The American Interest

Books, Film, and History

The Evolution of Religion

While atheists and offended believers have been holding the equivalent of a dorm room bull session over the role of religion in society, evolutionary biology has emerged as a beacon of understanding. Two recent books attempt to turn that potential into reality.

Published on June 10, 2012
The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures
by Nicholas Wade
Penguin Press, 2010, 320 pp., $25.95

Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age
by Robert N. Bellah
Harvard University Press, 2011, 784 pp., $39.95

It’s been an interesting decade for thinking about religion. After 9/11 it finally dawned on people that religion wasn’t going away and that ignorance about it might well be debilitating. Many did not cotton to this news; the “New Atheists” represented not so much an intellectual challenge to religious belief, but rather an adolescent cri de coeur from those who felt their fervent unbelief beleaguered by reality and their Voltairean pieties insulted by the course of history. Cornered smugness is never pretty.

Soon several counter-thinkers came forward to return the compliment, abusing the abusers with contempt for their mistakes and scorn for their intellectual fantasies.1 More recently still, a wave of “New New Atheists” has emerged, exemplified by thinkers such as Alain de Botton and the team of Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly. They grant the value of some facets of religion, such as transcendence (what Kelly and Dreyfus call the “whoosh”) and, echoing antecedents like Auguste Comte, social ordering, but they affirm the generic idea of religion as at best a human-only institution so that they may dump all the awkward bits, like theology, metaphysics and that sort of thing. The superficial understanding and charity they offer to religion is a dodge, of course, but at least they’re polite about it.

Unfortunately (or not), all of this turns out to have been a distraction, for a different approach to understanding religion has been growing in sophistication and thoughtfulness. This is the approach developing out of evolutionary theory, often combining psychology, linguistics, cognitive science and human biology to offer a picture of what religion does for humans, and why it does it. The good news here is that this approach sometimes spins up illuminating pictures of religion, putting the various modes of belief and practice that humans have developed in broader, often enlightening contexts. The bad news is that it can easily fail to take the concrete details of religions seriously, treating them as just so much data to be processed on the way to some larger, more general claim about the evolutionary adaptability of something generic called “religion.” This is more or less the difference in practice between explaining religion and explaining it away. The former whets the appetite for intimate knowledge; the latter wants to feed us a canned and homogenized pablum of generalities.

Two recent books—one shallow, one deep—illustrate the point. They both ask and offer answers to the question of what religion is and does by the light of evolutionary theory. Reading them together helps us better understand both the limitations of such theory and the potential for deep insights from it, if used properly. These insights will be of no little use in coming decades, for demographers suggest that the world today is significantly less religious than it will be in fifty years. That may upset the New Atheists once again, but facts are stubborn things. We will probably need all the help we can get in understanding the various modes of human religiosity in the world, and this is a need that applies equally, if somewhat differently, for religious believers and non-believers alike.


was disappointed with Nicholas Wade’s The Faith Instinct, though I did not expect to be after devouring his earlier book Before the Dawn. I expected the newer book to possess the same pleasures I found in the older: knowledge about the past, lightly tethered to suggestive gestures at theory. No such luck. What is it about religion that brings out the dogmatist in so many of us?

The Faith Instinct is really two half books roughly stitched together. The first is a relatively pedestrian recounting of a popular form of evolutionary theory. From this, one learns less the evolutionary roots of religion than what one particular school of evolutionary theorists (and not the most sophisticated school) thinks about that topic. The second is a collection of observations culled from the somewhat haphazard on-the-job education of a journalist. From this half, readers will learn interesting facts and stories (about Balinese irrigation, for instance) and get acquainted with some (often fairly marginal and tendentiously presented) scholarly hypotheses about the origins of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. But taken as a whole, the book neither instructs us about the best evolutionary approaches to religion, nor offers a balanced picture of recent scholarship on religion itself. The useful facts within are so scattered about that they seem better suited to the magazine articles in which they first appeared; here they serve at best as an archipelago of amusements that enable a reader to island hop across the turgid ocean of evolutionary theory.

Not that “theory” is really the right term for it, for that word suggests what The Faith Instinct lacks: self-consciousness regarding the necessarily complex, and tentatively proposed, interpretive judgments that undergird any well thought-through picture of the human condition. The basic story Wade wants to tell is that humans have a “faith instinct”, an inbred reflexive propensity for religious belief that developed as a way of relieving social conflict (so he asserts, “religion evolved as a response to warfare”) and as a secondary enforcement regime for ensuring moral behavior and thus group cohesion. There, that’s the story, more or less; the rest is just anecdotes.

There are real problems here. The first is that this is not what evolutionary theory at its best offers about the origins and functions of religion. But even setting that observation aside for the moment, we are still left with Wade’s perennialism. History doesn’t really factor into this book, and evolution is served up less as a dynamic of matter coursing through a labyrinth of contingencies than as a sourcebook of just-so stories, a metaphysical framework for explaining why things are the way they are. Everything has a simple one-to-one correspondence, with each feature or behavior crisply identified and then snugly attached to one evolutionarily functional purpose. It’s all very tidy—much too tidy. It amounts to a collective example of the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. In truth, it is an open question whether there is ever a one-to-one correspondence between a function and a collection of behaviors, or even whether the language of “proper function” is a scientifically defensible idea, for evolution, strictly speaking, has no purposes nor any functionality. Intentionality is ruled out from the beginning.

Wade’s approach exhibits a distinctive challenge in wrestling evolutionary theory into usefulness: namely, that it tends to seize on peculiarities of the parochial present and naturalize them as revealing profound, perennial cleavages and stable universals. It thus functions much like older accounts of natural theology or natural law; it baptizes the way things happen to be as the way they ought to be, or of necessity must be. This loses one of the great insights of evolutionary theory itself, namely contingency: If we understand anything about evolution, it is that things are heavily dependent on small accidental changes, or on the context of development itself. We must understand the fine-grained details of a situation to understand how it developed, and to hypothesize sensibly how it’s likely to go on from here.

Furthermore, as a picture of religion as human beings experience it, Wade’s account is breathtakingly simplistic. Even though “religion” is not a natural entity or quality, like a chunk of iron or blonde hair, but rather an abstract linguistic concept developed as a tool to pick out certain things for study, Wade engages in a futile effort to establish some essence of religion shared by all religions, everywhere and at all times. This gets him into lots of trouble, for religion is too variable a phenomenon (or set of phenomena) to sit still for any such definition, and the further away you get from 18th-century Europe, the harder it is to deploy the category of “religion” to pick out something useful. Is Chinese Confucianism religious? What about the role of Islamic courts, or rabbinic justice (when it could be exercised), in the past thousand years? What about EST seminars in the 1970s? How much of Augustine’s activity as Bishop and civic judge in Hippo could be construed as “religion” and how much not? And today, are sporting events religious rituals? Some say so; Dreyfus and Kelly even think that making coffee can be religious. And who’s to say they’re wrong? (After all, Islamic thinkers inveighed against coffee on theological grounds almost as soon as it appeared.2)

Finally, the whole idea of a “faith instinct” is pretty odd. Part of the time Wade wants to argue for a perennial, ahistorical, pre-cultural (or sub-cultural) and irrepressible “instinct” that makes people believe. But he ends his book repeating the sociological nostrums of the 1970s about a rising tide of secularity. Well, which is it? Is religion a perduring natural fact about humanity, or something fading away?

Wade exhibits no awareness of these problems. Nor does he seem to realize that, for all its seeming up-to-date-ness, his approach is really quite antiquated. The vocabulary gives off the aroma of science, but the grammar, the structure of the thought, extends back at least to the 1st-century Roman Stoic philosopher Varro. He argued that religion is really about certain natural forces, themselves best understood by natural philosophers, though the great majority still use “mythic” categories, such as the stories of traditional religion, to “explain” (more or less) these natural forces to themselves. In turn, Varro was criticized by Augustine, in part for failing to see that he could not fit every phenomena into his reductionist system (sound familiar?). As with so many science writers who speak out of their specialized knowledge to fundamental issues of the human condition, Wade knows nothing about the history of thought concerning the topics about which he speaks. But while ignorance may be an explanation, it is not an excuse.


omparing Wade’s book to Robert Bellah’s is a bit like comparing a comic strip to a Rembrandt. Religion in Human Evolution is an immense work; it would merit description as the achievement of a lifetime, were it not actually Bellah’s second such achievement. Most great thinkers have one idea, which obsesses them throughout their lives in soul-distorting ways; lesser minds have more. Bellah might just be stuck in-between those ranks, for he has had two ideas—one that made his name, a second that is at least as profound, certainly more ambitious and probably more fruitful. His 1967 essay “Civil Religion in America” may be the postwar work in the sociology of religion most likely to withstand the wear of decades as durably as those of Durkheim and Weber. In that essay Bellah limned the nature of American religion with a profundity and a sense of irony that no one since Tocqueville has exhibited. It struck a deep and resonant chord in American intellectual life, and much of the rest of his work, culminating in Habits of the Heart (1985), has been mostly commentary on the original.

Few people outside sociology noticed another essay he wrote just a few years before, in 1964, obscurely titled “Religious Evolution.” This essay offered a programmatic picture of how evolutionary theory might be coordinated with sociology, anthropology and archaeology to offer a comprehensive account of homo religiosus across space and time—an integrated account of what religion did, how it did it and why. It aimed so high that it opened up an exciting vein of research and at the same time closed it off forever by making unmistakably clear the range of skills required to undertake it in any sort of adequate way. Others may have been scared off, but Bellah wasn’t. After retiring from a long and distinguished career at Berkeley in 1997, he rededicated himself to writing on the history of religion full time and began drafting the work that became Religion in Human Evolution.

What does it amount to? Quite a lot, actually: effectively, a history of the world up to about 2,000 years ago. The book has a James Michener-esque scope, proceeding effectively from the Big Bang forward. The only comparisons I can come up with are Hegel’s magisterial but fragmentary notes for his Lectures on the Philosophy of Religions, or Weber’s monumental works on the Sociology of World Religions (which got through China and India and ancient Israel, but no further). Bellah is definitely playing major league sociology.

The basic point of the book is not so much Durkheimian or Weberian—the two great tribes of sociology, especially sociology of religion—but Faulknerian; he echoes Faulkner’s famous line, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” “Nothing is ever lost” is Bellah’s near-constant mantra; the habits, patterns, reflexes and modes of behavior we acquired in our primate prehistory continue to shape our individual behavior and social order. While these realities remain powerful forces, we have achieved some relative autonomy from them and thus some power to shape how they affect us. We can cultivate some parts of our inheritance and create protective strategies against other aspects, as we judge best. We have, that is, the ability to be partially self-transcendent. And this capacity is part of the story of evolution, as Bellah tells it, which is not the necessary unfolding of a foreordained script, or the development of snug little functional niches for the way the world works today, but rather a chaotic, highly contingent and ironic tale of agents interacting, reacting and responding to the situations, contexts and environments in which they have found themselves.

This vision of evolution is then given narrative flesh in the story Bellah tells of religion’s role in human history. Unlike Wade’s essentialist account of religion, Bellah’s is frankly stipulative and functional. He defines religion as any “system of symbols which, when enacted by human beings, establishes powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations that make sense in terms of an idea of a general order of existence.” He pairs this definition with the theory of the psychologist Merlin Donald, who argues that the human mind has developed sequentially through three stages: mimetic (think of dance and chant), mythic (think stories) and theoretic (think philosophy). Bellah then argues that this theory helps us schematize three different evolutionary stages of religion: first tribal religion, in which order and organization (religious and otherwise) is secured fundamentally by myth and ritual; then the “archaic” religion of God-kings or God-priests, seamlessly fusing what we see as (secular) political and (otherworldly) religious functions; then finally the crucial “Axial Age” transformations in Greece, Israel, India and China (in 600–200 BCE), where the fundamental harmony of social order and cosmic order, so basic to archaic cultures, began to be questioned, and the possibility of radical critique—philosophical and socio-political—thereby became available.

Today we live in what Bellah calls the “long present”, after the Axial Age, knowing that our social orders do not necessarily map onto the basic structure of the cosmos or the ultimate will of God. We know that the way our world is organized can be otherwise, and perhaps should be otherwise. Attention to deep patterns in our modes of inhabiting the world is essential to understand how we can live and how best to address the challenges we face. Looking at ourselves from this perspective makes visible a set of challenges we would never otherwise have noticed and offers us some admittedly tentative and necessarily rudimentary suggestions about how to address them.

In doing so, Bellah is mindful of the tension between the disposition of sociology and that of anthropology. It is as if his old friend, the late Clifford Geertz, was perched on his shoulder while he was writing Religion in Human Evolution. Geertz was an anthropologist and ethnographer, skeptical of all those over-eager “scientific” approaches to human existence that elbow quickly past the finely textured surface phenomena of human life to look for deep evolutionary mechanisms. Bellah, in contrast, is interested in just that sort of putative large patterns, deep structures, and ideal types that triggered Geertz’s suspicions. He nonetheless tries to comprehend his friend’s insistence on the contingencies of history and culture. He insists that human beings as a species are so under-determined as to accommodate a great deal of cultural formation; there are “common human experiential potentialities that have recognizable similarities, but are inchoate until given shape by symbolic form. Once so shaped, their similarities are always qualified: the differences may be crucial.” He knows, too, that “cultural traditions not only shape, they even call forth emotional experiences.”

Still, Bellah’s studied attention to complexity and subtlety does not stop him from making bold claims. Most interesting perhaps is the role he ascribes to “play” in human affairs, the seemingly non-functional part of human existence. On his account, the things we call “religions” today originated not only around gathering groups together, á la Wade, to make war and keep social order, but also around exercising certain human energies through various modes of play. Indeed, the importance of play is a core conviction of the book. Here Bellah is less an empiricist than a philosophical anthropologist, using Romantic philosophers like Friedrich Schiller, but also philosophically minded scientists such as Gordon Burghardt (author of The Genesis of Animal Play (2005)). This tradition proposes that humans are a playful species, and we are most fundamentally ourselves when we are not functional. Play is not the antithesis of seriousness but the antithesis of work, of sustaining the general scheme of the everyday in which we spend so much of our time.

In contrast to work’s anxious drudgery of constantly reinforcing social structures and hierarchies, of reestablishing who gets to be a parent and who a child, who the boss and who the employee, and so on, play is what we do when we “log off” from the grid of social structures. Play involves a dialectic of freedom and constraint, or better, freedom within constraint. This is obviously so in games, but equally so in any form of play. The boundaries of play, the delimiting and the defining of the conditions of play, themselves can stand in a kind of dream-like state of critical assessment, a kind of Habermasian reverie. In short, play nourishes us, makes us fully human, equips us for reflective agency and enables us to understand that behind (or above) the routines of the everyday there can be a carnival of an altogether different sort.

This gets us to a crucial normative claim lurking around the edges of Bellah’s book, for he worries that humanity is in danger of losing its capacity for play. Oh, he has other worries, too, but none of them as central as his fundamental worry that humanity stands in danger of forgetting its need for play. When we forget that, Bellah thinks, we forfeit our capacity to be fully human.

Of course, there are many things to cavil at in Bellah’s project. His vision of the “stages” of human development is probably more troublesome than he thinks it is; when Ernst Cassirer propounded a very similar theory in the 1920s, in The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, he encouraged a cacophony of criticism (though no definitive refutation). Bellah’s analysis of his cases is no doubt riddled with minor mistakes on which specialists will pounce. His understanding of “religion” surely needs updating by attention to the way politics shapes religion even today. And certainly the project needs extension, covering at least some of the past 2,000 years. Nonetheless, both in the scale of its ambition, and in the degree to which that ambition is realized, this is a book that will outlast its critics.


he differences between Wade’s aims and Bellah’s are vast. The former wishes to explain religion; the latter wishes to understand it. A scientistic explanation such as Wade’s treats religion as a puzzle to be solved: Why do people bother with non-empirical beliefs? Why do they engage in costly rituals and social practices and tend so avidly to institutions and structures that apparently provide no immanent goods? Once we’ve answered these kinds of questions, we’re done: This is science in the service of indifference. It is hard to imagine Wade seeking wisdom from the objects of his study.

Bellah, in contrast, tries to ask questions that will lead to further questions; he frankly acknowledges the power of the natural sciences, especially evolutionary theory, to help us understand ourselves, but his aim is always to deepen our understanding of ourselves and our neighbors, not to solve a puzzle and turn away. Each moment in his account invites further reflection, deeper immersion in the realities under study, a richer, more empathetic comprehension of what it is like to be these people. For all these reasons, I hope that future work in evolutionary theory and religion will learn from Bellah’s example, and not Wade’s. Were that to happen, it would count not just as evolution; it would count as progress.


1For examples, see Terry Eagleton, Reason, Faith, and Revolution (Yale University Press, 2010), and Marilynne Robinson, Absence of Mind (Yale University Press, 2011).

2See Ralph S. Hattox, Coffee and Coffeehouses: The Origins of a Social Beverage in the Medieval Near East (University of Washington Press, 1985).


Charles Mathewes teaches religious studies at the University of Virginia. His most recent book is The Republic of Grace: Augustinian Thoughts for Dark Times (Eerdmans, 2010).