Five Stages of Religious Evolution

A well-known theory of religious development was proposed by Robert Bellah (1964) in which he defined an axial point of religious evolution Bellah describes 5 stages:

1. Primitive Religion (i.e. Native American & aboriginal)
This stage contrasts with others in that it isn’t “world rejecting” and mythical characteristics are related to characteristics found in the experienced world. Thunder, for instance, would be the expression of a deity’s anger. Whereas later stages utilize sacrifice, the Primitive Stage is characterized by identification, participation, and acting out. Rituals involve reactualization where events aren’t simply portrayed but made to happen again. The Hopi or Zuni mask ceremonies are good examples of this. The person in the mask becomes the mythical being.

2. Archaic Religion (i.e. ancient Greece; early Judaic)
This involves gods, priests and sacrifices. The distinction between men and gods is defined and demarcated. The world is not rejected, but there is likely to be a concept of hierarchical cosmology where every being has its place in the hierarchy. Fluidity of the religion exists, where individuals exercise some creativity in their worship, but the presence of priests will limit it. Different cults come into being during this stage and certain priests are attached to cult centers such as the Oracle of Delphi in Greece. Greece provides a good example of an archaic religion since there is clear record of the temenos that physically existed between the sanctuary (the sacred) and everything outside the sanctuary (the profane/secular).

Egyptian and early Judaic cults also show these characteristics with hierarchical gods and demarcation of the sacred versus the secular. Growing populations in each of these societies also gave rise to new cults as priestly-classes and ruling-classes variously merged and emerged.

3. Historical Religion (i.e. Roman Catholicism)
This marks an “axial age,” which, to Bellah, is the point at which the world’s great religions emerged along with philosophy and science. The world is rejected both morally and philosophically and writing is now present. A dualism emerges with a concept of a supernatural world as well as an earthly world. Salvation becomes a paramount purpose of religion and old myths are put aside as the participants are taught to believe in monotheism. The human moral condition is now perceived as much worse than by primitive and archaic stages (pre-axial). Consequently, humans can only participate in the “ultimate reality” by seeking salvation.

In this stage, a four-class system emerges
1. Political/Military Elite
2. Cultural/Religious Elite
3. Peasantry (farmers)
4. Merchants and Artisans

Struggles begin to exist between political rulers and the religious elite, such as the King versus the Pope in pre-Anglican Britain.

4. Early Modern Religion (i.e. Protestantism)
This is best exemplified by the Protestant Reformation. World rejection continues as does the dualism of heaven and earth. An unmediated relationship between humanity and God is now taught and religious doctrine is no longer kept as privilege to just the religious elite but made available to all. God is now accessible to the peasantry and merchant classes. Emphasis is placed on “faith” and total dedication of oneself in all areas of life. The distinction between “elect” and the “non-elect” is substituted for the distinction that existed between ascetics like monks and the “mass of believers” as with the Historical Stage. In the Calvinist cult, for instance, the elect equates to those chosen by God for salvation. The non-elect are all others; the non-chosen.

5. Modern ReligionNot world-rejecting and has diminished interest in creeds or “right” doctrines. There exists an increased emphasis on the individual and the idea of moral deprivation is not taught. Bellah finds difficulty pinning this new religious movement down and admits to as much, though he cites the growing tendencies (even in the 1950s and 60s) of people to find new forms of enlightenment and that

…”…for many churchgoers the obligation of doctrinal orthodoxy sits lightly indeed, and the idea that all creedal statements must receive a personal reinterpretation is widely accepted. The dualistic worldview certainly persists in the minds of many of the devout, but just as surely many others have developed elaborate and often pseudoscientific rationalizations to bring their faith in its experienced validity into some kind of cognitive harmony with the 20th century world.”

Of course, Bellah’s Five Stages theory doesn’t imply that the previous stages disappear, but it gives an interesting point of reference that we might apply to the anthropological perspective that Horton provides with regard to society and complexity.

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One Response

  1. […] that describe the evolution of religion as a social institution, as presented by Robert Bellah (Five Stages of Religious Evolution). Each of these assumes that religion is a social construct of humanity, evolved to fulfill social […]

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