Robert Bellah on Religious Evolution
There are 5 major phases in the world-wide evolution of
religion. Acceptance of "this world" is emphasized in the first
and last phases. Rejection of "this world" is highest in the
middle phase, Historic Religion. Rejection of "this world" is a
function primarily of religious dualism. Dualism reaches its
peak during the historic phase when the "great, universal, ethical
religions" emerged—Christianity, post-tribal Judaism,
Symbol System: Myths are dream-like, occurring "out of
time." Mythical characters are human and animal ancestral
figures. They are heroic beings, but not gods. They do not
control the world, and they are not worshiped. They were
the progenitors of human beings. There is no deep gulf
between ideals and reality. There is only "one world."
Action: Community members act-out myths, identifying
themselves with the mythical beings they pretend to
become, often believing they are literally transformed. Most
important rituals are rites of transition, such as "puberty
rites," and rites of sacrifice—a communal slaughtering and
consumption of the sacred totemic species of the clan.
Organization: Religion is an attribute of the kinship system.
No separate organization of specialists exist. Church and
society are one. Age is an important criterion of leadership.
Social Implications: Rituals reinforce social solidarity of the
clan, and induct youth into adult responsibilities as they are
allocated in the clan.
Symbol System: Mythical beings are considered gods. They
actively, willfully control the world, and must be worshiped
in a prescribed manner. A hierarchy among the various gods
is established. The afterlife becomes an important religious
concern. There is still, basically, "one world," but a
hierarchy between "this world" and the "other world" is
established, with the "other world" being more powerful.
Individuals and society are seen as merged into one, divine
Action: Men are subjects, and gods are objects to be
worshipped. Sacrifice is the principle means of
communicating with the gods. Specialists (priests) emerge
to mediate between subjects and the gods, presiding over
Organization: Each god is the focus of a cult, with its own
specific rituals. Priests are in charge of each cult, but there
is no congregation. Different social groups focus on
different cults. Religious organization is still merged with
from Robert N. Bellah, "Religious Evolution
, vol. 29, 1964, pp. 358-374.
social structure, but only at the top. A certain degree of
conflict involving power-struggles is set in motion between
religious and military authorities, but not enough separation
for religion to be clearly differentiated and independent of
political authority. At the top, in the person of the king,
religious and military-political leadership are combined.