Sustain-Ability?   /   Summer 2012   /    Interviews

A Conversation with Robert Bellah

Hans Joas

Your recent book, Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age, if I see it correctly, is a world history of religion in its early phases, directed against a biologically founded critique of religion and against all Western triumphalism. It is based on an understanding of religion as a complex of human experiences, symbols, rituals, and myths and shows how the traditions were created that still nourish us today, for example, in ancient Judaism, in India, and in China. I propose that we take that characterization as a guideline for our conversation today. I'll start with the first aspect. Would you elaborate on the biological foundation of religion?

I wanted to give the largest possible framework for my study of religion in human evolution, and that largest framework is cosmological and biological. So I start with the Big Bang. I don’t even start with the beginning of life. I do feel that religion, to use Clifford Geertz’s terms, is concerned with the general order of existence. It is primarily a way of acting in the world, but it also involves a concern for knowing in the world. Remember the first sentence of Aristotle’s Metaphysics: “all men by nature desire to know.” At this point, knowing requires that we take seriously what science has discovered. I argue, as you know, that science is different from religion; I follow a rather pluralist notion of various spheres that is rooted ultimately in William James, a methodological and even a metaphysical pluralist.

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