Debate Magazine

Robert Bellah RIP

By Cris

The sociologist and scholar of religion Robert Bellah has passed. He was a curious figure who leaves an ambiguous intellectual legacy. Before I explain, let me say that Bellah was, in my estimation, one of the great scholars of our age. I cannot think of anyone now living with greater intellectual range or more enormous erudition. Reading Bellah has always been an awe-inspiring pleasure. When polymaths can write beautifully, impressive things happen. So why the ambiguity?

It begins with the fact that Bellah was a faithful disciple of Emile Durkheim. At first blush, this seems odd. Durkheim was an atheist who thought he had scientifically explained religion as a social phenomenon. His explanation was that individuals were completely and always dependent on society or a group. From society or the group, all things flowed, including survival, learning, flourishing, and reproduction. But there was a problem. Durkheim assumed that society was always in danger of being torn apart by the centrifugal forces of selfishness and individualism. For society to cohere and not schism, its members had to periodically gather and engage in effervescent rituals. These rituals aroused emotions and signaled commitment.

By this rendering, all ritual activity and religious belief was directed toward one thing: society and its maintenance. In Durkheim’s scientific-atheist mind, only this could explain the apparent universality of religion and its puzzling staying power. If religion were nothing more than cognitive error and costly illusion, it would have been eliminated by natural selection over evolutionary time. Bellah agreed with all this, except for one important difference: he was a Christian.

Before explaining how this important fact figures in Bellah’s work on religious evolution, it is important to understand that Durkheim and Bellah were singularly concerned with large-scale societies and the difficulties those societies face in maintaining cohesion while dealing with rampant individualism and division. Both took for granted the idea that large-scale societies are always in danger of fracture and that schism must be overcome or avoided. Their prescriptions were similar: large-scale societies need big-ideas (or gods) around which they can organize collective rituals. Durkheim and Bellah were, in other words, firmly embedded in the progressive-positivist tradition.

This tradition, which began with Montesquieu, Rousseau, Saint-Simon and Comte, traces a positive arc and progressive direction in history: societies are arrayed along a continuum from “simple-primitive” to “complex-modern.” For Durkheim and Bellah, the preferred and privileged vantage point is from the top or apex. From their lofty perch (i.e., the civilized, modern, industrial, nation-state), they studied “primitives” who had somehow gotten stuck in evolutionary-historical time. The idea was that by studying these “simple” societies, we could identify everything essential to social life and fundamental to group living. These insights could, in turn, salubriously be applied to modern societies. Neither Durkheim nor Bellah bother much with the fact that large-scale societies and collective enthusiasms can be something other than positive. Durkheim’s love and concern was France; Bellah’s was the United States.

As is evident, this approach has much in common with the progressive cultural evolutionism of Tylor, Lubbock, Morgan, and Frazer. Although Durkheim disagreed with these scholars’ “intellectualist” focus on individual minds and religious beliefs — insisting instead on the primacy of social bonding and ritual activities — he agreed (along with Herbert Spencer) that societies “organically evolved” and could be arrayed along a historical continuum from simple or “primitive” to complex or “modern.” Durkheim and Bellah also thought, incorrectly, that “simple-primitive” societies were static representatives or exemplars of the evolutionary past.

But whereas Durkheim’s evolutionism was restrained and implicit, Bellah’s was enthusiastic and explicit. In Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, Durkheim clearly adhered to cultural evolutionary ideas without ever endorsing or discussing them. While this was due in part to the fact that he was founding a new discipline in opposition to evolutionist anthropology, it was due in other part to the fact that the rationalist-ethnocentric bias of cultural evolutionism had come under heavy attack. It was no longer proper to classify peoples as “primitive” and relegate them to the “simple” backwaters of staged or developmental history. This kind of typological thinking had, for good reasons, become taboo due to the excesses of the early cultural evolutionists.

Durkheim’s great work on religion had two effects after its publication in 1912. First, it shifted anthropology’s focus to groups, collectives, and kinship. After Durkheim, most anthropology was “social.” Second, it cemented the idea that “primitives” were evolutionary exemplars. It was no accident that post-Durkheim field anthropologists were fixated on “simple” societies. Though few had the temerity to say so, the euphemistic obsession with “tribal, small-scale, traditional” societies was due to one fact: they were assumed or implied to be exemplars of the ancestral past. These evolutionary assumptions and implications were, of course, usually buried beneath the tautological terms “structure” and “function.” Due to Durkheim’s influence, everyone assumed that society was paramount, that all societies were structured through kinship, and that everything — including ritual and religion — functioned to maintain the structure of society.

Bellah’s great achievement, if one wants to call it that, was to resurrect the old cultural evolutionist schemes, cultivate the evolutionism implicit in Durkheim’s work, and combine these with modern scholarship on human biological evolution. Incredibly and indefatigably, Bellah worked on this project for nearly 50 years before finally publishing his magnum opus, Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age. As impressive feats of scholarship go, few can compare. It is, however, deeply flawed.

The cardinal error in the book (and problem with Bellah’s scheme) was already evident in 1964, when he published “Religious Evolution” in the American Sociological Review. It was an audacious article, if only because Bellah openly championed the old (i.e., Victorian) cultural evolutionist idea that human history and societies were temporally and developmentally divided into stages that he called “Primitive, Archaic, Historic, Early Modern, and Modern.” For Bellah, cultural evolution is cumulative — over and again, he dubiously asserts: “Nothing is ever lost.” Because’s Bellah’s evolution is always cumulative, it is by definition progressive. As one would expect, this means that as Bellah traces the progressive evolution of religion through these various stages, things just keep getting better and better. And given Bellah’s Christian beliefs, you can easily guess where his evolutionary story eventually leads.

If we indulge Bellah by standing in his European-American Christian scholarly shoes and narrowly focus our sights on the genealogical line of descent that culminates in his worldview, his story makes some sense. It’s a fact that deep in time Bellah and his same-shoe-wearing relatives had “primitive” hunter-gatherer ancestors. These ancestors were, in all likelihood, animists of one kind or another. They surely had a sophisticated cosmology and complex worldview. How can Bellah claim that none of it has been lost? He can’t.

In fact, a great deal has been lost. Moreover, it can’t be recovered by pointing to or studying so-called “primitive” societies, none of which ever got stuck in time, history, or evolution.

Bellah’s Christianity is an entirely different kind of religious belief that has little or nothing to do with animist worldviews. Like the other Axial religions of which Bellah is so fond (because of their progressive ethical dimensions which are needed in large-scale societies), Christianity is enormously derived and different. Christianity and the Axial religions developed under particular kinds of historical conditions (i.e., agricultural, urban, stratified, imperial, etc), they addressed an entirely different set of needs, and they served an entirely different set of interests. To claim that nothing was lost along this derived way, and that Axial religions “evolved” solely by way of cumulative addition, is nothing more than a statement of progressive faith.

Having said all this, and out of the deepest respect for Bellah, I strongly encourage you to read his works. Even with these flaws, they are often brilliant.

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