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Robert Bellah hits the “evolution of religion” circuit


Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age

In “Where Does Religion Come From?” ( The Atlantic August 17, 2011), Heher Horn interviews sociologistRobert Bellah about his new book, Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age. We are told that Bellah is “a religious man himself, but by no means beholden to modern belief’s sacred cows.” Translation: A religious man himself, beholden to atheism’s sacred cows.”

You mention play as a way of getting out of normal working consciousness, and religion emerging from the play instinct, a mammalian characteristic common to sparring puppies and humans experiencing art.

Play is a very elusive idea because it comes in so many forms. It’s hard entirely to put them all under one category. Johan Huizinga’s work was a great help to me, because he makes a strong argument that ritual emerges out of play. I’m a practicing Episcopalian and they call Sunday School “holy play,” which seems to me a little bit cuckoo but there’s some sense to it; in a sense what we’re doing in the liturgy is a kind of play, a profound play.

Nowhere in the interview does he suggest that religion emerges as a result of revelation from beyond, usually only dimly grasped.

In the context, “holy play” isn’t a little bit cuckoo. It’s a discreet way of telling the kids, “No reasonable person really believes what that guy up there in the dress is saying.” If the adults really believed it, they would call teaching it to their children “catechism.” Or, on the Protestant side, something that conveys the same general idea. Also,

… we still don’t know where life came from. I don’t think anyone in their right mind thinks God came out of somewhere to create life, but the emergence of life from inanimate matter does remain a bit mysterious. I’m not saying it won’t be explained in perfectly good natural scientific terms, but it involves things that are not your usual run-of-the-mill behaviors you’d expect to see.

Why are these religious academics far more hopeful about origin of life studies than the origin of life researchers are themselves?

For a discussion of religion that takes its transcendent origin seriously, in the context of modern neuroscience, see The Spiritual Brain

Hat tip: Stephanie West Allen at Brains on Purpose


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