The Big Bang
Robert Bellah's Religion in Human Evolution waxes cosmic on the origins of faith
Religion in Human Evolution:
From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age
by Robert N. Bellah
Belknap Press of Harvard University Press
$39.95 List Price
About an hour into The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick’s meditation on nature, grace, Brad Pitt’s crew cut, and the laying of the foundations of the Earth, I turned to my wife, snuck a Twizzler from the bag in her lap, and said, “I knew this was going to cover a lot of ground, but I really didn’t expect the dinosaurs.”
I should have guessed that for a director obsessed with Big Questions, a family drama set in 1950s Texas would also be an epic about the birth of the universe, the origins of life, and, yes, frolicking CGI velociraptors, which give the film a Land of the Lost vibe that is at once sweetly awkward in its earnestness and strangely enjoyable in its chutzpah. From the big bang to suburbia by way of bubbling lava and primordial soup, it aims so high that getting halfway there might be enough.
I had much the same sensation—minus the Twizzlers—reading Robert N. Bellah’s massive account of how such a peculiar thing as religion could have come to play an enduring role in human history. Despite its generic title, Religion in Human Evolution is not like so many other “science and religion” books, which tend to explain away belief as a smudge on a brain scan or an accident of early hominid social organization. It is, instead, a bold attempt to understand religion as part of the biggest big picture—life, the universe, and everything. Like The Tree of Life, it doesn’t work flawlessly from the titles to the credits, but when it does, it leaves you looking at the world in a different way.
Bellah built his reputation—which, for those outside the realms of sociology or religious