What religion is made of: insights from Robert Bellah

My first two posts on Robert Bellah’s Religion in Human Evolution sketched out how Bellah seeks to widen our awareness about how life is lived outside the bounds of ordinary reality.  It’s commonly regarded that religious experience exists outside of these bounds, but Bellah shows that other realms of life, such as within science and aesthetics, also operate on a different plane.  To grasp what Bellah is getting at with all this talk about non-ordinary reality, let’s consider how he defines what the “scientific perspective” is (he quotes the anthropologist Clifford Geertz on this):

“Deliberate doubt and systematic inquiry, the suspension of the pragmatic motive in favor of disinterested observation, the attempt to analyze the world in terms of formal concepts whose relationships to the informal conceptions of common sense become increasingly problematic—here are the hallmarks of trying to grasp the world scientifically”

This description of the scientific perspective was quite fascinating to me when I first encountered it.  It’s easy for us in the modern world to think that there is nothing more ordinary than thinking scientifically, but Bellah shows that the type of cognition and language involved in science, namely through conceptual thought, is actually not associated that much with what goes on in the “ordinary” realm of our lives.  For example, Bellah states that “families, nations, and religions know who they are by stories they tell, and the content of these stories are often unconcerned with scientific accuracy”.  The Greek word episteme is rooted in the idea that knowledge is based on being able to demonstrate the validity of a proposition through the power of logic and observation.  Bellah puts it well when he says:  “narrative does not demonstrate; rhetoric can persuade but not demonstrate.  The world of daily life normally is constituted much more by opinion, narrative, and rhetoric than by demonstration.”  

It’s with this wide view of how we live in several overlapping ways that Bellah elucidates the phenomena of religion.  In the few instances when Bellah offers us definitions of religion, a word that appears frequently is “symbol”.  Indeed, Bellah states that “symbols are basic to religion: religion becomes possible only with the emergence of language”.  To illustrate the importance of symbolism, Bellah gives an anecdote about the experience of a scholar who once attended a graduation ceremony at his institution.  The scholar had a vision while watching the students coming down the aisle.  He imagined an endless procession of great scholarly figures from history, like Socrates and Freud, leading the procession of actual students at the ceremony.  Bellah states that his vision “stands as an apprehension of the academic procession as a symbol, standing for the true university as a sacred community of learning, transcending time and space.  If we no longer glimpse that sacred foundation, the actual university would collapse.  If the university doesn’t have a fundamental symbolic reference point that transcends the pragmatic considerations of the world of working and is in tension with those considerations, then it has lost its raison d’etre”.

We are all capable of having the type of epiphanies and visions (laced in symbolism) that this scholar had at the graduation ceremony, but a significant part of religion has to do with making these kinds of experiences communicable to others.  It’s through various kinds of representation, like the stories that religions tell, by which they become communicable and meaningful to others.  Thus community is at the heart of understanding religion, and Bellah joins scholars like Jonathan Haidt and Emile Durkheim in emphasizing this.  According to Durkheim, religion is “a system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred that unite those who adhere to them in a moral community”.

Part of the reason I’m so excited to share the work of Bellah is because he offers such a comprehensive approach towards understanding religion, one that shows the inadequacies of critiques made against religion by groups such as the New Atheists.  In his well regarded book The Righteous Mind (2012), Haidt describes the New Atheist approach: “religion [by them] is studied as a set of beliefs about supernatural agents, and these beliefs are said to be the cause of a wide range of harmful actions”.  So, as Sam Harris has repeatedly stated, terrorists are supposedly driven to do what they do because they are following the injunctions of their religious scripture, with the belief that paradise awaits them in the afterlife for the noble cause they took up in the name of God here on earth.  Haidt says “trying to understand the persistence and passion of religion by studying beliefs about God is like trying to understand the persistence and passion of college football by studying the movements of the ball.  You’ve got to broaden the inquiry. You’ve got to look at the ways that religious beliefs work with religious practices to create a religious community….often our beliefs are post hoc constructions designed to justify what we’ve just done, or to support the groups we belong to”.

This Durkheimian emphasis on understanding religion by remaining steadily attentive to the community aspect of it is indeed very important.  For example, in the Sultanate of Oman where I reside, one clear aspect of the society here is its’ stress on maintaining social cohesion and ethical clarity through the vessel of Islamic religious practices and ethics.



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