Aug 2, 2013

Robert Bellah, 1927 - 2013

Robert Bellah, a sociologist whose work deeply informed the study of American religion, died on Wednesday from complications following heart surgery. He was 86.

Bellah's original work focused on Japan, but his work on modern individualism and civil religion -- a term he's credited with popularizing -- have been absolutely critical to those thinking about religion in the contemporary American context. According to Jeffery Alexander, of Yale's Center for Cultural Sociology, Bellah was the last living founder of cultural sociology, and "there's a sense in which every contemporary sociologist is Bellah's child, niece, or nephew." Something similar could be said for those studying 20th and 21st century American religiosity as well. In an important way, thinking about religion in American public life and thinking about spirituality in Americans' private lives is thinking after Bellah.

A significant thrust of Bellah's work was a moral critique of the forces that prevent and undermine group belonging, paired with a critique of what he saw as misuses of such group belonging.

He told the Berkeleyan in 2006 "group belonging is inherently a fulfillment of our humanity, [and] the idea of living totally alone, totally in isolation, is totally unnatural." For Bellah, that belief was undergirded by both the Christian practice of communion and the sociology of Emilé Durkheim.

"The great danger," he said of modernism, "is radical individualism -- 'I'm in it for myself,' 'I'm my own brand,' as somebody said. This is a kind of terrible reductionism of an ethical individualism to pure self-interest."

The problems of individualism, for Bellah, could be seen in the rise of "spirituality." The individualism of much of the spirituality of Western Buddhism, for example, contributes to the pathologies of the modern age, rather than ameliorating them. He told the Buddhist magazine Tricycle,
The way 'spirituality' is often used suggests that we exist solely as a collection of individuals, not as members of a religious community, and that religious life is merely a private journey. It is the religious expression of the ideology of free-market economics and the radical 'disencumbered' individualism that idolizes the choice-making individual as the prime reality of the world.
At the same time, Bellah believed that certain forms of group belonging were horrible. He described religious nationalism as "something I above all hate," and rejected his youthful Marxism -- for which he suffered -- in part because of the authoritarianism of the American Communist Party. Writing about the American taboo on socialism in 1975, Bellah argued,
Socialism has often seemed to compound the evil that is contained in capitalism. Rather than releasing the autonomous individual and placing him in a context of genuine participatory community, socialism has been seen as a system that crushes the individual under a centralized bureaucratic structure even more effectively than corporate capitalism. With the example of state socialism in the Soviet Union since 1917, that argument has been especially hard to refute. But there are concepts of socialism and socialist movements in the world that reject the Soviet model
Bellah believed that what was necessary was to "come to terms with the balance between dependence and independence, solidarity and autonomy." He believed that group belonging is good, but not free from moral ambiguity. This was the point he tried to make with his account of American "civil religion." He concluded that that set of symbols and themes and sacralized values making up the "religious dimension of political life" in the United State had been and were being misused, but that the civil religion could also be a great moral force. As he concluded, in that famous essay:
[Civil religion] has often been used and is being used today as a cloak for petty interests and ugly passions. It is in need-as any living faith-of continual reformation, of being measured by universal standards. But it is not evident that it is incapable of growth and new insight.   
It does not make any decisions for us. It does not remove us from moral ambiguity, from being, in Lincoln's fine phrase, an 'almost chosen people.' But it is a heritage of moral and religious experience from which we still have much to learn as we formulate the decisions that lie ahead.  
Taking a communitarian stance lead Bellah to critique rightist defenses of free-market economics (he clashed with the editors of First Things on this point) and also leftist dismissals of the importance of religion and tradition and liberal constriction of moral concerns (he clashed with The Nation as well).

Not all of Robert Bellah's "nieces and nephews" accept these normative claims and moral arguments, of course. To think after Bellah has, in important ways, been to argue with Bellah. Wherever one positions oneself on the values of individualism and group belonging, though, his sociological descriptions of these phenomena as he observed them in private spirituality and public sacralization have been critical to analyses of contemporary American religion.

One important aspect of Bellah's work was this exploration of the "profound tension between individualism and commitment to community, as Mark Juergensmeyer, sociologists at the University of California, Santa Barbara, writes at Religion Dispatches.

According to Juergensmeyer, Bellah "founded a whole new enterprise for religious studies scholars: probing the political significance of religious ideas and the religious significance of political ones," and, "promted religious studies scholars to take seriously the social dimensions of religious belief, even -- or perhaps especially -- when they seem so personal and devoid of social significance."

Many examples of Bellah's work can be found at

Late last year, Bellah came to Heidelberg, Germany, as part of the promotion of his last work, Religion in Human Evolution. He spoke on the Axial Age, and lead a graduate seminar (which I was lucky enough to attend) on the possibility of a global civil religion, and also gave a long interview at the German American Institute. In the video, he is frail with age. He had recently lost his wife of 61 years, and talked openly of the work he knew he wouldn't finish.

"The temptation is despair," Bellah once said of getting older.
I have to fight this degree to which I'm gloomy. When I speak to undergraduates, which I still do from time to time. I'm never gloomy. Undergraduates are at a fragile emotional stage, and they're easily depressed, and they're easily elated. But if you want to encourage them to be active citizens, the worst thing you can do is tell them that everything is going to hell. 
Still, as the video attests, even at the end he still very much evinced the sprightliness that infused all of his work: