Public Lecture by Robert Bellah: “Religion in Human Evolution.”

DivCast from the University of Chicago Divinity School. For more of our podcasts and
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see our website at HANS JOAS: Good afternoon,
ladies and gentlemen. I should perhaps, first
of all, introduce myself. My name is Hans Joas. I’m a German sociologist
who teaches here at the University of Chicago
one quarter per year. And I’m proud to say I’ve
been a member of the Committee on Social Thought at
this university for more than 10 years. It is my great
privilege and honor to introduce to you
today our speaker Robert Bellah, professor of sociology
emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley. Perhaps, the greatest
living sociologists of religion in the world. Yeah. ROBERT BELLAH: Thank you. HANS JOAS: This occasion
is a special occasion for several reasons. One is that the opus
magnum of Robert Bellah has just been published. It’s the book that has the
same title is this talk Religion in Human Evolution. It’s a very special occasion
because Robert Bellah was here at this university in October
1963, that is 48 years ago, and gave a talk on the
topic– religious evolution. A talk that was published
in the American Sociological Review in 1964. And became one of the most
frequently cited pieces in the sociology of religion,
also the point of departure for this book. Although, nobody
should assume that the book is nothing but the
longer version of this article. I would like to
add that there is at least one person
in the audience who attended the lecture in 1963,
namely professor Donald Levine. Maybe there are
more, I don’t know. He’s sitting here. Anybody else? No. So let me make– So this was applause
for Donald Levine. Now, let me make a few
remarks on our speaker. It will be a little
bit longer than usual because I also consider
this a small celebration. Robert Bellah was born
in 1927, in Oklahoma. But he grew up in Los Angeles. Went to Harvard College in
1945 and after 1 and 1/2 years in the Army received
his BA in social anthropology in 1950. His honors thesis on
Apache kinship systems was even published as a
book by Harvard University Press in 1952. It is item number one on the
long publication list that is still growing and growing. After that, Robert
Bellah decided to pursue doctoral studies in
both sociology and Far Eastern languages. The ambitious aim of
his doctoral project was to study Japan, a case
that Marks Viva had omitted. In Viva’s spirit, in
a way that was deeply influenced by Viva’s
comparative studies of the world’s religions. His dissertation, written
under the supervision of Talcott Parsons, came
out as a book in 1957. Its title is Tokugawa
Religion, it’s still in print. It’s not only one of the most
important sociological studies on Japan ever written,
but also representative for the sophisticated work done
in the context of Modernization Theory in the 1950s. I would not say
much, but I would like to mention that after that
came a very difficult phase in Robert Bellah’s
life, in the 1950s, because of a short time in which
he considered himself a Marxist and even joined a
communist organization. He came under considerable
pressure at Harvard to denounce his former
comrades, instead of complying he left Harvard and
continued his career at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. But now not at the Institute
for Japanese studies, but at an Institute
for Islamic studies. A step that led to a further
considerable broadening of his bases for the comparative
studies about religion. In 1961, he was allowed
to return to Harvard. And in 1967, he accepted
an offer from Berkeley. Some of the articles he
published in the 1960s like the very famous
article on civil– he doesn’t like his own article. But the very famous
article on civil religion in America and the
article I was referring to in his introduction, “Religious
Evolution,” made Robert Bellah an influential
public intellectual. The brilliance of
his writing style became more and more visible. In my eyes, his book The Broken
Covenant, published in 1975, is a particularly
impressive example. Whereas, some and I quote,
“will see Casanova”– see this book mostly as
a critical Jared Meyer against the
idolatrous corruption of the American civil religion
to justify the Vietnam War– I see it as much more, namely
a methodologically innovative attempt at analyzing
cultural myths and their internal tensions. While Parsons never
really offered profound analysis of
any particular culture, but reused them to
relatively abstract entities like norms and values. Robert Bellah,
from an early point on, was much more sensitive
to the character of symbols and the dynamics of
symbolization processes. The theological writings of
Paul Tillich, with whom Bellah had come into contact at Harvard
were, crucial inspirations in this regard. Bellah thus, developed
the fundamentals of an analysis of
mythical structures. Whereby myths are not treated
as unitary, but as complex and richly textured structures
with many inner tensions. On that basis, he
went on to write with a group of co-authors
his best selling book Habits of the Heart, published in 1985. He also gave a lecture
on the basis of that book here in this very room in 1985. And I was in the audience. This is an empirical study about
individualism and commitment in American life. I will not say much
about this book here, just perhaps defend
it against the assumption that it was a politically
conservative book. I think, Bellah’s call for
a community of substance, rich traditions should
not be understood as a reactionary
reversion to ways of life of the distant
past, quite the reverse. The book articulates a
search for social movements which might guide a
cultural shift in America towards a more vigorous
democratic culture. Movements which would, for
example, find inspiration in the ideals of the
Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ’60s. Let me come to a conclusion. You’re probably already
growing impatient. Let me conclude by
saying that I take it to be a remarkable fact
that in the biographies of many of the great
sociologists of our time, they’re not only sociologists
as intellectual mentors, but also theologians and
philosophers of religion. As one could characterize
the great, late Israeli sociologist, Shmuel
Eisenstaedt, to be the synthesis of Max Weber and Martin Gruber. I would characterize Robert
Bellah as the synthesis of Talcott Parsons
and Paul Tillie’s. When I mentioned this idea
to Bob Bellah some years ago, his response was that
I am the second person to have invented this formula. The first was the great
Marxist, Barrington Moore. But what for
Barrington Moore was a combination of two unappealing
theoretically approaches. A Cultural sociology
and a theology has led to the master piece
about which you will now finally hear from
the master himself. ROBERT BELLAH: Well,
Hans that was too much, but was very kind, very kind. And reminds me of
too many things in the past among other things. One of the reasons I don’t
like civil religion in America is because so many
people think it’s the only thing I ever wrote. Is this microphone
working all right? Can you hear me? OK. And then I see the University
of Chicago Divinity School and that rings another bell
because my first appointment at Harvard was one fourth time
in the Harvard Divinity School. There had been a new
Center for the Study of World Religions
established and there they took me one quarter time. Being divided into
quarters, I was glad when I finally gave that up,
although I enjoyed my time in the divinity faculty. All right. Let me finally begin. And for those of you who have
read the book, who I imagine is a fairly small
part of the audience, you will get you things that you
may know, but may not have seen them together quite like this. Hans already referred
to the previous lecture on the let’s say
religious evolution which of course
reminds me that much of what Hans said
about me and in terms of the study of symbols and
myths is also true Cliff. And Cliff, very
much to my regret, has left us just
a few years ago, but he and I were lifelong
friends and mutual critics. That person that I was 48 years
ago whom I can hardly imagine– I remember that,
of course, it was Cliff who asked me to
come here and speak. And after I had
given my lecture, Cliff came up to the podium
to take me to dinner. And he said, I loved your
talk, but I disagree with it completely. I cannot quite forgive Cliff
for dying before he could read the new book and see what
he would say about that. But over the years in between
we [INAUDIBLE] quite a lot. But his spirit hovers over
this lecture this afternoon. And of course why Cliff said
he disagreed with this– something a recent
review pointed to without explaining it– there was a long
tradition in anthropology, particularly in the
late 19th century, of thinking about
religious evolution as going from these barbaric
people who perhaps had no religion at all,
up to various stages, to the wonderful, and
generous, and noble religion that we have. And that kind of triumphalism
had been rejected harshly in anthropology. And Cliff felt that, no
matter what disclaimers I made, all religions
had the same dignity. It was still a dangerous notion. So here in Chicago
again I wanted to proclaim my
rejection of any notion of higher and lower religions. And I will call on
Stephen Jay Gould as my witness, when he said that
the single celled bacteria are quote, “the organisms that
were in the beginning, are now, and probably ever shall
be, until the sun runs out of fuel, the dominant
creatures on earth by any standard
evolutionary criteria. And bacteria, as far as I
know, have no religion at all.” So I would start
and start my book with Cliff’s
definition of religion. Just so you know what I mean
for those of you who haven’t had a chance to look at the book. Religion and evolution are
two heavily contested terms and a book with
both in the title is going to have
a lot of problems, but with this audience
is encouraging. Cliff wrote, “Religion is
a system of symbols which when enacted by human
beings establishes powerful, pervasive,
and long-lasting moods and motivations that
make sense of an idea, of a general order
of existence.” “A general order of existence.” I had actually planned
to open my remarks, until Hans stole
part of my opening from me, with two comments– one liners– from two
great natural scientists that, I think, you
will know who they are. “The most incomprehensible
thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.” Albert Einstein. “The more the universe
seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless.” Steven Weinberg. Now, if even the
great physicists have to worry about a
general order of existence, whether it is comprehensible
and what it means if it is– then Cliff’s definition
is broad indeed and includes a
great many things. And to define religion as quote,
unquote, “belief in God”– and there have been
books published on the evolution of
religion that basically take that point
of view and end up talking only about Judaism,
Christianity, and Islam, or mainly about it– it is true that followers
of belief in God and the monotheistic– although
that term is very problematic and not in the Bible– god is perhaps the majority
of the human race right now. Nonetheless, of the
thousands of known religions, these three make up
the tiny minority, and it is very problematic
to define religion as such, by such a narrow view. Important though god is,
God in the sense that it is used in those three
religions is unique and not found anywhere else of which
of course, Carl [? Bart ?] and others are quite proud. So it’s not a criticism. To put religion in the largest
possible context, in my book, I considered it in
terms of evolution. And began with
deep biology, that means that I accept Darwinian
evolution and the idea of natural selection. And reject any
notion of creation is a more intelligent
design, just to warn you in advance
of what I’m trying to do. But though I accept the idea
of natural selection as basic, I don’t have to accept Darwin’s
characterization of it. In chapter 2 of The
Origin of Species, as the struggle for
existence– a term that actually came
from [? Memphis– ?] was Spencer’s
characterization, which Darwin after long hesitation accepted. Namely, the survival
of the fittest– although some biologists do
understand natural selection in terms rather close to
the idea of competition in classical economics
which is what, I think, really lay behind both of
those characterizations. Today we have a more
comprehensive view without rejecting,
in any way, Darwin. One of the things that struck
me as I read a lot of biology was how many people referred
to Darwin, and not just out of respect, but because
his work is still alive. And I’ve heard people
criticize sociologists for harping on Max
Weber and Durkheim– we do because they
are still alive. Nonetheless, Martin Nowak, the
leading mathematical biologist, for example, in his important
new book Supercooperators– and he’s an absolutely
down the line evolutionary biologist,
argues that we have to add a third thing
to variation and selection in defining natural
selection, namely cooperation. Because he proves
this mathematically with game theory, beyond
what I can understand, but he makes a case outside
of the mathematical side– variation and
selection alone would lead to the early collapse
and end of natural selection and thus, of life itself. Cooperation has to
be part of the story or we wouldn’t be here. That doesn’t mean we’ll be
here very long, but at least for the moment we’re here. Others have discovered
that there are conditions under which selection
pressures are, the technical term is, relaxed. Allowing things to happen that
relentless selection pressures alone would have suppressed. Things, especially, important
at higher levels of complexity. What emerges when selection
pressures are relaxed may turn out to be highly
adaptive or they may not. But in any case, they
are not the result of selection pressure
in the first place. And that’s what makes
them so interesting. Let us now go back far and
time where I see the first development– that would much
later and only among human beings– lead to religion. At least 200 million years
ago, the first mammals gave birth to helpless
offspring that could not survive
without parental, usually maternal, care. These infants lack the capacity
to survive on their own and without parental
care they would die. Sarah Hurty, an
evolutionary anthropologist at the University of California,
Davis notes that quote, “wherever parental
care evolved, it marked a watershed
in the way animals perceived other individuals
with profound implications for the way vertebrate
brains were structured.” And then she points to
the special development of parental care among
mammals, “nowhere have these cognitive
and neurobiological transformations,”
she writes “been more evolutionary
than among mammals. Mammal mother’s fall in
a class by themselves. Lactating mothers date back
to end of the Triassic, around 220 million years ago. This is when babies began to be
born so helpless that mothers needed to be attuned to the
smells, sounds, and slightest perturbations in the conditions
of vulnerable young that had to be kept both warm and fed.” The suite of capacities
that developed from the emergence
of parental care are absolutely basic to this
entire story I want to tell. Basic to the development of
empathy and ultimately ethics, even among species of
animals, and ultimately religion among humans. So as the images
in many religions, religious traditions
indicate religion begins in the nurturing
relationship between mother and child. I would like to turn to the
work of an early ecologist during the [INAUDIBLE] to
discuss some of the wider implications of parental care. Parental care he writes,
“unites the parents with their offspring,
but also with each other. We drew attention to the
fact that only animals that care for their
young have formed groups. They all do it by means of
behavior patterns of cherishing which originate
from parental care and by making use
of infantile signals which activate this behavior.” In short, what [INAUDIBLE]
calls “cherishing” between mother and child is the
basis of every kind of love. And we can see cherishing and
love long before modern humans. Even though many bright people
from Descartes to Dawkins argue that animals are
completely programmed automatons, and so would
deny that [INAUDIBLE] to say they know
anything about love. I’ll leave that alone. We can see parental
care as giving rise to kinship, that is continued
relations between individuals based on birth relations
between parents and children, relations is based on common
birth that is between siblings. But kinship was not the
only form of relation that emerged among early mammals. Groups too large to be
organized by kinship alone required something else. And the something else
that arose most commonly, among social animals, was
dominance hierarchies. Very evident in monkeys, and
apes, and, in our closest relatives, the chimpanzees. Dominance hierarchies
consist of an alpha male and perhaps a couple of
allies, who require submission of all other group members. And who try inevitably,
never wholly successfully, to monopolize the
breeding rights to the females of the group. Dominance hierarchies
are usual explained– why the attempt of
strong males to ensure the propagation
of their own genes at the expense of other males. And so provide an example
of natural selection at the individual level,
but that isn’t all that dominance hierarchies do. France Duvall, a
leading primatologist, writes, “not surprisingly,
formalized hierarchies are best developed in the
most cooperative species. The harmony demonstrated
to the outside world by a howling pack of wolves or
a hooting and drumming community of chimpanzees is predicated
on rank differentiation within. Wolves rely on each other
during the hunt and chimpanzees, at least the males who are by
far the most hierarchical sex, count on the other
members for defense against hostile neighbors. The hierarchy regulates
internal competition to the point of making a
united front possible.” I’m really trying to make
the point that these two fundamental dispositions,
I call them– because I think they are
biologically based, but not instinctive in the sense
of automatically produced– the disposition to nurture and
the disposition to dominate are inevitably intertwined. Mothers, as we
know, sometimes have to be quite dominant
over their children for the very sake of
their children’s survival. And in fact, one student
of chimpanzee behavior said that the children
receive more aggression from their mothers and from
any other member of that group. Aggression that often saves
them from doing something that will get themselves killed. And on the other hand
dominance hierarchies have of an element of
nurturance that we overlook, if we only emphasize the
individualistic results. So these are two
basic features of life that we share, god
knows we share, but which we can not
necessarily take for granted. We have to think
about how they are to be understood and applied. Besides kinship and
dominance hierarchies, however, we find a third
being among mammals. And this third thing is very
important for understanding religion– and this is play. Play is done,
particularly, in animals that have extended
periods of parental care in which the young are protected
from the immediate selection pressures of foraging,
thinking about predators, and procreating. Play occurs in what the
ethologist, Gordon Burkehardt, calls a “relaxed field.” Relaxed in the sense
that selection pressures are minimal. It is through some bodily
gesture in dogs and wolves, a play bow in apes
and the arm gesture that one signals to another
that one wants to play. Play is already among these
pre-linguistic animals. Pretend play that takes
the form of pretend chasing or pretend fighting, but if one
really bites the game is over. In short, there is a
notion of fair play and when one does something that
is no fair, playing is over. The play requires, at least,
a rudimentary capacity to take the role of the other
and so is incipiently ethical. To quote two students of animal
play, Mark Beckoff and Jessica Pierce, “we want to stress that
social play is firmly based on a foundation of fairness. Play only occurs if
for the time they are playing individuals have
no other agenda, but to play. They put aside or
neutralize any inequalities in physical size
and social rank. We will see large and small
animals can play together and high ranking or low ranking
individuals can play together. But not if one of
them takes advantage of its superior
strength or status. After all is said and
done, it may turn out that play is a unique
category of behavior and that asymmetries
are moderated more so than in other social context. Animals really work at reducing
inequalities in size, strength, and social status. Play is perhaps
uniquely egalitarian. And if we define justice
as a set of social rules and expectations that neutralize
differences among individuals with an effort to
maintain group harmony then that’s exactly what
we find, when they play.” So we have nurturance,
dominance, and play. And play is the first time we
find genuine egalitarianism. One aspect of this theory is
that the longer the period of parental care,
the more likely the offspring will have the
energy and the intelligence to actually play
and develop a set of capacities that can begin
with play as an end in itself. But then have what Burkehardt
calls the secondary capacities. Play is often explained as
training for the real world– chasing and play fighting. Because they ultimately
will chase and really will fight even though
they are not in play, they’re only pretending to. And then there is
the possibility of even tertiary play, which
I’ll hold for a minute. But then there is
another thing we need to think because,
although, we have something that could be called alpha
males among human beings, they’re not really
like the bonobos where we managed somehow
to prevent at least most males from doing that. France Duvall summarized the
main differences between us and the chimpanzees, who
are our closest relatives. Of three main characteristics
of human society– male bonding, female bonding,
and the nuclear family We share the first
with chimpanzees, and second with bonobos,
and the third with neither. Our species has been adapted
for millions of years to a social order revolving
around reproductive units, the proverbial
cornerstone of society for which no parallel exists
in either chimpanzee species. So early human groups
lacked an alpha male and recollections of
nuclear families– what accounts for
this difference? The absence of a
disposition to dominance? I don’t think so. But rather a different
kind of society that made possible a
different kind of family. You might want to
draw on the work of the anthropologist
Christopher Boehm, particularly in his book
Hierarchy in the Forest. Boehm argues that we share with
the chimpanzees and the bonobos and have a tendency
toward despotism– that is a disposition
toward dominance. But Boehm asks, if
we are a species with despotic tendencies,
that is a strong disposition to dominate whenever
possible, how is it that the simplest
known societies, namely the nomadic hunter-gatherers,
are uniformly egalitarian and probably have
been so for thousands, if not millions of years? Boehm’s answer is not
that hunter-gatherers lacked dominance hierarchies,
but that they have what he calls reverse
dominance hierarchies– that is the adult males
in the society form a general coalition to prevent
any one of their number alone or with a few allies
from dominating the others. Male egalitarianism is and
is not necessarily extended to females, the degree
to which females are subject to male
despotism varies even among hunter-gatherers. So it tends to be less there
than in most other kinds of societies. But what the reverse
dominance hierarchy prevents is a monopolization of
females by dominant males. And what it, therefore,
makes possible is the family as we know it– based on relatively stable
cross-gender pair bonding and mutual nurturance
of children by parents, precisely what
is missing in our closest primate relatives. Boehm says that human
egalitarianism does not come easily. But it is not the absence of
a disposition to dominate, rather it requires hard,
sometimes aggressive work to keep potential upstarts
from dominating the rest. There are always
going to be people who want to be
dominant alpha males, they have to be handled somehow. The hunter-gatherer band is
not then the family enlarged, rather it is the precondition
for the family as we know it. Boehm summarizes,
there appear to be two components of this kind of
got egalitarian social control. One is the moral community
incorporating strong forces for social conformity. The other ingredient
is the deliberate use of social sanctioning to enforce
political equality among fully adult males. I would add ritual as
the common expression of the moral community
without which the process of sanctioning
would make no sense. Boehm is especially good on
the way sanctioning works. Potential upstarts
are first ridiculed, then shunned, then, if
they persist, killed. That’s one way to
handle upstarts. And he describes how this
system of increasingly severe sanctions works and gives
examples from every continent. He was perhaps less
good at what, I think, is equally necessary
that is the strong pull of social solidarity
especially as expressed in ritual that rewards the
renunciation of dominance and a sense of full
social acceptance. But where did ritual come from? Could it be one of Burkehardt’s
tertiary play processes that develop only among humans? Remember that ritual has
many of the features of play. It has no obvious function,
it is an end in itself. It enacts events,
but symbolically, as in pretend play. And it takes place
in a relaxed field where hunger, predators, and
procreation are kept at bay. For example, in the perpetually
warring Greek states, during the great festivals– such as the Olympic
Festival to Zeus of which the games
were only a part– a universal truce
was proclaimed. Relaxed field– wasn’t so
easy for the Greeks to do. Perhaps, it is only among
humans that these tertiary play processes have exfoliated
so extravagantly, that ritual is one, but only
one of a number of things which developed out of them. The society engaged in mimetic
ritual, without language, would seem to be an almost
pure case of Durkheim’s elementary forms– for the bodies of those engaged
in the ritual cannot represent much beyond themselves and the
society which they comprise. Possibly, the elation and
euphoria that ritual creates might point beyond society,
but if so, inarticulately to say the least. Since for Durkheim,
collective effervescence is an expression of society. Here we would seem to
have the pure case– society enacting itself. Still, can we say that
society creates the ritual? Or, do we have to say that
the ritual creates society? Mimetic ritual would seem to be
constituted of the very society it makes possible. So far I’ve been talking
about three aspects of complex mammalian
societies, including humans. Aspects that never
go away and are still very present among us kinship,
dominance hierarchies, and play. Though among humans,
play has exfoliated into all realms of culture,
beginning with ritual. As Johan Huizinga in his
great book, Homo Ludens– I hope some of you will read
it, it’s written in 1938, but remains as timely as ever– pointed out. He thought play was the
origin of all culture. However complex animals
play, that capacity to represent reality
beyond the episodes of play itself is unique to humans. What Merlin Donald,
whom I relied on for his evolutionary psychology,
calls episodic culture. What is cultural
about episodic culture is that individuals
learn from the experience of previous events
what kind of event they are facing, how the
elements in it are situated, so that an appropriate
response is possible. For example, a chimpanzee
invited by another to play understands what happens
in a play situation and is able to make the right
decisions that then follow. A great deal of learning
about how to respond to events goes on from infancy. This we share with
higher mammals. But when Donald speaks
of memetic culture as the next stage of
cultural development, then we see that
something else happens. Mimetic action involves
using one’s body to represent oneself and
others in some kind of event. It moves beyond mammalian
episodic event consciousness by representing events,
an event about events. We’re already moving
into more complexity even without language with
human bodily behavior. And, I think, ritual
already before language. Donald argues that some form
of voluntary voice modulation– he calls it prosodic
control of the voice– was necessarily part
of this evolution. Stephen Mithen has
written a book called The Singing Neanderthals– the
neanderthals couldn’t talk, but they could sing. So mimetic might sound like
it’s a mime who doesn’t speak, that’s not what it means. When it’s primarily
use of the body, but prosodic use of the
voice is also bodily. Of course, speech is bodily. And that develops in
the mimetic stage. Once acquired the mimetic
mode of representation seems to call out for
something more, at least, so Donald argues. Linguistic universals
spring from the context in which real world
languages are learned and, more important, he
writes, in which they evolved. Like any other set
of conventions, linguistic conventions are
shaped by the situations in which they originated. They have mimetic origins, thus
once we change our paradigm the features of
universal grammar emerge smoothly from the close
analysis of gesture, mime, and imitative behavior. This is not so covert
critique of Noam Chomsky. The language instinct is not
just a module in your head, it arises from the lived
reality, according to Donald. The language instinct exists. But it is a domain general,
not a domain specific instinct impelled by a deep drive towards
conceptual clarification. That’s a rather startling
conclusion to that quote. Why this drive toward
conceptual clarification? Donald suggest that there
was a need for a more coherent representation
of the world than was possible to mimesis. Therefore, he writes,
the possibility must be entertained that the
primary human had adaptation was not language query
language, but rather integrated, initially,
mythical thought. Now, we needed myth and
we invented language because we needed myth,
not the other way around. A little startling. Myth is a profoundly
ambiguous word, so I’ll tell you how
Donald defines it. “Mythical thought
in our terms,” says Donald, “might be regarded
as a unified, collectively held system of explanatory
and regulatory metaphors. The mind has expanded its reach
beyond the episodic perception of events, beyond the
memetic reconstruction of episodes to a
comprehensive modeling of the entire human universe. Causal explanation,
prediction, control, myth constitutes an attempt at all
three, and every aspect of life is permeated by myth.” It is because of, in
this sense the primacy of myth over
language, that Donald calls the stage after memetic
culture, mythic culture. Donald in emphasizing the
cognitive role of myth approaches the view of
Claude Levi-Strauss, the anthropologist who
more than any other has emphasized the
intellectual functions of myth. Levi-Strauss,
nonetheless, does not think myth is a form
of early science or a primitive precursor
to it, but of having a different cognitive function. He writes, “to say that a way of
thinking myth is disinterested and that it is an
intellectual way of thinking does not mean at all that it is
equal to scientific thinking. It remains different
because its aim is to reach, by the shortest possible
means, a general understanding of the universe. And not only a
general, but a total– italics– understanding. It is a way of
thinking which must imply that if you don’t
understand everything, you can’t explain anything. [INAUDIBLE] All right. So big jump here. When mythic culture emerges
in terms of social structure we are still at this stage of
hunter-gatherer egalitarianism based on reverse
dominance hierarchies. Language, however, gave
humans enormous powers of innovation in many spheres. And though much
more slowly than we might imagine in terms of recent
history to larger surpluses. The surpluses resulting
from agriculture allowed much larger
groups to farm. And there was accumulated
wealth that began to seem worth fighting over. You see why I needed
a 700 page book. So getting it all in, in 40
minutes is a little hard. Forager egalitarianism
came to a close and over dominance hierarchies
began to re-emerge. First with simple chiefdoms,
then with paramount chiefdoms, and then with
powerful early states where the focus was
no longer on the group dancing out its common
beliefs together in a ritual enactment of myth. The focus now was on one man– and it always was a man– who claimed a new
status as intermediary with a new kind of
supernatural power. No longer the elusive
spirits and powerful beings of hunter-gatherer
myths, but gods, superordinate in a new way,
who had to be worshiped and pacified and whose
favor the emerging ruler has claimed to provide. Kings as gods and gods as
kings emerged together, for the first time, in
the late fourth and early third millennium BCE. We really can date it. Most of the things I’ve talked
about earlier we can’t– at all closely. Early states however led
to even larger more urban, richer, and more
contentious polities out of which, in the
first millennium BCE, came a new kind of figure
who called the existing society in question and
offered a new universal ethic and what we know
as the Axial Age. First millennium BCE. More than half of
my book is devoted to the Axial Age in Israel,
Greece, China, and India. It is then that the third
human cultural capacity, after the memetic and mythic
emerges, namely the theoretic. The capacity to think
critically, both cognitively and ethically. To summarize what
was going on let me turn to a passage from
the work of Benjamin Schwartz about ancient China
where he takes Confucius as a figure from whom he can
generalize about the Axial Age. Schwartz writes, I should like
to say a word about Confucius’s image of moral evil. In fact, the description
of these evil tendencies which impede the
achievement of the good is strikingly similar to the
diagnoses made by prophets, wise men, and philosophers
in all the high civilizations of this period. The unbridled pursuit of wealth,
power, fame, sensual passion, arrogance, and pride– we’re talking about the
first millennium BCE, but we might be talking
about our own lovely society. These themes figure centrally
as a source of quote, unquote, “the difficulty.” The language of the
vice’s lends itself comparatively easily
to translation into the vocabulary of Gautama
Buddha, Plato, and the Hebrew prophets. The material development of
all the high civilizations had enormously increased
the opportunities, at least for a certain strata,
for aggrandizement of power, increase of luxury, and
pursuit of status and prestige. It is precisely in
the moral orientations of the creative minorities
of the first millennium that we find a resounding no,
to certain characteristic modes of human self-affirmation
which had emerged with the
progress of civilization. For them the divine
no longer dwelt in the manifestations of power,
wealth, and the external glory. What Schwartz calls the creative
minority of the Axial Age was imagining was a return to
hunter-gatherer egalitarianism. But this time in the
sphere of universal ethics. And as an ongoing, still
unrealized to this day project for social change. Each Axial Age culture
is a world in itself and would take at least
a lecture to explain. I’ve decided to use
my limited time today to look extremely quickly
the remarkable and very long history that made the
actual age possible. Then to touch briefly
on the Axial Age then conclude with a few
remarks about what all this means to us. I’ve argued that theory
begins in the Axial Age. And I believe that the
reflexive, critical kind of theory that we
usually mean by the term does indeed begin then. It is then that critical
thinking about nature begins, although the word science
and scientist which we would use even with
those ancient times didn’t emerge until well
into the 19th century. The theory was also,
in that period, developed in fields such as
ethics, politics, and religion. In a much looser
sense theory can be said to have existed
wherever trial and error learning occurred– that result, x,
follows the event, y, and can be counted
on to do so is the basis of useful knowledge. A term we could use
for the earliest forms of what would become science. As long as, critical
reflection never reflected on critical
reflection itself– what has been called
second order thinking, thinking about thinking– then
theory in the technical sense does not exist. Although much
knowledge of causation accumulated over
the millennia, there was nothing that could be
called scientific method. The term is itself 19th
century and one trial and error discovery or
invention does not necessarily lead to another. That changed dramatically
in the 17th century when what is called rapid
discovery science began– when one discovery did
indeed lead to another. These discoveries, however,
were only gradually translated into technological
invention toward the end of the 18th century when the
scientific revolution was followed by the
Industrial Revolution. At first only in
England, but after 1850 in parts of Western
Europe and Japan, accelerating rapidly ever since. Think of how long we
have had telephones. Even when I was a
child, [INAUDIBLE] there were telephones. But then think about cell
phones, email, texting, Facebook, Twitter, and whatever
will be coming tomorrow because we live in a world of
explosive technological change. This is so dramatically
different from anything before in history. And for those of you who grew
up with this already happening, you can’t really imagine how
strange the world is today. If the word modernity
means anything it has to apply to the 200
years since the Industrial Revolution began. That period when the rate
of technological, economic, and social, and political
change went to levels never before even approached
in the whole of human history. Population growth gives
some idea of what happened. In 1800, the
population in the world is estimated to have
been one billion. It had taken 300 years to
double from half a billion, which it had been in 1500. And most of that was
not due to technology, but to the new agricultural
products from the New World after the discovery of the
New World by Europeans. Potatoes, in particular,
which allowed a population boom,
modest though, still took 300 years to double. And it took 127 years
for it to double again, from 1800 to 1927, which happens
to be the year of my birth. The population
reached 2 billion. As some of you may know
this month world population will reach 7 billion. On Halloween, I thought
I heard someone say. A mean joke. In other words, in my lifetime
it has grown 3 and 1/2 times. It is a tribute to
the enormous growth of our social infrastructure
that 7 billion people could even survive today. Before 1800, that would have
been literally impossible. Mr. Malthus would
have had his way. Many people would
have starved to death, later billions would
never have been born. That we can support
our present population, even though something
like a third of it lives in the most
extreme poverty, is a tribute to our
social advances. Yet the great
advances of modernity have been accompanied by
equally great catastrophes, and with unresolved problems
that loom menacingly, not so far ahead. So here we are more
than a little amazed at how recently the world
we live in has appeared. And more than a little
dismayed by our prospects. What I’m trying to
do in my next book is to put all this
in perspective, to remember that we are part
of an amazing experiment that is life itself. We can’t even be sure we aren’t
the only place in the universe where that happened. But one not due to
its own folly might come to a sudden end early. With, perhaps, the exception
of Google’s beloved bacteria. We have developed some
amazing cultural capacities, as Merlin Donald puts it. We’ve gone from memetic
culture, through which we can communicate with
the subtlest bodily and vocal movements,
even before language. To mythic culture in
which we have created both the great narratives
of the world of religion, accounting for everything
from the beginning and the small narratives
which tell us who we are and who those we love are. To theoretic culture through
which we have quite recently discovered, as Einstein
noted, that the universe is comprehensible. And began to think about
the ethical demands that such a universe entails,
in both how we treat each other and how we treat the
natural environment. Even though we have
these amazing capacities, we live our lives still
today in something like the forms of the
early mammals developed– kinship, dominance
hierarchies, and play. If the nuclear family– which the evolutionary
anthropologist suggest is coterminous
with our species– then so at least several
hundred thousand years old is fragile today. So has it always been. The picket fence and the
family by the fireside was never more than
a passing dream. Yet parents have
raised children, siblings have fought each
other, and come to terms, come to each other’s defense. And today we are expanding our
understanding of the nuclear family to one that can
include same-sex parents– which appears to me to suggest
its vitality, not its duty. In a world of 7
billion people, there are and will always be a variety
of dominance hierarchies, yet some immensely
better than others. And the ideal of the Axial Age– a society that will
still have rulers, but rulers under law
where everyone will be treated with equal respect– is still a goal
worth fighting for. Then finally play. If you love your work,
even work is play. And that’s one of the great
things about being a professor, I’m sorry to say. It really is play. Not every minute, but mostly. The exfoliation of human
curiosity unto every corner of the universe–
and human culture brings us a
knowledge that can be saving if we know how to use. The knowledge, even
a few decades ago, it would be unimaginable. Before we start dreaming
of hybrid creatures that are part human
and part computer, it will be well to
think more clearly about what we have attained
over the last 4 billion years and what we want to do with it. Since I have used
Confucius before to lead into a discussion of the dark
side of Axial Age society, we’re in the presage of much
of the dark side of our own. Let me turn to the
Analects of Confucius for one example of how our
most basic humanity can lead us to think of a better
alternative than the one we have now. [INAUDIBLE] knew was grieving,
“all men have brothers. I alone have none, he said.” Tzu Shia, this is not Confucius,
but his chief disciple who carried on after he died. Tzu Shia said, I heard this life
and death are decreed by faith, riches and honors are
allotted by heaven. Could a virtuous person– in
Chinese a [SPEAKING CHINESE] “Since a virtuous person,
[SPEAKING CHINESE] behaves with reverence and diligence,
treating people with deference and courtesy– all these
are key Confucian terms– all within the four
seas are his brothers. All within the four
seas are his brothers. How could a virtuous
person ever complain that he has no brothers.” Thank you. HANS JOAS: So much
for this introduction into some of the main ideas
in your magisterial book. Now there is time
for some questions, or comments, or criticisms. There is one ROBERT BELLAH: [INAUDIBLE]. AUDIENCE: Actually, [INAUDIBLE]. ROBERT BELLAH: Yeah,
now you can hear me. Actually, I was almost
deliberately staying away from the standard recipe
of talks about religion, and trying to give the
context in which religion might be understood. The two key moments
where I did do something of what you asked for– I can’t overemphasize
the importance of ritual. Understanding the
evolutionary roots of ritual and the centrality of
ritual for human life and for human ethics– it seems to me is
very much in the area that you discuss,
particularly in a culture which doesn’t
particularly like ritual. Even the idea is
often pejorative. I saw, recently, a
qualitative study that something like
40% of young Catholics don’t know what the
real presence is. Well, if you don’t
know that, what meaning does the Eucharist have? What can it possibly mean? Anyway, we live in a
culture that does not really understand why ritual is so
important and so central. And not just historically,
but even at the moment. And we have lots of rituals
we don’t recognize as rituals. They are political. They are sports. They are other spheres. And they do the job of
ritual in a quasi way, but then without the depth. And then, again, when
I referred to the Axial Age, and the recognition
that worldly success and fame and wealth and
power are not really the ultimate meaning of life. Although that was
in passing, it’s very central to my very long
chapters on the Axial Age, where I went into all these
questions of transcendence and the sacred, and so on. But if you pick
up an encyclopedia article on religion, you
can see all those words. I tried to give the context
in which those words might make a little more sense. Yes? AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE]. ROBERT BELLAH: Yes. Yes. Yes. Well, Alison Gopnik, who
teaches psychology at Berkeley has published, recently, a book
called The Philosophical Baby, and it’s very much about play. And she makes the point that
for many small children, play is preferable to
the world of daily life. They would rather play
than do anything else. And that’s partly because
everything is possible in play. They can experiment
with what we would call alternative realities. And we think, oh they
play while we work. This is childish and
this is unimportant. But it’s very important. It’s very important for the
capacity of the child’s mind to grow, for such things as
imagination to take shape. And that provides,
I think, a sense in contemporary children
of why religion is rooted in something like that– that religion is about
alternative realities. And religion says
the world doesn’t have to be like it is now. We can imagine
something different. We don’t have to accept
the world of daily life as absolutely given
and crushingly real. So there is a deep connection,
I think, historically, and even in contemporary life
between play and religion. Issue of? AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE]. ROBERT BELLAH: This is
actually an easy question. Minds much greater than mine
have been cracked over that. And the usual explanation
is that if we are– if God had created
us to be good, whether we wanted to or not,
without freedom, goodness would be worthless. ‘Cause
it’s only the capacity to do evil that
makes it worthwhile for us to try to do good. That’s not necessarily
entirely successful, but it’s probably the
best we’ve got going. I don’t try to answer questions
of that sort in my book. I’m trying to talk about
the cultural context out of which these things come
that makes it intelligible– why, at a certain point,
among a certain group, something amazing would happen? It isn’t a reductionist book. It doesn’t say anything
caused religion. It just said certain
things probably had to be there for
religion to develop. In the Axial Age– the
first millennium BC– we have four great cases,
which I study in detail. They arise out of similar
social circumstances as Ben [? Schwarkopf’s ?]
quote indicates, because there were changes
all across the Old World that were going on at that period. But the answers are
radically different. Very different. And don’t owe anything
to each other. It isn’t as though
when one started and the other were copied. The great world religions that
are rooted in the Axial Age have radically different
premises and arguments. There are, fortunately,
some marvelous overlaps between them, as in my “all men
in the four seas are brothes” quote at the end. But they’re not the same. So there is an openness. And the notion of relaxed field
gives us a little understanding of something more about how in
the evolutionary theory itself, there’s an openness. The kind of drastic
determinism of Richard Dawkins is as gloomy as the
selfishness of his theory. I think we live in
an open universe, and the more we know
about it, the more we see that it’s an open universe. And that also as human beings
with knowledge and will, we can do something about it. And for furthermore,
we better do it soon. Yes. Yes. AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE]. I wanted very strongly to
emphasize how rooted we are in the whole of nature. All the way back
to the Big Bang. All the way back
to the bacteria. I mean, we share about 95% of
our genes with the bacteria. We’re related to everything. And many of the things that
we think of as uniquely human, we are not. They are shared
with other species. I’ve read so many people
that insist that this, that, or the other thing is uniquely
human, that I get kind of nauseated with
that triumphalism, as part of our
tendency to think we’re so much better than the
rest of the universe. On the other hand,
I don’t deny– in fact, I underline– those
moments in which something new happens that only humans have. And it happens already
before language, as I pointed out in Don’s
seminar this afternoon. William McNeil wrote
a book about it. Even in our bodies,
we’re different. We’re different from other apes. Only humans can keep
together in time. Only humans can dance. That’s very important. And of course, language
is uniquely human, and that opens up
enormous possibilities. No non-human species has myth. So, yes, there are
uniquely human things. But also, no other
species has the capacity to destroy all life on Earth. That is unique to human, and
we have to remember that. There is a dark side
to our uniqueness. AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE]. ROBERT BELLAH: Yes, yes. AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE]. ROBERT BELLAH: Yes. Yes. Well, writing is, obviously,
a very important development, and it allows the
growth of what Donald would call the external memory. Although, until relatively
recently, writing is fragile. I mean, we’ve lost most of the
plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, alas. We’ve lost a lot of
things, because writing was in the ancient
days quite fragile. But it’s better– particularly
in scholars of Greece, there was a tendency
to think that writing had this dramatic consequence. Eric Havelock, who was
teaching at Harvard when I was an undergraduate,
had made this point. And it obviously
made some difference. But the Indian Axial
Age occurred entirely with oral culture. And for centuries after
writing was available, oral culture was very,
very alive and well. And often books being
very rare and expensive, a teacher would have a text
from which he– usually he, in those days– would read and then
comment, and the student would, if they had anything
like paper, take some notes. But the writing was more of
a trot for spoken discourse than it was autonomous. Even after printing,
oral culture survived with an
amazing vitality. Indeed, it’s alive
and well today. The revolutionary consequences
of writing have been, I think, overexaggerated
and important as it is, I don’t particularly
strongly [INAUDIBLE].. AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE]. ROBERT BELLAH: Thank you, yes. Yes. Yeah, yeah. AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE]. So one of the things
that I said in Chapter 2 is that I regretted
coming to the end of the work on each
Axial Age chapter, because I was, to some degree,
converted to each one of them. And I wanted to go on
spending the rest of my life with India or
China or something. So I must admit that I find– and there are many things
about tribal religion that are very moving to me. Religion of the
early state, which involved mass human
sacrifice, somehow doesn’t appeal to me too much. I’m not totally value neutral. But I didn’t see it as
my task in this book, even though I’m a
practicing Episcopalian. And in terms of
mimetic and narrative, I’m perfectly happily
involved in my own faith. But this is not a
book of theology– of either Christian theology,
or Muslim, or Confucian, or any other. It’s an effort to
understand the context in which some of
those ideas emerged or what the consequences
of them were. The afterlife is a
fascinating thing because what the Abrahamic
religions believe is so radically
different from what Hindus and Buddhists believe. In the Abrahamic
religion, don’t believe in cyclical
reincarnation, and so on. And then a great many religions
don’t believe in the afterlife at all. It’s simply not interesting. And ancient Judaism seems
to have almost nothing to say about the afterlife. So things that we
take for granted because they’re important in our
tradition are quite variable. And for the sociologists,
the question is, why this variation? What are these things doing? How did they happen
to come about? Not to come up with a final
answer, or this one is right and the others are all wrong. And that is fact,
[INAUDIBLE] pages in my book suggest that maybe we have
reached the point where we don’t need to think
that one is right and the others are wrong. And it doesn’t mean that
it’s all relativistic and you just can
take your choice, but that this is a large
universe with a great deal of truth in it, and we can
imagine alternative views to those we hold, while even
though we hold to our own views with firmness and faithfulness. AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE]. Well, in a book that
transcends, I think, any disciplinary
boundaries, I think many sociologist
would not recognize it as a sociological book and
a book which takes narrative absolutely centrally. I haven’t gotten into
that kind of thing. I am sorry to say that
some of the things I read in the journals of
religious studies strike me as self-defeating. I mean, the attack on
the word religion itself. It’s like when the
apologists tried to throw out the word culture. You’re sort of slitting
your own throat. I mean, yes, there are a lot
of ways in which religion is a problematic word. I am a student of Wilfred
Cantwell Smith, who was one of the first to attack
the use of the word religion, and his name is
invoked all the time. If people want to replace the
word religion with the word faith, which is what
Wilfred did, be my guest. I don’t care. I don’t think it gets
you anywhere at all. But that’s fine with me. So, yes, one cannot keep up
with current scholarship without being aware of this
kind of criticism, and some of the ways in which
it’s postmodernist wing goes off the deep end. But that’s not what
my book is about. My book is about what I can
find out in the real world, and using the best scholars
who know, actually, these subjects well,
whether they’re biologists or whether they’re classicists,
or whether they’re specialists on ancient Buddhism. AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE]. Well, of course, that’s
another small question. I mean, it kind
of asks me to make a defense of the humanities
and the liberal education. And I certainly do think that
thinking the only important thing– the governor of
Florida wants to cut all money for Humanities and Social
Sciences out of the Public University of Florida– as an example of what you’re
talking about, because all we need is economics
and technology, and whatever science
will help technology. That is madness,
insanity, and so on. But then we have lots of
madness afoot in this country. Alison Gopnik has
a wonderful phrase. The usefulness of uselessness. Now, we need uselessness. We need relaxed
selection, relaxed fields. Well, as I’m saying, play
and work can overlap. They can enrich each other. But if your sole focus
is on how much money I’m going to make when I
graduate, and what major will make me the biggest salary– I’ve talked to
Berkeley undergraduates who think that way. It’s a dark world. I can’t imagine what their
lives are going to be like. Rather than asking, what
would I really enjoy doing the rest of my life? The only question is, what’s
the biggest salary I could get? I know that’s rampant
in our culture. What I, in my feeble
way, try to suggest is that there’s a lot
in life besides that. Now, the one thing
I could say to you. If you want to get very rich,
don’t become a professor. AUDIENCE: As a fellow
Oklahomian, and also an Episcopalian–
there weren’t that many in Oklahoma in my time. ROBERT BELLAH: I
didn’t grow up there. AUDIENCE: I’d also like to
ask you to elaborate some more on this topic of play. I hadn’t thought of it in terms
of the connection with ritual, but I think that your point
about the relaxed field with the selection
question [INAUDIBLE].. ROBERT BELLAH: Yes. Yes, yes. AUDIENCE: How do you
deal with [INAUDIBLE]?? ROBERT BELLAH: Yes. Yes. Well, I think I saw in an
article recently about how many of the great discoveries
in physics recently– in the last 50 years– were sort of accidental. It wasn’t as though
somebody started out to say, I’m going to figure out the
theory of x, and then did. They stumbled on it by mistake. And then they said, oh my god,
I’ve discovered something new. Well, there’s something very
playful about that whole idea, of not thinking you’re
going to be Einstein and creating this great theory,
but just tinkering around with what comes
into your purview and making the most of it. And so bringing that element of
play into every sphere of life would, I think, make
for a better world. But that probably doesn’t
answer your question, but it’s what I come up with. And maybe– AUDIENCE: [AUDIO OUT] , and
that religion is– AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE]. ROBERT BELLAH: Yes. Well that is a
lovely way to end, David, because it’s very
much the way I feel about it. I want to take each religious
phenomenon seriously and try to understand it. And not reduce it to
something non-religious– not to explain it away– but to realize that people
that lived and died with this, and understand why, and
be moved myself by it. But basically, just to show it. To help people understand
the extraordinary riches of this story. It is a fantastic story,
as I say in the book. The book itself is
a story of stories. So it’s only marginally
a theoretical book. It’s still a very narrative,
mythical book itself. And I don’t think I’m doing
theology or philosophy, but maybe I’m doing something
like that, a little bit, and not quite what most social
scientists think they’re doing. But thank you for that. [APPLAUSE] We thank you for listening
to, or viewing, our podcast. For more information,
and for other podcasts, please see our website, Copyright the University
of Chicago Divinity School.

  1. Is there possible to add more details about when this lecture happened? I´d like to quote it properly…. I thank very much the generosity of those who made it available.

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