A summary of sociologist Robert Bellah’s life in the New York Times includes this observation about studying religion in sociology:
He was widely credited with helping usher the study of religion — a historically marginalized subject in the social sciences — into the sociological fold.
This begs the question of why the study of religion within sociology was marginalized in the first place (and also perhaps whether it still is today). It is hard to escape the topic from reading the classical theorists, like Durkheim, Weber, and Marx. Perhaps this is a self-fulfilling prophecy of secularization within sociology?
In response to a review of Robert Bellah’s new book, a sociologist writes to the New York Times to link Robert Bellah and Clifford Geertz to Talcott Parsons:
His contrast of Bellah’s theories of religious evolution with Clifford Geertz’s outlook was also illuminating, but I was surprised he did bnot mention that both Bellah and Geertz were students of Talcott Parsons, a towering figure of mid-20th-century sociology. Indeed, a fuller understanding of Bellah’s and Geertz’s intellectual trajectories demands appreciation of their continuity with Parsonsian theory as well as their breaks with it. Parsons struggled to provide a vision of human agency that makes a place for morality, reason, emotions and biology, and of social order as the product of both human initiative and pre-existing collective forces, which are themselves both cultural and coercive. As Wolfe points out, his two illustrious students continued to struggle with the complexities of how we can be agents as well the product of external forces — and the unique role religion has played in how we struggle to manage these elements.
This seems like prescient analysis to me. While undergraduate sociology majors hear in theory classes that Parsons was the end of functionalism and quickly faded from prominence, isn’t this intellectual bloodline a good measure of Parsons abilities? I never knew both Bellah and Geertz, both well-respected and well-known, were his students and this puts Parsons in a slightly different light.
Has anyone ever put together a sociological genealogy where we could see how generations of scholars have emerged from others? While these would no doubt be socially constructed and emphasize famous scholars, I think it would be fascinating to see.
Here is an interesting conversation with sociologist of religion Robert Bellah in advance of a new book.
A few little tidbits:
- On his popular work regarding civil religion in America:
I wrote an article on religious evolution which was published in 1964, but I got hijacked by America. That was the problem with my “Civil Religion in America” essay—it got such an enormous response at a time when things were pretty critical, towards the end of the Vietnam War. I never intended to work on America but then I got hauled into America for decades…
- On play and how this plays out in his own experiences:
Play is a very elusive idea because it comes in so many forms. It’s hard entirely to put them all under one category. Johan Huizinga’s work was a great help to me, because he makes a strong argument that ritual emerges out of play. I’m a practicing Episcopalian and they call Sunday School “holy play,” which seems to me a little bit cuckoo but there’s some sense to it; in a sense what we’re doing in the liturgy is a kind of play, a profound play.
- On his philosophical approach:
I respect Nietzsche—he’s a genius—but the last thing in the world I am is a Nietzschean. If you want to place me philosophically I would be in the tradition of Kant and Hegel and perhaps in contemporary life, the two first blurbs on the back of my book: Jurgen Habermas is a Kantian and Charles Taylor was a Hegelian. That would be where I stand.
- On looking to the future:
If you look at the conclusion you’ll know I end on a fairly somber note, the “sixth great extinction,” and so on. I think our cultural change has sped up to the point where it really is surpassing our evolutionary capacities for dealing with it. We need to be aware of where we came from, because that tells us who we are. And there are things that don’t change, there are things we need to hold on to. We think, criticize, reapply, but we can’t imagine that the latest technological development is going to solve everything. We need to understand the past out of which we came and in particular the great Axial traditions which are still alive to us. Good philosophers read Plato not as historical texts of the past but as words that speak to them and have something to say to them. Aristotle’s ethics are taken seriously as one of the great alternatives to philosophical ethics today. So these Axial figures are still around and may help us. We certainly need help, as we don’t seem to be doing very well. So this book is again a plea for rooting ourselves in an understanding of the deep past.
Based on this short conversation, this new book sounds like Bellah is taking the chance to take a broad overview of religion and step up an analytical level from the earlier work he has done.
In a Washington Post blog, Amarnath Amarasingam offers some thoughts about how Glenn Beck’s rally is connected to the concept of civil religion, developed first by Robert Bellah and debated by sociologists of religion since. While invoking religious terminology and genres in common in political rhetoric, Amarasingam suggests it can be used for good or ill:
Robert Bellah noted long ago that American civil religion was capable of holding the United States to a higher moral standard. He also warned that it has often been used “as a cloak for petty interests and ugly passions.” In other words, civil religion could be a powerful tool to rally the masses and forge a new path, or it could drive the country into a narcissistic and idolatrous worship of itself. The choice must be made by America’s newly self-appointed high priest.
Of course, Beck’s words were much more specific than many cases of civil religion where leaders make bland and non-specific references.