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Life Arts    H2'ed 11/27/21

Robert N. Bellah on Religion in Big History (REVIEW ESSAY)

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) November 27, 2021: Berkeley's distinguished sociologist of religion Robert N. Bellah's 775-page magnum opus Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age (Harvard University Press, 2011) constructs an evolutionary Big History account in which to situate Karl Jasper's account of the ancient axial age (roughly, the first millennium BCE) in which four operationally defined and explained religions (roughly, symbol systems about the beyond) emerged: (1) in ancient Israel; (2) in ancient Greece; (3) in ancient China; and (4) in ancient India. For Bellah, both Christianity and Islam are beyond the scope of his investigation.

Bellah's book is exemplary. His writing is admirably lucid as he weaves together various strands of thought to produce his nuanced account of religion, broadly conceived as about the beyond, in the context of Big History. I am thankful that Bellah (1927-2013; Ph.D. in sociology and Far Eastern Languages, Harvard University, 1955) had the leisure necessary to research and write such an ambitious and comprehensive book.

Karl Jasper's book about the axial age is The Origin and Goal of History, translated by Michael Bullock (Yale University Press, 1953; orig. German ed., 1949).

Bellah does indeed eventually devote a chapter to each of those four distant ancient developments in the so-called axial age:

(1) Chapter 6: "The Axial Age I: Introduction and Ancient Israel" (pages 265-323);

(2) Chapter 7: "The Axial Age II: Ancient Greece" (pages 324-398);

(3) Chapter 8: "The Axial Age III: China in the Late First Millennium BCE" (pages 399-480); and

(4) Chapter 9: "The Axial Age IV: Ancient India" (pages 481-566).

However, to prepare the reader for his more highly specific discussions of those four distant ancient developments, Bellah provides the reader with the following discussions:

A "Preface" (pages ix-xxiii; followed by "Acknowledgments" [pages xxv-xxvii]);

Chapter 1: "Religion and Reality" (pages 1-43);

Chapter 2: "Religion and Evolution" (pages 44-116);

Chapter 3: "Tribal Religion: The Production of Meaning" (pages 117-174);

Chapter 4: "From Tribal to Archaic Religion: Meaning and Power" (pages 175-209);

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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