Magazine article The Christian Century

Robert Bellah, Influential Religion Scholar, Dies at 86

Magazine article The Christian Century

Robert Bellah, Influential Religion Scholar, Dies at 86

Article excerpt

Robert N. Bellah, an eminent sociologist of religion most remembered for defining the interplay of U.S. religion and politics as a civil religion and for describing Sheilaism, a forerunner of today's "spiritual but not religious" individualism, died July 30 of complications related to heart surgery at an Oakland, California, hospital

Bellah, raised in Los Angeles, was educated at Harvard and taught there before becoming a professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley in 1967. He retired as a professor emeritus in 1997 and was working on a sequel to his ambitious 2011 book, Religion in Human Evolution, before his recent heart problems.

In 2000, President Bill Clinton awarded Bellah the National Humanities Medal for raising "our awareness of the values that are at the core of democratic institutions and of the dangers of individualism unchecked by social responsibility."

"Bob Bellah was a towering intellectual figure and a remarkable friend, colleague and teacher," said Ann Swidler, a UC Berkeley professor of sociology and one of Bellah's collaborators for his Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life. That much-discussed book sold nearly 500,000 copies within a decade of its 1985 publication.

Swidler, as quoted by UC Berkeley media relations, said Bellah's work focused on "what our society conspires to drive apart--the life of the intellect and the moral life. For him reason really was the search for the good, and reason devoid of moral purpose was utterly irrational."

Raised as a Presbyterian, Bellah joined an Episcopal church in Berkeley after "25 years of shopping for the right parish," he wrote in the CENTURY in 1991. His humor, intellect and accessibility earned him the American Academy of Religion's Martin E. Marty Award for the Public Understanding of Religion in 2007.

Writing a tribute to Bellah for the website Religion Dispatches, Mark Juergensmeyer, who teaches at UC Santa Barbara, said that over 50 years ago "Bellah rocked the field of religious studies with a different kind of pioneering study," one that required him to become fluent in Japanese. During his three decades at UC Berkeley, he served as chair of sociology and chair of the Center for Japanese and Korean Studies.

"In Tokugawa Religion, Bellah did for Japanese Buddhism, Confucianism and Shinto what Max Weber did for Christianity in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism," wrote Juergensmeyer. …

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