This is not an obituary or remembrance of Robert Bellah. I don’t have the emotional energy to spare for that, even though it has been over a year since he passed. There are many such tributes, though, some collected on the website maintained in his name.

This is simply the text of an entry I wrote on Bellah in 1997 for the Encyclopedia of Religion and Society, which I recently found posted online at the website of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. It says alot about what an amazing thinker he was, and what an inheritance (and challenge) he left behind.

Copyright (c) 2008 by Andreas and Philip Guther. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Copyright (c) 2008 by Andreas and Philip Guther. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Bellah, Robert N.

(1927-) Elliott Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, where he has been on the faculty since 1967, chairing the Center for Japanese and Korean Studies from 1968 to 1974 and the Department of Sociology from 1979 to 1985.

One of the most distinguished sociologists of the post-World War II era, a “public intellectual” seeking to address a wide audience, Bellah is conversant with sociologists, anthropologists, and political scientists as well as ethicists and philosophers, theologians, and the general public. (Significantly, although he is widely known, Bellah has not held a major office in any professional association.) At Harvard, where he earned a joint Ph.D. in sociology and Far Eastern languages in 1955, Bellah was a student of Talcott Parsons. Although Parsons’s influence on Bellah’s thinking is evident, during his career Bellah has worked within several theoretical traditions.

Although his later work increasingly manifests a Weberian ambivalence toward rationalization, his early work exemplifies the “modernization theory” of the 1950s and is clearly and self-consciously structural-functionalist. A Durkheimian concern for shared symbols and the obligations they articulate runs through many of his writings. Bellah’s more recent work also has been informed by the critical functionalism of Habermas, especially the idea that economic and political “systems”—wherein the primary media of communication are money and power, respectively— invade and “colonize” the “life-world”—in which the medium of communication is linguistic and ideally oriented toward mutual understanding.

Religious Evolution

Bellah’s dissertation, published as Tokugawa Religion: The Cultural Roots of Modern Japan (Free Press 1957, second edition 1985), provides a Weber-like analysis of Japanese development, explaining the role of premodern cultural values in modernization. Against a Parsonian theoretical background, Bellah identifies the indigenous equivalent of the Protestant ethic in the motivational ethic of inner-worldly asceticism fostered by certain religious movements in the Tokugawa period (1542-1868). This early work and Bellah’s later contributions to the study of religion can be characterized as variations on a theme most clearly articulated in his essay “Religious Evolution” (1964), which he developed in a course on social evolution cotaught with Parsons and S. N. Eisenstadt at Harvard.

Bellah begins by defining religion as “a set of symbolic forms and acts that relate man to the ultimate conditions of his existence.” He argues that beginning with the single cosmos of the undifferentiated primitive religious worldview in which life is a “one possibility thing,” evolution in the religious sphere is toward the increasing differentiation and complexity of symbol systems. His evolutionary religious taxonomy specifies five stages: primitive (e.g., Australian Aborigines), archaic (e.g., Native American), historic (e.g., ancient Judaism, Confucianism, Buddhism, Islam, early Palestinian Christianity), early modern (e.g., Protestant Christianity), and modern (religious individualism). In the modern stage of religious evolution, the hierarchic dualistic religious symbol system that emerged in the historic epoch is collapsed and the symbol system that results is “infinitely multiplex.” In this posttraditional situation, the individual confronts life as an “infinite possibility thing,” and is “capable, within limits, of continual self-transformation and capable, again within limits, of remaking the world, including the very symbolic forms with which he deals with it, even the forms that state the unalterable conditions of his own existence.”

This argument foresaw the reflexive individualism that characterizes both the intellectual culture of post-modernism and the “new religious consciousness” of the 1960s and 1970s. With Charles Glock, Bellah undertook a project in the early 1970s to investigate the latter, the results of which were published as The New Religious Consciousness (University of California Press 1976). In his concluding remarks, Bellah foreshadows the argument of Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life —written with Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler, and Steven M. Tipton (University of California Press 1985 [second edition 1995], hereafter Habits )—in arguing that the deepest cause of the 1960s counterculture was “the inability of utilitarian individualism to provide a meaningful pattern of personal and social existence.” The crisis of the 1960s therefore was “above all a religious crisis.” As a response to the sterility of the utilitarian worldview, the counterculture turned to the American tradition of expressive individualism in the form of a spirituality grounded in the primacy of individual experience and the belief in nonduality, exemplified by the appropriation of Zen Buddhist practices. Again foreshadowing the argument in Habits , Bellah highlights the danger that expressive individualism may come to articulate with utilitarian individualism, to which it was originally a response. When expressive individualist-inspired religious symbols and practices “become mere techniques for ‘self-realization,’ then once again we see utilitarian individualism reborn from its own ashes.”

Thus, by the 1970s, Bellah’s positive embrace of the “wide-open chaos of the post-Protestant, postmodern era” in Beyond Belief: Essays on Religion in a Post-Traditional World (Harper 1970) had grown more cautious as the full consequences of the “modern” religious epoch became more evident. By the 1980s, the relationship is clearly strained. Understanding that the treatment of religion in Habits is an elaboration of the fifth “modern” stage of religious evolution makes clear that the “infinite possibility thing” he lauds in “Religious Evolution” has become the hyperprivatized “Sheilaism” (“my own religion”) he laments in Habits . Particularly troubling about the personalized and privatized modern religion examined in Habits is that it is underwritten by what Alasdair MacIntyre in After Virtue (1981) calls an “emotivist” view of ethics that reduces the foundation of moral claims to the subjective feelings of individuals and renders the development of common moral understandings difficult if not impossible.

Civil Religion

Bellah’s strong position that “any coherent and viable society rests on a common set of moral understandings” is a Durkheimian thread that runs throughout his work and draws attention back to his work in the 1960s. While his guiding theoretical framework is encapsulated in the “Religious Evolution” paper, Bellah is best known for his landmark “Civil Religion in America” (1967), an essay that, according to Bellah, he has “never been allowed to forget” and that “in important respects changed” his life. Alongside church religion and distinct from it, Bellah argued, is an elaborate and well-organized civil religion . It is actually a religious “dimension” of society, characteristic of the American republic since its founding. It is not Judeo-Christianity but grows out of the American historical experience, which is heavily influenced by Protestantism. Civil religion is “an understanding of the American experience in the light of ultimate and universal reality” and can be found in presidential inaugural addresses from Washington to Kennedy, sacred texts (the Declaration of Independence) and places (Gettysburg), and community rituals (Memorial Day parades). It is especially evident in times of trial for the nation such as the Revolution and Civil War.

In Varieties of Civil Religion (coedited with Phillip Hammond, Harper 1980), Bellah ties this argument to the religious evolution framework, arguing that every society has a “religio-political” problem, and that in premodern phases the solution consists either in a fusion of the two realms (archaic) or in a differentiation but not separation (historic and early modern). Civil religion proper comes into existence only in modern society, where church and state are separated as well as differentiated. A civil religion that is differentiated from both church and state is possible only in a modern society.

Although Bellah concludes his 1967 essay by declaring American civil religion to be “still very much alive,” he also warns that the nation is facing a third time of trial centered on “the problem of responsible action in a revolutionary world.” Decrying U.S. involvement in Vietnam, Bellah claimed America to be “at the edge of a chasm the depth of which no man knows.” Just as his hope in “Religious Evolution” became more cautious in Habits , so too does his concern at the conclusion of “Civil Religion” turn somewhat despairing in his American Sociological Association Sorokin Award-winning book, The Broken Covenant: American Civil Religion in Time of Trial (Seabury 1975 [second edition, University of Chicago Press 1992]) in which he famously declares American civil religion to be “an empty and broken shell.” Written at the time of Watergate and the continuation of the Vietnam War, there was little to temper Bellah’s pessimism in the mid-1970s. By the 1980s, however, some hope began to emerge once again.

Although he never uses the term civil religion in Habits , the “biblical and republican traditions” championed in Habits are a new and more dynamic conceptual response to the same substantive issues. A public focus on commitment to the common good as opposed to the excesses of utilitarian and expressive individualism is possible, for Bellah, if the once-dominant cultural language of the biblical and republican traditions—relegated in contemporary America to the status of “second languages”—are reappropriated by citizens actively pursuing the good society in common. The obstacles to forging a national community based on common moral understandings are considerable—they are institutional as well as cultural, as Bellah states in The Good Society (Knopf 1991)—but as any Durkheimian would argue, surmounting them is essential.

Symbolic Realism

As should be evident, Bellah has always been a cultural sociologist, taking seriously the causal efficacy of values, the centrality of meaning, and the sui generis reality of symbols. His famous definition of religion in “Religious Evolution” is unmistakably cultural. This perspective on religion is also evident in his major methodological statement on behalf of a nonreductionist perspective in the social scientific study of religion, the perspective of “symbolic realism.”

In the essay “Between Religion and Social Science,” Bellah criticizes the “Enlightenment myth of secularization . . . the view that there is only a mechanical relation between science and religion, namely, the more of one the less of the other.” He argues that the theories of Marx, Freud, Durkheim, and Weber contribute to this myth because of their reductionist view of religion. Even when they correctly see the symbolic (nonrational, noncognitive) dimensions of human life and hence religion (Freud’s unconscious, Durkheim’s collective effervescence, and Weber’s charisma), they end up explaining religious symbols away as expressing some other more fundamental “reality.” Bellah, in contrast, advocates a position he calls symbolic realism in which religious symbols are seen to express a nonreducible reality, a reality sui generis. While not denying that rationalistic and reductionistic approaches have something to tell us about religion, he refuses to allow them to be the only voices.

Social Science as Moral Inquiry

That the social sciences regardless of their empirical focus must have a moral voice is a point Bellah has made in various essays, but nowhere more clearly than in the Appendix to Habits , “Social Science as Public Philosophy.” Against those who would place social science firmly on the former side of the allegedly unbridgeable divide between “is” and “ought,” Bellah argues for a reappropriation of the larger, synoptic view of a social science that is at once philosophical, historical, and sociological. Such an approach would embrace the ethical aims of social inquiry: holding a mirror up to society, being a form of social self-understanding, discerning the good society from actually existing societies, or, as any good Durkheimian would say, distilling the ideal from the real. A social science that ignores its ethical meaning not only fails to live up to its highest calling but also can more easily be put in service of manipulative ends by those with political and economic power. For Bellah, then, the social sciences must always be moral sciences.

In conclusion, it must be said that the meaning of Robert Bellah’s work cannot be fully understood without recognizing that he is a man of faith (see 1991). At Harvard, he came under the influence of the Lutheran theologian Paul Tillich during the period when Bellah was “reappropriating” his Presbyterian religious upbringing on his own terms. Indeed, there are as many references to Tillich in Beyond Belief as to Durkheim and Parsons. The question Tillich posed in The Theology of Culture (1959) is the one with which Bellah seems to be wrestling: “How can the radicalism of prophetic criticism which is implied in the principles of genuine Protestantism be united with the classical tradition of dogma, sacred law, sacraments, hierarchy, cult, as preserved in the Catholic churches?” As Bellah himself has said, “Discipleship and citizenship and the relation between them have been my enduring preoccupations.”

David Yamane


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

R. Bellah, “Civil Religion in America,” Daedalus 96(1967):1-21

R. Bellah, “Between Religion and Social Science,” in Beyond Belief (New York: Harper, 1970): 237-259

R. Bellah, “Comment,” Sociological Analysis 50(1989):147

R. Bellah, “Finding the Church,” in How My Mind Has Changed , ed. J. Wall and D. Heim (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1991): 113-122

A. MacIntyre, After Virtue (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981)

P. Tillich, The Theology of Culture (London: Oxford University Press, 1959)


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