Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

Table of Contents | Cover Page  |  Editors  |  Contributors  |  Introduction  |  Web Version

A framework for understanding the changes in religious systems over long-scale historical time. Robert Bellah's oft-cited statement on religious evolution (1964) treated evolution as "a process of increasing differentiation and complexity of organization," giving some religious systems greater adaptive capacity. This schema focuses attention on how religion as a symbolic system evolves toward "more differentiated, comprehensive, and rationalized formulations," accompanied by changes in conceptions of religious action, religious organization, and the social implications of religion. It traces five stages: primitive, archaic, historical, early modern, and modern religion.

Primitive religious symbolism focuses on mythical beings deeply implicated in all aspects of human life. Religious action is "participation," the ritual enactment of mythical events and the fusing of participants' self-identities with those of mythical beings. A differentiated religious organization does not exist at this stage, or exists only minimally. Durkheim had already identified the social implications of this kind of religious system: socialization of the young and cementing of social solidarity. Primitive religion thus provides little leverage for changing its surrounding world.

Archaic religion exists wherever primitive religion becomes systematized into true cultic worship, usually with the rise of a two-class system of domination made possible by agriculture. Archaic religious symbolism develops when a specialized religious caste reworks and elaborates mythical figures more fully, making them more objectified, definitive, and separate from the human world. This leads to a far more hierarchical conceptualization of the world, although the world is still conceived as a unified whole encompassing this hierarchy. Archaic religious action emphasizes communication through worship—particularly sacrificial worship.

Archaic religious organization remains largely fused with its surrounding social structure, with elite status groups monopolizing religious authority, either directly or through subordinated priesthoods. The social implications are essentially static; religion reinforces social conformity because current arrangements are seen as rooted in the will of divine beings.

The rise of historic religion represents a critical turn in human history, occurring sometime during the first millennium B.C.E. in ancient Greece, Confucian China, Buddhist India, and ancient Israel, which itself spawned the later historic religions of Christianity and Islam. The key common denominator among these historic religions is their differentiated conception of some other realm of reality transcending this-worldly life and hierarchically superior to it.

The crucial characteristic of historic religious symbolism is the symbolic dualism generated by this transcendental thrust and rejection/devaluation of this world. Salvation becomes the critical goal of religious action, with a new "clearly structured conception of the self" who can be saved. Symbolic dualism leads to a split in the realm of religious organization, as explicitly religiously organized groups gain religious legitimation at least partially autonomous from political authority. The social implications are that these developments gave the historic religions new leverage with which to strive to reform the world, a fulcrum point from which to change a world heretofore all-encompassing. This leverage resulted from the combination of a symbolic vantage point from which to judge current social arrangements as moral or immoral and a partially autonomous organizational vantage point from which to work to change those arrangements.

Early modern religion involves dedifferentiating the hierarchical structuring of historic religion. Many of the historic religions generated efforts at this kind of dedifferentiation, but it was originally only institutionalized for the long term in Protestantism. Instead of separation from the world, early modern religion demands engagement in this-worldly action to achieve salvation. Religious symbolism now focuses on individual believers' direct access to the divine, and all worldly life becomes important religious action, through what Weber called ethical striving in a vocation. Religious organization was also dedifferentiated through rejection of the concept of salvation mediated by religious specialists, in favor of direct salvation of individuals. The key social implication of early modern religion was its contribution to the flourishing of voluntary association as the basis for social action in all spheres of life—with results ranging from the development of modern democracy and science to the rise of revolutionary vanguards.

The character of modern religion remains hotly debated. The best discussions characterize modern religion critically (Bellah et al. 1985) or sympathetically (Bloom 1990) as locating the divine symbolically within the self. Bellah originally characterized modern religion as involving a collapse of symbolic dualism and a deemphasis on religious organization. This now appears to be moving forward in some settings but also to be refuted by new religious movements and revitalization movements in the modern descendants of the historic religions. Both typically combine close identification of the divine with the self and a strong emphasis on symbolic dualism and religious organization.

The best recent work on this topic has come from Peter Beyer (1994), drawing primarily on work by Luhmann and Robertson.

Richard L. Wood


R. N. Bellah, "Religious Evolution," American Sociological Review 29(1964):358-374

R. N. Bellah et al., Habits of the Heart (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985)

P. Beyer, Religion and Globalization (London: Sage, 1994)

H. Bloom, The American Religion (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992)

J. Habermas, Communication and the Evolution of Society (Boston: Beacon, 1979)

N. Luhmann, Religious Dogmatics and the Evolution of Societies (Lewiston, N.Y.: Mellen, 1984)

T. Parsons, The Evolution of Societies (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1977)

J. Peacock and A. T. Kirsch, The Human Direction (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1973)

M. Weber, The Sociology of Religion (Boston: Beacon, 1993 [1920]).

return to Encyclopedia Table of Contents

Hartford Institute for Religion Research   hirr@hartsem.edu
Hartford Seminary, 77 Sherman Street, Hartford, CT 06105  860-509-9500