Robert Bellah’s Five Stages of the Evolution of Religion


Although Robert Bellah (1927-2013) is likely most well remembered for his concept of civil religion, which is a tradition woven into the fabric of American culture that is neither Church nor state but rather a link between the two, he is also remembered for the role he played in reviving evolutionist explanations of religious belief (1).

The Evolution of Religion

Bellah’s final major work was Religion in Human Evolution (2011) which tackles the topics of the origin of religion (also see primordium of religion), its development, and the evolution of religious experience from the beginning of the human species through to the first millennium BC. Bellah defines religion as “a set of symbolic forms and acts that relate man to the ultimate conditions of his existence,” and theorized that it developed as a symbol system from lesser to more complex forms (2). He defines evolution as follows,

“Evolution at any system level I define as a process of increasing differentiation and complexity of organization which endows the organism, social system or whatever the unit in question may be, with greater capacity to adapt to its environment so that it is in some sense more autonomous relative to its environment than were its less complex ancestors… What I mean by evolution, then, is nothing metaphysical but the simple empirical generalization that more complex forms develop from less complex forms and that the properties and possibilities of more complex forms differ from those of less complex forms” (3).

Over time, says Bellah, the symbolization of religion had become more complex because the societies to which they related had themselves become increasingly complex. When societies evolve into more complexity their religious components are encouraged to keep pace. Where monotheistic religions are concerned, Bellah noted that they “involve a much more differentiated symbolization of, and produce a much more complex reaction to the ultimate conditions of human existence than do primitive religions” (4). Religious expression and understanding are therefore coordinate with social organization. Bellah attempts to capture this evolution within five stages of, what he calls, “relatively stable crystallizations”: [1] primitive, [2] archaic, [3] historic, [4] early modern, to [5] modern (5). At each stage, Bellah intends to examine the type of religious activity that occurs, its social organization in which action occurs, and the implications for social action in general that the religious action contains. Importantly, he explains that no stage is ever completely abandoned in that all earlier stages continue to coexist with later ones.

The Five Stages

Religions of the primitive stage relate the mythical world to the detailed features of the actual world. Accordingly, nearly every mountain, rock, and tree is explained in terms of the actions of mythical beings. In regards to Australian “primitive” religion, spaces such as “the Dreaming” are believed to be inhabited by ancestral figures, some human, some animal. Although these beings have capacities beyond the normal human being they are not gods for they do not control the world and are not worshipped. Primitive religions are monistic in that they are oriented to a single cosmos. They also know nothing of a wholly different world relative to the actual world and against which the actual world is devoid of value. These religious systems are concerned with sustaining personal, social, and cosmic harmony and with attaining specific goods such as rain, harvest, children, and health. Another feature of primitive religion is the fluidity of myths than can be reinterpreted and lead to ritual innovation. Primitive religious behaviour is characterized by “participation” in which participants become identified with the mythical beings they represent. At this level, religious organization as a separate social structure does not exist. Participation in the rituals serves to reinforce the solidarity of the society, a view similar to that of Emile Durkheim’s, and to induct the young into the norms of tribal behaviour.

The archaic stage includes the religious systems of parts of the New World, much of Africa and Polynesia, and the earliest religious systems of the ancient Middle East, India and China. Bellah says that the major feature of archaic religion is the emergence of cults with a complex of gods, priests, worship, sacrifice, and, in some cases, divine or priestly kingship. The myths and rituals of primitive religion continue within the structure of archaic religion although it is systematized and elaborated in new ways. For example, mythical beings are more defined, believed to be active within the world, as well as controlling the natural and human world. They are also beings with whom people must deal in a purposive way. Archaic religious systems are monistic in that there is only one world with gods dominating particular parts of it and, unlike primitive religions, archaic religions tend to elaborate a vast cosmology in which all things divine and natural have a place. The distinction between humans as subjects and gods as objects is more defined than in primitive religion, which means that there is an increased need for a communication system through which gods and humans can interact. Worship and sacrifice function as these communication systems. Archaic religious organization is largely merged with other social structures and the emergence of a two-class system (a result of increasing density of population due to agricultural progress) allows the upper-status group to not only monopolize political and military power but also to claim superior religious status as well. Noble families were proud of their divine descent and often had special priestly functions. Divine kings were the link between the people and the gods. The individual and his society were viewed as merged in a natural-divine cosmos.

The historic stage refers to religions that are relatively recent and that emerged within societies that were more or less literate. These are distinguished from archaic religions because they are all in some sense have an awareness of the transcendental as opposed to merely the cosmological monism of the primitive and archaic religions. During this stage, an entirely different realm of universal reality emerges, is proclaimed, and believed to have the highest value. Thus a dualism materializes and world rejection becomes a general characteristic of the religious system for the first time. The supernatural realm is “above” the human world in terms of both value and control. Religious concern “now tends to focus on life in the other realm, which may be either infinitely superior or, under certain circumstances, with the emergence of various conceptions of hell, infinitely worse.” Religion also provided the ideology and social cohesion for rebellions and reform movements in historic civilizations, and consequently played a more dynamic and purposive role in social change than had previously been possible. Elements of ritual and sacrifice remain prominent within historic religion and take on a new significance. For example, human beings are convicted of a basic flaw more serious than those conceived of by earlier religions. According to Buddhism, the human’s very nature is greed and desire from which he must escape, for the Hebrew prophets it is sin and a lack of obedience to God, and for Muhammad its the lack of willing submission to the will of God which can bring salvation.

The early modern stage’s defining characteristic is the collapse of the hierarchical structuring of both this and the other world. Bellah refers to the Protestant Reformation at the beginning of the sixteenth-century that rejected papal authority and successfully declare that salvation is potentially available to all human beings no matter what their station or calling might be. Similar reform movements also exist in other traditions, notably Shinran Shonin’s version of Pure Land Buddhism as well as certain aspects of Islam, Taoism, and Confucianism. Early modern religious symbolism focused on the direct relation between the individual and transcendent reality. For example, much of the cosmological baggage of medieval Christianity was dropped and viewed as superstition, and the ritualist interpretation of the sacrament of the Eucharist as a re-enactment of the sacrifice was replaced with the anti-ritualist interpretation of the Eucharist as a commemoration of a once-and-for-all historical event. Religious action was now conceived to be identical with the whole of life which means that special ascetic and devotional practices were dropped as well as monastic roles that specialized in them. Instead, the service of God became a demand in all walks of life and the emphasis was on faith, conceived as an internal quality of the person, rather than on particular acts marked “religious.” The Reformation made it possible to turn away from world rejection in a way not possible in the historic religions. This was achieved through an acceptance of the world as a valid space in which to work out divine command and with the acceptance of the self as capable of faith in spite of sin.

Modern religion’s main feature of change is the collapse of the dualism that was so characteristic of all the historic religions. The worldview that is held by many intellectuals, and that has emerged from intellectual advances of the last two centuries, has left no room for holding to a hierarchic dualistic religious symbol system of the classical historic type. Bellah maintains that to view the modern human being as secular, materialistic, and areligious would be misguided and would not adequately gauge the modern temper. A very high percentage of Americans believe in God, and there are indications of the same general search for an entirely new mode of religious symbolization in the west and developed non-western countries like Japan. Uchimura Kanzo’s non-church Christianity was a relatively early indication of a search for a new direction. More emphasis at this stage is placed on individual responsibility and continual self-transformation which includes, within limits, remaking the world and the symbolic forms, although Bellah expects traditional religious symbolism to be maintained and even developed in new directions. On the level of mass religiosity, there are also changes. For example, churchgoers feel less obligation of embracing doctrinal orthodoxy and the notion that all creedal statements must receive a personal reinterpretation is widely accepted. Despite such changes, the dualistic worldview is still embraced by many of the devout and many others have developed elaborate, often pseudoscientific, rationalizations to bring their faith into some kind of cognitive harmony with the twentieth-century world. Not only has any obligation of doctrinal orthodoxy been abandoned by much of modern culture, but every fixed position has become open to question in the process of making sense out of humanity and its situation.

It is important to acknowledge that Bellah, unlike some other historic theorists, did not make value judgments on the basis of his evolutionary chronicle:

“I hope it is also clear that a complex and differentiated religious symbolization is not therefore a better or a truer or a more beautiful one than a compact religious symbolization. I am not a relativist and I do think judgments of value can reasonably be made between religions, societies or personalities” (6).


1. Capps, Walter. Religious Studies: The Making of a Discipline. p. 100-102.

2. Bellah, Robert. 1964. “Religious Evolution.” American Sociological Review. p. 359.

3. Bellah, Robert. 1964. Ibid. p. 358

4. Bellah, Robert. 1964. Ibid. p. 359

5. Bellah, Robert. 1964. Ibid. p. 360-361

6. Bellah, Robert. 1964. Ibid. p. 359



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