I really can’t urge strongly enough my readers who are interested in religion to check out Robert Bellah’s magisterial new book “Religion in Human Evolution.” Bellah is a gifted prose stylist, and his style is a pleasure to read. But the content is heavygoing, simply because there’s a lot to digest here. I find it fascinating. It’s a frustrating thing that scholarly analysis at this high level is usually buried beneath mounds of impenetrable prose. That Bellah manages to be one of the top scholars in his field and such a good writer is a blessing bordering on a miracle.
Here’s an interview Bellah did with Nathan Schneider at the social science blog Immanent Frame (a great scholarly blog that I encourage religious-minded readers to bookmark). Excerpts:
NS: Still, you insist, almost as a refrain, that “nothing is ever lost.” What does that mean about the connection between this distant past and the present?
RB: “Nothing is ever lost” means that what we are now goes all the way back through natural history. We are biological organisms and not simply computerized brains. By focusing totally on the present, thinking only about science and computers, and forgetting four billion years of life on this planet, we are losing perspective on who and what we are. We’re running great risks of doing things that will not be good for us. The cost can be very high indeed if we reach the point where we can’t adapt to our own increasingly rapid adaptations. We run the risk of early extinction. So this certainly isn’t a triumphalist story, but it is trying to get at what, in the very long run, leads to the amazing creatures that we are.
NS: I wonder if you have an opinion of journalist Robert Wright’s The Evolution of God, which offers, in some ways, a comparable story about the development of religion in evolutionary perspective.
RB: I think Wright is a very bright guy, and he has some interesting things to say. But he’s very hung up on the notion of gods and, particularly, God. His book overwhelmingly focuses on Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. You would hardly know that half the world is not there. Hinduism, Confucianism, and Buddhism are huge traditions of enormous importance, and they aren’t monotheistic. Again, this reflects the fact that our preconceptions about what religion is are so influenced by Protestantism—either real Protestantism or the secularized Protestantism that dominates our culture—and its assumption that beliefs are the most important thing. But it’s clear all the way through history that practices are primary and beliefs are secondary. I’m not saying that you can’t learn something from Wright and other journalists like him—Nicholas Wade, for instance.
RB: The academic world is one of the few places where prejudice is supposed to be totally banned, and we’re politically correct on everything, but it’s still a place where you can attack religion out of utter, complete, bottomless ignorance and not be considered to have done anything wrong. It’s astounding to me to hear what some people can say with the assumption that everyone would agree with them, based on nothing whatsoever.
NS: An important part of your message has been the famous concern expressed in Habits of the Heart about “Sheilaism”—the kind of individualistic spirituality that you and your colleagues saw at work in the United States. Some have suggested recently, including your former student Harvey Cox, that some of these nontraditional spiritualities are finding a place in social and political life in a way that wasn’t quite recognized before. Is the way you think about new kinds of spiritualities evolving?
RB: I certainly think that so-called spirituality can have social and even political consequences. I’ve seen this among environmental activists, who often have some kind of eco-spirituality and who are very organizationally loose. They switch from one group to another, and if one group isn’t pure enough they go to another. And yet they spend a long period of their lives doing good work in a cause. In the end what I feel is most problematic about “I’m spiritual but not religious” is: what the hell are you going to tell your children? I’m allergic to the notion that so-called institutional religion—by which people mean organizations such as churches and synagogues—is bad. Institutions are very important and if you think you can get along without them, you’re putting yourself on the wrong line; you can’t.
NS: So your conclusions in Habits of the Heart stand?
RB: If you think about what has happened in American society, or even just today with what is going on with the Tea Party movement, Habits of the Heart was so right on. Radical individualism is even more evident today than when Habits was published twenty-five years ago. It describes the default mode of this deeply misguided society beautifully—horribly, but beautifully.