In seeking to make sense of modernity in the classical tradition of sociology as a field, the body of Robert Bellah’s work spans the social sciences and comparative cultural inquiry to embrace the global diversity and coherence of religion as the key to culture across civilizations and epochs within the framework of human evolution. Formally trained as a student of tribal cultures, East Asian civilization, and Islam, Bellah engages the West, and America in particular, as problematic cases that can only be understood in the broadest comparative perspective on human cultural development. This global perspective informs Bellah’s conceptions of religion and human evolution as they have deepened and grown over a half century.

Bellah’s initial account of “Religious Evolution” in 1964 draws on biblical sacred history, mediated by Hegelian historicism threaded through Durkheim, Weber, and Marx. It shows how religion is enacted in cultural, social, personal, and bodily forms that unfold in history, and cannot be grasped outside it. Cultural symbols and beliefs, social practices and institutions, personal habits and attitudes, embodied disciplines and expressions all interpenetrate in constituting religion. Each exercises a degree of autonomy in their interaction that makes it irreducible to any one of the others. They mutually constitute each other through history, and religion is historically constituted through all the dimensions of human action.

Religious rejection of the world emerges in the first millennium BCE in Israel, Greece, India, and China at the core of every historic salvation religion, defining the Weberian axis of religious evolution in Bellah’s original formulation. Renouncing the world represented within the framework of cosmological dualism crystallizes an otherworldly true self, or Buddhist non-self, deeper than the flux of everyday experience, facing a reality over against itself. It holds up an overarching ethical aim and stance, unified into a whole way of life, to answer the question of what we must do to be saved. Conversely, the collapse of cosmological dualism and world rejection marks modern modes of religious symbolization, action, and organization within complex societies shaped by institutional differentiation and cultural pluralism. Modern world acceptance features a multiplex monist worldview centered on a multidimensional self. Each person is responsible for critically self-conscious and conscientious participation in the process of religious symbolization itself, shared among a modern priesthood of all believers no longer bound by obligations of doctrinal orthodoxy imposed by the tutelary authority of state-established religion.

But since religion is centrally the narrative self-interpretation and ritual enactment of all human cultures, Bellah argues, the whole of the history of religion is our own. We remain deeply embedded in it, from tribal peoples to the present. This holds true even when—especially when—we think of religion in peculiarly modern Western terms as primarily private beliefs held by individuals and voluntary associations made up of like-minded believers or spiritual seekers. Religion is a dimension of the whole of life in pre-modern societies, shifting shape as social and cultural complexity evolve together. World-rejecting religious symbols, rites, and congregational communities break through the cosmological and moral unity of archaic and tribal societies in tandem with their political and economic structures. But we need to understand tribal and then archaic religions and societies in their own terms to grasp how such salvific breakthroughs carry the whole of human cultural and religious history into modern world-acceptance. This includes the early modern Protestant patterning of American modernity, grounded in convictions of individual free conscience, conversion, providence, and covenant permuted into ideals of individual free choice, revolution, progress and constitution.

The central insight that stages of religious evolution co-exist and interact with one another is crucial in interpreting the global demographic facts that the world has never numbered more not-so-modern members of the historic salvation religions than it does today, including the fact that one-third of the world’s population is now Christian, and one-third of those Christians live in former colonies. The insight that the earlier stages of religious evolution continue to co-exist with and within later ones also reveals the peculiarly modern anti-modern nature of many contemporary “traditional” or “fundamentalist” movements, including the early modern rationalist faith in Newtonian laws and Baconian experiments that biblical literalists marshal to defend “absolute values” against the “relativism” of late modern historicism and culturalism.

“Nothing is ever lost” in the whole of religious evolution, and Bellah has deepened its conception over the course of his work, culminating in Religion in Human Evolution. It incorporates developmental and evolutionary psychology to chart the evolution of human consciousness through its mimetic, mythic, and theoretic stages, beginning with our biological history as a species that gives rise to culture and then co-evolves with it. For most of a million years before members of the genus Homo began speaking in sentences, they communicated and expressed themselves through their bodies. Through mimetic movement, gesture, and example, they learned to make meaning as well as tools. Through sharing the rhythmic action of “keeping together in time” at the root of ritual, they composed the harmonies of moral community as well as the survival strategies of social solidarity, as Durkheim observed. Endless interaction rituals continue to orchestrate everyday life today, from greetings to good-byes, and formal rites of passage continue to mark the movement of generations from birth to death.

For most of the tens of thousands of years since humans became fully linguistical, religiously inspired and morally charged narrative in the form of myth ruled human consciousness without conceptual challenge, Bellah stresses, and the most encompassing forms of cultural self- understanding today continue to unfold as mythic narrative. They tell the story of uniquely individual selves in culturally common genres. We get to know ourselves and each other by sharing our stories. We grasp the multiple meanings of modern social membership by learning the stories that define our families, communities, and nations. Literacy turns practical theoretic consciousness toward more critical questioning of myth in both the logical and lexical terms of second-order “thinking about thinking” at the heart of the axial breakthroughs. But theories do not replace stories as the source and substance of the spheres of ethics, politics, or religion, and none of these spheres has been reborn within the bounds of reason alone. Narrative is the way we understand our lives, criticized and clarified by rational argument, to be sure, but also revealing in its own rational way that “reason” itself has a long history with multiple meanings and practical differences.

Thus Religion in Human Evolution combines biological, social, and cultural evolution into the deep history of religion at the center of the human story which runs all the way back, and all the way through to the present. It shows religion shaping the social order, and being reshaped as society becomes more complex. Relatively egalitarian forager tribes give way to more hierarchical chiefdoms and archaic kingships, which call for new forms of symbolization and moral enactment to make sense of their growing division of labor, wealth, and power. Theoretic culture emerges to question mythic narratives, at once rejecting and reorganizing them to create new rites and myths, and challenging their particular authority in the name of spiritual and ethical universalism.

Religion in Human Evolution ends with the axial age, but it situates modernity within the history of the human species. It reframes the story of how theoretic culture becomes partially disembedded from mimetic and mythic meaning to give rise to the achievements and predicaments of modernity. By asking what our deep past can tell us about the kind of life human beings have imagined was worth living, Bellah illuminates the often implicit worldviews we hold and contest in the modern world. He points toward the critical reappropriation of their underlying mimetic and mythic dimensions in an ongoing dialectic with our theoretical understanding to find common ground on questions of our common good, including the future of the environment, the justice of the economy, and the possibilities for peace in the world we share.

The diverse forms of popular nationalism with religious roots evident among multiple modernities emerging around the world today tie into the dialectical interplay of civil religion and public theologies, as Bellah has conceived it over the course of his work on faith in public. It develops a central conception of ongoing moral argument, civic debate, and social reform in representative polities ordered in common by diverse constituencies thinking and acting within cultures conceived as dramatic conversations, for example, in Habits of the Heart and The Good Society. These moral dramas are made up of many voices contesting the construal of multiple traditions and remaking them together by the inspiring force of enacting good examples as well as the persuasive force of giving good reasons. This contrasts with state-centered views of civil religion celebrating an ostensibly universal moral consensus in support of the state’s compulsory legal authority.

“Can We Imagine a Global Civil Religion?” asks Bellah in a 2007 lecture that defines the direction of his ongoing inquiry into the modern project in the light of human evolution. He answers the question of its title by distinguishing between the impossibility of a global civil religion, and the necessity of strengthening global civil society to create a world order coherent enough to engage the grave problems of global warming, military-political strife, and economic inequality that interdependent nations now face. Any actual civil society will have a religious dimension, Bellah observes, not only a legal and ethical framework, but some notion that it fits the nature of ultimate reality. In fact, religion-like values carried by an emerging global market culture may worsen international problems, and place greater weight on the actual beginnings of world governance evident in world law and economic regulation today. The nation-state itself, and the principled independence of the market from the state, have arisen as cultural forms and institutional arrangements transmitted around the world over the past few centuries. So have popular sovereignty and the public sphere of civil society, even where ideals of universal human rights, democratic elections, and the formation of public opinion freed from the state and the market are honored in principle but not in practice. Nationalism itself has always been an international phenomenon inspired by the right of every people to self-government and by the responsibility they share for their common fate.

Today global market ideologies and practices threaten the capacity of nations to carry out the responsibilities inherent in their ideals of common membership, Bellah argues by reference to Jürgen Habermas on “the postnational constellation,” including responsibility for their least advantaged citizens through sustaining fair wages and taxes as well as public provision. What are the moral and religious resources we need to think about membership in global civil society profoundly enough to balance the autonomy of nation-states and check the power of global markets? The religious roots of global ethics of human rights lead Bellah to ask if the world’s religions can mobilize their deepest commitments to universal neighbor-love and mutual recognition to give genuine institutional force to human rights regimes. Can they help turn ideals of world citizenship into practical willingness to share responsibility for the world of which we are citizens instead of trying to transform the world into the naturalized image of our own nation? Religious motivation is needed to turn the beginnings of world law and the growth of global ethics into effective forms of global solidarity and governance. Religious insight is needed for us to recognize the primacy of the world instead of trying to force the world to recognize our primacy as a nation.

The nationalist aspirations and religious convictions of other peoples who want to govern themselves and worship as they please, and as they must, require our respect. They also require our recognition of the social and cultural diversity of these peoples. For such recognition is essential to justify our respect by grounding it in our common vision of the dignity and equality of all human beings and their rights to self-government. Such recognition is no less essential to guide our aim to realize these rights in a just and peaceful world of independent, equal, and self-governing states. That world, still struggling to be born, embodies ideals at the center of distinctive yet overlapping forms of civil religion emerging around the globe, and it marks the contested core of an ongoing argument among diverse public theologies and philosophies seeking to shape the world to come.