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03 November 2011

Bellah on Religion and Humans

The Immanent Frame has a new essay from Robert Bellah titled "Where Did Religion Come From?" that is a must-read for all sociologists and all scholars of religion. Bellah argues that, in the evolution of modern human beings, we first copied each other (i.e. mimesis), then, we communicated with each other (i.e. language), and finally, we tried to make sense of the world (i.e. myth). These three stages lead respectively to ritual, symbolism, and sense-making. Bellah quotes Merlin Donald, who defines myth as an attempt at causal explanation, prediction, and control of the world. Bellah is quick to remind us, though, that myth is not an imperfect attempt at science. Instead, science is an attempt to understand the world in all its complex messiness, which requires hyper-specialization on the part of scientists, but myth is about universal comprehensibility, albeit imperfect. In other words, religion is the way that we deal with meaning in a way that all of us can share; science, on the other hand, is not so all-encompassing or graspable.

I have to include this quote from the piece in which Bellah makes an elegant argument for the innate socialness of language and, thus, human beings.

Language acquisition in the individual is social: even if there were such a thing as a language module [in the brain], which neither Donald nor I for a minute believe, it could only become operative in a socially provided linguistic context. Isolated children do not learn spontaneously to speak. Jerome Bruner, as Donald reminds us, has shown convincingly that language learning requires an external support system, a linguistic milieu, to be effective.
If only I could be this pithy lecturing to my Intro to Soc course.

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