Robert Bellah’s recent tome Religion in Human Evolution  attempts to revive the grand narrative approach to history (which has been in a bit of a rough patch since, say, 1989) but it does so more-or-less in the context of a scientific theory of evolution, and it places religion (rather than class, will, ideology, etc.) at the center of human life. Manussos Marangudakis attempts to demystify this project on the Immanent Frame blog:

First, on religion: Both neo-Marxist and neo-Weberian grand narratives tend to downplay or even ignore religion as they reduce it to its political and organizational features and neglect its ideational side. Bellah restores religion to its former glory, not by reminding the reader of its Durkheimian or Weberian features, but by locating it in a wider framework of an endless quest for meaning and alternative perceptions of reality. In this context, religion becomes the key to understanding social evolution (at least up to modernity), since religion and its concomitant practices are the means to firmly establish increasingly complex social power arrangements and structures that otherwise would be unattainable. [ . . . ]

Second, on the suppositions of historical change and the fate of society itself: Neo-Marxist grand narratives tend to be teleological and moralistic, producing reductionist visions of social change and utopian outcomes. On the contrary, neo-Weberian grand narratives are cynically realistic and develop anti-teleological views of historical change that come close to declaring social evolution meaningless, blindly walking (or even bouncing back) through the corridors of history as if guided by accidents, unintentional consequences, and perilous passions. Considering the post-1980s demise of neo-Marxist grand theory, all that is left to us today is the hegemony of this neo-Weberian cynicism and pessimism.

Robert Bellah’s  Religion in Human Evolution  comes to counter this cynicism and pessimism in a most forceful way; and it does so in spite of the open pessimism and cynicism of the author himself, who in the concluding chapter of his book declares that we are in fact an insignificant and short-sighted species that is driving the planet to extinction. There is nothing in the book that prepares you for this conclusion, and rightly so. True as it is that Bellah is very careful to avoid teleological arguments—and his evolutionary scheme always allows for alternative paths, even dead-ends—reading the book unfolds a magisterial  hopeful,  if not optimistic image of an unbroken pathway that life on Earth has taken to self-reflection, awareness, and eventually an ecumenical sense of justice. [ . . . ] It is in this evolutionary context that Bellah investigates the emergence of axial thinking that is still with us today; in fact, an equally proper title of the book, though I admit, provocative  in extremis , would be  Human Evolution in Religion .


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