Back to His Roots

Religion-in-Human-Evolution-197x300Matteo Bortolini on Robert N. Bellah’s Religion in Human Evolution, over at The Immanent Frame [h/t: Jonathan VanAntwerpen]:

As the readers of Religion in Human Evolution know, for example, the book unexpectedly starts…from the start, that is, from the Big Bang and the origin of the universe. Even if the strictly non-sociological stuff fills barely 40 pages within a 700-page book, some critics have paid it a disproportionate degree of attention, often without trying to understand its place within the wider line of reasoning; one such critic is, regrettably enough, Alan Wolfe, who in his New York Times book review wrote: “I never thought I would read a work in the sociology of religion that contained a discussion of prokaryotes and eukaryotes. I now have.” In the book, Bellah vindicates his comprehensive and deep narrative out of a more general sense of universal connection, according to which “we, as modern humans trying to understand this human practice we call religion, need to situate ourselves in the broadest context we can, and it is with scientific cosmology that we must start.”

From the point of view of the sociology of ideas, this strategy might be seen as both a homage to a venerable sociological tradition—going all the way back to Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer and the incredibly vast array of interests of 19th-century sociology—and as an attempt to bring Talcott Parsons’s work to a higher level of complexity and explicative power. Many may not know, but Parsons was a biology major and remained a voracious reader all his life, eager to make almost everything fit inside his signature “theory of social action.” Given Parsons’s charismatic personality and influence, these interests repeatedly impacted the members of his inner circle. Edward Tiryakian, who was a graduate student at Harvard in the mid-1950s together with Bellah, told me an anecdote about Parsons’s interest in decidedly non-sociological themes that I would like to share: “In one of his discussions… [Parsons] was talking about the evolution of species. So he looked at people and he said: ‘Do you realize the evolutionary significance of the worm having a hole from mouth to anus?’ And he looked at people. Now what do you do when Parsons looks at you? People just went,‘Wow!’” Twenty years later, when Bellah had found his own scholarly voice and only tangentially participated in the development of Parsonian theory, Parsons tried to make sense of the whole human condition devising a comprehensive AGIL (Adaptation, Goal Attainment, Integration, Latency) scheme covering almost everything from the ultimate ground of the “telic system” to the material (i.e. chemical and physical) bases of all living systems. This time the audience’s reaction was much different from Tiryakian’s “wow,” as Parsons had irreparably gone out of fashion and his more mature efforts went almost unnoticed outside the circle of his disciples and connoisseurs.

Parsons, however, was saying something of the utmost importance: reality is an almost endless succession of levels and layers, each one emerging from simpler ones—whatever “simpler” means in this context—and giving rise to more complex ones, which possess new, emerging properties. Likewise, Bellah’s point is that biological, psychological, social, and cultural structures combine without any clear causal primacy in creating new capacities upon which further changes build endlessly.