Posts Tagged ‘Robert Bellah’

August 11th, 2013

Habits of the heart

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For some scholars in the humanities and social sciences, old age is a period of abiding productivity. Upon reaching his retirement, Robert N. Bellah, the leading sociologist of religion of the last decades and one of the United States’ most influential public intellectuals, trusted this would be the case, so he outlined the project of a global history of religion from its beginnings until the present.

In 2011, Bellah published Religion in Human Evolution, which spans from the rituals of hunters and gatherers to the cults and myths of archaic states to the “axial age.” This concept was advanced by the philosopher Karl Jaspers to capture the widely held assumption that the great religious and philosophical traditions that the world draws on to this day have their roots in innovations that took place around the middle of the first millennium BCE in the Jewish, Greek, Chinese and Indian civilizations.

 

March 22nd, 2013

Essays on Religion in Human Evolution

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Cambridge University Press is currently offering free access to the three essays in the review symposium on Robert Bellah’s Religion in Human Evolution from the December 2012 issue of the European Journal of Sociology.

March 13th, 2013

A conversation with Robert Bellah

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Margarita A. Mooney interviews Robert Bellah at Patheos.

December 6th, 2012

Upcoming talks by Robert Bellah

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Robert Bellah, the eminent American sociologist whose latest book, Religion in Human Evolution, was the subject of a recent discussion series on this blog, will be delivering two talks in the coming week.

September 4th, 2012

People make religions and religions make people

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In How to Believe, a blog on “great works of religion and philosophy” hosted by The Guardian, Andrew Brown has been writing about Robert Bellah’s Religion in Human Evolution.

July 20th, 2012

A Conversation with Robert Bellah on Religion in Human Evolution

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The following video is of Robert Bellah‘s comments at the 2011 annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion held in San Francisco.

July 10th, 2012

Evolutionary theory and religion

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Charles Mathewes, of The American Interest, discusses the role of religion in evolutionary theory and analyzes two publications on this topic.

July 10th, 2012

Colonialism’s religious domain

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Recently I am struck by the ambiguity of the concept of the religious. Reading Linda Heuman’s review of Robert Bellah’s Religion in Human Evolution, and then turning to Bellah’s book itself, after having been reading Ernst Kantorowicz’s The King’s Two Bodies, I feel as I have before how uncertain it is that we who write about religion in history are all writing about the same thing! Bellah’s book is an attempt to factor that uncertainty into the equation, for sure. In one part of Bellah’s overall reconstruction of “axial transitions” (including the birth of monotheism), he considers three case studies, two Native American and one Aboriginal Australian, with scrupulous care. The idea is to get a picture—before the shift to the ecumenical story, when the forces of the axial age change everything—of developmentally prior, not to say primordial, religions, without adopting anything as distortive as a model or a linear theory.

June 18th, 2012

New review of Bellah’s Religion in Human Evolution

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For Tricycle, an independent Buddhist publication, Linda Heuman reviews Robert Bellah’s Religion in Human Evolution, highlighting the place Bellah gives to reason in the book.

April 19th, 2012

Good news from the grand narrative

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To be asked to contribute a commentary on Professor Robert Bellah’s magnum opus is a great honor and a privilege that, in the virtual company of intellectuals of the highest caliber, manages to concentrate the mind and at the same time to fill you with despair; not least because Religion in Human Evolution stands as a measure of the distance that lies between routine, or ordinary, intellectual activity, and genuine, indeed extraordinary, intellectual achievement.

April 11th, 2012

The power of pluralist thinking

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It is hard to remember, but religious pluralism meant something quite different fifty years ago. We have, I would argue, so shifted our collective understanding of religious pluralism, and this transformation has been so naturalized, that we have little common conception that this shift even happened and much less sense of its consequences.

March 9th, 2012

Back to his roots

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When writing about other people, we all should follow Pierre Bourdieu’s advice to not be too fascinated by our human subjects. This is necessary in order to escape the “biographical fallacy,” the temptation to narrate lives as if they were historically continuous and logically consistent wholes. Bourdieu is right. Our lives are a mess of disparate events, novelties and routines, strategic decisions and lapses of reason, chances and regrets, with little, if any, overall meaning. At the same time, as Robert N. Bellah writes at the beginning of his magisterial tour de force, we are narrative animals. We cannot avoid telling stories, and every story has to have a hero, a quest, and a finale. In this brief essay I recount a couple of stories about Religion in Human Evolution, reading through the lines of this fascinating work to find and highlight some of the many threads which connect it to its author’s past.

February 28th, 2012

A travelogue of ideas

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In a special session at the meetings of the American Academy of Religion on November 20, 2011, Robert Bellah discussed his new book, Religion in Human Evolution, with members of a distinguished panel.… Why was this event so special? It was not just the distinction of the members of the panel themselves, beginning with Bellah, arguably the country’s best known sociologist of religion and author of such seminal essays as “Civil Religion in America” and “Religious Evolution,” and groundbreaking books, including Habits of the Heart and Tokugawa Religion. Rather, the significance of the event lay in its recognition of the importance of the book’s project, a breathtaking survey of the whole sweep of the history of religiosity, which is nothing less than the history of humankind.

January 5th, 2012

Axial axioms

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The word “magisterial” in publishers’ blurbs usually means little more than “too long,” and indeed Religion in Human Evolution is very long, but it is also magisterial in many of the ways that the Oxford English Dictionary suggests: “Of, relating to, designating, or befitting a master, teacher, or other person qualified to speak with authority; masterly, authoritative, commanding.”   It is certainly all of those, a book full of the wisdom and erudition that comes only when someone quite brilliant has thought about a big subject for many years.

December 21st, 2011

A damned good read

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When I first received my copy of Religion in Human Evolution by post, the initial impression was of its sheer heft. After opening the package, I turned first, as usual, to its notes and citations. What came immediately to mind was Bellah’s first-person footnote at the conclusion of his article, “Durkheim and History”: “In spite of long-standing opposition…I agree with Durkheim that the problem of evolution, including our own social origins, is central for sociology as a science. To be convincing, this view must be backed by research, a challenge not to be evaded.”

Bellah, this year, in this work under discussion, has responded to, has not “evaded” his own “challenge,” in an exemplary fashion. What is more—given the density of both his data and his arguments, the product of his “research,” apparent on every page—Bellah has attained that rarest of academic achievements, his new book is a damned good read!

December 15th, 2011

The return of the grand narrative

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The subtitle of Bellah’s book, From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age, indicates that it is about religions between the Paleolithic and the axial ages. Bellah explicitly states that this is “not a book about modernity,” and that he plans to write another, smaller book on modernity. However, I want to suggest that in a very important sense this book is about modernity as well. This is because Bellah believes that there are necessary links “between past and present,” and that “nothing is ever lost.”

December 9th, 2011

Beyond reductive naturalism

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Future histories may report that the public discourse on religion was dominated by reductive naturalism until Robert Bellah’s Religion in Human Evolution appeared in 2011. One of the most distinctive features of Bellah’s book is his extensive use of the latest developments in the natural sciences, such as biology, cognitive science, evolutionary psychology, and developmental and child psychology. One of his purposes is, as he puts it, “to show how deeply we are shaped by a very long biological history.” This might give the wrong impression that Bellah’s approach is similar to the New Naturalist approach. However, Bellah’s is better characterized as a non-reductive humanistic naturalism, which is a synthesis of the humanistic (interpretative, social, and historical) understanding of religion and the naturalist approach.

December 7th, 2011

Five questions for Robert Bellah

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It is a pleasure and an honor to engage a book that is truly large in ways beyond its sheer size. It is large in scope, ranging across geological, biological, cultural, and historical phenomena spanning both time and place. It is large in significance, asking how one of humanity’s central yet elusive traits—what might be termed its religious gene—fits within and perhaps contributes to one of science’s dominant theoretical frameworks, evolution. It is also large-minded in its appreciation for the distinct yet interrelated ways in which humans express meaning. Professor Bellah’s instinct, I think, is to be inclusive rather than exclusive, to see how diverse modes meld one into another, and to provide nuanced appreciation more than sharp-edged distinctions.

November 28th, 2011

State of the Species

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Human beings live in virtual worlds that define what they value, what they aspire to, and what they are able to imagine. Those virtual worlds are typically shared with fellow members of a given culture, and each culture is a collective projection of the human imagination, instantiated in a way of life. Robert Bellah has written a book whose objective is to understand how those virtual worlds—in other words, those cultures—came into being, and what role religion played in this process.

November 23rd, 2011

Dangerous evolutions?

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Religion in Human Evolution is an immensely ambitious book on a topic only a scholar of Robert Bellah’s stature could dare to tackle. It attempts no less than to explain human biological as well as cultural evolution in one sweep, beginning with early hominids and ending with the “axial age.” Bellah engages evolutionary biology as well as cognitive psychology for the framing of his argument. This is a courageous move of transcending conventional disciplinary boundaries, for which he should be applauded. At the same time, it draws Bellah into positions he might actually not always be comfortable with.

November 18th, 2011

Where religion comes from and leads us

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In seeking to make sense of modernity in the classical tradition of sociology as a field, the body of Robert Bellah’s work spans the social sciences and comparative cultural inquiry to embrace the global diversity and coherence of religion as the key to culture across civilizations and epochs within the framework of human evolution. Formally trained as a student of tribal cultures, East Asian civilization, and Islam, Bellah engages the West, and America in particular, as problematic cases that can only be understood in the broadest comparative perspective on human cultural development. This global perspective informs Bellah’s conceptions of religion and human evolution as they have deepened and grown over a half century.

November 16th, 2011

What should we now do differently?

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No one reading this seven hundred page book can fail to be impressed with the sweep of its argument or with the range and depth of its scholarship. There is, indeed, nothing like it currently extant and it will take its place as a major landmark study. That range and depth of scholarship may perhaps explain why from time to time I felt as though I were drowning in multiple cross-references and superimposed typologies. Indeed, I was not entirely clear how tight the superimpositions were, or whether they were roughly parallel. For example, I found myself unsure what the relation was between the familiar sequence from hunter/gatherer to tribal societies and from archaic civilisations to the axial age, and the Merlin Donald sequence from the mimetic to the theoretic, and I was equally unsure about how these two sequences related to the sequence of childhood development based in Piaget, Bruner and others.

September 29th, 2011

The big bang

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Peter Manseau reviews Robert Bellah’s Religion in Human Evolution.

August 18th, 2011

Robert Bellah on religion’s place in evolution

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The Atlantic interviews Robert Bellah about his new tome Religion in Human Evolution. In the interview, he explains the impetus behind writing the book.

May 12th, 2011

Crafting the secular studies syllabus

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Pitzer College having announced that it will offer a major in “secular studies,” the Harvard University Press Blog compiles a list of titles essential to the subject.

March 15th, 2010

The (really) strong program

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Whenever there is talk about an ‘emerging strong program’ and ‘a new sociology of religion,’ we need to keep in mind not only where we might be going, but where we have come from. Given the apparent centrality of religion to much of the modern world, and what now appear to be the limitations of the secularization thesis, we should welcome any sign of a revival of the fortunes of the sociology of religion. However, I have serious doubts about its annunciation. We will need more than research into which religions are figured as independent variables, or which receive some positive evaluation from social scientists, in order to herald the birth of a strong program.

February 12th, 2010

Echoes of American civil religion

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It is interesting to revisit civil religion discourse in the context of a new time and its discontents, and the consequent rethinking of the theme.  Three of the four posts in this discussion (Gorski, Moosa, Morgan) address the civic-religious complex in terms of Robert Bellah’s well-known concept of civil religion.  The fourth (Kim) does not, but invokes Abraham Lincoln and Ralph Waldo Emerson in ways that echo some of the dialog of the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the Bellah thesis was fresh and new.  Given this general ambience, I would like to situate these rich and evocative posts by reviewing what, in that time, was called the civil religion debate.

January 8th, 2010

A Neo-Weberian theory of American civil religion

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The American civil religion, Robert Bellah argued, was derived from two sources, one religious and the other secular: the covenant theology of the Puritans and the classical republicanism of the Founders. Writing amidst the collective funk of the mid-1970s, Bellah famously concluded that the American civil religion was an empty and broken shell. Though I agree with Bellah about the sources of this tradition, I disagree with his assessment of its vitality. Nor do I believe that civil religion is the only version of the American tradition. I argue that there were at least two others. To wit: religious nationalism and radical secularism.

December 4th, 2009

Obama’s civil religion

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At U.S. Intellectual History, Raymond J. Haberski, Jr. appraises Barack Obama’s implicit invocations of civil religion in this week’s speech on the war in Afghanistan. In taking this interpretive approach, Haberski contributes to what has become a new academic tradition. Haberski’s take on the speech in fact encapsulates the new tradition’s range of opinions, for he identifies civil religion in Obama’s language at the same time that he asks whether the concept of civil religion amounts to more than “hogwash.”

September 8th, 2009

Rethinking secularism and religion in the global age

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Robert BellahLast September, I sat down at UC-Berkeley with the eminent sociologist of religion, Robert Bellah, for a discussion about religious evolution, the ideas of religion and secularism, the rise of extreme positions associated with both of those terms, and the future of universalistic faiths in an emerging global civil society. The following is an excerpt from our discussion, a full transcript of which is available here (PDF).

June 11th, 2009

Civil religion, prophecy and Obama

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For some scholars, “religion” gives the social cohesion and moral purpose without which a merely self-interested and fragmenting liberalism could not survive. Others see how, at moments of crisis, figures like Lincoln—or now we might argue Obama—draw on biblical language to call a special nation to its higher and redemptive purpose, and thus name common purposes that mobilize nation-building or rebuilding. In 1968, Bellah linked civil religion not only to consensus but to dissent: he invoked the examples of William Lloyd Garrison and Eugene Debs to argue that critics of racism or empire must speak in widely resonant, biblical terms, or they risk cultural marginality and political impotence. Critics who do not invoke “any genuinely American pattern of values,” the “better instincts of American patriotism” or indeed “the deeper moral instincts of Americans,” he argues, will fail, and a corporate and imperial regime will continue to “undermine essential American values and constitutional order.”

June 8th, 2009

The primacy of practice

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Here’s an “old thing” which relates, I think, to President Obama and the debate about civil religion—the primacy of practice. Usually in presidential inaugurations, civil religion is framed largely as a watered-down Judeo-Christian consensus, covering over the rough edges of existing differences in theology and custom. George W. Bush’s Inaugural Addresses stand out for their sectarian evangelical Christian tone, which rightly sparked a chorus of dissident voices. But this past January we saw a president in his Inaugural Address openly and honestly wrestling with the nation’s diversity—a “patchwork,” as he described it, “of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers.” Non-believers? Their inclusion in the same breath with religious communities, especially on civil religion’s holiest of days, unsettled some, inspired others. Clearly, Obama would like to defuse this tension. More than just carefully chosen words, his was a performative act aimed at uniting believers and non-believers in a common citizenship.