musicians“Here is where Bellah’s approach becomes really interesting. He posits that early hominids developed the first ritual activities out of complexified forms of play, and that once our symbolic capacities developed sufficiently, these ritualized activities took on religious significance. Religion, then, grows out of the implications of ritual. Religion is not therefore primarily something you merely believe in; it is something you do. Early rituals, we can speculate based on the archeological evidence, emerged out of collective celebration involving song and dance. Most probably, these celebrations were in tune with lunar and seasonal rhythms. The earliest religious rituals were cosmologically embedded celebrations of the cycles of life, death, and rebirth. These ritual celebrations were not based on beliefs in supernatural beings, but on deep perception of and desire to participate in the rhythms animating the actual earth and sky. These rituals no doubt helped to establish social solidarity and group identity, but these functions cannot be offered as causal explanations for the evolution of religion. The exact opposite is the case: social solidarity is better understood as an effect of ritual play, not its cause.”

“Rooting the emergence of religion in ritual play short-circuits any attempt to explain religion in terms of biological utility, since by definition play is not about working as a means to the ultimate end of survival, but about sheer enjoyment as an end in itself. We might also describe ritual as serious play (following Huizinga who points out that the opposite of play is not seriousness, but work). That animals should engage in play behavior is already a sign that reductionistic accounts of biological evolution miss something when they ignore organismic agency and focus exclusively on the struggle for existence and fitness to a pre-existing environment. Life, as Whitehead well knew, isn’t just about mere survival. The urge of life seeks more than mere survival; it seeks to thrive, to “live well, and to live better” (Religion in the Making, 8). If survival was the name of the game, matter would have done better to remain in rock form, for compared to minerals, life is deficient in survival value.”

Matt Segall above on religion in human and cosmic evolution. The above passage comes from an early draft of a paper he will give at the upcoming Whitehead conference.


  1. Matthew D. Segall May 20, 2015 at 1:51 am


    Thanks for posting, Jesse. I should have a new draft of this paper up soon : )

    • jturri May 21, 2015 at 1:38 pm


      Thanks for being smart, Matt! I like how you and Bellah are rooting the emergence of religion in ritual play. So good. So important.

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