Hostname: page-component-5d59c44645-k78ct Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2024-03-04T19:31:31.673Z Has data issue: false hasContentIssue false

Religion in the Perspective of“Big History”

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  31 January 2014

S. Mark Heim*
Andover Newton Theological School


At the pinnacle of his career, the renowned sociologist Robert Bellah did not choose to write a magnum opus refining the influential work of a lifetime, focused particularly on contemporary American society. Nor did he choose to offer an unbuttoned reflection on the future of his discipline or the culture he had so closely studied. Instead, he devoted thirteen years to a project of breathtaking scope, religion in the evolutionary history of the human species, from the primordial soup to the Dalai Lama. He asked where religion had come from, not where it was going. He eventually felt compelled to truncate this story at the “axial age,” in the first millennium before the Common Era. This 700-page “fragment” of the original vision (before his recent death, he held out hope for a smaller companion book to round it off) is a work of judicious audacity. It is high tribute to Bellah's intellect and industry that it merits the first modifier no less than the second.

Review Essay*
Copyright © President and Fellows of Harvard College 2014 

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)



Robert N. Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011).


1 He expressed the hope for a sequel in Bellah, Robert N., “Reply to My Critics,” First Things 234 (2013) 49Google Scholar.

2 Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, 100. See Wilson, David Sloan, Darwin's Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

3 As quoted in McElreath, Richard and Boyd, Robert, Mathematical Models of Social Evolution: A Guide for the Perplexed (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007) 82CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

4 Bellah, “Reply to My Critics,” 54.

5 Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, 45.

6 Jack Miles, “Review Essay on Robert Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age, and Bellah, Robert and Joas, Hans, The Axial Age and Its Consequences,” JAAR 81 (2013) 852–64Google Scholar.

7 Kirschner, Marc and Gerhart, John, The Plausibility of Life: Resolving Darwin's Dilemma (illustrated by Norton, John; New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2007)Google Scholar.

8 As quoted in Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, 62.

9 See Kirschner and Gerhart, Plausibility of Life, 220–23.

10 See, e.g., ibid., 111.

11 For a summary of KG's arguments as set forth here, see Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, 60–66.

12 Ibid., 83.

13 “Old genes of prokaryotes were radically retooled for different but not totally unrelated purposes in eukaryotes” (Kirschner and Gerhart, Plausibility of Life, 258).

14 Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, 102, quoting Terrence Deacon, W. and Cashman, Tyrone, “The Role of Symbolic Capacity in the Origins of Religion,” Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature, and Culture 3 (2009) 490517Google Scholar, at 503.

15 See especially Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, 100–104. Deacon's relevant work can be found in Goodenough, Ursula and Deacon, Terrence W., “The Sacred Emergence of Nature,” in The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Science (ed. Clayton, Philip; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006) 853871CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and Deacon and Cashman, “Symbolic Capacity.

16 Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, 126.

17 On Donald's stages see ibid., 118; and Donald, Merlin, Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991)Google Scholar.

18 Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, 128.

19 As quoted in ibid., 131.

21 Ibid. For Bellah's adaptation of Donald's theory of mimetic culture, see especially ibid., 120–31.

22 Ibid., 174.

24 Ibid., 262.

26 Bellah, Robert N. and Joas, Hans, The Axial Age and Its Consequences (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2012)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

27 Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, 175.

28 Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, 112.

29 See for example ibid., 2–3; Schutz, Alfred, “Multiple Realities,” in The Problem of Social Reality (vol. 1 of Collected Papers; The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1967) 207–59Google Scholar.

30 Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, 3 [italics in original].

31 See especially ibid., 2–3.

32 See especially ibid., 77–78; Bellah borrows the phrase from Burghardt, Gordon, The Genesis of Animal Play: Testing the Limits (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2005) 7778Google Scholar.

33 On Bellah's use of the term “offline,” see especially Religion in Human Evolution, xx.

34 Ibid., 9

36 Ibid., 90. See Gopnik, Alison, The Philosophical Baby: What Children's Minds Tell Us about Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2009) 71Google Scholar.

37 Miles, “Review Essay,” 862.