Soc 461/561

Lecture 9: Religious Evolution and Social Change

April 16, 1999



How religion’s cultural and organizational forms vary, change and evolve—in contrast with the sort of timelessness of Durkheim et al.’s elementary forms that are supposed to operate everywhere.

  1. How religious symbols, actions and organizations are connected with one another and again with the society’s structure as a whole, and with the society’s culture as a whole.
  2. How change occurs across all four dimensions:
  1. religious symbols
  2. religious action
  3. religious organization, and
  4. social structure.

Change occurs in both directions (see Scheme of Religious Evolution handout)


Bellah’s purpose: Providing a link between the theory of religion as a whole across all time, peoples, historical epochs, symbolic forms (e.g., between us and the Kung).


Bellah defines religion as "a set of symbolic forms and acts, which relate humans to the ultimate conditions of their existence" (p. 21).


Stress is on what religion does by way of meaning.


Religion is a symbol system that joins together meaning, the way things are and moral moods and motives with reference to the way we ought to be and what we ought to do given the way things are.


So religion is a kind of picture of reality, a vision. And it’s also a kind of moral map or guide, the most general model "of" and "for" reality that we have.


Religion can vary in its complexity and its degree of differentiation.


Religion also varies in terms of its adaptability to the environment and the autonomy it allows persons and societies.


Bellah’s theory is an "along with" theory—how things vary along with one another.


Variations in religion go on along with variations in the culture and the social order.


Bellah’s concern is not the evolution of humanity, God, or ultimate reality. Rather, what is evolving or changing is a system of symbols as a cultural system and a system of social practices.


Religion evolves in four senses:

    1. from simple to complex;
    2. from compact and fused to more separated out or differentiated;
    3. from less to more adaptive; and,
    4. across cumulative stages, which are not mutually exclusive.

Bellah’s thesis: everything already exists in some sense in the religious symbol system of primitive man [sic]…. (pp. 21-22).

Bellah’s theory is a goes-along-with theory that:

  1. starts with religious symbols in themselves and the way they develop from relatively compact to more differentiated stages;
  2. observes that changes in the symbols and their shape and their enactment make for changes in kinds of religious action; and,
  3. shows that the capacity of religion to provide ideals and models for new forms of social life increases with the growing differentiation of symbols, identity, social structure and so on.


Major Point: with any other categories, these categories of primitive, archaic, historical, early modern, and modern are analytical distinctions.  They are useful only to the extent they illuminate what's going on .


"Modern religion": marks a profound change from that metaphysical dualism at the core of historic religion.


"Multiplex monism": one all encompassing world in which life is an infinite possibility thing instead of just one thing.


Bellah stresses the dynamic multidimensional nature of the self capable of continuing self-transformation and capable of remaking world.


Denominations are the characteristic modern religious organization.



Weber’s Systematic Comparative Study of Religion

An Outline of Religious Evolution


Introduction: "The Social Psychology of World Religions"


The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

Ascetic Protestantism as indispensible catalyst for the emergence

Of a new form of society, i.e., modern capitalism, a new kind of

Civilization, not just a new kind of economy

"The Protestant Sects and the Spirit of Capitalism"


The Religion of China (Confucianism & Taoism)

"Intermediate Reflections: A Theory of the Stages and Directions of

Religious Rejections of the World"


The Religion of India (Hinduism and Buddhism)


Ancient Judaism

"The Sociology of Religion" section of Economy and Society


The Order of Weber’s Presentation







Christianity (Weber was unable to get to Christianity and Islam; he considered them secondary formations from the Original "breakthrough.")


Basic Weberian Framework


A basic three-stage typology organizes Weber’s sociology of religion

  1. kinship & neighborhood, i.e., tribal societies
  2. a few world religions & their accopanying civilizations
  3. the Reformation and a radically new, modern society for which it was an indispensable condition

Bellah takes this Weberian framework and shows that human religious and social development has a certain form and pattern, a form and pattern that can help us humans living today to know who we are by knowing where we came from—that is Bellah’s project for revising the 1964 "Religious Evolution" article into a forthcoming book of the same title.


Discussion Questions


What is the nature of modern religion in your own experience and in relationship to your own experience of religious communities—whether they’re mainline conventional or unconventional?

What do you think of the idea of religious symbolism as self-conscious and self-revising?

And what about when you juxtapose modern religion with a fundamentalist emphasis on biblical literalism and scriptural inerrancy?

Or what about the notion of personal reinterpretation, which leads to individual, autonomous action compared to a very strong, powerful kind of moral authority enacted in many fundamentalist or evangelical churches?

Also, in view of what Marx is says, we might want to ask whether Bellah’s religious evolution scheme is somehow biased, especially when you get past the historical stage?

Is it biased in some ways that are ethnocentric or Eurocentric or Protestant-centric? Similarly, does the modern stage of religious evolution represent some sort of liberal Protestant outlook of the early 1960s?