The eminent American sociologist of religion Robert Bellah has passed away at 86. He was an influential figure in the field and beyond for fifty years, with a career highlighted by his two classic essays of the mid-1960s—“Religious Evolution” and “Civil Religion in America”—his immensely successful co-authored Habits of the Heart in 1985, and 2011’s Religion in Human Evolution, a work widely considered his magnum opus. We had the great good fortune of working with Bellah on Religion in Human Evolution, and this year selected it as one of the hundred significant titles with which to mark our centennial.
Upon publication of Religion in Human Evolution, Bellah sat for a long interview with The Atlantic, explaining the book and his hopes for it. The work itself, he noted, was “a plea for rooting ourselves in an understanding of the deep past,” the one thing that could save us from the perils of the present:
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.
Bellah also had an in-depth conversation about the book with Nathan Schneider of The Immanent Frame, which has hosted a series of rich considerations of Religion in Human Evolution since its publication.
In the coming days and weeks much will be said about the extraordinary career of Robert Bellah. Work your way through some of the discussion of this final great book for a sense of the last extraordinary things Bellah worked to say to us.