Has triumphalism been defeated? That’s a purposefully ambiguous and potentially self-contradictory question. It may be safe to say that it has been seriously challenged, but you don’t have to listen to the news very long before you hear narratives of political, cultural, or religious triumph aired from New Delhi to New York.

In his magnum opus sociologist Robert Bellah offers a playful yet powerful response to triumphalism. Religion in Human Evolution ends with a consideration of the biological and cultural capacities acquired in human societies up to the Axial Age. These capacities were the result of extended cultural elaboration and accumulation. As stated in the book several times, “Nothing is ever lost.”

By stressing the complex cumulative capacities human societies have developed through their history, Bellah wants to uphold a story of social, political, cultural, and religious progress, while simultaneously rejecting any implication of progressivist triumphalism. Even though the evolutionary struggle for existence is the basic fact of biological and cultural change, he states, the development of complex capacities which derived from this process is not simply an uncontested good. After all, we live in a world which may witness a “sixth great extinction”.

Bellah’s response to today’s triumphalism is powerful precisely because play is central to his account. Consider what happens when we watch a hockey game. A substantial part of the experience consists in the temporary suspension of ordinary life – its temporal rhythms, its social organization, and its ethical demands. To oversimplify the case somewhat, daily life is bracketed when we become “fans”. By cheering for our favourite team we participate in a community with a distinct set of rituals, rules, and experiences. We become immersed in a different web of meaning. This bracketed web of meaning helps each of us redirect, spend, and shape the fraught energies present in social life, which might otherwise find expression in frustration, alienation, and violence.

Bellah employs this conception of play as a driver of the development of religion, art, and science in human evolution. On his account the emergence of the “early state” in the archaic world is accompanied by religious rituals which incorporate the struggle for existence into an agonistic, competitive form of play. A tension eventually emerges in Axial Age socities between the communities rooted in forms of religious play and the heightened forms of social domination. The great “renouncers” of various religious traditions respond to this tension by articulating a “universally egalitarian ethic”.

In Israel, China, Greece, and India, the major focal points of Religion in Human Evolution, Bellah finds that the renouncers articulated a criticism of the real world by employing an ideal, such as Plato’s allegory of the cave or the Buddha’s life as myth. The utopia stories issued by renouncer traditions offered a release from the increased constraints of Axial Age societies and a positive engagement in play. In these instances religion functions as the provision of a framework and a location for a relaxed field of play, where the constraints of social domination are displaced in favour of an egalitarian vision of a future age.

Although the renouncers developed a universal ethic, Bellah qualifies his story; the new ethic’s integrity was immediately challenged. Han Fei in China and Kautilya in India both detached political utility from ethics. Their work seems to call into question the notion that cultural progress is an uncontested good.

Bellah draws a contemporary parallel. Just as a universal ethic could be twisted to serve other non-ethical means, so a modern theoretical perspective, freed from its cultural context, can assume a superiority that can lead to crushing mistakes. In contrast Bellah stresses that each Axial Age breakthrough to a universal ethic, which emphasized fundamental human equality and respect for all sentient beings, emerged from particular communities and cultures whose religious practices and stories defined who they were.

The mistake of modern triumphalism, then, lies in treating theoretical perspectives detached from cultural practices and stories as the means by which to win a debate decisively and silence further dissent. Obviously a theoretical perspective can pose universal questions and offer powerful and compelling answers. Bellah simply insists that any answer today which fails to situate itself in terms of its particular cultural practices and stories is basically denying the fact that “we are all in this together”. Rather, if we want to address the major problems facing our world, including widespread violence and the threat of massive extinction, we need more constructively critical conversations, not more triumphal declarations. As Michael Oakeshott wrote, the significance of conversation “lies neither in winning nor in losing, but in wagering”.


Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age by Robert Bellah. Harvard, 2011, 784pp.

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About The Author

Kenneth Sheppard

Kenneth Sheppard's book, Anti-Atheism in Early Modern England 1580-1720, was published in 2015. You can follow him on Twitter.

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