Mimetic, Mythic, and Theoretic Religion

Robert Bellah has an interesting and eminently useful way of classifying religions, adapted from Merlin Donald’s description of the evolution of culture. Donald classifies cultures into three stages: mimetic, mythic, and theoretic.

In a mimetic culture, which could possibly go back as far as 2 million years ago, members of the genus Homo acted out events with their bodies; that is, communication was predominantly gestural. However, these cultures were by no means silent, and they likely involved music and even simple, pre-linguistic utterances. Not surprisingly, music, dance, and ritual behavior are also the most basic forms of religious practice. So, religious physical enaction and ritual can be called mimetic religion.

Speech developed later than gestural communication — 250,000-100,000 years ago, as opposed to 2 million years ago. With speech came complex narratives, which, in some forms, were cultural and religious myths; hence, mythic culture. In the religious sphere, these complex narratives are religious myths, and they serve to augment — not replace — ritual practice. Myths allow ritual to enact more complex subjects than were previously possible. So, ritual religious enaction accompanied by a complex narrative can be called mythic religion.

Finally, in the 1st millennium BCE, theoretic cultures emerged. They subject the old controlling narratives to rational scrutiny, changing them into new forms, reorganizing them, and/or replacing them. These cultures argued in favor of ethical and spiritual universalism, rather than tribal parochialism. Their religions followed suit, calling the old myths and rituals into questions and changing them into, or replacing them with, something more acceptable. These religions did not abandon ritual or myth altogether, though; instead, they created new rituals and myths, based on their scrutiny of the old forms. These religions can be called theoretic religions.

I find this framework both concise and fair, and I think it’s worth adopting, as a way to study diverse religions without casting value judgments on them.

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Robert N. Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap, 2011), xviii-xix.

Merlin Donald, Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991).

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One response to “Mimetic, Mythic, and Theoretic Religion

  1. Pingback: Paul and Antony the Great: Christian Shamans | Ex Libris

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