Religious Evolution Research Paper

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Both evolution and development are ways of looking at the history of religion. Development implies some kind of directional change in the history of a particular religion, whereas evolution implies comparable directional changes in a number of religious traditions. Since histories usually describe directional change of some sort, the idea of religious development merges into the much larger field of the history of religions. Therefore this research paper will focus on religious evolution.

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1. The Term ‘Religious Evolution’

The idea of religious evolution, like the idea of social evolution, has been much criticized in the twentieth century, although neither idea has been entirely abandoned. If the notion of religious evolution is to be salvaged it must be dissociated from several preconceptions of its nineteenth century proponents. These preconceptions include the idea that all religions must be fitted into a single (unilineal) pattern, that progression through a fixed series of stages is inevitable, and that more advanced stages are ‘higher’ (ethically and spiritually better) than earlier ones (Comte 1830– 1842, Tylor 1871, Spencer 1876–1997 , Marett 1914, etc.). It is the notion of inevitable progress that has been rejected by twentieth century writers; the idea that religious change correlates with social change in comparable ways across traditions can still be defended as ‘religious evolution.’ Contrary to common belief, it is to the writings of Max Weber (1920–1921, 1921–1922/1978) that a defensible conception of religious evolution owes the most.

2. The Protestant Ethic

Weber began his study of religion with his famous The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Caplitalism (1904– 1905/1930). At first glance, it might seem that this book is simply a developmental history focusing on a dramatic change within a single religious tradition. However, it is clear from the place of the Protestant ethic argument in Economy and Society (1921–1922/1978) and in the Gesammelte Aufsatze zur Religionsso-ziologie (1920–1921) that Weber believed that ascetic Protestantism was an indispensable catalyst for the emergence of a new form of society, which he called modern capitalism. Never before the Reformation in the West was the hold of agrarian society, organized through patrimonial (including patrimonial bureaucratic) and feudal political forms, broken through. Once established, however, capitalism became a worldwide phenomenon, even though taking different forms in different civilizational areas. Thus Protestantism, though occurring in only one tradition, played, indirectly but crucially, a developmental role cross culturally, and thus can legitimately be considered an instance of religious evolution.

Since Weber’s time there has been a search for functional equivalents of Protestantism in other traditions that prepared some societies better than others and some groups in some societies better than others for the transition to capitalism, or, perhaps better, to modernity (Bellah 1957, Eisenstadt 1968). Ernest Gellner made the interesting suggestion that there were elements in all the great traditions, Islam in particular, that might have led to a Protestant-like breakthrough, but that a combination of fortuitous circumstances in Western Europe made it possible for it to occur there (1988). This raises the interesting question of what gave the great religious traditions a rationalizing potentiality even if it was only fully realized in one case.

3. The Axial Age

In his comparative studies in the sociology of religion (1920–1921) and in the sociology of religion section of Economy and Society (1921–1922 1978) Weber pointed out that in each of the world religions, sometime in the first millennium BC, there emerged prophets or saviors who radically rationalized previous forms of what he tended to call magical religion. In each case the emergent figure (Confucius, the Buddha, the Hebrew prophets, Socrates, Jesus) preached a systematic form of ethical conduct quite different from the diffuse ritual and sacramental practices that preceded them. By calling these new symbolic forms ‘rationalized’ Weber was pointing to the fact that they were more coherent, more cognitively and ethically universalizing, more potentially self-critical (reflexive), and more disengaged from the existing society than what preceded them.

Weber’s friend, Karl Jaspers, spoke of this period as the Axial Age (1948), and vs. N. Eisenstadt has contributed significantly to the further study of what he calls Axial civilizations (1986 and elsewhere). Following Weber one can characterize each of the Axial breakthroughs (first millennium BC China, India, Israel, Greece) as involving, to different degrees and in different ways, an element of world rejection (Weber 1920/1946). Religious renouncers (Dumont 1980) in each case called the empirical world into question and, by invoking a transcendental realm, provided a significant degree of tension between worldly interests and religious demands that enhanced the possibility of social change. Although Weber himself contributed to the stereotype of static traditional societies, in his studies of particular traditions he discerned significant possibilities of social transformation (Weber 1920–1921, 1921–1922/1978).

Subsequent scholars have pointed out the dynamic potentialities in all the great traditions. What scholars such as Gellner have emphasized is that a radically rationalized ethic of conduct, such as that found in Protestantism, was not in itself enough. As long as the existing military, political, and religious hierarchies of agrarian societies could contain these rationalizing potentialities within monastic orders or private conventicles, a new type of society could not emerge. What made Protestantism successful was not just its unique ethic but the possibility of gaining sufficient political influence (in Geneva, the Netherlands, England, and New England) to institutionalize that ethic in the major spheres of social life.

4. The Shape Of Religious Evolution

If Weber had at least two stages of religious evolution, namely an Axial stage correlating with the emergence of historic agrarian societies, and a modern stage for which ascetic Protestantism was an indispensable precondition, did he have any more stages? In looking at his historical sociology as a whole it is clear that he did. The world religions were preceded by societies organized primarily in terms of kinship and neighborhood and in which religion was primarily magical, by which Weber meant, one in which ritual means were used to attain utilitarian ends such as rain, good harvests, human fertility, etc. While such a three-stage typology is for many purposes adequate, it does seem possible to refine it further.

Bellah, in his essay Religious Evolution (1964), suggested a further differentiation of the early stages. He distinguished between a ‘primitive,’ now better, ‘tribal’, phase, and an archaic phase. Myth and ritual characterize tribal religion—indeed they may be coterminous with hominization itself—but they are myth and ritual of a particular type. The spiritual beings whose activities are narrated in the myths are not gods and are not worshipped. These half-human, half-animal, often ancestral, beings express in archetypal fashion the social and ecological life of the people. Ritual involves the reenactment of the primordial events such that mythical time becomes present, not the worship of distanced deities. Tribal religion is most characteristic of hunter-gatherers, but is also common in horticultural societies. With agriculture and the emergence of complex chiefdoms, and particularly with the early state, archaic religion comes into being. While in tribal societies every clan can be traced to an ancestral being, in archaic societies only the aristocratic lineages claim divine descent. A hierarchic pantheon of gods appears, quite different from the mythical beings of tribal religion. The gods require worship, and, significantly, sacrifice, in many cases human sacrifice, and a differentiated class of priests who supervise the worship. In archaic societies the ruler often claims descent from the highest god, even the claim to be a living god himself. In general, archaic religion is characterized by a fusion of political and religious hierarchy largely missing in tribal society. Examples of archaic societies, often identified as Bronze Age societies, would include third and second millennium BC Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Indus Valley, and North China, but also early first millennium AD Japan, and first millennium AD Meso-America and Peru.

It was in the midst of or on the peripheries of such archaic societies that the axial religions of the first millennium BC emerged. They took the hierarchical tendencies of archaic religion in a radically transcendental direction. All value was seen to reside in a realm beyond this world and thus this world and all the worldly hierarchies within it were relativized and potentially delegitimized. But in most cases the new Axial religions either remained marginal to the centers of power or, if they were recognized by the ruling center, they made compromises with it so that they largely legitimated that center rather than challenged it, thus allowing a quasi-archaic situation to continue. This is not to minimize, however, the importance of Axial religions in the elite education and culture of each of the great traditions. Also, the critical potential of the Axial religions was continually reasserted in the form of heresies, uprisings, and rebellions (Eisenstadt 1986, 1999), but these were normally either destroyed, marginalized or, if successful, coopted by the existing structures of power.

A simplified way of looking at the shape of religious evolution was proposed by Bellah (1964). He argued that whereas tribal and archaic religions were primarily this-worldly in orientation, which is what Weber, perhaps unwisely, meant by the word magical, the Axial religions were world-rejecting (and thus, for Weber, very importantly, magic rejecting), although they differed as to whether this rejection was to be worked out within the world (ethically), or as far as possible outside the world (mystically). It should be remembered that in its radical consistency Axial religion was never more than the religion of a minority; the majority continued to entertain beliefs and practices continuous with archaic or even tribal religion, which is what Weber meant by the return to the garden of magic (1920–1921).

With the Protestant Reformation, however, the belief in a radically transcendent God had dramatic this-worldly consequences: the consistent demands of an Axial ethic were to characterize every sphere of daily life. But in the subsequent development of modernity, though the this-worldly dimension remained dominant, its transcendental basis became transformed into immanentism, thus returning the modern world in a much different way to this-worldly immanentism of pre-Axial times. Weber clearly observed this transition, but viewed it almost entirely negatively. The modern world of rationalization would run on its own bureaucratic and economic energies without any transcendental sanction, would become an iron cage (1904–1905 1930). Charles Taylor has described the same transformation in less somber hues as ‘the affirmation of ordinary life’ and has stressed growing individuation (1989). In any case, though the world of the Protestant Reformation and the Western world since the eighteenth century (and, more recently, much of the rest of the world, as well) are clearly different, it is doubtful whether the Protestant phase needs to be designated as a separate ‘early modern stage’ as Bellah did in 1964, or whether it should be seen as merely the opening transition toward modern religion, the contours of which, though it has been developing for several centuries, are still far from clear.

The shape of religious evolution should not obscure its many irregularities, its lack of unilineal consistency. Regression was always a possibility: Axial Greek civilization did not emerge from the womb of archaic Minoan and Mycenean societies, but only after the breakdown of those societies and the return to tribalism. Stages were sometimes skipped, especially on the peripheries of advanced societies: the Israelite Axial breakthrough began in a tribal confederation on the boundaries of archaic empires; Muhammad grew up in the tribal city of Mecca but founded an Axial civilization, to be sure under Jewish and Christian influence. Not only was every religion from tribal to modern full of internal tensions and divisions but all of them were open to continuous external influence.

5. The Causes Of Religious Evolution

To move beyond description and consider causation is always difficult in historical sociology; nevertheless, how one answers the question of causation, even tentatively, will determine how one understands the entire process. Religious evolution is certainly embedded in social evolution and cannot be understood apart from it. Long-term tendencies, such as the increasing division of labor, the increasing capacity of states to mobilize social power, the development of media such as money and writing, the differentiation of elites of various types as carriers of distinct cultural traditions, the tendency of pre-modern societies to oscillate between political centralization (patrimonialism) and decentralization (feudalism) all influenced and were influenced by religious beliefs and practices.

There has been a tendency among supporters of the idea of social evolution, Marxist and non-Marxist alike, to emphasize economic factors as causal, and religious developments as epiphenomenal. It has been common to believe that Max Weber reversed this understanding and held that religion was primary in social causation. A reading of Weber’s entire work, which puts The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism in its proper perspective, makes it clear that such was not his belief. Rather, Weber argued for the relative independence of the religious dimension as a factor in social life, but one that always interacts with other factors, notably economic, political, and legal. vs. N. Eisenstadt rephrases Weber by showing that it is not just a matter of emphasizing multi-causality: while never sufficient as a casual factor in itself, religion provides the indispensable element of cultural codes, not only for the institutionalization of new social forms but, when internalized in personality systems, for new forms of individual motivation as well (Eisenstadt 1999).

Religious elements have played a critical role in all the great social transitions. Terrence Deacon has even argued that the origin of language among the early hominids was probably facilitated by what he specifically calls ritual (1997). Some primates today can learn words, but only under the most intense pressure of human teaching. Deacon hypothesizes that the bodily and repetitive nature of ritual may have been a necessary precondition for the counterintuitive, from an early primate point of view, shift to symbolic representation that is the basis of language. In any case, Paleolithic evidence, difficult to interpret though it is, suggests that ritual played a central role in creating the social solidarity and respect for the normative order of kinship relations that differentiate humans from other primates.

The transition to archaic society is associated almost everywhere with monumental temple architecture, large-scale sacrifice, and divine kingship. It would seem that the move from the basic egalitarianism of tribal society to the intensely hierarchical and centralized order of archaic societies was only possible with the institutionalization of new religious codes, in association with an unprecedented concentration of social power.

While causal linkages are far from clear, the first millennium BC did see a number of developments that might have prepared the ground for the rise of the Axial religions. These include the beginnings of a market economy, an increase in bureaucratic and military power, and increasing differentiations of social classes, all of which could have given rise to Weber’s ‘problems of meaning’ (1921–1922 1978). But an indispensable precondition for these radical new religious developments was the existence of cultural elites at least to some degree independent of central political power. These include the Hebrew prophets, the Greek philosophers, the Chinese sages, and the Indian ascetics and mystics. It was among these groups that archaic symbol systems were radically reinterpreted in a transcendental ethical and spiritual direction.

The influence of the Protestant Reformation on the emergence of modern society has been the subject of a vast literature. A significant recent development, however, has been the recognition of the importance of a ‘disciplinary revolution,’ particularly associated with the Calvinist wing of the Reformation (Gorski 1993). The disciplinary revolution operated at a number of levels: a new code of systematic ethical action expected from believers, new institutions capable of enforcing the code, and new solidary organizations strong enough to influence political and economic developments. The transformation of these new codes under a variety of influences and pressures into such tendencies as utilitarianism, liberalism, Jacobinism, and socialism, and more recently, individualism and fundamentalism, has significantly affected the shape of and the tensions within modern society.

Thus, viewing the process as a whole, it appears that religious evolution is not only a subject of great interest in itself, but is a critical dimension of social evolution.


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