Weber for the 21st century

Religion-in-Human-Evolution-197x300Richard Madsen reviews Robert Bellah's Religion in Human Evolution in The Immanent Frame:

For almost one hundred years, all sociologists of religion have taken Max Weber’s great work on comparative religions as a primary point of departure. Whole libraries of scholarship have been produced to explicate Weber, expand on Weber, disagree with Weber, revise Weber. In the next hundred years, I think, the point of departure will be Robert Bellah rather than Weber. Bellah’s new masterpiece, Religion in Human Evolution is comparable in scope, breadth of scholarship, and depth of erudition to Weber’s study of world religions, but it is grounded in all of the advances of historical, linguistic, and archeological scholarship that have taken place since Weber, as well as theoretical advances in evolutionary biology and cognitive science. There is enough complexity in Bellah’s work to generate as many academic inspirations and controversies—and, inevitably, oversimplifications and misunderstandings—as have arisen from Weber’s, but Bellah’s will have more resonance with contemporary issues than Weber’s century-old scholarship. Even more fundamental, however, is that Bellah’s new book is in style and pathos more in tune with the spirit of the early twenty-first century than Weber. What are some of the key contrasts between Bellah and Weber? First of all, having deeply absorbed the perspectives of Durkheim, Bellah is focused much more on religious practice, especially ritual practice. This puts him in line with the dominant contemporary trends in the anthropology of religion, trends that see religions mainly as ways of life rather than systems of ideas. Weber doesn’t ignore religious practices, but puts much more emphasis on the ideas that animate the great world religions. Bellah by no means ignores religious ideas, but he emphasizes how thinking about religion grows out of doing religion.

This emphasis on practice leads to a different style of exposition than Weber’s. Much more than Weber’s (or Durkheim’s or Parsons’), Bellah’s expository style is dominated by narrative. Religion in Human Evolution is a grand story, what Bellah calls a “deep history,” that extends all the way from the Big Bang to the axial age (with suggestive implications as to how the story will unfold in modern times). This leads to a much more fluid account of the origin and development of religions than Weber’s. In Bellah’s telling, religious practices emerge gradually over centuries, in constant interaction with social and political transformations.