A brief biography of Robert N. Bellah

Robert N. Bellah (February 23, 1927 - July 30, 2013) was Elliott Professor of Sociology Emeritus at the University of California at Berkeley.

Bellah graduated summa cum laude from Harvard College with a B.A. in social anthropology in 1950. His undergraduate honors thesis on “Apache Kinship Systems” won the Phi Beta Kappa Prize and was published by the Harvard University Press. In 1955, he received a Ph.D. from Harvard University in Sociology and Far Eastern Languages and published his doctoral dissertation, Tokugawa Religion, in 1957. After two years of postdoctoral work in Islamic Studies at McGill University in Montreal, he began teaching at Harvard in 1957 and left 10 years later as Professor of Sociology to move to the University of California, Berkeley. From 1967 to 1997, he served as Ford Professor of Sociology.

Other works include Beyond Belief, Emile Durkheim on Morality and Society, The Broken Covenant, The New Religious Consciousness, Varieties of Civil Religion, Uncivil Religion, Imagining Japan and, most recently, The Robert Bellah Reader. The latter reflects his work as a whole and the overall direction of his life in scholarship “to understand the meaning of modernity.”

Continuing concerns already developed in part in “Civil Religion in America” and The Broken Covenant, led to a book Bellah co-authored with Richard Madsen, William Sullivan, Ann Swidler and Steven Tipton. Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life published by the University of California Press in 1985. The same group wrote The Good Society, an institutional analysis of American society, published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1991.

On December 20, 2000, Bellah received the United States National Humanities Medal.  The citation, which President William Jefferson Clinton signed, reads: 

The President of the United States of America awards this National Humanities Medal to Robert N. Bellah for his efforts to illuminate the importance of community in American society. A distinguished sociologist and educator, he has raised our awareness of the values that are at the core of our democratic institutions and of the dangers of individualism unchecked by social responsibility.

In July 2008, Bellah and Professor Hans Joas, who holds appointments in both the University of Chicago and Freiburg University in Germany, organized a conference at the Max Weber Center of the University of Erfurt on “The Axial Age and Its Consequences for Subsequent History and the Present,” attended by a distinguished group of international scholars interested in comparative history and sociology. At the conclusion of the conference, the University of Erfurt awarded Bellah an honorary degree. Harvard University Press published the proceedings of this conference as The Axial Age and Its Consequences in 2012.

In September of 2011 the Belknap Press of Harvard University Press published Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age, the result of Bellah’s lifetime interest in the evolution of religion and thirteen years of work on this volume.

Princeton University Press, on October 19, 2021, will publish the Italian sociologist Matteo Bortolini's biography of Robert Bellah, A Joyfully Serious Man: The Life of Robert Bellah.

News and Articles Commenting on Robert Bellah's Passing

Comments on the Passing of Robert N. Bellah by Jeffrey C. Alexander
American Journal of Cultural Sociology, July 31, 2013

Robert Bellah, Sociologist of Religion, Dies at 86
Tricycle, July 31, 2013

In Memoriam: Robert N. Bellah
Pacific Church News [The Episcopal Diocese of California], July 31, 2013

Robert Bellah, 1927-2013
Harvard University Press | Blog, July 31, 2013

The Passing of Robert Bellah
Association for the Sociology of Religion, July 31, 2013

Robert Bellah, preeminent American sociologist of religion, dies at 86 by Yasmin Anwar,
UC Berkeley News Center, August 1, 2013

Remembering Robert Bellah by Jeff Guhin
Jeff Guhin's blog , Thursday, August 1, 2013

Robert Bellah Departs by Mark Silk,
Religion News Service, August 1, 2013

In Memory of Robert N. Bellah by Ji Zhe
Journal du Mauss, August 1, 2013

Farewell to Robert Bellah
Duke University Press, August 1, 2013

Robert Bellah, 1927-2013
Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, August 2, 2013

Robert Bellah, McCarthyism, and Harvard
The Chronicle of Higher Education, August 2, 2013

Robert N. Bellah dies at 86; UC Berkeley Sociologist
The Los Angeles Times, August 4, 2013

Renowned professor emeritus of sociology Robert Bellah dies at 86
The Daily Californian, August 5, 2013

Remembering Robert N. Bellah by John A. Coleman
America, August 5, 2013

In Memoriam: Robert N. Bellah
American Academy of Religion,
August 5, 2013

Reaganism, Capitalism and Sheilaism
The Huffington Post, Monday August 5, 2013

Robert Bellah by Claude S. Fischer
Made in America, August 6, 2013

Robert Bellah, Sociologist of Religion Who Mapped the American Soul, Dies at 86
The New York Times, Wednesday, August 7, 2013

A Language of Solidarity by the Editors
Commonweal, August 7, 2013

Robert Bellah, Influential Religion Scholar, Dies at 86 by John Dart
The Christian Century, August 8, 2013

The Father of America’s ‘Civil Religion’ by Michael Kazin
The New Republic, August 8, 2013

In Memoriam: Professor Robert N. Bellah
The Graduate Theological Union, August 8, 2013

Remembering Robert Bellah by Martin E. Marty
The Christian Century, August 8, 2013

Robert N. Bellah dies – UC Berkeley professor
The San Francisco Chronicle, August 9, 2013

Robert Bellah’s Powerful Legacy: A Mixed Blessing for Religious Studies? by Ivan Strenski
Religion Dispatches
, August 9, 2013

Quote for the Day by Andrew Sullivan
This Dish: Biased & Balanced, August 11, 2013

Habits of the Heart by Hans Joas
The Immanent Frame, August 11, 2013

Robert Bellah, Sociologist of Religion, Dies at 86
The Chronicle of Higher Education, August 12, 2013

Invoking God in America by Joseph Margulies
The Los Angeles Times, August 13, 2013

What I Learned from Robert Bellah by Richard J. Mouw
First Things, August 14, 2013

Remembering Robert N. Bellah by Andrew Barshay
Center for Japanese Studies, Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California, Berkeley

The Logic of the Holy: Robert Bellah, 1927-2013 by Steven M. Tipton
The Christian Century, August 20, 2013

What is Religion? Part 1: Civil Religion and the State by Andrew Brown
The Guardian, Monday, August 26, 2013

Remembering Robert Bellah by Steven M. Tipton
Religion & Politics, August 26, 2013

Social Science as Public Philosophy for the 21st Century by the Austin Institute
Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture News, August 29, 2013

Robert Bellah: In Memoriam (1927-2013) by Richard Madsen
The Hedgehog Review, Vol. 15, No. 3, Fall 2013

A Short Essay in Memory of Robert N. Bellah (1927-2013) by Richard L. Wood
Association for the Sociology of Religion, September 25, 2013

A Farewell Letter to Robert Bellah by Joe Palacios
University of Southern California Center for Religion & Civic Culture, November 8, 2013

In Memoriam: Robert Neelly Bellah (1927-2013) by Mark Juergensmeyer
Journal of the American Academy of Religion (December 2013) 81 (4): 897-902
(online October 11, 2013)

Remembering Robert Bellah by Gordon Clanton
Clanton teaches sociology at San Diego State University

In Memoriam by Ann Swidler and Claude Fischer
University of California

In 2006, Dr. Bellah sent the following email note to his former student, friend, and the co-manager of this website, Samuel Porter, in response to the death of Sam ’s father, Charles Porter, a former attorney and U.S. Congressman.

Monday Feb. 3, 2006
Subject: Death

Dear Sam:
Where were you before you were born? That’s where you will go after you die.

Well before I was born, I was in the sperm of my father and the egg of my mother, I had within me the earliest beginnings of the components of a billion or more years of life, the genes that I share with worms (a lot) and with mold (some), and the atoms that I share with the universe all the way back to the big bang. So returning to all that isn’t so bad.

Further, I will join the company of saints, of all those whose cultural work has made it possible for me to have been a half-way decent person, and what I have added to the cultural pool, even when I am long forgotten, will go on having an influence (unless we become extinct soon, which is also possible) for a long, perhaps an immeasurable time.

As for eternal life, that is now. If we don’t see eternity in a grain of sand, when will we ever see it. As for resurrection, as Tillich said, dead men don’t walk. But Christ was surely resurrected in the consciousness of his disciples and is more alive today than the day he was crucified, in the faces of all those who follow his example and who keep him alive.

Many wonder workers have resurrected the dead. I never understood those who think the truth of Christianity hinges on the physical resurrection of Jesus. If that is the test then a lot of nutty religions are also true. Eternal life is here and now. Christians have hardly come to a consensus on life after death. Augustine thought we would join the choir of angels in singing an eternal Hallelujah. Fine with me.

But most Americans who believe in life after death think they will rejoin their dead family members and live happily ever after. A very modern, bourgeois, kind of afterlife, hardly what traditional Christians thought. But I have no interest in destroying the beliefs of others. If thinking one will rejoin one’s loved ones helps bear the pain of death then I’m all for it. I have to look elsewhere, and, with Heraclitus, declare that life and death are one.

Best, Bob

View Robert Bellah's Vita 

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