In the era of the Trump and Modi presidencies, triumphalism of various sorts has made an astonishing resurgence. While he has its more scholarly variants in mind, Robert Bellah’s magnum opusoffers a powerful response to such a development. Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age is an impressive, rich, and compelling account of how cultures elaborate and accumulate their theoretical and practical knowledge over time. To put it briefly, Bellah wants to uphold a story of social, political, cultural, and religious progress, while simultaneously rejecting any implication of triumphalism, popular or otherwise. To this end, he notes that while the evolutionary struggle for existence is the basic fact of biological and cultural change, the development of complex capacities which derived from this process is not an uncontested good. If there are ethical and political gains made in history, as undoubtedly there are, their trajectory is neither simple nor linear. Bellah’s point shouldn’t be difficult to grasp. Ours is an age of profound technological advancement and staggering wealth (however unequally distributed), just as it is also one of environmental degradation and disaster.

Bellah’s response to today’s triumphalism is powerful precisely because play is central to his account. Consider what happens when we watch a hockey game. A substantial part of the experience consists in the temporary suspension of ordinary life—its temporal rhythms, its social organization, and its ethical demands. To oversimplify the case somewhat, daily life is bracketed when we become “fans.” By cheering for our favourite team we participate in a community with a distinct set of rituals, rules, and experiences. We become immersed in a different web of meaning. This horizon helps each of us redirect, spend, and shape the fraught energies present in social life, which might otherwise find expression in frustration, alienation, and violence.

The concept of play is employed by Bellah as a driver of the development of religion, art, and science in human evolution. He contends, for instance, that the emergence of the “early state” in the archaic world was accompanied by religious rituals which incorporated the struggle for existence into an agonistic, competitive form of play. Over time, he argues, a tension eventually emerged in Axial-Age societies between the communities rooted in forms of religious play and the developed forms of social domination. The great “renouncers” of various religious traditions, such as the Buddha, responded to this tension by articulating a “universally egalitarian ethic.”

In Israel, China, Greece, and India—the major focal points of the bookthe renouncers articulated a criticism of the real world by outlining an alternative, ideal one. A famous example of one such is Socrates’ allegory of the cave in Plato’s Republic.These ideals, frequently emerging from renouncer traditions, offered a release from the increased constraints of Axial Age societies through play, through imaginative forms of patterned religious activity. In these instances, Bellah claims, religion functions as the provision of a framework and a location for a relaxed field of play, where the present structure of social domination is displaced in favour of an egalitarian vision of a future age.

Once more, though, Bellah is careful to observe that the capacities developed by religious forms of play did not always take a straight path. Yes, the renouncers developed a form of a universal ethic. But that new ethic was challenged, or redeployed. Han Fei in China and Kautilya in India both detached ethics from politics in ways that seriously modified the universalist project. Again, cultural progress isn’t an uncontested good.

Just as a universal ethic could be revised to serve other non-ethical means, so a modern theoretical perspective, freed from its context, can assume a superiority that can lead to catastrophic mistakes. In contrast, Bellah stresses that each Axial Age breakthrough, which tended to emphasize human equality and respect for all sentient beings, occurred in particular communities and cultures whose religious practices and stories defined who they were.

The mistake of triumphalism lies in treating theoretical perspectives detached from cultural practices as the means by which to win a debate decisively and silence further dissent. Obviously a theoretical perspective can pose universal questions and offer powerful and compelling answers. Bellah simply insists that today we should be suspicious of any answer which fails to situate itself in terms of its particular cultural practices. In effect, such answers try to conceal the fact that, as he puts it, “we are all in this together.” If we want to address the major problems facing our world, including widespread violence and the threat of massive extinction, we need more constructively critical conversations—a philosophical form play—not more triumphal declarations. As the Michael Oakeshott once wrote, the significance of conversation “lies neither in winning nor in losing, but in wagering.”


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

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