When writing about other people, we all should follow Pierre Bourdieu’s advice to not be too fascinated by our human subjects. This is necessary in order to escape the “biographical fallacy,” the temptation to narrate lives as if they were historically continuous and logically consistent wholes. Bourdieu is right. Our lives are a mess of disparate events, novelties and routines, strategic decisions and lapses of reason, chances and regrets, with little, if any, overall meaning. At the same time, as Robert N. Bellah writes at the beginning of his magisterial tour de force, we are narrative animals. We cannot avoid telling stories, and every story has to have a hero, a quest, and a finale. In this brief essay I recount a couple of stories about Religion in Human Evolution, reading through the lines of this fascinating work to find and highlight some of the many threads which connect it to its author’s past.

Readers interested in Bellah’s work obviously remember his 1964 paper on “Religious Evolution” (Jonathan Z. Smith gave us an interesting reading of the differences between the two works), and some may even know that he wrote a first draft of that essay while in Montreal in 1956—that is, 55 years before he published Religion in Human Evolution. Students of Bellah also know that his undergraduate course on the sociology of religion always included a historical section in which two or more world religions were compared to show the development of religious symbols, actions, and organizations within different societal and cultural contexts. In fact, Bellah’s attempt at casting a theoretical narrative of the evolution of major religions was never just an academic topic or an intellectual interest: it was the task he assigned himself at the very beginning of his scholarly journey.

As Talcott Parsons’s beloved student at the Department of Social Relations at Harvard in the 1950s, Bellah was subject to high expectations—one could even say the highest of expectations—as his teacher considered him to be the best theorist he had ever had among his students. As he internalized these expectations as one of the keystones of his self-image as a top-achieving intellectual, Bellah devised for himself an ambitious scholarly program. A couple of quotes from a letter sent by Parsons to Harvard President Nathan Pusey on January 24, 1961, will suffice to illustrate the point. In his note Parsons described his 32-year-old colleague as “a special modern variant of the older style of universal scholar,” and spoke of Bellah having “developed a life plan of research” of “comparative historical studies of the relations between religion and society in the areas of the principal great world religions.” According to Parsons, in order to accomplish this “basic program of scholarship” Bellah had equipped himself with an astonishing amount of historical and theoretical knowledge, and the outcome of his inquiry was going to be of primary importance from both a scholarly and a practical point of view. As early as 1961, Bellah had pledged himself to a lifelong agenda that greatly exceeded his published work on East Asia and modernization.

This personal commitment—which one may all too easily evoke with Puritan ideals of “duty” and “calling”—explains, at least partly, why Bellah went back to his original plan after thirty years of silence on evolutionary matters. As most readers know, Bellah’s long “holiday” was due to the unexpected success of his 1967 essay “Civil Religion in America,” which brought him away from his earlier concerns and made him into a specialist in American religion and politics; this second phase of his career reached its peak with the publication of two co-authored books, Habits of the Heart and The Good Society, which firmly established him as a public intellectual. After his retirement from UC Berkeley in 1997, Bellah went back to his roots and, even if he has never given up writing on American matters, he successfully resumed his original plan and brought it to a (provisional) end. I will return to the relationship between Bellah, the American civil religion, and Religion in Human Evolution in a moment.

The roots of Bellah’s “life plan of research” also help to make sense of some of the basic theoretical decisions he took forty years later. As the readers of Religion in Human Evolution know, for example, the book unexpectedly starts…from the start, that is, from the Big Bang and the origin of the universe. Even if the strictly non-sociological stuff fills barely 40 pages within a 700-page book, some critics have paid it a disproportionate degree of attention, often without trying to understand its place within the wider line of reasoning; one such critic is, regrettably enough, Alan Wolfe, who in his New York Times book review wrote: “I never thought I would read a work in the sociology of religion that contained a discussion of prokaryotes and eukaryotes. I now have.” In the book, Bellah vindicates his comprehensive and deep narrative out of a more general sense of universal connection, according to which “we, as modern humans trying to understand this human practice we call religion, need to situate ourselves in the broadest context we can, and it is with scientific cosmology that we must start.”

From the point of view of the sociology of ideas, this strategy might be seen as both a homage to a venerable sociological tradition—going all the way back to Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer and the incredibly vast array of interests of 19th-century sociology—and as an attempt to bring Talcott Parsons’s work to a higher level of complexity and explicative power. Many may not know, but Parsons was a biology major and remained a voracious reader all his life, eager to make almost everything fit inside his signature “theory of social action.” Given Parsons’s charismatic personality and influence, these interests repeatedly impacted the members of his inner circle. Edward Tiryakian, who was a graduate student at Harvard in the mid-1950s together with Bellah, told me an anecdote about Parsons’s interest in decidedly non-sociological themes that I would like to share: “In one of his discussions… [Parsons] was talking about the evolution of species. So he looked at people and he said: ‘Do you realize the evolutionary significance of the worm having a hole from mouth to anus?’ And he looked at people. Now what do you do when Parsons looks at you? People just went,‘Wow!’” Twenty years later, when Bellah had found his own scholarly voice and only tangentially participated in the development of Parsonian theory, Parsons tried to make sense of the whole human condition devising a comprehensive AGIL (Adaptation, Goal Attainment, Integration, Latency) scheme covering almost everything from the ultimate ground of the “telic system” to the material (i.e. chemical and physical) bases of all living systems. This time the audience’s reaction was much different from Tiryakian’s “wow,” as Parsons had irreparably gone out of fashion and his more mature efforts went almost unnoticed outside the circle of his disciples and connoisseurs.

Parsons, however, was saying something of the utmost importance: reality is an almost endless succession of levels and layers, each one emerging from simpler ones—whatever “simpler” means in this context—and giving rise to more complex ones, which possess new, emerging properties. Likewise, Bellah’s point is that biological, psychological, social, and cultural structures combine without any clear causal primacy in creating new capacities upon which further changes build endlessly. Within this framework, religion as a distinctive societal sphere of symbols, practices, and institutions both draws on capacities developed elsewhere and shapes other orders of reality. Bellah’s analysis of the interplay between religious action and the social structure(s) and psychological factors that focused attention on a single leader—a development that in turn allowed the shift from tribal to archaic religion—is, from my point of view, one of the most electrifying sections of the book. Incidentally, this also means that, pace Smith, the burden of mechanism, agency, bearer, and so on never falls entirely upon “the biological” or “the genus Homo.” As a matter of fact, Bellah’s use of Merlin Donald’s typology becomes fully clear when evolution starts to take place outside the human organism (and the human brain)—that is when, after the invention of writing and the creation of external memory, societal and cultural forms become full and irreplaceable partners of human evolution. At the end of the day, and pace Wolfe, the point is that the non-sociological stuff is there precisely so that the sociological and anthropological can properly shine without any reductionistic innuendo.

This also explains why it might be pointless to look for any strictly sociological mechanism in Bellah’s book. As David Martin has noticed, there is no Spencer—and no L. T. Hobhouse, Gerhard Lenski, or W. G. Runciman—in Religion in Human Evolution. Émile Durkheim’s evolutionary thinking is wholly absent, and general models such as the differentiation and re-integration process sketched by Parsons in Societies: Evolutionary and Comparative Perspectives are nowhere to be found. Martin is right in saying that Bellah is not even interested in tracing the diffusion of ideas or roles; that is, in the historical paths that bring society from one kind to another. In both regards, Religion in Human Evolution might be compared with another exceptional sociological work, Niklas Luhmann’s Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft , which included a neo-Darwinian evolutionary model based on the variation, selection, and stabilization of adaptive characteristics. The model, however, was not applied to explain the shifts between the four main forms of societal differentiation (segmentary, center-periphery, stratificatory, and functional differentiation): according to Luhmann, all social science could say was that only a handful of types of society have existed in human history and that the basic structures of social systems never emerge or change randomly. Luhmann’s, as well as Bellah’s, silence about historical change in general should not be mistaken for lack of scholarship or courage: on the contrary, it comes from a lucid understanding of the promises and the limits of theory vis-à-vis the study of individual historical facts and processes that takes Parsons’s tendency to over-theorize seriously and tries to find a way to transcend its shortcomings.

The story of Robert Bellah and Religion in Human Evolution can thus be told as the quest a hero had to bring to an end against all odds and impediments, and as the dutiful effort of a metaphorical son to resume and further the work of his metaphorical father within a long line of ancestors—even putting the clear Weberian inspiration aside, Bellah’s decision to go back to pre-axial and axial-age civilizations after a life of work on modernity and modernization might be read as parallel to Durkheim’s decision to focus on Australian aboriginals after The Division of Labor in Society and Suicide, a choice that Bellah himself once interpreted as a journey into the unconscious sources of social existence analogous to Freud’s work on dreams.

But I would like to conclude by telling the story once again as an attempt to finally break a spell. As I said above, the major obstacle between Bellah and the completion of his life-task was the success of his 1967 essay, “Civil Religion in America,” and his decision to engage in the discussion on American politics, morality, and religion for the following thirty years. This proved to be a double-edged sword: on the one hand, thanks to the American civil religion debate Bellah became a renowned and respected intellectual within the academic world and the wider public sphere; on the other hand, the strict identification of all his efforts with that famous essay was, at times, hard to bear, especially when his ideas or interests changed and he wanted to break new ground. As it happens with famous actors or singers, Bellah had been typecast and remained trapped in the gilded cage of success. Moreover, as he came to learn after some attempts to disengage himself from the identification with “Civil Religion in America”—in the late 1970s Bellah even stopped using the phrase “civil religion”—labels are hard to remove. After an interlude when he was mainly acknowledged as the author of Habits of the Heart, Bellah was again tied to “Civil Religion in America.” Religion in Human Evolution might then be read as an attempt to break the American civil religion spell forever—Bellah has put on our desks a larger-than-life work that dwarfs everything he did and wrote in his long, extraordinary career. I would make a fool of myself by saying that the main thrust beyond Bellah’s latest work is the resentment of the unappreciated intellectual. No need to call Nietzsche into question: I am just saying that besides the aspiration to bring his self-assigned life plan of research to an end, Bellah might have had another, all too human, desire to fulfill.

At the heart of great scholarly and literary works stands a handful of delicate threads connecting erudition, creativity, commitment, and a dense, meaningful life. I have tried to show some of these threads, and in so doing I narrated a couple of stories that make no justice to the theoretical argument of Religion in Human Evolution, and that might disappoint its readers. All I can say is that, just like anything else, they are simply small pieces of a much bigger and intricate mosaic.