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Bellah graduated from Harvard in a joint sociology and Far East languages program, with Talcott Parsons and John Pelzel as his advisors, respectively. 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. Parsons was specially interested in Bellah's concept of religious evolution and the concept of "civil religion". They remained intellectual friends until Parsons' death in 1979. He received his Doctor of Philosophy degree in 1955. His doctoral dissertation was titled Religion and Society in Tokugawa Japan and was an extension of Max Weber's Protestant ethic thesis to Japan. It was published as Tokugawa Religion in 1957.
... 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.
Bellah's magnum opus, Religion in Human Evolution (2011), 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." The book won the Distinguished Book Award of the American Sociological Association's Section on Sociology of Religion.
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.
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. His views are often classified as communitarian. A full biography of Robert Bellah, "the world's most widely read sociologist of religion", written by sociologist Matteo Bortolini, titled A Joyfully Serious Man. The Life of Robert Bellah, is scheduled for publication with Princeton University Press in the fall of 2021.
Nomination at Princeton
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). (Bellah was at the IAS as a temporary member for the academic year 1972-1973.) 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. The dispute became extremely acrimonious, but in April 1973 Bellah's eldest daughter died and he, in grief, withdrew from consideration.
Bellah was born in Altus, Oklahoma, on February 23, 1927. His father was a newspaper editor and publisher who committed suicide when Bellah was three years old. His mother Lillian moved the family to Los Angeles, where she had relatives. Bellah grew up in Los Angeles 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 a service in the US Army. Bellah's wife died in 2010.
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.
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. Robert and Melanie Bellah's eldest daughter committed suicide in 1973. Their third daughter died at age 17 in 1967 in an automobile accident. Raised as a Presbyterian, he converted to Episcopalianism in the Anglo-Catholic tradition.
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)
Bortolini, Matteo; Cossu, Andrea (2015). "Two Men, Two Books, Many Disciplines: Robert N. Bellah, Glifford Geertz, and the Making of Iconic Cultural Objects". In Law, Alex; Lybeck, Eric Royal (eds.). Sociological Amnesia: Cross-Currents in Disciplinary History. Abingdon, England: Routledge (published 2016). pp. 37-55. ISBN978-1-317-05314-9.
Rousseau, Nathan, ed. (2002). "Robert Bellah et al. on Individualism and Community in America". Self, Symbols, and Society: Classic Readings in Social Psychology. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. pp. 317-343. ISBN978-0-7425-1631-1.
Wood, Richard (2005). "Bellah, Robert Neelly (1927-)". In Shook, John R. (ed.). The Dictionary of Modern American Philosophers. 1. Bristol, England: Thoemmes Continuum. pp. 182-187. ISBN978-1-84714-470-6.
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. ISBN978-0-520-22657-9.
Reno, R. R.; McClay, Barbara, eds. (2015). Religion and the Social Sciences: Conversations with Robert Bellah and Christian Smith. Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books. ISBN978-1-4982-3643-0.