On the night of 30th July 2013, Robert N. Bellah passed away. As Confucius sang to himself before his death: “The great mountain must crumble; the wise man must wither away like a plant.” On this day sociology lost one of its greatest mountains, and we lost one of our most wise masters and friends.
The height Bellah has reached and the wisdom he possessed are incomparable. He contributed more than others, after Weber, to the comparative understanding of religions and societies in different civilizations, while at the same time keeping an extraordinary immunity from the remnants of Western centrism. As the best of the contemporary students of Durkheim, he advanced greatly the study on collective conscience and social representation, by giving such a study a deeper historical dimension and a more comprehensive phenomenological insight.
But his most famous concept, civil religion, is also the concept most misunderstood. It has even been considered as an equivalent of national self-worship or consecrated official ideology - something which Bellah fought against all his life. However, this concept is still relevant, since the tensions between politics and morality are far from being alleviated in our age and public vigilance against the possibility of violence caused by power will never be enough. Civil religion requires the subordination of politics to transcendental ethical principles rather than to interest or force. This concept reminds intellectuals that the pursuit of a good society is a sacred cause for good social science.
Bellah was himself a socially engaged intellectual. We see his figure on the streets of San-Francisco in the 2003 global anti-war protest and his name in the list of the first supporters of the 2013 Convivialist Manifesto that appeals for an alternative world. In terms of politics Bellah never became any kind of conservative. Actually, for the conservatives he was a communist. For the communists he was a democrat or social liberal. For the liberals he was a communitarian. For the communitarians he was a cosmopolitan. Yes, in the end, he is a citizen of the world. Despite a profound pessimism about the fate of mankind, he kept a conviction in something both universal and encouraging in human capacity for evolution, which, as he magisterially explored in his last book, had been already expressed in different ways by religions in the Axial Age. From the depths of our past Bellah distilled the root of hope, as he prophetically discussed in his first article on civil religion in 1967, the hope for “the attainment of some kind of viable and coherent world order”.
Bellah’s call should be heard and put into action.
1st August 2013, Paris