January 22, 2012
BOOK OF THE WEEK: WEEK SIX, 2012
Robert N. Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age (Cambridge, Massachusetts, & London, England: Belknap/Harvard U. Press, 2011) (From the bookjacket' "Religion in Human Evolution is a work of extraordinary ambition--a wide-ranging, nuanced probing of our biological past to discover the kinds of lives that human beings have most often imagined were worth living. It offers what is frequently seen as a forbidden theory of the origins of religion that goes deep into evolution, especially but not exclusively cultural evolution." "How did our early ancestors transcend the quotidian demands of everyday existence to embrace an alternative reality that called into question the very meaning of their daily struggle? Robert Bellah . . . identifies a range of cultural capacities, such as communal dancing, storytelling, and theorizing, whose emergence made this religious development possible. Deploying the latest findings in biology, he traces the expansion of this cultural capacities from the Paleolithic to the Axial Age (roughly, the fist millennium BCE), when individuals and groups in the Old World challenged the norms and beliefs of class societies ruled by kings and aristocracies. These religious prophets and renouncers never succeeded in founding their alternative utopias, but they left a heritage of criticism that would not be quenched." "Bellah's treatment of the four great civilizations of the Axial Age--in ancient Israel, Greece, China and India--shows how all existing religions, both prophetic and mystic, to be rooted in the evolutionary story he tells. Religion in Human Evolution answers the call for a critical history of religion grounded in the full range of human constraints and possibilities.").