Robert N. Bellah

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Robert N. Bellah
Robert Neely Bellah.jpg
Bellah in 2008
Robert Neelly Bellah

(1927-02-23)February 23, 1927
DiedJuly 30, 2013(2013-07-30) (aged 86)
Melanie Hyman
(m. 1948; died 2010)
Academic background
Alma materHarvard University
ThesisReligion and Society in Tokugawa Japan (1955)
Doctoral advisor
Other advisorsDavid Aberle
Academic work
Sub-disciplineSociology of religion
School or traditionCommunitarianism
Doctoral studentsJeffrey C. Alexander[9]
Notable works
  • The Broken Covenant (1975)
  • Habits of the Heart (1985)
  • Religion in Human Evolution (2011)
Notable ideas

Robert Neelly Bellah (February 23, 1927 – July 30, 2013) 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.[13]


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.[14] His undergraduate honors thesis won the Phi Beta Kappa Prize and was later published in 1952 with the title Apache Kinship Systems.[15]

Bellah graduated from Harvard in a joint sociology and Far East languages program. 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.[16] Parsons was specially interested in Bellah's concept of religious evolution and the concept of "civil religion". He received his Doctor of Philosophy degree in 1955.[17] His doctoral dissertation was titled Religion and Society in Tokugawa Japan[18] and was an extension of Max Weber's 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[19] and a chairman of the John Reed Club, "a recognized student organization concerned with the study of Marxism".[20] 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 Bellah's graduate student fellowship if he did not provide the names of his former club associates.[21] 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.[20]


Bellah's magnum opus, Religion in Human Evolution (2011),[22] traces the biological and cultural origins of religion and the interplay between the two. The sociologist and philosopher Jürgen 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."[23] The book won the Distinguished Book Award of the American Sociological Association's Section on Sociology of Religion.[24]

Bellah is best known for his 1985 book Habits of the Heart, which discusses how religion contributes to and detracts from America's 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.[25][26]

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.[citation needed] His views are often classified as communitarian.[27] A full biography of Robert Bellah, "the world's most widely read sociologist of religion",[28] written by sociologist Matteo Bortolini, titled A Joyfully Serious Man. The Life of Robert Bellah, has been published by Princeton University Press in the fall of 2021.[29]

Nomination at Princeton[edit]

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).[30] (Bellah was at the IAS as a temporary member for the academic year 1972–1973.)[31] 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 Bellah's nomination to the IAS's trustees despite the vote. The faculty members who voted against Bellah were outraged.[30] The dispute became extremely acrimonious,[32][33] but in April 1973 Bellah's eldest daughter died and he, in grief, withdrew from consideration.[34]

Personal life[edit]

Bellah was born in Altus, Oklahoma, on February 23, 1927.[14] His father was a newspaper editor and publisher who committed suicide when Bellah was three years old.[7] His mother Lillian moved the family to Los Angeles,[7] where she had relatives.[citation needed] Bellah grew up in Los Angeles[35] 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 serving in the US Army. Bellah's 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:

Harvard's capitulation to McCarthyism is still being defended as a form of resistance to McCarthyism. An account of my experiences will, I believe, support [Sigmund] Diamond's and not [McGeorge] Bundy's interpretation of those years.

I was a member of the Communist Party as a Harvard undergraduate from 1947 to 1949. During that period I was mainly involved in the John Reed Club, a recognized student organization concerned with the study of Marxism. In that connection, I might recount an incident that indicates that a difference between a public policy and a privacy policy at Harvard such as Diamond has suggested may already have begun in 1949. According to [Seymour Martin] Lipset:

In 1949, the John Reed Club sponsored a talk by a well-known Communist, Gerhart Eisler, who was on his way to a job in East Germany after having been convicted for contempt of Congress. When the University was attacked for allowing students to be corrupted, Wilbur Bender, then Dean of Harvard College, defended the students' right to hear, stating: "If Harvard students can be corrupted by an Eisler, Harvard College had better shut down as an educational institution ... [p. 182]"

I was, I believe, Chairman of the John Reed Club at the time and was informed shortly after we announced that Eisler would speak that the university was considering forbidding the meeting and that the chairman and executive committee of the Club were asked to meet with an administrative officer. The administrator told us in the strongest terms that the invitation was extremely embarrassing for Harvard and asked us for the good of the school to withdraw the invitation. When we stood fast he told us that quite probably none of us would ever get jobs if we persisted in our course of action. The Harvard administration was attempting to do privately and indirectly what it would not do publicly and brazenly, namely suppress freedom of speech, which was precisely the aim of [Joseph] 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.[26] Robert and Melanie Bellah's eldest daughter committed suicide in 1973. Their third daughter died at age 17 in 1976 in an automobile accident.[36] Raised as a Presbyterian, he converted to Episcopalianism[21] in the Anglo-Catholic tradition.[37][38]


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

  • Tokugawa Religion: The Values of Pre-Industrial Japan (1957)
  • Religion and Progress in Modern Asia (1965)
  • Beyond Belief: Essays on Religion in a Post-Traditional World (1970)
  • Emile Durkheim on Morality and Society (1973)
  • The Broken Covenant: American Civil Religion in Time of Trial (1975)
  • The New Religious Consciousness (1976)
  • Varieties of Civil Religion (1980)
  • Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (1985)
  • Uncivil Religion: Interreligious Hostility in America (1987)
  • The Good Society (1991)[39]
  • Imagining Japan: The Japanese Tradition and Its Modern Interpretation (2003)
  • The Robert Bellah Reader (2006)
  • Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age (2011)
  • The Axial Age and Its Consequences (2012)

Awards and honors[edit]

Bellah was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1967.[40] In 1996, he was elected to the American Philosophical Society.[41] He received the National Humanities Medal in 2000 from President Bill Clinton,[42] in part for "his efforts to illuminate the importance of community in American society."[43] In 2007, he received the American Academy of Religion Martin E. Marty Award for the Public Understanding of Religion.[13] In 2008, he received the honorary doctorate of the Max Weber Centre of the University of Erfurt.[44]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Bortolini 2011, p. 6.
  2. ^ Turner 2017, p. 135.
  3. ^ Thompson 2012, p. 32; Turner 2017, p. 135.
  4. ^ Gardner 2017, p. 95.
  5. ^ Bellah, Robert N. (2002). "New-Time Religion". The Christian Century. Chicago. pp. 20–26. Retrieved November 18, 2019.
  6. ^ Bellah, Robert N. (2011). Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press. Cited in Converse, William (April 17, 2013). "Review of Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age, by Robert N. Bellah". Anglican Church of Canada. Retrieved November 18, 2019.
  7. ^ a b c Horowitz 2005, p. 218.
  8. ^ Swidler 1993, p. ix; Turner 2017, p. 135.
  9. ^ Lynch & Sheldon 2013, p. 257.
  10. ^ "In Memoriam: Robert N. Bellah". San Francisco: Episcopal Diocese of California. July 31, 2013. Retrieved July 30, 2019.
  11. ^ Alvord & McCannon 2014, pp. 6, 8.
  12. ^ "Robert Wuthnow (1969)". Berkeley, California: University of California, Berkeley. Retrieved May 30, 2019.
  13. ^ a b "Welcome to the Web Pages Dedicated to the Work of Robert N. Bellah". Hartford, Connecticut: Hartford Seminary. Retrieved September 7, 2018.
  14. ^ a b Wood 2005, p. 182.
  15. ^ Bellah & Tipton 2006, p. 523; Bortolini & Cossu 2015, p. 39.
  16. ^ Bortolini 2010, p. 7.
  17. ^ Giesen & Šuber 2005, p. 49; Yamane 1998.
  18. ^ Bellah 1955.
  19. ^ Bellah, Robert N. (2005). "McCarthyism at Harvard". The New York Review of Books. Vol. 52, no. 2. ISSN 0028-7504. Retrieved September 7, 2018.
  20. ^ a b Bellah, Robert N.; Bundy, McGeorge; Kerr, Clark; Cohen, Marshall; Conway, John; et al. (1977). "'Veritas' at Harvard: Another Exchange". The New York Review of Books. Vol. 24, no. 12. ISSN 0028-7504. Retrieved September 7, 2018.
  21. ^ a b Fox, Margalit (August 6, 2013). "Robert Bellah, Sociologist of Religion Who Mapped the American Soul, Dies at 86". The New York Times. Retrieved August 7, 2013.
  22. ^ Miles 2013, pp. 853, 862; Stausberg 2014, p. 281.
  23. ^ "About Religion in Human Evolution". Harvard University Press. Retrieved August 7, 2013.
  24. ^ "Sociology of Religion Section Award Recipients". American Sociological Association. October 3, 2011. Retrieved September 7, 2018.
  25. ^ Bellah 1967.
  26. ^ a b Woo, Elaine (August 3, 2013). "Robert N. Bellah Dies at 86; UC Berkeley Sociologist". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved August 27, 2013.
  27. ^ Bellah 1998; Dorrien 1995, pp. 336–343; Eberly 1998, p. 108.
  28. ^ Bergman, Barry (October 26, 2006). "Of God, Justice, and Disunited States". The Berkeleyan. Berkeley, California: University of California, Berkeley. Retrieved September 7, 2018.
  29. ^ Bortolini 2010; Bortolini 2011; Bortolini 2012.
  30. ^ a b Jones Jr., Landon Y. (February 1974). "Bad Days on Mount Olympus: The Big Shoot-Out in Princeton" (PDF). The Atlantic. (See pp. 44–45.)
  31. ^ "Robert N. Bellah". Institute for Advanced Study ( December 9, 2019.
  32. ^ Remmert, Volker R.; Schneider, Martina R.; Sorensen, Henrik Kragh, eds. (December 8, 2016). Historiography of Mathematics in the 19th and 20th Centuries. ISBN 9783319396491.
  33. ^ Bortolini 2011.
  34. ^ Goldstein, Rebecca (February 17, 2006). Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel (Great Discoveries). p. 245. ISBN 9780393242454.
  35. ^ Giesen & Šuber 2005, p. 49.
  36. ^ Bortolini, Mateo, ed. (June 28, 2019). The Anthem Companion to Robert N. Bellah. Anthem Press. ISBN 978-1-78308-964-2.
  37. ^ Coleman, John A. (August 5, 2013). "Remembering Robert N. Bellah". America. New York. Retrieved November 18, 2019.
  38. ^ Bellah, Robert N. (June 2013). "A Reply to My Critics". First Things. New York: Institute on Religion and Public Life. ISSN 1047-5141. Retrieved November 18, 2019.
  39. ^ Andre, Claire; Velasquez, Manuel (1992). "Creating the Good Society". Issues in Ethics. Vol. 5, no. 1. Santa Clara, California: Santa Clara University. ISSN 1091-7772. Archived from the original on December 10, 2015. Retrieved May 5, 2008.
  40. ^ "B" (PDF). Book of Members, 1780–2010. American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved May 30, 2011.
  41. ^ "APS Member History". Retrieved December 13, 2021.
  42. ^ Giesen & Šuber 2005, p. 49; Rousseau 2002, p. 317.
  43. ^ "A brief biography of Robert N. Bellah". Retrieved January 31, 2021.
  44. ^ ""Was ist die Achsenzeit"". Retrieved March 22, 2022.


Further reading[edit]

  • Bellah, Robert N. (2002). "Meaning and Modernity: America and the World". In Madsen, Richard; Sullivan, William M.; Swidler, Ann; Tipton, Steven M. (eds.). Meaning and Modernity: Religion, Polity, and Self. Berkeley, California: University of California Press. pp. 255–276. ISBN 978-0-520-22657-9.
  • Reno, R. R.; McClay, Barbara, eds. (2015). Religion and the Social Sciences: Conversations with Robert Bellah and Christian Smith. Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books. ISBN 978-1-4982-3643-0.

External links[edit]