From Peter Manseau’s review at Bookforum of Robert Bellah’s new book, Religion in Human Evolution:
Bellah searches for a commonality that may give some indication of where and when the uniquely human activity of religion was born. What he finds is as intriguing as it is unexpected: They all like to play.
All animals of a certain level of complexity, Bellah explains, engage in forms of “useful uselessness,” the developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik’s term for behaviors that do not contribute to short-term survival yet do ensure long-term flourishing. In the play of animals, we can see a number of interesting elements: The action of play has limited immediate function; it is done for its own sake; it seems to alter existing social hierarchies; it is done again and again; and it is done within a “relaxed field,” during periods of calm and safety. Put another way: Play is time within time. It suggests to its participants the existence of multiple realities—one in which survival is the only measure of success, and another in which a different logic seems to apply.