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Perhaps best known for his coauthored bestselling books Habits of the Heart and The Good Society, Robert N. Bellah is a truly visionary leader in the social study of religion. For more than four decades, he has examined the role of religion in modern and premodern societies, attempting to discern how religious meaning is formed and how it shapes ethical and political practices. The Robert Bellah Reader brings together twenty-eight of Bellah’s seminal essays. While the essays span a period of more than forty years, nearly half of them were written in the past decade, many in the past few years.

The Reader is organized around four central concerns. It seeks to place modernity in theoretical and historical perspective, drawing from major figures in social science, historical and contemporary, from Aristotle and Rousseau through Durkheim and Weber to Habermas and Mary Douglas. It takes the United States to be in some respects the type-case of modernity and in others the most atypical of modern societies, analyzing its common faith in individual freedom and democratic self-government, and its persistent paradoxes of inequality, exclusion, and empire. The Reader is also concerned to test the axiomatic modern assumption that rational cognition and moral evaluation, fact and value, are absolutely divided, arguing instead that they overlap and interact much more than conventional wisdom in the university today usually admits. Finally, it criticizes modernity’s affirmation that faith and knowledge stand even more utterly at odds, arguing instead that their overlap and interaction, obvious in every premodern society, animate the modern world as well.

Through such critical and constructive inquiry this Reader probes many of our deepest social and cultural quandaries, quandaries that put modernity itself, with all its immense achievements, at mortal risk. Through the practical self-understanding such inquiry spurs, Bellah shows how we may share responsibility for the world we have made and seek to heal it.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“I believe that Robert Bellah is one of the more incisive religious commentators we’ve had on the American scene in recent times. Drawing on an astounding range of literatures, he has helped us see what otherwise might not be seen. At once sociological theorist, social critic, and serious religious thinker, Bellah has blazed new trails for helping establish work in several disciplines. We are therefore extremely fortunate to have this superb collection of his work as otherwise the interconnectedness of all that Bellah has done might be lost.”—Stanley Hauerwas, Duke University

“Is it true, as some claim, that the more modern a society, the weaker our sense of the sacred? Does a sense of the sacred somehow ‘liquefy,’ as Habermas suggests, as society grows ever more ‘rational’? In this collection of brilliant and bold meditations on the works of Durkheim, Weber, Rousseau, Goffman, and others, Robert Bellah arrives at his own nuanced answers. An important and enlightening read.”—Arlie Hochschild, University of California, Berkeley

“No other scholar has had a more profound influence on my thinking than Robert Bellah. His has been a strong and challenging voice in the continuing debate about modernity’s effects on America and on the human condition. Having these important essays collected in a single volume is a valuable service. My hope is that the next generation of students and scholars will savor these essays and learn from them what it means to engage in critical reflection about the deepest quandaries of our time.”—Robert Wuthnow, Princeton University

“Robert Bellah is without question one of the leaders in the senior generation of sociologists of religion. He embodies informed spiritual inquiry and a mentality I would call ‘expansively catholic’ in the sense of ‘penetrating the dimensions of being.’ He also has a protestant outlook, manifesting an ability to be critical of entities and scholarly works he affirms.”—Martin E. Marty, University of Chicago

Kay Adamson

The Robert Bellah Reader brings together in a single text a selection of the writings of a thought-provoking scholar whose writings on the social study of religion currently span 55 years and over 250 items. . . . The Robert Bellah Reader constantly provokes the reader into a reflective mode that stimulates new ways of thinking about our contemporary situation,”
Richard C. Collins

The Robert Bellah Reader demonstrates what a serious scholar can accomplish when he perceives a disciplinary identity as secondary to the pursuits of knowledge and of understanding one’s culture and society.”
D. Michael Lindsay

The Robert Bellah Reader is a gift to readers, offering a generous view of the scholar behind the ideas. We meet a wide-ranging thinker whose work addresses social science, historical social change, and what was once called ‘moral philosophy.’”
Derek H. Davis

“Bellah is truly one of today’s most powerful commentators on the social, cultural and religious meaning of modernity, in America and elsewhere. . . . The Robert Bellah Reader is a collection of twenty-eight of Bellah’s most stimulating essays. . . . [I]t is not the breadth of Bellah’s work that is so impressive; it is rather the depth. No one can read Bellah extensively without feeling privileged to read the work of a true scholar, one who is able to combine vast learning with graceful writing.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822338710
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 10/1/2006
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 568
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Robert N. Bellah is the Elliott Professor of Sociology Emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley. He coauthored The Good Society and Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and has sold more than 500,000 copies. His other books include Imagining Japan, The Broken Covenant, and Beyond Belief. In 2000 President Clinton awarded Bellah the National Humanities Medal.

Steven M. Tipton teaches sociology and religion at Emory University and its Candler School of Theology, where he is a Professor and Director of the Graduate Division of Religion. He is the author of Getting Saved from the Sixties and Public Pulpits (forthcoming) and a coauthor of The Good Society and Habits of the Heart.

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Read an Excerpt

THE Robert Bellah READER


Copyright © 2006 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-3855-0

Chapter One

Religious Evolution

Time in its aging course teaches all things. -Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound

Though one can name precursors as far back as Herodotus, the systematically scientific study of religion begins only in the second half of the nineteenth century. According to Chantepie de la Saussaye, the two preconditions for this emergence were that by the time of Hegel religion had become the object of comprehensive philosophical speculation and that by the time of Henry Thomas Buckle history had been enlarged to include the history of civilization and culture in general. In its early phases, partly under the influence of Darwinism, the science of religion was dominated by an evolutionary tendency already implicit in Hegelian philosophy and early-nineteenth-century historiography. The grandfathers of modern sociology, Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer, contributed to the strongly evolutionary approach to the study of religion as, with many reservations, did Emile Durkheim and Max Weber.

But by the third decade of the twentieth century the evolutionary wave was in full retreat both in the general field of science of religion and in the sociology of religion in particular. Of course, this was only one aspect of the general retreat of evolutionary thought in social science,but nowhere did the retreat go further or the intensity of the opposition to evolution go deeper than in the field of religion. An attempt to explain the vicissitudes of evolutionary conceptions in the field of religion would be an interesting study in the sociology of knowledge but beyond the scope of this brief essay. Here I can only say that I hope that the present attempt to apply the evolutionary idea to religion evidences a serious appreciation of both nineteenth-century evolutionary theories and twentieth-century criticisms of them.

Evolution at any system level I define as a process of increasing differentiation and complexity of organization that endows the organism, social system, or whatever the unit in question may be with greater capacity to adapt to its environment, so that it is in some sense more autonomous relative to its environment than were its less complex ancestors. I do not assume that evolution is inevitable, irreversible, or must follow any single particular course. Nor do I assume that simpler forms cannot prosper and survive alongside more complex forms. What I mean by evolution, then, is nothing metaphysical but the simple empirical generalization that more complex forms develop from less complex forms and that the properties and possibilities of more complex forms differ from those of less complex forms.

A brief handy definition of religion is considerably more difficult than a definition of evolution. An attempt at an adequate definition would, as Clifford Geertz has recently demonstrated, require an essay in itself for adequate explanation. So, for limited purposes only, let me define religion as a set of symbolic forms and acts that relate man to the ultimate conditions of his existence. The purpose of this definition is to indicate exactly what I claim has evolved. It is not the ultimate conditions, or, in traditional language, God that has evolved, nor is it man in the broadest sense of Homo religiosus. I am inclined to agree with Mircea Eliade when he holds that primitive man is as fully religious as man at any stage of existence, though I am not ready to go along with him when he implies more fully.

Neither religious man nor the structure of man's ultimate religious situation evolves, then, but rather religion as symbol system. Erich Voegelin, who I suspect shares Eliade's basic philosophical position, speaks of a development from compact to differentiated symbolization. Everything already exists in some sense in the religious symbol system of the most primitive man; it would be hard to find anything later that is not "foreshadowed" there, as for example, the monotheistic God is foreshadowed in the high gods of some primitive peoples. Yet just as obviously the two cannot be equated. Not only in their idea of God but in many other ways the monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam involve a much more differentiated symbolization of, and produce a much more complex relation to the ultimate conditions of human existence than do primitive religions. At least the existence of that kind of difference is the thesis I wish to develop. I hope it is clear that there are a number of other possible meanings of the term "religious evolution" with which I am not concerned. I hope it is also clear that a complex and differentiated religious symbolization is not therefore a better or a truer or a more beautiful one than a compact religious symbolization. I am not a relativist and I do think judgments of value can reasonably be made between religions, societies, or personalities. But the axis of that judgment is not provided by social evolution, and if progress is used in an essentially ethical sense, then I for one will not speak of religious progress.

Having defined the ground rules under which I am operating, let me now step back from the subject of religious evolution and look at a few of the massive facts of human religious history. The first of these facts is the emergence in the first millennium B.C. all across the Old World, at least in centers of high culture, of the phenomenon of religious rejection of the world characterized by an extremely negative evaluation of man and society and the exaltation of another realm of reality as alone true and infinitely valuable. This theme emerges in Greece through a long development into Plato's classic formulation in the Phaedo that the body is the tomb or prison of the soul, and that only by disentanglement from the body and all things worldly can the soul unify itself with the unimaginably different world of the divine. A very different formulation is found in Israel, but there too the world is profoundly devalued in the face of the transcendent God with whom alone is there any refuge or comfort. In India we find perhaps the most radical of all versions of world rejection, culminating in the great image of the Buddha, that the world is a burning house and man's urgent need is a way to escape from it. In China, Taoist ascetics urged the transvaluation of all the accepted values and withdrawal from human society, which they condemned as unnatural and perverse.

Nor was this a brief or passing phenomenon. For over two thousand years great pulses of world rejection spread over the civilized world. The Qur'an compares this present world to vegetation after rain, whose growth rejoices the unbeliever, but it quickly withers away and becomes as straw. Men prefer life in the present world, but the life to come is infinitely superior; it alone is everlasting. Even in Japan, usually so innocently world-accepting, Shotoku Taishi declared that the world is a lie and only the Buddha is true, and in the Kamakura period the conviction that the world is hell led to orgies of religious suicide by seekers after Amida's paradise. And it is hardly necessary to quote Revelation or Augustine for comparable Christian sentiments. I do not deny that there are profound differences among these various rejections of the world; Max Weber has written a great essay on the different directions of world rejection and their consequences for human action. But for the moment I want to concentrate on the fact that they were all in some sense rejections, and that world rejection is characteristic of a long and important period of religious history. I want to insist on this fact because I want to contrast it with an equally striking fact, namely the virtual absence of world rejection in primitive religions, in religion prior to the first millennium B.C., and in the modern world.

Primitive religions are on the whole oriented to a single cosmos; they know nothing of a wholly different world relative to which the actual world is utterly devoid of value. They are concerned with the maintenance of personal, social, and cosmic harmony and with attaining specific goods-rain, harvest, children, health-as men have always been. But the overriding goal of salvation that dominates the world-rejecting religions is almost absent in primitive religion, and life after death tends to be a shadowy semiexistence in some vaguely designated place in the single world.

World rejection is no more characteristic of the modern world than it is of primitive religion. Not only in the United States but through much of Asia there is at the moment something of a religious revival, but nowhere is this associated with a great new outburst of world rejection. In Asia apologists, even for religions with a long tradition of world rejection, are much more interested in showing the compatibility of their religions with the developing modern world than in totally rejecting it. And it is hardly necessary to point out that the American religious revival stems from motives quite opposite to world rejection.

One could attempt to account for this sequence of presence and absence of world rejection as a dominant religious theme without ever raising the issue of religious evolution, but I think I can account for these and many other facts of the historical development of religion in terms of a scheme of religious evolution. An extended rationale for the scheme and its broad empirical application must await publication in book form. Here all I can attempt is a very condensed overview.

The scheme is based on several presuppositions, the most basic of which I have already referred to: that religious symbolization of what Geertz calls "the general order of existence" tends to change over time, at least in some instances, in the direction of more differentiated, comprehensive, and in Weber's sense, more rationalized formulations. A second assumption is that conceptions of religious action, of the nature of the religious actor, of religious organization, and of the place of religion in the society tend to change in ways systematically related to the changes in symbolization. A third assumption is that these several changes in the sphere of religion, which constitute what I mean by religious evolution, are related to a variety of other dimensions of change in other social spheres that define the general process of sociocultural evolution.

Now, for heuristic purposes at least, it is also useful to assume a series of stages that may be regarded as relatively stable crystallizations of roughly the same order of complexity along a number of different dimensions. I shall use five stages that, for want of better terminology, I shall call primitive, archaic, historic, early modern, and modern. These stages are ideal types derived from a theoretical formulation of the most generally observable historical regularities; they are meant to have a temporal reference but only in a very general sense.

Of course the scheme itself is not intended as an adequate description of historical reality. Particular lines of religious development cannot simply be forced into the terms of the scheme. In reality there may be compromise formations involving elements from two stages that I have for theoretical reasons discriminated; earlier stages may, as I have already suggested, strikingly foreshadow later developments; and more developed may regress to less developed stages. And of course no stage is ever completely abandoned; all earlier stages continue to coexist with and often within later ones. So what I shall present is not intended as a procrustean bed into which the facts of history are to be forced but a theoretical construction against which historical facts may be illuminated. The logic is much the same as that involved in conceptualizing stages of the life cycle in personality development.

Primitive Religion

Before turning to the specific features of primitive religion let us go back to the definition of religion as a set of symbolic forms and acts relating man to the ultimate conditions of his existence. Godfrey Lienhardt, in his book on Dinka religion, spells out this process of symbolization in a most interesting way:

I have suggested that the Powers may be understood as images corresponding to complex and various combinations of Dinka experience which are contingent upon their particular social and physical environment. For the Dinka they are the grounds of those experiences; in our analysis we have shown them to be grounded in them, for to a European the experiences are more readily understood than the Powers, and the existence of the latter cannot be posited as a condition of the former. Without these Powers or images or an alternative to them there would be for the Dinka no differentiation between experience of the self and of the world which acts upon it. Suffering, for example, could be merely "lived" or endured. With the imaging of the grounds of suffering in a particular Power, the Dinka can grasp its nature intellectually in a way which satisfies them, and thus to some extent transcend and dominate it in this act of knowledge. With this knowledge, this separation of a subject and an object in experience, there arises for them also the possibility of creating a form of experience they desire, and of freeing themselves symbolically from what they must otherwise passively endure.

If we take this as a description of religious symbolization in general, and I think we can, then it is clear that in terms of the conception of evolution used here the existence of even the simplest religion is an evolutionary advance. Animals or prereligious men could only "passively endure" suffering or other limitations imposed by the conditions of their existence, but religious man can to some extent "transcend and dominate" them through his capacity for symbolization, and thus can attain a degree of freedom relative to his environment that was not previously possible.

Now though Lienhardt points out that the Dinka religious images make possible a "differentiation between experience of the self and of the world which acts upon it," he also points out earlier that the Dinka lack anything closely resembling our conception of the "'mind,' as mediating and, as it were, storing up the experiences of the self." In fact, aspects of what we would attribute to the self are "imaged" among the divine Powers. Again, if Lienhardt is describing something rather general, and I think there is every reason to believe he is, then religious symbolization relating man to the ultimate conditions of his existence is also involved in relating him to himself and in symbolizing his own identity.

Granted then that religious symbolization is concerned with imaging the ultimate conditions of existence, whether external or internal, we should examine at each stage the kind of symbol system involved, the kind of religious action it stimulates, the kind of social organization in which this religious action occurs, and the implications for social action in general that the religious action contains.

Marcel Mauss, criticizing the heterogeneous sources from which Lucien Lévy-Bruhl had constructed the notion of primitive thought, suggested that the word "primitive" be restricted to Australia, which was the only major culture area largely unaffected by the Neolithic. That was in 1923. In 1935 Lévy-Bruhl, heeding Mauss's stricture, published a book called La Mythologie Primitive, in which the data are drawn almost exclusively from Australia and immediately adjacent islands. While Lévy-Bruhl finds material similar to his Australian data in all parts of the world, nowhere else does he find it in as pure a form. The differences between the Australian material and that of other areas are so great that Lévy-Bruhl is tempted to disagree with Durkheim that Australian religion is an elementary form of religion and term it rather "prereligion," a temptation that for reasons already indicated I would firmly reject. At any rate, W. E. H. Stanner, by far the most brilliant interpreter of Australian religion in recent years, goes far to confirm the main lines of Lévy-Bruhl's position without committing himself on the more broadly controversial aspects of the assertions of either Mauss or Lévy-Bruhl (indeed without so much as mentioning them). My description of a primitive stage of religion is a theoretical abstraction, but it is heavily indebted to the work of Lévy-Bruhl and Stanner for its main features.


Excerpted from THE Robert Bellah READER Copyright © 2006 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Preface vii

Introduction 1

I. Comparative and Theoretical 19

1. Religious Evolution 23

2. The Five Religions of Modern Italy 51

3. To Kill and Survive or to Die and Become 81

4. Stories as Arrows: The Religious Response to Modernity 107

5. Max Weber and World-Denying Love 123

6. Durkheim and Ritual 150

7 Rousseau on Society and the Individual 181

8. The History of Habit 203

II. American Religion 221

9. Civil Religion in America 225

10. Religion and the Legitimation of the American Republic 246

11. The New Religious Consciousness and the Crisis of Modernity 265

12. The Kingdom of God in America: Language of Faith, Language of Nation, Language of Empire 285

13. Citizenship, Diversity, and the Search for the Common Good 303

14. Is There a Common American Culture? 319

15. Flaws in the Protestant Code: Theological Roots of American Individualism 333

16. The New American Empire 350

17. God and King 357

III. University and Society

18. The Ethical Aims of Social Inquiry 381

19. Class Wars and Culture Wars in the University Today 402

20. Freedom, Coercion, and Authority 410

21. The True Scholar 421

22. Education for Justice and the Common Good 434

IV. Sociology and Theology 451

23. On Being Catholic and American 457

24. Religious Pluralism and Religious Truth 474

25. Texts, Sacred and Profane 490

26. Epiphany: “Blessed Are the Poor in Spirit” 504

27. Pentecost: “Beginning in the End of Times” 510

28. All Souls Day: “The Living and the Dead in Communion” 515

Bibliography of Words by Robert N. Bellah 523

Index 542

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