Religion and Equality in Human Evolution

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* Books: Robert Bellah. 1) Religion in Human Evolution; 2) work-in-progress: The Modern Project in the Light of Human Evolution.


Alan Wolfe:

"Despite lengthy discussions of tribal social organization as well as “archaic” societies like ancient Egypt, “Religion in Human Evolution” is primarily concerned with what, following the philosopher Karl Jaspers, can be called religion’s “axial age.” During the 500 years that preceded the birth of Jesus Christ, four great religious civilizations flourished: ancient Israel, classical Greece, Confucian China and Buddhist India. The fact of their simultaneity is remarkable enough. All four societies also witnessed greater tension between religious and political authority than those that preceded them. Perhaps for this reason, the religions of the axial age promoted philosophical speculation as well as offering spiritual comfort. As a result, they appear to us as surprisingly contemporary. “Our cultural world and the great traditions that still in so many ways define us,” as Bellah points out, “all originate in the axial age.”

Bellah devotes a chapter to each of these four great traditions, offering a synthesis of the best available scholarship on the breakthroughs they accomplished. Specialists in these traditions — I am a specialist in none of them — may not find that much original here. But anyone looking for an authoritative treatment of why prophecy emerged among the ancient Israelis or how Confucianism came to “uphold a normative standard with which to judge existing reality, and never to compromise that standard completely” will owe a debt to Bellah’s remarkable ability to range widely with insight and depth.


Bellah begins at the beginning, not with Adam and Eve, but with the Big Bang, which by his account took place 13.5 billion years ago. Moving closer to the present, he remarks on our resemblance to chimpanzees; speculates on whether our predecessor, Homo erectus, had a religious sensibility; and examines how theories of child development shed light on language and music. There is even talk about the role that bacteria played in the emergence of life. I never thought I would read a work in the sociology of religion that contained a discussion of prokaryotes and eukaryotes. I now have.

Bellah may be correct about going back to the beginning, but despite its length his book fails to make a case for the value of evolutionary theory. His aim in his four synthetic chapters on the axial age is to demonstrate the emergence of a human capacity to think in theoretical terms, that is, to move beyond mere observation to ponder why and how things happen in the world. Even if the explanations offered during this era were not rational as we understand that term today, relying as they did on myth and superstition, they were nonetheless a significant human accomplishment. This seems to me correct, even if it may contradict the notion that no great breakthrough took place. But Bellah’s decision to encase his interpretation within the evolutionary theory proposed by Merlin Donald is, simply put, unnecessary; I, for one, learned nothing new from the twisting and turning Bellah engages in to make history fit that schema. A shorter book would have been a better book. (


Robert Bellah:

"Where did we come from? What should we do here? Where are we going? As long as human beings ask these questions, we will need metanarratives—accounts of cosmological and biological evolution that place the human species in the context of what we know about the universe as a whole.

In my book Religion in Human Evolution and its sequel, a work-in-progress titled The Modern Project in the Light of Human Evolution, I have been exploring a new metanarrative by means of an extended hypothesis about religion and equality in human evolution—a hypothesis that is open to correction at every point and raises far more questions than it can answer." (

The Emergence of Inequality after Hunter-Gatherers’ Egalitarianism: the U-shaped Curve of Despotism

(Turchin discusses the book by Robert Bellah. Religion in Human Evolution (see: Religion and Equality in Human Evolution, which refers to Boehm's Hierarchy of the Forest)

Peter Turchin:

"The main message of Boehm’s book is that equality does not simply happen because hunter-gatherers are poor and cannot accumulate much wealth. On the contrary, Boehm argues that equality requires active maintenance. People living in small-scale societies possess numerous norms and institutions designed to control ‘upstarts,’ those individuals who attempt to dominate others in order to control an unfair share of resources. The sanctions deployed against upstarts range from gossip and ridicule to ostracism and, ultimately, assassination. As Bellah concurs, Boehm does a very good job in describing how this system of escalating sanctions works in small-scale societies, although “he is perhaps less good at what I think is equally necessary, that is, the strong pull of social solidarity, especially as expressed in ritual, that rewards renunciation of dominance with a sense of full social acceptance” (p. 177). This sounds like an interesting idea, although it is not further developed in Bellah’s book.

Given such fierce preference for equality, how did it happen that humans allowed inequality to develop? Small-scale societies of hunter-gatherers were integrated by faceto- face sociality. Such a diffuse, non-centralized social organization was well-suited to maintaining egalitarian ethos. However, the invention of agriculture c.10,000 years ago enabled evolution of large-scale societies. Once the size of cooperating group increased beyond 100–200 people, even gigantic human brains were overwhelmed by the computational demands of face-to-face sociality (Dunbar and Shultz 2007). The solution that social evolution found was hierarchical organization, with large human groups integrated by chains of command. A member of a hierarchically organized group needs to have face-to-face interactions with only a few individuals: a superior and several subordinates. The group size grows by adding additional hierarchical levels; a process that has no physical limit. The great downside of hierarchical organization, however, is that it inevitably leads to inequality. Thus, the side-effect of selection for greater societal size was the U-turn in the evolution of egalitarianism (Turchin 2011).

More specifically, Bellah proposes the following scenario. “An increasing agricultural surplus allows larger groups to form – groups beyond the face-to-face bands of hunter-gatherers – and the age-old techniques of dealing with upstarts are harder to apply in such larger-scale societies. But the opening wedge for a successful upstart is most often militarization. … In a situation of endemic warfare, the successful warrior emanates a sense of mana or charisma, and can use it to establish a following. … It is when the outstanding warrior can mobilize a band of followers that he can challenge the old egalitarianism and, as a successful upstart, free the disposition to dominate from the controls previously placed on it” (p. 261). I think this is just about right, but I would add that the primary selection pressure for the evolution of large-scale societies is endemic warfare itself (as the French military proverb goes, “God is on the side of big battalions”). Additionally, the state of endemic warfare selects for more effective (which means centralized) military organizations. Under such conditions, emergence of centralized hierarchies becomes virtually inevitable. In other words, large-scale warfare and large-scale sociality coevolve. As Charles Tilly famously remarked, “War made state and states made war” (Tilly 1975).

However, while highly effective on the battlefield, a centralized military hierarchy has drawbacks as a general way of organizing societies. A society cannot really be held together by force alone. Additionally, great inequities resulting from rapacious military chiefs and their retinues alienate large segments of the population. As a result, early despotic chiefdoms and archaic states were very fragile and frequently did not outlast their founders.

At this point Bellah makes a very useful distinction between dominance (or despotism) and hierarchy, with hierarchy defined as “legitimate authority” (p. 178). In order to ensure a greater degree of permanence, large-scale societies needed to make the transition from the domination by military chiefs to “a new form of authority, of legitimate hierarchy … which involves a new relation between gods and humans, a new way of organizing society, one that finds a significant place for the disposition to nurture as well as the disposition to dominate” (p. 261). In other words, the central argument in Bellah’s book is that a major driver in the evolution of religion was the need to reconcile the tension between the need for hierarchy and the need for legitimacy and equity. A major stride in this direction was made during the Axial Age (800–200 BCE), and making this argument constitutes the core of Religion in Human Evolution.

Historical trajectories of agrarian human societies, thus, went through two phases that Bellah calls ‘archaic’ and ‘axial’ (this should not be taken as fixed ‘stages’ of social development). The first, archaic phase was characterized by enormous fusion of power in the person of the ruler (p. 207). Archaic states invariably were characterized by some sort of divine kingship, and usually practiced human sacrifice on a massive scale, both indicators of extreme forms of inequality. During this phase we also observe the appearance of ‘gods,’ who are distinguished from other powerful supernatural beings in that they are worshipped (p. 189). ‘Worship’ suggests that the relationship between humans and supernatural beings also became much more unequal during this phase of human evolution.

The archaic states (and chiefdoms) persisted through several millennia (first chiefdoms appeared in the Middle East roughly 7.5 thousand years ago, and first archaic states date from c.5,000 years ago). The typical pattern was that or recurrent rise and collapse, or cycling between less and more complex forms of social organization: chiefdoms/complex chiefdoms and complex chiefdoms/archaic states (Anderson 1996; Chase-Dunn and Hall 1997). Then, something happened during the first millennium BCE, which resulted in the rise of qualitatively new forms of social organization – the larger and more durable axial empires that employed new forms of legitimation of political power. One aspect of this change was the first appearance of a universally egalitarian ethic, which was largely due to the emergence of “prophet-like figures who, at great peril to themselves, held the existing power structures to a moral standard that they clearly did not meet” (p. 573).

Bellah connects these developments to the “legitimation crisis of the early state” (an idea due to Jürgen Habermas), which became especially acute in the axial age (p. 574). Bellah calls these prophet-like figures, who passed harsh judgments on existing social and political conditions, “renouncers.” Examples include the Buddha, Hebrew prophets, Plato and Aristotle, and the Daoists (pp. 574–575). It is important to note that these renouncers were not isolated voices and enjoyed a certain degree of social support. “It seems apparent that some degree of unease about the state of the world must have been relatively widespread, even among the elite” (p. 575)

Why did the legitimation crisis of the early state become particularly acute during the axial age (middle of the first millennium BCE)? Bellah does not provide a clear answer. In his discussion of Ancient Israel he appeals to destabilizing social consequences of considerable economic growth during the eighth century BCE (p. 301). More frequently, however, he invokes not economic, but military factors. For example, he suggests that wide-spread use of iron was “more important in increasing the efficiency of warfare than in transforming the means of production” (p. 269).

I believe that the latter emphasis is the correct one."

Source: Peter Turchin. Religion and Empire in the Axial Age. Invited Article for Religion, Brain & Behavior.


Conducted by Hans Joas:

So the book is less about the evolution of an entity called “religion,” and more about all sorts of religious phenomena in connection with a general understanding of evolution. Would that be correct?

Very correct. There’s been an enormous focus in the field of religious studies over the very term “religion,” and half the discipline wants to reject it all together. My own problem with definitions of religion, and why I use them only as starting points, is that they too often concern only beliefs. But religion is a thing you do. The misinterpretation of people like Dawkins and Hitchens is that religion is just a mistaken proto-science. But religion is about action, and faith is about trust.

Even etymologically in most languages, belief has more to do with trust than with the acceptance of cognitive assumptions.

The Latin word for faith, fides, means trust, not belief, and I think a religious life is very much a form of practice, a form of relationship. Religious truth is not something you sit in your private room and decide, “oh, does God exist or not?” You will never understand God unless you are involved in some kind of community where that word begins to make sense in the life of that community.

Let’s switch to the other side of my characterization of your book. It is also directed against Western triumphalism, and I would like you to say something about the reason why you concentrate on pre-axial religion, on the one hand, and on the whole diversity of axial ages, on the other hand.

I felt that there is an immense variety of cultures out there that most of us ignore but are worth studying. There is a section on Aboriginal Australia in my book. That’s something that has fascinated me from undergraduate days because it is so cut off from the rest of the world and developed in its own way, and so rich in its way of life. And then in graduate school, my degree was in Sociology and Far Eastern Languages; I not only had to study Japanese, but Chinese, the high culture language of Japanese, just as Latin is for us. I had to start with the classics of Confucianism: Confucius and Mencius. I was raised as a Christian, I learned from I. A. Richards to read Plato’s Republic, I’m deeply saturated in both biblical and Greek classical culture, and I have the highest regard for them, but I don’t think that’s the only thing that matters. I think there has been extraordinary cultural creativity in Japan, China, and India. The tendency among Westerners is to speak about “the West,” and then everything else is “the East.” I insist that there is no East; China and India are as radically different as either of them is from Greece or Israel. So I want to stress that there were four great cultural developments in the first millennium BCE and that we need to learn from all of them." (