Charles Mathewes, at The American Interest, discusses the role of religion in evolutionary theory and analyzes two publications on this topic. Mathewes compares and critiques Nicholas Wade’s The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures, and Robert N. Bellah‘s book, Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age. In critiquing Wade’s publication and his take on religion and evolutionary theory, Mathewes writes:
Not that “theory” is really the right term for it, for that word suggests what The Faith Instinct lacks: self-consciousness regarding the necessarily complex, and tentatively proposed, interpretive judgments that undergird any well thought-through picture of the human condition. The basic story Wade wants to tell is that humans have a “faith instinct”, an inbred reflexive propensity for religious belief that developed as a way of relieving social conflict (so he asserts, “religion evolved as a response to warfare”) and as a secondary enforcement regime for ensuring moral behavior and thus group cohesion. There, that’s the story, more or less; the rest is just anecdotes.
He then turns to Bellah’s book, and writes:
Unlike Wade’s essentialist account of religion, Bellah’s is frankly stipulative and functional. He defines religion as any “system of symbols which, when enacted by human beings, establishes powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations that make sense in terms of an idea of a general order of existence.” He pairs this definition with the theory of the psychologist Merlin Donald, who argues that the human mind has developed sequentially through three stages: mimetic (think of dance and chant), mythic (think stories) and theoretic (think philosophy). Bellah then argues that this theory helps us schematize three different evolutionary stages of religion: first tribal religion, in which order and organization (religious and otherwise) is secured fundamentally by myth and ritual; then the “archaic” religion of God-kings or God-priests, seamlessly fusing what we see as (secular) political and (otherworldly) religious functions; then finally the crucial “Axial Age” transformations in Greece, Israel, India and China (in 600–200 BCE), where the fundamental harmony of social order and cosmic order, so basic to archaic cultures, began to be questioned, and the possibility of radical critique—philosophical and socio-political—thereby became available.