ⓘ Robert N. Bellah

Robert N. Bellah

ⓘ Robert N. Bellah

Robert Neelly Bellah was an American sociologist and the Elliott Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. He was internationally known for his work related to the sociology of religion.


1. Education

Bellah graduated summa cum laude from Harvard College in 1950, receiving a Bachelor of Arts degree in social relations with a concentration in social anthropology. His undergraduate honors thesis won the Phi Beta Kappa Prize and was later published in 1952 with the title Apache Kinship Systems.

Bellah graduated from Harvard in a joint sociology and Far East languages program, with Talcott Parsons and John Pelzel as his advisors, respectively. Bellah first encountered the work of Talcott Parsons as an undergraduate when his senior honors thesis advisor was David Aberle, a former student of Parsons. Parsons was specially interested in Bellahs concept of religious evolution and the concept of "civil religion". They remained intellectual friends until Parsons death in 1979. He received his Doctor of Philosophy degree in 1955. His doctoral dissertation was titled Religion and Society in Tokugawa Japan and was an extension of Max Webers Protestant ethic thesis to Japan. It was published as Tokugawa Religion in 1957.

While an undergraduate at Harvard, Bellah was a member of the Communist Party USA from 1947 to 1949 and a chairman of the John Reed Club, "a recognized student organization concerned with the study of Marxism". During the summer of 1954, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard McGeorge Bundy, who later served as a national security adviser to John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, threatened to withdraw Bellahs graduate student fellowship if he did not provide the names of his former club associates. Bellah was also interrogated by the Boston office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation with the same purpose. As a result, Bellah and his family spent two years in Canada, where he was awarded a post-doctoral fellowship at the Islamic Institute in McGill University in Montreal. He returned to Harvard after McCarthyism declined due to the death of its main instigator senator Joseph McCarthy. Bellah afterwards wrote,

. I know from personal experience that Harvard did some terribly wrong things during the McCarthy period and that those things have never been publicly acknowledged. At its worst it came close to psychological terror against almost defenseless individuals. The university and the secret police were in collusion to suppress political dissent and even to persecute dissenters who had changed their minds if they were not willing to become part of the persecution.


2. Career

Bellahs magnum opus, Religion in Human Evolution 2011, traces the biological and cultural origins of religion and the interplay between the two. The sociologist and philosopher Jurgen Habermas wrote of the work: "This great book is the intellectual harvest of the rich academic life of a leading social theorist who has assimilated a vast range of biological, anthropological, and historical literature in the pursuit of a breathtaking project. In this field I do not know of an equally ambitious and comprehensive study." The book won the Distinguished Book Award of the American Sociological Associations Section on Sociology of Religion.

Bellah is best known for his 1985 book Habits of the Heart, which discusses how religion contributes to and detracts from Americas common good, and for his studies of religious and moral issues and their connection to society. Bellah was perhaps best known for his work related to American civil religion, a term which he coined in a 1967 article that has since gained widespread attention among scholars.

He served in various positions at Harvard from 1955 to 1967 when he took the position of Ford Professor of Sociology at the University of California at Berkeley. He spent the remainder of his career at Berkeley. His views are often classified as communitarian. An academic biography of Robert Bellah, "the worlds most widely read sociologist of religion", is currently under way.


3. Bellah Nomination at Princeton

In 1972 Carl Kaysen and Clifford Geertz nominated Robert Bellah as a candidate for a permanent faculty position at the Institute for Advanced Study IAS. Bellah was at the IAS as a temporary member for the academic year 1972–1973. On January 15, 1973, at an IAS faculty meeting, the IAS faculty voted against Bellah by thirteen to eight with three abstentions. All of the mathematicians and half of the historians voted against the nomination. All of the physicists voted in favor of the nomination. After the vote, Kaysen said that he intended to recommend Bellahs nomination to the IASs trustees despite the vote. The faculty members who voted against Bellah were outraged. The dispute became extremely acrimonious, but in April 1973 Bellahs eldest daughter died and he, in grief, withdrew from consideration.


4. Personal

Bellah was born in Altus, Oklahoma, on February 23, 1927. His father was a newspaper editor and publisher and died when he was two years old. His mother Lillian moved the family to Los Angeles, where she had relatives. Bellah grew up in Los Angeles and attended Los Angeles High School, where he and his future wife, Melanie Hyman, were editors of the student newspaper. They got married in 1948 after she graduated from Stanford University, and he began studying at Harvard University after a service in the US Army. Bellahs wife died in 2010.

Bellah was briefly a communist during his student years at Harvard, as he recalled in 1977 in a letter to the New York Review of Books regarding McCarthyism at the university:

Harvards capitulation to McCarthyism is still being defended as a form of resistance to McCarthyism. An account of my experiences will, I believe, support McCarthy.

Bellah was fluent in Japanese and literate in Chinese, French, and German, and later studied Arabic at McGill University in Montreal.

Bellah died July 30, 2013, at an Oakland, California, hospital from complications after heart surgery. He was 86 and is survived by his daughters Jennifer Bellah Maguire and Hally Bellah-Guther; a sister, Hallie Reynolds; and five grandchildren. Robert and Melanie Bellahs eldest daughter committed suicide in 1973. Their third daughter died at age 17 in an automobile accident. Raised as a Presbyterian, he converted to Episcopalianism in the Anglo-Catholic tradition.


5. Works

Robert Bellah is the author, editor, co-author, or co-editor of the following books:

  • The New Religious Consciousness 1976
  • Uncivil Religion: Interreligious Hostility in America 1987
  • Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age 2011
  • Religion and Progress in Modern Asia 1965
  • Beyond Belief: Essays on Religion in a Post-Traditional World 1970
  • The Good Society 1991
  • Emile Durkheim on Morality and Society 1973
  • The Axial Age and Its Consequences 2012
  • The Robert Bellah Reader 2006
  • Imagining Japan: The Japanese Tradition and Its Modern Interpretation 2003
  • The Broken Covenant: American Civil Religion in Time of Trial 1975
  • Varieties of Civil Religion 1980
  • Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life 1985
  • Tokugawa Religion: The Values of Pre-Industrial Japan 1957

6. Awards and honors

Bellah was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1967. He received the National Humanities Medal in 2000 from President Bill Clinton, in part for "his efforts to illuminate the importance of community in American society." In 2007, he received the American Academy of Religion Martin E. Marty Award for the Public Understanding of Religion.

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