03/06/2012 08:19 am ET | Updated May 06, 2012

Where Did Religion Come From?

Where did religion come from? And how has it changed as human societies have evolved over the centuries?

You'd think only children would dare to ask such questions, but these musings are precisely the ones posed by America's premier sociologist, Robert Bellah in a recent book, "Religion in Human Evolution" (Harvard University Press). He begins at the beginning -- literally, with the Big Bang -- and tries to identify when religion emerged and how, and how it changed through the centuries. He ends with the Axial Age of the sixth century before Christ, focusing on ancient India, Israel, Greece and China. The book has aroused the interest of a range of scholars, from biologists to social scientists and historians.

Needless to say, there are admirers and skeptics. Some are both.

I brought together a group of them recently in San Francisco to discuss this project with Bellah. With a passion that belied his octogenarian status, he defended his positions. Here are some of their concerns, and Bellah's responses.

In what sense can religion be thought of evolving, we wanted to know? A specialist on the ancient classical world, Luke Johnson, raised the issue of whether cultures change in a way that is anything like biological evolution. He noted that Bellah used the term "evolution" in more than a metaphorical sense -- but is that really possible? Religious dispositions are not genetically transferred traits.

Bellah countered that his book was not about the evolution of religion, but the evolution of human societies' capacities, and these make cultural changes possible. The capacity for creative activity, for instance, is possible only when one's survival needs are fully met.

So as societies evolve, their capacities for religion change. Bellah identifies three stages: enactive, symbolic and conceptual. Basic rituals are part of the first, then myth and legend, and finally ethical and theological reasoning.

The conceptual stage is one related to the Axial Age, roughly around the sixth century B.C.E., when Plato and other thinkers founded Greek philosophy and the Buddha and other teachers raised Indic religion to a whole new conceptual level.

Wendy Doniger, a scholar of ancient Indic religion, questioned whether the idea of a new age in India quite fit the facts. She pointed out that changes in ways of thinking are gradual, and that elements of the reflective, philosophical ideas associated with the Upanishads in ancient India were present in early Vedic writings. Johnson added that theoretical thinking is the privilege of elites, and for the masses, narrative and mimetic forms of religiosity continue to reign supreme. The scholar of comparative religion, Jonathan Z. Smith, questioned the very notion of the Axial Age, and suggested that Bellah's book would have worked just as well without it.

Bellah held to the notion that the Axial Age was something real -- a time some 2,500 years ago when shifts in ways of thinking were happening in similar ways around the world. Bellah acknowledged that these ways of thinking were often elitist, and that the masses -- both then and now -- are not very fond of conceptual religion. Bellah said that seldom did one stage of religiosity completely replace another; rather, different strands of religious representation existed side by side. Change, he said, seldom comes in steady increases but in paradigmatic leaps, and these moments require observation and explanation.

Finally, questions were raised about how Bellah described religion -- as an awareness of alternative reality -- and how it emerged. Smith asserted that he was intrigued with Bellah's suggestion that religion is associated with play, but he wondered whether it was even more related to a certain kind of playfulness -- games -- guided by rules as well as by spontaneous creativity.

Bellah affirmed that play and games are closely related to each other, and for that matter both are associated with another form of human activity, work -- and that these three often overlap. The religious impulse is related to all of them, though probably more essentially to the activity of playfulness, the free roaming of thinking and doing that is unencumbered by the need to be useful for some other end.

The discussion ended with an intellectual group hug. Each of the critics expressed an enormous appreciation for the immensity of Bellah's project, and the value of the book for a wide range of subjects in the study of the role of culture in human evolution. They acknowledged that the book was large in many ways, a culmination of a lifetime of diligent analysis and fertile reflection, and that it set a new landmark in the efforts to understand the nature of religion in social life.

Follow the entire discussion, including additional commentary on the book and Bellah's response, at The Immanent Frame, a digital forum of the Social Science Research Council.