The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 14, No. 2 (Summer 2012)
A Conversation with Robert Bellah
Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 14.2 (Summer 2012). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.
Your recent book, Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age, if I see it correctly, is a world history of religion in its early phases, directed against a biologically founded critique of religion and against all Western triumphalism. It is based on an understanding of religion as a complex of human experiences, symbols, rituals, and myths and shows how the traditions were created that still nourish us today, for example, in ancient Judaism, in India, and in China. I propose that we take that characterization as a guideline for our conversation today. I'll start with the first aspect. Would you elaborate on the biological foundation of religion?
I wanted to give the largest possible framework for my study of religion in human evolution, and that largest framework is cosmological and biological. So I start with the Big Bang. I don’t even start with the beginning of life. I do feel that religion, to use Clifford Geertz’s terms, is concerned with the general order of existence. It is primarily a way of acting in the world, but it also involves a concern for knowing in the world. Remember the first sentence of Aristotle’s Metaphysics: “all men by nature desire to know.” At this point, knowing requires that we take seriously what science has discovered. I argue, as you know, that science is different from religion; I follow a rather pluralist notion of various spheres that is rooted ultimately in William James, a methodological and even a metaphysical pluralist.
I’m not saying that science can answer religious questions. But I am saying that in order to understand who we are today in this world, we need to know where we came from all the way back. And we are animals—we are biological creatures—and furthermore, we could not exist for a minute on this earth without a great many other biological creatures. So there is a practical intent of reminding us that we depend on the entire biosphere and that any kind of human triumphalism is unwarranted and, indeed, possibly suicidal, if we forget how much we need a great variety of other creatures.
So this is where we have come from, and we are biological creatures, so that influences our understanding of what religion is.
The reality that we have something in common with the rest of the biological world has never been forgotten by human beings. A few arrogant intellectuals want to make an iron curtain between the human consciousness and every other kind of animal, but children know. Their games are full of animals. And in a great many houses, we have dogs and cats, and we treat them quite nicely usually. So instinctively we know we’re related to the rest of the animal world. We don’t remember that we’re also related to the single-celled creatures that we call bacteria; we’re very afraid of them because a few of them do us damage, but really we rely on them more than we think. But, Hans, what I definitely do not want to do, and what I find some natural scientists and their sympathizers doing, is to turn the evolution story into another kind of religion. I don’t think evolution can save us; I think we have to take evolution seriously, but our deepest moral insights are going to come from other spheres.
What is wrong, so to speak, with the biologically founded critique of religion? On the one hand, you are deeply interested in this biological grounding of the phenomenon of religion, but on the other hand, you are so sharply critical of certain biological attempts to deal with religion. What is the difference?
It really comes down to a question, which I would argue is metaphysical, not scientific: the question of determinism versus freedom. Those who wish to think that a religion can be explained biologically are really devoted to genetic determinism. There must be some inborn genetic tendencies that lead to religion. At the crudest level, there’s a gene for believing in God. I reject that entirely, not on scientific grounds, but on the metaphysical basis of those scientific views because I think we can interpret the entire biological history of life in terms of creativity and freedom. Consciousness and purpose go back to the very beginnings of life, and if even single-celled animals have some very minimal (what the scientists call) “sentience” and know where they are and what they need to do, then obviously humans have a far more complex form of consciousness, assisted by language, and what we do simply cannot be reduced to a matter of genes—the genes that helped us develop vocal chords and a kind of brain that could deal with language. We owe a lot to biology, but each level we reach has its own autonomy. And conscious, reflective, ethical human beings cannot be explained in terms of biology except insofar as culture itself is, in a certain historical sense, a product of certain kinds of evolution.
I really would push my argument back into this animal sphere itself. In my book I cite many people who argue that organisms participate in their own evolution, that there is an element of freedom and creativity that goes very deep into the biological world. So my rejection of biological explanations for religion is really a rejection of a certain kind of rigid reductionism and determinism that I think is a metaphysical prejudice and does not arise from the science of biology.
One of the catch-words of your approach is, of course, the term “evolution.” In 1964 you published one of the most influential articles on this theme under the title, “Religious Evolution.” The title of your recently published book sounds a bit similar, but on the other hand, it's also very different. Would you explain why the new book is titled Religion in Human Evolution and not Religious Evolution? What made you change the title?
Whether it was a conscious change or not, I’m glad I did it because my point is that religion is situated in the larger context of evolution. I am not rejecting the notion of natural selection or even the notion of the struggle for existence, but I think they are too narrow views of evolution.
For one thing, we know that cooperation has been crucial in the evolutionary process in ways that Darwin was not wholly aware of. But my focus has been on the idea that evolution leads to new capacities, and I think, for instance, one of these is the capacity to communicate with our bodies. Human beings can do things with their bodies that no other creatures can do, things that are perhaps fundamental for religion. The capacity to keep together in time, to dance to a beat—even chimps can’t do that. So that may be very important in the early phases of religion, that we have that capacity to express our common membership in a group by some kind of drumming or singing and dancing. And then the capacity for language. Merlin Donald thinks that language developed because we needed myths, rather than that myths developed because of language. In any case, language is really an enormous increase in capacity that no other species has. Thirdly, I point out that theory is a new capacity with immense potentiality because it will involve philosophy, theology, but also science. Now all of these capacities will have an influence on religion, but they are general capacities of human beings that operate in spheres other than religion. So religion participates in human evolution; whether one can say religion itself evolved, I would leave as an open question, but I don’t think religion evolved independently from the overall process of human evolution.
So the book is less about the evolution of an entity called “religion,” and more about all sorts of religious phenomena in connection with a general understanding of evolution. Would that be correct?
Very correct. There’s been an enormous focus in the field of religious studies over the very term “religion,” and half the discipline wants to reject it all together. My own problem with definitions of religion, and why I use them only as starting points, is that they too often concern only beliefs. But religion is a thing you do. The misinterpretation of people like Dawkins and Hitchens is that religion is just a mistaken proto-science. But religion is about action, and faith is about trust.
Even etymologically in most languages, belief has more to do with trust than with the acceptance of cognitive assumptions.
The Latin word for faith, fides, means trust, not belief, and I think a religious life is very much a form of practice, a form of relationship. Religious truth is not something you sit in your private room and decide, “oh, does God exist or not?” You will never understand God unless you are involved in some kind of community where that word begins to make sense in the life of that community.
Let’s switch to the other side of my characterization of your book. It is also directed against Western triumphalism, and I would like you to say something about the reason why you concentrate on pre-axial religion, on the one hand, and on the whole diversity of axial ages, on the other hand.
I felt that there is an immense variety of cultures out there that most of us ignore but are worth studying. There is a section on Aboriginal Australia in my book. That’s something that has fascinated me from undergraduate days because it is so cut off from the rest of the world and developed in its own way, and so rich in its way of life. And then in graduate school, my degree was in Sociology and Far Eastern Languages; I not only had to study Japanese, but Chinese, the high culture language of Japanese, just as Latin is for us. I had to start with the classics of Confucianism: Confucius and Mencius. I was raised as a Christian, I learned from I. A. Richards to read Plato’s Republic, I’m deeply saturated in both biblical and Greek classical culture, and I have the highest regard for them, but I don’t think that’s the only thing that matters. I think there has been extraordinary cultural creativity in Japan, China, and India. The tendency among Westerners is to speak about “the West,” and then everything else is “the East.” I insist that there is no East; China and India are as radically different as either of them is from Greece or Israel. So I want to stress that there were four great cultural developments in the first millennium BCE and that we need to learn from all of them.
One of the leitmotifs in your book is the formula, “nothing is ever lost.” It keeps reappearing in the text. Could you explain what you mean by that?
It again goes all the way back because the subatomic particles in our body were produced by the Big Bang, so parts of our body are 13.7 billion years old. Every cell in our body is genealogically descended from single cell organisms, which we call familiarly “bacteria.” So even biologically we haven’t lost anything. We’ve developed enormously new complex structures, but on the basis of things that remain fundamental for us all around. This is true culturally too. It’s possible, I argue, that maybe religion emerged before a fully grammatical modern language because bodily communications are so sophisticated among human beings. But whether that’s true or not, the body is central in religion—embodied practice. I belong to a tradition in which the Eucharist is the central act of worship. And that’s a physical practice. You’re partaking of some physical matter, bread and wine, which you believe is the body and blood of Christ. You participate in that, and it says to you, “yes, I am a member of the body of Christ.” The bodily involvement in religion is certainly never going to go away.
Also, religion can never be turned into a set of abstract propositions. Narrative is absolutely central. Religion is full of stories—every religion. You read the Analects of Confucius, and you get one amazing anecdote after another of what Confucius did or what his disciples did and so on. And, of course, the life of the Buddha is extraordinarily rich, and for Christians the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is at the center of everything. It cracks the skulls of rational thought, but narratively it’s beautifully and profoundly real. You can’t get away from narrative in religion.
The theoretical is also important; we need that because it reminds us of the universal level. I would reject the notion that all religions are basically the same—different paths to the same end. They’re not all the same. And yet, at some level, particularly at the most general theological and ethical level, they do share some profound commitments. At the same time, it’s their very difference that is so important to us because what the Buddhists know and what the Hindus know are things that Christians often don’t fully know. They’re not entirely missing in our tradition, but we are helped to understand more about our own faith if we open ourselves to others. So it’s that sense, neither homogenizing nor denying a profound resonance among the great traditions.
Your book is based on an enormous amount of historical scholarship, but I would like to ask you now about the contemporary relevance of such a study. Some years ago, we organized a conference in Germany on the axial age, and a German journalist wrote a full-page article in the leading weekly newspaper about the conference and said that the theory of the axial age is the major alternative to the clash of civilizations. Does that make sense to you?
Very much. I am delighted that someone would draw that conclusion because a clash of civilizations is exactly what we don’t need in the world today. We need global collaboration, not global conflict. We need to see that all the great traditions, in the end, are respectful of each other and have the capacity to work together for common ends, for something incipient that we might call a “global civil society.” And we need not to be convinced that cultural differences are so deep that they’re irreconcilable. That’s just empirically wrong.
How does the study of the axial age help in this regard?
Well, it shows us that even from the earliest beginnings of all the great traditions that are alive today, there are similarities, there are overlaps, there are affirmations that any member of any of the four of them can equally make. The fundamental equality of all human beings—that human beings are created in the image and likeness of God—is a Jewish and Christian truth, but that all human beings under Heaven are brothers and sisters is a Confucian truth. These override the differences. The differences are very valuable, but the similarities are also striking.
I was in China a year ago and was very much struck by the attempt of the Communist leadership to revitalize Confucianism into a kind of new Chinese state ideology, if I may say it like that. That's quite surprising because during the Cultural Revolution, Confucianism was not only attacked, but declared dead. You just took two trips to China. Perhaps you could say a little bit about your experience during those trips when you had discussions about religion and religion in China.
I discovered that what’s going on in China is a deep concern for Confucianism because the kind of Marxism they have is so vacuous. It isn’t even Marxism. They don’t read Marx and Engels. They read some bowdlerized text of Mao, and they read Deng Xiaoping, and they call it “Marxism.” To read a Marxist text would be too dangerous for the regime today. So they don’t even have real Marxism to hold on to. So the hope is, maybe Confucianism will give them a common ideology. But as you can imagine, there is a great debate. There are those who want Confucianism to be affirmed as an official state ideology, but the people I was with say that would be a catastrophic mistake. It was the mistake that Chiang Kai-Shek made when he made Confucianism the state ideology; that only made people restless and angry. But the notion of a Confucian element in a common culture is another thing. They even talk, which amazed me, about Chinese civil religion, which would not be a state ideology, which would not be legally enforced, but would operate on a voluntary basis as a kind of conversation about the deep sources of Chinese culture and would be open to the rest of the world. So the degree to which the Confucian argument is alive and well in China is very encouraging. It is divided between ultra-conservative or reactionary views and some very open liberal views—views that would have no problem linking Confucianism to human rights and democratic political forms. But that’s just the way the world is right now: we’re all involved in those kinds of arguments.