"Religion in Human Evolution" is the late Robert Bellah's magisterial, sweeping account of human intellectual and religious history. I've made frequent reference to it in my essays, especially the broad framework of epochs. A quick summary here may be useful to my readers, and also anyone simply interested in the book -- which I thoroughly recommend.

Bellah suggests that human thought has been marked by several major shifts over our long history. Each of these is constituted by intellectual, social and religious change, and has resulted in us conceiving of the world in a radically different way. They are brought about, roughly, by humans needing a way to grapple with -- and gain some power over -- the hardships of life.

Importantly, each epoch has always absorbed the practices and modes of its predecessors, even while inventing something new: nothing is ever really lost, and each mode is visible to us today, in contemporary thought and religion.

Here are Bellah's epochs, broken down into three main groups:

Unitive Phase

  • The earliest form of religious experience is the unitive event, which eliminates the perceived distinction between the self and the rest of existence.

Enactive Phase

  • With mimetic culture, humans were able to learn by direct imitation; opening a huge realm of comprehending other people.

  • Ritual develops as a further enactive form: actions with direct meaning. That is, rituals are not necessarily representative of any external idea, but rather representative for something: like recipes for action, where the experience of the action itself is what matters.

Symbolic Phase

  • The invention of language is closely related to play and to music. It allows symbolic representation, where one thing directly refers to, or implies, something else.

  • Narrative or story-telling, is a further elaboration on the symbolic, which allow a transposition of the self away from the events of memory.


  • Theory began to develop two to three thousand years ago, with the close of the major empires. More abstract and formal, it is essentially thinking about thinking. With the enlightenment, it began to seriously push out other modes.

It is important to remember that while each of these modes of thought seems obvious to us now, they were not always so. To be able to think with meta-cognition, as the Greeks did with philosophy was a major change; just as ritual was -- though neither happened over night.

We should also bear in mind that these epochal changes happened in many places in roughly similar stretches of time, but still with enormous local variation -- Bellah is mining history for patterns at the largest possible scales.

As one final note, I choose to add one further epoch. It may be less defined as an intellectual or religious period, but I think that socially it is worth defining separately -- at least it has been helpful to my thinking.

  • The mode of hierarchy created societies based on formal roles and divisions. Enabled by writing, this mode created the centralized, divine-king empires of the Axial age, as in Egypt -- and thus also states and market economies.

For more on how these epochs fit together and came to be, you'll have to read Religion in Human Evolution. But my own thoughts about them, as well as why they might matter today, will follow in future essays.

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