Renowned professor emeritus of sociology Robert Bellah dies at 86

Robert Bellah, a renowned professor emeritus of sociology at UC Berkeley, died Tuesday of complications following a heart valve operation. He was 86.

Bellah is famous for his concept of American “civil religion” — the idea that there is a kind of abstract institutionalized religion at the center of American culture and that a large part of what it means to be American can thus be conceived of as a religious experience.

This idea, first outlined in the essay “Civil Religion in America,” in 1967, sparked a rich interdisciplinary debate and was of vital importance in the fields of sociology, American history and religious studies.

At UC Berkeley, Bellah was known to his students as a respectful but uncompromising intellectual force.

“His seminars were mesmerizing since they were so unpredictable,” said Mark Juergensmeyer, a former UC Berkeley graduate student and a current professor of sociology at UC Santa Barbara. “He always respected your opinion and would engage with you until you came to a meeting of minds.”

Juergensmeyer was a student and later an instructor at UC Berkeley during Bellah’s tenure.

“As you watched him, it was almost as if you could see the wheels of his mind turning, thinking it through, trying to make sense of the mysteries of our social life,” he said.

Bellah, born in 1927, graduated summa cum laude from Harvard College in 1950 with a degree in social anthropology, going on to receive his doctorate in sociology and Far Eastern languages from Harvard in 1955. His research was primarily concerned with the sociology of human religious behavior.

After postdoctoral work at McGill University, Bellah taught at Harvard before moving to UC Berkeley in 1967 to serve as the Ford professor of sociology. He retired from teaching in 1997.

In 2000, Bellah received the United States National Humanities Medal from then-president Bill Clinton for his profoundly influential work, not only in the social sciences but also in the field of religious studies.

Bellah authored a large body of works, including “The Broken Covenant” in 1975 and “Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life” in 1985. His most recent and ambitious work, “Religion in Human Evolution,” came out in 2011 and sought to illuminate the emergence of culture and religion through human evolution, beginning with the Big Bang and ending in the sixth century B.C.

According to Juergensmeyer, Bellah was working on the sequel to “Religion in Human Evolution,” tracing the development of religion from the sixth century onward, when he died.

“He would not be satisfied with pat answers or easy explanations and would take a problem and gnaw on it, work it out,” Juergensmeyer said. “Sometimes it felt like you were falling into a washer-dryer, but you would always come out of the encounters changed, enlightened and ennobled as a result.”

Matteo Bortolini, a professor at the University of Padova, is currently writing a book about Bellah.

“I was stunned by his generosity and from the way he respected my work,” Bortolini said. “I dare to say that, on his side, our relationship was a way to think about his life and make some kind of an appraisal of all his life.”

Despite concerns about the state of the world, Bellah’s attitude was fundamentally one of optimism and hope.

Bellah, a practicing Christian, said in a 2012 interview, “We need to respect the fact that none of our traditions have all the truth, that there is truth in every tradition — and we can be instructed and learn from every tradition.”

Contact Micah Fry at [email protected]