We have been witnessing some dramatic developments in our culture. It was predicted at the beginning of the new century that the next big thing would be religion. But few had foreseen that the public discourse on religion would be dominated by naturalist atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Danial Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens, debunking religion as an irrational illusion. Their atheism is “naturalist” because they believe that naturalistic theory of human nature offered by the natural sciences, such as evolutionary theory, can tell us everything about religion. Religion should, and eventually will, be replaced by our scientific and secular worldview. Religion also has its naturalist defenders such as Stewart Guthrie, Pascal Boyer, and Scott Atran. Unlike the naturalist atheists, they do not try to explain religion away as an irrational illusion. In her fine book Natural Reflections: Human Cognition at the Nexus of Science and Religion, Barbara Herrnstein Smith has labeled them “New Naturalists.” It is interesting to note that although these two groups of people, the debunkers and defenders of religion, hold the opposite views on religion, they share the same narrow naturalist framework: They all assume that evolutionary theory tells us everything about religion, and they all try to explain religion naturalistically.

Future histories may report that the public discourse on religion was dominated by reductive naturalism until Robert Bellah’s Religion in Human Evolution appeared in 2011. One of the most distinctive features of Bellah’s book is his extensive use of the latest developments in the natural sciences, such as biology, cognitive science, evolutionary psychology, and developmental and child psychology. One of his purposes is, as he puts it, “to show how deeply we are shaped by a very long biological history.” This might give the wrong impression that Bellah’s approach is similar to the New Naturalist approach. However, Bellah’s is better characterized as a non-reductive humanistic naturalism, which is a synthesis of the humanistic (interpretative, social, and historical) understanding of religion and the naturalist approach. Bellah belongs to a humanistic tradition of sociological, anthological, and philosophical study of religion that can be traced back to Hegel, Durkheim, Mauss, Weber, Cassirer, Schutz, Voegelin, Ricoeur, and Geertz. Bellah also draws upon the “experiential-expressive” tradition founded by Schleiermacher, James, and Tillich, taking seriously the mental, emotional, and experiential dimension of religion. Bellah’s book should remind us of a maxim by Marquis De Vauvenargues: An original book is the one that makes one love old truth.

In her 2003 lecture tellingly entitled “Who Owns Human Nature?” Marjorie Garber observed that the natural sciences now dominate the public discourse on human nature:

Humanists have, by and large, abandoned their claims to an interest in this most interesting of problems [regarding human nature], tending in recent years to regard the phrase human nature as a reductive mode of fuzzy thinking. […] But this shift in the disciplinary custody of ‘human nature’ has serious consequences for the value of that amorphous enterprise called ‘the humanities.’ For if the place to investigate ‘human nature’ is not ‘the humanities,’ what is the use of the humanistic disciplines? What else gives them cultural authority?

Bellah has a compelling answer to Garber’s question, which is that human nature should not be understood as a purely biological concept. Natural scientists do not own human “nature”; human beings are historical and cultural animals and an animal symbolicum. In other words, culture is our “acquired second nature.” Here I borrow the term “acquired second nature” from the philosopher John McDowell, whose critique of what he calls “bald naturalism” applies to the New Naturalism. Bellah has overcome almost all the problems and limits of the New Naturalism that Barbara Herrnstein Smith has identified. Smith has argued that “there are better and worse ways of pursuing the naturalistic study of religion,” and Bellah’s humanistic naturalism is exactly this “better” naturalist approach Smith has envisioned.

Let me give a brief summary of Bellah’s book before I show why Bellah’s approach is superior to the New Naturalist’s. To put it simply, Bellah’s book argues for two related theses, and the book can be divided into two parts, each of which is devoted to one of the theses. The first thesis is that religion is a cultural system, which is the topic of the first part of the book (chapters 1-2). It offers a general theory of religion as a cultural system by providing a general theory of culture. One of Bellah’s most innovative and interesting ideas is that play gives rise to culture, especially ritual and myth, which are the key components of religion. Here he draws upon Johan Huizinga’s classic Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture, Schiller’s On the Aesthetic Education of Man, as well as contemporary empirical studies of animal play, summarized in Gordon Burghard’s fascinating book The Genesis of Animal Play.

Bellah’s second thesis is that religion has evolved from the Paleolithic age to the axial age around the world. This is the focus of the second part of the book (chapters 3-9), an epic narrative of the evolution of religions. Bellah’s story of religious evolution is given as part of a general theory of cultural evolution in three stages: mimetic, mythic, and theoretic. Bellah’s second thesis is an important qualification of his first thesis. Religion is indeed a cultural system, but at the same time, religion is also always embodied, social, personal, emotional, experiential, and developmental. These two interconnected theses also serve as a fundamental heuristic device that governs and organizes the interpretations of the empirical, historical, and ethnographical materials in the book.

The second part of the book can be further divided into two sub-parts: chapters 3-5 deal with tribal and archaic religions, and chapters 6-9 cover the four axial religions in ancient Israel, Greece, China, and India. When he discusses tribal and archaic religions, Bellah focuses on the first two stages of cultural evolution, namely mimetic and mythic. He gives an account of how our capacities for mimetic and mythic culture come about as a result of long evolutionary process. In the section dealing with the four axial religions, Bellah focuses on the last stage of cultural evolution, i.e., theoretic culture, which is developed in the axial age. It should be emphasized that in this part of the book the topic is really religion in human history.

Now let me turn to three major differences between Bellah’s and the New Naturalist’s approach, and show how and why Bellah is superior to the New Naturalists in all these aspects. First, Bellah has a larger and better set of data. The New Naturalists tend to focus on religious beliefs; more specifically, they tend to focus rather narrowly on beliefs in monotheistic religions, such as beliefs in immortality, life after death, and the existence of supernatural agents such as God and spirits. Bellah’s book, on the other hand, is one of the most comprehensive and global-minded studies of all types of religions ever existed. It is a massive synthesis of various archeological, anthropological, and ethnographical studies of religious beliefs as well as practices. Bellah’s “general theory of religion” is solidly based on empirical and historical case studies. The book can be said to consist of close examinations of a wide range of historical cases from around the world: the Australian Aborigines, the Brazilian Kalapalo, the North American Navajo, the religious practices in Tikopia, Polynesia, Hawaii, ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, Shang and Western Zhou China, and finally religions in the four axial civilizations in ancient Israel, Greece, China, and India. Bellah’s general theory is built on these concrete cases, and is further tested, modified, and developed through the articulations and interpretations of these cases. One could argue that Bellah is doing better science of humanity partly because he has a much larger and better set of data than the New Naturalists.

The second difference between Bellah and the New Naturalists is that Bellah’s approach is interpretative. The New Naturalists tend to focus on mental modules, and religion is often explained in terms of a “module for supernatural being,” as if there were immediate and direct causal connections between a mental mechanism and a religious belief. They do not see religion as a cultural system of meaning, mediated and expressed by various modes of representations. Instead, as Smith points out, they see religious beliefs as “the automatic outcome of the activity of a universal cognitive mechanism responding to the inherent properties of some domain of stimuli,” and they are not aware of what Smith calls “more than a century of relevant work in social theory and sociology of religion.” Pascal Boyer’s 2002 book Religion Explained is a good example here. As Smith puts it, Boyer “identifies interpretation with intellectual approaches cast as intrinsically nonscientific. Thus it is not surprising that terms like ‘symbol’ or ‘represent’ do not appear anywhere in his discussion of rituals or that he treats references to their ‘meaning’ so dismissively there. Indeed, according to Boyer, rituals, contrary to the accounts of them given by many anthropologists and participants, are virtually meaningless.”

Smith’s book Natural Reflections was published before Bellah’s book. She could have made use of Bellah’s book as a positive model to show how to make sense of rituals and symbols. Bellah gives a comprehensive picture of various modes of religious representation: unitive representation, enactive representation, symbolic representation (such as iconic, music, and poetic symbolization), and conceptual representation. For Bellah, religion is primarily about meaning; mimetic culture (ritual) and mythic culture (symbol and narrative) are essential parts of religious practice. This is his definition of symbol: “It is always possible that an object, person or event in the world of daily life may have a meaning in another reality that transcends the world of working. If so we call it a symbol.” Bellah calls this approach “cultural-linguistic.”

The third difference between Bellah and the New Naturalists is that Bellah can give an adequate account of the particularities and varieties of religions throughout human history, whereas the New Naturalists take particular religions as mere manifestations of the same universal and ahistorical mental module for supernatural beings. The New Naturalists are unable to do justice to the cultural and historical differences among religions. Interestingly, Bellah may encounter a similar problem on a different level. I have mentioned that he draws upon the “experiential-expressive” tradition, which assumes that there is “a general human capacity for religious experience that is then actualized differently in different religious traditions.” Bellah is aware that this approach may have the tendency to take particular religions as simply “surface manifestations of this deep pan-human experiential potentiality.”

Bellah’s solution is that we should take the “experiential-expressive” and the “cultural-linguistic” as “coordinate approaches.” As he puts it, “we need to move back and forth between them to understand the phenomenon of religion.” Bellah emphasizes that the “cultural-linguistic representation” can have a looping-effect on human experience. He believes that the cultural-linguistic approach “takes symbolic forms as primary, seeing them not so much as expressions of underlying religious emotions, but as themselves shaping religious experiences and emotions.” This will enable Bellah to accommodate the multiple aspects of particular religions, especially the cultural and historical particularities of various religious practices. Let me cite an important passage here:

Thus when I characterize widely different expressions as examples of Being cognition, I am not arguing that there is a subsistent reality of Being experience that simply comes out in different forms on different occasions. Rather, I am recognizing that there are some common human experiential potentialities that have recognizable similarities, but are inchoate until given shape by symbolic form. Once so shaped, their similarities are always qualified: the differences may be crucial. I am also fully in agreement with Lindbeck that cultural traditions not only shape, they even call forth emotional experiences. In short, we cannot disentangle raw experience from cultural form. Nevertheless we can see them as equally essential, like the Aristotelian notions of matter and form, and not have to choose one approach as primary.

This passage provides the key to understanding why Bellah’s general theory of religion in the early chapters is able to accommodate the great diversity of so many particular religions discussed in the later chapters.

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Bellah’s book represents the most comprehensive investigation into the “reality of life in the religious mode.” If we want to find another work that equals the scope, ambition, depth, and rigor of Bellah’s book, the closest might be Hegel’s Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion. There are several striking characteristics shared by both Hegel’s and Bellah’s projects.

First, both projects were produced at the pinnacle of two magnificent careers, at the most mature stage of their intellectual lives. After retiring from UC Berkeley, Bellah spent the last thirteen years working on this book. As he says, “this [is] my last major work.” Hegel gave his lectures on the philosophy of religion for the first time in 1821, and gave them again in 1824, 1827, and 1831 (he died from cholera in November 1831).

The second common feature is that Bellah’s book matches Hegel’s Lectures in terms of scope, ambition, and weight. Hegel’s Lectures might be the only other major work, in addition to Max Weber’s sociology of world religions, which covers the same wide range of themes as Bellah’s: a general theory of religion and history, as well as religions of ancient Israel, Greece, China, and India. Hegel’s Lectures represents the final and in some ways the decisive element of his entire philosophical system, and the same can be said about Bellah’s book regarding its place in his system of thought. In his concluding chapter, Bellah characterizes his book as belonging to the genre of “universal history.” Even though Bellah emphasizes that his history is quite different from the traditional Hegelian “universal history” in many aspects, it is still a universal history.

The third common feature of Hegel’s and Bellah’s work is the most important one, which is that Bellah’s guiding heuristic that “nothing is ever lost” is a Hegelian idea. The Hegel passage Bellah has chosen as one of three epigraphs for his preface is very telling: “Those moments which the spirit appears to have outgrown still belong to it in the depths of its present. Just as it has passed through all its moments in history, so also must it pass through them again in the present.” Both Hegel and Bellah try to tell the story of the universal history of religion as Bildungsroman of humankind. And they see it as an essential part of human Bildung through which a particular individual becomes a universal individual, which is the goal of Bildung (education and culture). To become truly human, we must, as Bellah puts it, “live again those moments that belong to us in the depths of our present, to draw living water from the well of the past.” I speculate that this might have been one of the reasons Bellah changed the original title of his book manuscript from Religious Evolution (which is also the title of his celebrated 1963 essay) into Religion in Human Evolution. This is also why Bellah’s book should be a must read for anyone who considers herself/himself an educated human being.

However, there are important differences between Hegel and Bellah. For instance, Bellah’s universal history is more critical than Hegel’s in the sense that he has corrected a major shortcoming in Hegel’s system, which is Hegel’s Eurocentralism. To tell the stories of ancient China and India as part of a grand narrative of human evolution is a refreshing and daring move. People tend to be suspicious when they see any evolutionary story, for they often assume that an evolutionary project must commit itself to the teleology of progress and Eurocentralism. I believe one of Bellah’s major contributions is to have rescued universal history from its traditional provincialist and Eurocentric dogmas. For example, Bellah shows that what is common to all of the axial religions is that they all grow through the three stages of human evolution: mimetic, mythic, and theoretic. One implication of this is that there is spontaneous becoming in different spaces, which is exactly what is missing in Hegel’s universal history.

According to Hegel, the World Spirit marches on progressively in time, and it would eventually reach its end—its actualization—in modern Europe. For Hegel, this is a world history in the sense that each nation or culture gives its specific contribution in a linear temporal manner in this process. In Hegel’s script for this grand play called “World History,” China and India appear in the first act only; they contribute something primitive at the beginning of world history, for China and India only represent “Nature Religion.” They are then “frozen” in these moments in the infancy of humankind; there is never development or evolution in China or India because the World Spirit only goes through them, moving on to Jewish and Greek religions, which are “Religion(s) of Spiritual Individuality.”

Interestingly, Feuerbach has anticipated Bellah’s critique. In fact, he might have been the first critic of Hegel to point out that Hegel does not really have a concept of spontaneous becoming in different places. Let me quote Feuerbach here:

Hegel determines and presents only the most striking differences of various religions, philosophies, times, and peoples, and in a progressive series of stages, but he ignores all that is common and identical in all of them. The form of both Hegel’s conception and method is that of exclusive time alone, not that of tolerant space; his system knows only subordination and succession; coordination and coexistence are unknown to it.

What we find in Bellah’s book is exactly this “tolerant space” that Feuerbach found wanting in Hegel. In Bellah, what is common to all axial religions is that they all grow through the same three stages of human evolution. To put Bellah’s point in Hegel’s terms, world spirit does not march through places, but rather it marches in each and every place in the world. Bellah breathes new life into universal history by making ancient Egypt, Greece, Israel, China, and India indispensable parts of a grand narrative of human religious evolution. Bellah has produced a Bildungsroman of the human spirit on a truly global scale.

In a follow-up post, the author will talk about how Bellah’s critical grand narrative of human spirit is different from modernist narratives—ed.