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Holy Spirit Chapel, Berkeley, California October 1982


Biblical Religion and Social Science in the Modern World


Robert N. Bellah

This question and answer period followed a 1982 talk largely the same as the 1981 published version. This Q & A session may not contain much that is new and it certainly isn't the only place where Bellah blames the economy as one of the deepest causes of our condition, however problematic "causes" may be. But here, he is quite explicit about the relation of individualism to capitalism. Elsewhere, it should be noted, he also identifies individualistic religion as another major source of the cancerous form of individualism of which he is so critical. Already in 1982, Bellah is sharply critical of what David Brooks in 2000 refers to less critically as "bourgeois bohemians" in Brooks' Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There. Rae Ann McLennan tape-recorded the questions & answers. Sheryl Wiggins transcribed them. Sam Porter edited the transcript and wrote the introduction.


Question & Answers

Question: Inaudible

Bellah: Well, unfortunately, that would take as long as the whole talk but I will just give you just a couple of highlights from it. We have four sub-projects going. We're doing participant observation and interviewing rather than surveys because we really want to get the texture of people's thinking and not answers to pre-formulated questions. We're very interested in survey data but we're not doing that. So, where we go in to look in-depth at American life is obviously a question of strategic importance but one that we can't fully defend on the usual social scientific grounds.

What we have done is to try to look at certain selected places in public life and in private life. And we're very much interested-the whole project is focused on the balance between public and private. One of the things we're doing is we're looking at older middle class civic organizations as they are presently operating. We're looking at that in two suburban communities. One was founded in 1730 in Massachusetts and still has a town meeting in Tocquevillian terms, although it isn't operating Tocquevillianly right now. And the other is a 25 year-old suburb of San Diego. So, that gives us some variance there in terms of the types of communities. But what we're looking at within those communities is the whole way they work: the local power structure, the Kiwanis, the Rotary, the Junior Chamber of Commerce, the school board-everything, and talking to at least selected people in great depth and following them over the course of time in their lives. How they think and what they think America is all about and how they make sense of their lives.

Then we're looking at some of the newer activist kinds of things. We're looking at CED [Campaign for Economic Democracy], particularly in Santa Monica where it's locally most effective and has some control of city council and so on. And a Philadelphia community-organizing group, which again gives us some contrast of a rather different kind of place doing some of the same kinds of things.

We are, on the private side, looking of course harder because we don't have groups or communities that are delimited. We're into a shoreless sea so to speak. The amazing thing is that we find this all over even in our allegedly public studies. We're looking at psychologism-the way people use psychological language and ways of thinking to make sense out of their world-really as a total ideology and even religion. It comes up in the interviews so much that we don't even have to ask for it.

The other thing is that we're looking at the way people handle intimate relationships, dyadic relationships, and how they use the drama of intense personal relationships as a cultural form to make sense out of the world and to give their lives meaning in a situation where any larger structure is virtually meaningless. And that too proves to be very interesting.

I think that's all I can say now. Within another 18 months, we may have a book you can read. I might mention that one of our researchers has just published an extremely good book called Getting Saved from the Sixties, which is a kind of fore-study of our present project. The University of California Press has just brought it out. It's a lovely book. I wrote the Foreword.

Q: What contribution can social science make toward restoring a public life?

B: I've painted a bleak picture here, haven't I? Of course, the project that I am directing is an effort to do that. And I do think that there is a continuing tradition, somehow in the interstices of our scientism, of what one might call a republican sense of what life might be like in this society and that social science has always been connected with that, at least in part. John Dewey, for example, and that whole range of things that came out of his work. I think there clearly has been a moral commitment on the part of social scientists that's never been lost. And really, the best social scientific work usually seems to come out of some kind of moral commitment. The ethos of social science as a timeless, faceless set of abstract truths about human beings on the model of truth about molecules is the dominant ideology in social science and that is very antithetical to any such thing. So I think this is an intra-social scientific struggle. Paul Ricouer, who was at the conference where I first gave this paper, criticized me for being too negative towards my own discipline. Now that's because he's a philosopher. I have to fight my own battles in my own field. But although I am very harsh on some of my fellow sociologists, I also feel that there are many people saying things not so different from me.

Q: Do you see alternative kinds of communities developing to counter the prevalent isolated-self culture?

B: There are very many of course and there always have been. One of the characteristics of American society is that it periodically throws up this extraordinary array of types of community.

I guess the point that I am trying to make in this talk is that Christian congregations better begin to think in these terms because the environing culture is in many respects more and more alien and there are values and concerns that have to be nurtured and that can only be nurtured through something like that. There will be of course degrees of intensity of this kind of thing and there is a whole range of possibilities here. One of the groups that I have become associated with, in a somewhat tangential way in the last couple of years, is the San Francisco Zen Center, which seems to me in many ways a highly admirable community where there is a real collective life organized around religious practice. I don't think they all have to do that. It's a quasi-monastic life, although you can be married and have children, which is an interesting notion of monasticism. But there are all kinds of things from the more radical commitment to simply trying to keep alive some sense of community in your own parish.

Q: I think most suburban parishioners would have to look outside of their parishes for hopeful signs, yeah, of some kind of community sense.

B: Yes.

Q: And I was wondering, you know, if you could indicate where some of those places might be. Well, you have already by referring to the Zen Center. I think the problem exists, I think the isolated-self culture has permeated suburban Catholicism. I'm Catholic and that's the milieu out of which I come. And I think that situation is as hopeless as in the culture at large.

B: Well, I wish I had some quick solution to simply plug in there. I don't. I gave a talk somewhat like this a few months ago to about 300 Lutheran ministers and they loved my talk but they said we can never tell our people this. They just wouldn't get it, you know; they think everything's great. They don't have any problems with this society. It's that invasion of the environing culture that makes it hard to have any sense of difference between their Christian commitment and what goes on.

Q: You mentioned that, in your research, you dealt with people who had been participants in the sixties trying to create new styles of life and they had burned out and felt like, what is going to happen next? And I was wondering if you had gotten to the point in your studies where these people were starting to have new ideas were meeting other people who were learning new things.

B: Well, of course both the CED and the Institute for the Study of Civic Values, which is a slightly euphemistic term for this group in Philadelphia, which helps them get money from the Ford Foundation and so on, but are precisely that kind of adaptation. I mean they're trying to deal with the realities of the world in which we live, in, you know, a less confrontational way than the same people would've done in the sixties. Whether they're successful or not is another question but there are certainly groups all over the United States trying to do this. By no means has everyone given up.

On the other hand, we do find in our interviews rather discouraging examples of people who were very active in the sixties in the civil rights and the anti-war movements who are now making a good salary in the suburbs. And who say, "Look, things are very tight and the future is pretty grim and we don't want to give away what we've got and it's too bad for those blacks and those poor people. I have nothing against them but I just don't want them to take what I've got." And who are, you know, ardent supporters of our present [Reagan] administration. And who really want them to spend the money on the police and the army to make sure they keep what they've got and the others don't get it. People who know better at some level and yet take that line. That I think is a discouraging phenomenon that we find.

Q: Judging from my own experience here at Cal, I think that the present way of higher education in America is perpetuating the values, which you characterized about the present society. Maybe they don't originate there but at least it is perpetuating this worldview. Do you have suggestions that this perpetuation could be stopped or mitigated or at least what could be changed in the structure of education so that the values you stress could be more stressed?

B: Well, I think the deepest root of the kind of thing I'm talking about is our economy, is a form of economic organization, which is oriented towards profit and the maximization of profit-and that reinforces everything else. But, ideologically, I do think it is the university that is the chief propagator of these things. And that anybody who does not accept these assumptions is living, in a sense, in the middle of a very alien culture-that the Christian in the university is in the belly of the beast, so to speak. Some of my colleagues don't like such strong language but that's how I feel. As a matter of fact just this week I learned that a colleague of mine-her husband is an Episcopal priest. And she said, "I never tell people here, in the Department of Sociology, that because they wouldn't understand. It's a secret that she doesn't tell many people.

So there is a profound problem here and I think it is a question of simply attempting to make explicit-and to challenge-the absolutely taken for granted assumptions that dominate the culture in which we live. And that's not easy.

But every one of us who has to operate in that academic environment has to think about how to do that. And a lot of people do that this way: a believing Christian goes to church, absolutely bracketed, completely compartmentalized, nothing to do with their professional life, doesn't allow it to get in there at all. I can't live like that. I cannot. My dear friend Peter Berger can tell you, "Now I'm taking off my professor hat and putting on my theologian hat." Unfortunately, I can't change the hats like that. I'm just one person, not two. But everybody has to deal with this in his or her own way.

Q: I have found really arresting your attention to changing use of language in connection with cultural values. And I don't mean to drag you back to your famous study that is obviously more complex than you really have time to take apart for us now but I wonder if you could just say something about what methods you use to systematically get at this question of how people are thinking differently as reflected in that..

B: Well, you know, one of the things we're doing is of course we have tons of transcribed taped interviews, more than we can analyze, you know, we're flooded with too much data. But close analysis of the way people talk is one of the things that we want to do. The next time you hear someone say, "I don't feel comfortable with that", or, "I don't feel good about that," or, you know, that kind of language. Just suddenly, try to say what is going on here? What is that really saying? You become alerted to just the most standard linguistic usage. You see what it's saying. It's saying the only thing that matters is how I feel about it, whether it makes me feel good or not. That's just so taken-for-granted, you know. I have to say to myself when I start saying, "I feel comfortable about that or not, you know, Ahh! But it's all over. It's massive it's like an amoeba.

Q: There are many societies in the world, traditional societies, in which the definition of the person in society is not premised on the individualistic doctrine that ours is. Do you see any hope of that those societies may have a word to speak to ours, kind of like the empire striking back or is the empire still spreading? And is it the opposite that our individualism is also pervading traditional society?

B: I think that's probably the major thrust right now.

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