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Cultures changing the world

28 September 2012

Cally Hammond on an ambitious book that still finds hope

Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age
Robert N. Bellah
Harvard University Press £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

BOOKS on religion written by scientists can be severely provoking. But not this one. This is a big book with big ambitions, and it was really interesting; so why did it take me quite a while to read? Partly because it dealt with such big subjects, in a way that combined science and philosophy. That sounds intimidat­ing, but it is much more approach­able than it sounds, though there was a great deal of information from different specialisms to absorb.

Robert Bellah relates studies of animal behaviour, including ritual and play, to human behaviours. He shows how human evolution (he takes evolution by natural selection as a given) leads to humans' gradually acquiring a series of capacities (speech, hunting, agriculture, literacy, culture, and philosophy), all of which have an influence on how religions are formed. He looks at how religious activity unites, enacts, and symbolises the reality of human existence, to personalise it, and to form it into stories with meaning - also called 'myths'.

He carries the readers along through new ways of seeing the familiar - imitation, rhythm, speech, and gesture - all things that convey meaning outside the careful constructs of argument and logic which we like to think are guiding our actions and choices.

The book ends with a series of surveys of cultures he calls "axial" - we might use the term "pivotal" - in human history. Ancient Israel is set side by side with ancient Greece, China in the first millennium BC, and ancient India. All four cultures produced sophisticated and powerful ways of thinking about human existence and the world around us. All four disseminated those ideas by means of written texts - the importance of the invention of literacy is almost impossible to over-emphasise in this respect. Their writings continue to be studied, and to shape our culture and our view of ourselves and the world.

The section on how Greek tragedy confronts the problematic nature of human existence, forcing us to admit to elements of injustice, chaos, and violence, made me reflect on how Christian doctrine has usually aimed at ironing out such problems, systematising right and wrong in a way that has its strengths, but that cannot answer problems of justice and theodicy adequately. In Greek myth, problems are presented: some are solved; others are not.

He ends the book with a powerful call to religious tolerance based on sympathetic understand­ing; and with an apocalyptic warning that we are living through the first era in human evolution in which a global extinction (several of these have happened in past millennia, the last c.65 million years ago) will have a "biotic rather than a physical cause" - by which he means us. We are still agents of our own destruction, as the prophets of ancient Israel knew when they proclaimed the word of God to a people who would not listen.

The ancient Greeks knew, too, that the gulf between our theoretical understanding of how we ought to live and our actual behaviours of destruction, aggression, acquisition, and expansion is unbridgeably wide. But it is not yet time to despair: even now, he tells us, there is still time to rein in the violence and greed of states, and to undo the damage that they cause to each other, and the world we live in.

The Revd Dr Cally Hammond is Dean of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.

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