Robert Bellah, a socialist who insisted that democracy needs religion

Robert Bellah, a socialist who insisted that democracy needs religion

Matthew Rose writes:

If Émile Durkheim helped Bellah understand American ideals, the German sociologist Max Weber helped him confront American realities. Bellah’s deepest criticism of individualism was that it undermined the very conditions that make it possible. Its vision of human beings as free to choose their own identities and commitments had not brought about a more creative or reflective society. It had resulted in people who were lonely, disoriented, and servile to the power of markets, states, and public opinion. Weber called this condition the “iron cage” of modernity. It was a “masterless slavery,” he explained, because it was enforced through the power of impersonal rules and bureaucracies that fused state and market into a single system. But it was also a world of our own making—indeed, as Weber demonstrated, the “iron cage” was built on the values of bourgeois individualism.

In the last two decades of his life, Bellah explored ways to escape this ideological prison while still preserving democratic values. The great question of our time, he proposed, “is whether we can control the very economic and technical forces, which are our greatest achievement, before they destroy us.” In a controversial 1998 article, “Is There a Common American Culture?,” Bellah argued that American culture was threatened by a “monoculture” that diminished its ability to imagine alternative ways of life. Its embrace of “diversity” promoted the just treatment of minorities, but it also concealed the hegemony of a technocratic liberalism that strips us of any shared morality other than that of market exchange. Weber himself believed the “iron cage” could not be escaped, finding no tenable place for virtue ethics in an amoral world of power politics and capitalism. He saw no solution to the tragic paradox that the highest achievement of Western culture, its all-embracing rationalism, was also the source of its fatal disenchantment. Bellah did not share Weber’s fatalism, but he did share his interest in archaic religion. It was there, in the remote prehistory of our species, that Bellah found guidance for the future.

Religion in Human Evolution was the book Bellah lived to write, and he died not long after it was published to wide acclaim in 2011. It stands as his final and most expansive interpretation of the problem of modernity and religion, which had first drawn him to the study of sociology in the 1940s. The eight-hundred-page work is impossible to summarize, impossible even for a single reviewer to competently evaluate. It is best understood as belonging to the genre of modernity criticism, and best read alongside Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, and Samuel P. Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations. This might seem odd advice about a book whose history ends in the fourth century BC, and which expends enormous scholarly energy in imagining the vanished worlds of religions for which we have no written records. But Bellah’s “autobiography of the human race,” as he called his big book, was not simply a work of historical reconstruction. Its ambition was to offer a new interpretation of modernity, by viewing it from the longest historical perspective possible.

By evolution, Bellah did not mean simply biological evolution. He also meant the evolution of culture, the process through which human beings actively cooperate in their own transformation. As Bellah told it, the history of our species is the story of its expanding capacities for language and culture, capacities that enhanced our ability to cooperate with and learn from one another. Human beings are uniquely “self-domesticating.” Not only did we evolve in ways that improved our fitness for survival and reproduction. More astonishingly, we nurtured capacities that freed us from selective pressures, allowing us to form families, societies, and eventually institutions that offer shelter from the grim competition for life and resources. The key to understanding our species, Bellah argued, is found in our ability to create these “relaxed spaces,” where distinctly human abilities—for reflection, love, creativity, and play—have the freedom to flourish. [Continue reading…]

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