In today’s Guardian Mark Vernon has an article on Robert Bellah’s new book Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age to Modernity, published by Harvard University Press, funded, in part at least, by the Templeton Foundation. The relation to Templeton raises some questions about the book itself. The following is a fairly unrehearsed response to the news of Bellah’s new book about religion and evolution, but without firsthand acquaintance with the text itself.
The strange thing is that it repeats, again, what people insist on saying, over and over again, that religion has nothing to do with propositional beliefs. But what is even more disturbing is that Bellah, if Vernon has got him anywhere near right, tells us that Bellah urges us to make the following very speculative journey:
Go back deep into evolutionary time, long before hominids, Bellah invites his readers, because here can be found the basic capacity required for religion to emerge. It is mimesis or imitative action, when animals communicate their intentions, often sexual or aggressive, by standard behaviours. Often such signals seem to be genetically determined, though some animals, like mammals, are freer and more creative. It can then be called play, meant in a straightforward sense of “not work”, work being activity that is necessary for survival.
Now, that strikes me, on the face of it, not to make a great deal of sense, but it would certainly be useful if we could push the origins of religion back to a time that is, so far as I can understand, strictly inaccessible to us. I daresay that Bellah thinks that he has found evidence of this in contemporary religious practices, but I guess my question would be: what has this to do with these dim evolutionary origins of religion? Evolutionary psychology is, as I understand it, a bit chancy at the best of times, but to suppose that we can actually press back to the origins of religion in pre-hominid ancestors of humans seems to be a bit more chancy than most attempts at providing evolutionary credentials for contemporary religious experiences and expressions.
Certainly, it seems that aspects of religion may have to do with play. Ritual, for one thing, since it seems to have so little to do with the workaday world, seems likely to share some of the characteristics of play. Children’s play often includes ritualistic types of movements and and sequences of actions. And that may be where Bellah’s Episcopalian (Anglican) idea of ritual comes in, because there is an element of make-believe in Anglican ritual, since Anglican ritual is largely created on the basis of theories about the structure of the liturgy. In other words, it is not an organic tradition within Anglicanism, but derives from a later construction which issued from the Oxford Movement — a movement that, in some sense, created a catholic tradition within the Church of England from whole cloth. That’s why it seems natural to think of Sunday School as “holy play,” which seems a bit cuckoo to Bellah, but, as he says in an interview published in the Atlantic, “there’s some sense to it; in a sense what we’re doing in the liturgy is a kind of play, a profound play.”