Religion in Human Evolution

I tried to read Robert N. Bellah’s Religion in Human Evolution. It should have been interesting—prominent social scientist writes ambitious, sweeping book about religion—but I abandoned it about a third of the way through. I rarely fail to finish books. But I couldn’t stand this one any more.

My impression: it’s a profoundly learned but also profoundly superficial book, because it’s so obsessed with finding transcendent depth in every religious and wisdom tradition. Bellah just seemed incapable of recognizing bullshit. So the book effectively indulges in apologetics in the form of pathological avoidance of any criticism. We get other ways of knowing, poetic, propositionally inexpressible truths—even in the drivel produced to ostensibly explain other items of bad poetry. We get “unitary events”—not just interesting psychological phenomena but self-validating religious experiences that break into deeper realities.

Biological evolution becomes another “true myth,” comparable to all those other religious true myths. None of this implicit natural science-bashing relies on anything as pedestrian as arguments or evidence, beyond some unfortunately typical misreadings of controversies over “selfish genes,” taking some embarrassing cosmic effusions by Eric Chaisson too seriously, and so on and so forth. Bellah even takes the verbal diarrhea of people like postmodernist psychoanalysts seriously as a kind of wisdom literature. It’s not so much that Bellah kept pulling stuff out of his own ass, but quoting tons of material others have pulled out of their asses, as long as they are congenial to his overall mushy point of view.

It quickly turned into a bad stereotype of liberal religiosity: everyone (every tradition) is right, though some may have more depth than others. An implicit avoidance of criticism threads through the part of the book I endured, though it does not prevent Bellah from substituting condescendence for criticism.

Oh, did I mention that there was Templeton support behind this work? Typical.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University


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