have articles in the primary reviewed journals of your profession in order to get tenure is really awful. The economics of the academic world today makes it all the worse. Who can take thirteen years to write a book like this? Fortunately, I’ve been in good health. But Cliff died at 80. I was very angry at him for that—I wanted him to read this book!

NS: I wonder if you have an opinion of journalist Robert Wright’s The Evolution of God, which offers, in some ways, a comparable story about the development of religion in evolutionary perspective.

RB: I think Wright is a very bright guy, and he has some interesting things to say. But he’s very hung up on the notion of gods and, particularly, God. His book overwhelmingly focuses on Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. You would hardly know that half the world is not there. Hinduism, Confucianism, and Buddhism are huge traditions of enormous importance, and they aren’t monotheistic. Again, this reflects the fact that our preconceptions about what religion is are so influenced by Protestantism—either real Protestantism or the secularized Protestantism that dominates our culture—and its assumption that beliefs are the most important thing. But it’s clear all the way through history that practices are primary and beliefs are secondary. I’m not saying that you can’t learn something from Wright and other journalists like him—Nicholas Wade, for instance.

NS: Yes, Wade’s latest book is The Faith Instinct. You’ve read it?

RB: I read that in advance for Penguin. I told the editor that I admire a lot in the book, but there’s so much I can’t agree with. Wade says at some point that Christianity is the first universal religion. Yet Buddhism is four hundred years older than Christianity, and if it’s not a universal religion I don’t know what a universal religion is. There’s also a strong focus on selectionism and the notion that religion plays a functional role in the evolutionary process. But religion is dysfunctional all the time, as well as functional. It’s not so simple. One of the important things about religion is that it is a sphere which is partially protected from selection. Religious creativity occurs when people pull out of the whole selectivity issue. Becoming celibate—obviously you couldn’t be less selective that that. Yes, selection is always in the background. But it’s not always there in the foreground. If you don’t understand that, you’re missing a lot.

NS: As someone trained in the social sciences, how did you go about engaging with scientific material? How did you weed through the current research and find insights that could help your project?

RB: In part it goes back to the fact that I became a major in Harvard’s Department of Social Relations in the second year of its existence. My whole undergraduate and graduate training brought me into clinical and social psychology, and anthropology. I’ve never been one of these boundary-guarding sociologists who thinks that if something isn’t sociology I can ignore it. This is also very much the spirit of Talcott Parsons; he was the quintessential sociologist, but he never drew any boundaries. Jerome Bruner, a developmental psychologist, was an important early influence. More recently, I did it just by finding who the best people are and reading their books. I’ve had colleagues who helped steer me, but it has really been self-help all the way.

NS: It is rare to see someone lately so informed by both the humanities and scientific research. You seem to be doing very much what Barbara Herrnstein Smith is calling for in her Natural Reflections.

RB: It’s a wonderful book that came just at the right moment for me.

NS: Say more about how it impacted you.

RB: Well, she makes the strong case that an explanatory science and an interpretive science are not incompatible, that they’re working at different levels, that they are revealing different kinds of truths, and that we can learn a lot from each. I wouldn’t say that this was totally new to me. Again, this was very much a part of Cliff Geertz’s thinking too. He wrote an early essay on the evolution of culture and the brain in the 1960s, before most people were talking about it. But Smith writes so eloquently. It’s really more the way she said it. She isn’t interested in bitter diatribe or polemic, and of course neither am I.

NS: Over the course of your career you’ve been able to do a unique kind of public theology within social science. Do you think that that kind of role is still open to younger sociologists?

RB: Christian Smith is an example of a younger person doing that. At one point I very much wanted to bring him to Berkeley, but it was precisely that side of him that my colleagues didn’t like, and he wasn’t brought. Nonetheless, he’s certainly one of the two or three most influential sociologists of religion today, so he hasn’t been excluded from the discussion by any means. Even Bob Wuthnow—though you could hardly call him a public theologian—has a very sensitive ear for religious reality, and his writings are always full of sympathetic understanding of the things he’s writing about. I think it’s possible. But whether I should have included three sermons in The Robert Bellah Reader is still an open question, because I think it did foster a degree of prejudice against a book that has a lot of other things in it. I did that partly deliberately.

NS: To what do you attribute that prejudice?

RB: The academic world is one of the few places where prejudice is supposed to be totally banned, and we’re politically correct on everything, but it’s still a place where you can attack religion out of utter, complete, bottomless ignorance and not be considered to have done anything wrong. It’s astounding to me to hear what some people can say with the assumption that everyone would agree with them, based on nothing whatsoever.

NS: An important part of your message has been the famous concern expressed in Habits of the Heart about “Sheilaism”—the kind of individualistic spirituality that you and your colleagues saw at work in the United States. Some have suggested recently, including your former student Harvey Cox, that some of these nontraditional spiritualities are finding a place in social and political life in a way that wasn’t quite recognized before. Is the way you think about new kinds of spiritualities evolving?

RB: I certainly think that so-called spirituality can have social and even political consequences. I’ve seen this among environmental activists, who often have some kind of eco-spirituality and who are very organizationally loose. They switch from one group to another, and if one group isn’t pure enough they go to another. And yet they spend a long period of their lives doing good work in a cause. In the end what I feel is most problematic about “I’m spiritual but not religious” is: what the hell are you going to tell your children? I’m allergic to the notion that so-called institutional religion—by which people mean organizations such as churches and synagogues—is bad. Institutions are very important and if you think you can get along without them, you’re putting yourself on the wrong line; you can’t.

NS: So your conclusions in Habits of the Heart stand?

RB: If you think about what has happened in American society, or even just today with what is going on with the Tea Party movement, Habits of the Heart was so right on. Radical individualism is even more evident today than when Habits was published twenty-five years ago. It describes the default mode of this deeply misguided society beautifully—horribly, but beautifully.