Defining Religion: Robert Bellah

BellahBelow is a quote of the late sociologist Robert Bellah (1927-2013) who wrote “Religion in Human Evolution” (source).  In the quote, Bellah offers his own personal definition of “religion” and reference 3 other religion theorists — showing us how layered his definition is.

Note that Bellah’s definition of religion does not necessitate any supernatural elements – something at which both theists and atheists alike may balk. If you look at my fumbled attempt at making a definition of religion it also does not necessitate supernatural elements.

I hope Bellah’s definitions helps illustrate that before we generalizing about religion, we should first agree on definitions.  Bellah’s definition illustrates how abstract and distant from common usage a scholar’s definition tends to be.

Why do Scholars do this? Well, “religion” is a term historically bound with Judeo-Christian concepts, and scholars who have examined many cultures realized that the definition was too limited and tried to loosen its bonds by broadening the concept to capture practices that clearly did not fit into those confines. But the result is often so broad as to make the concept of “religion” too fuzzy to allow any generalizations.  Meanwhile, common place definitions are too bound to the local concepts of “religion” and usually given by those without broad anthropological experience.

So what is the perfect balance? For me, There is no perfect balance. There is only temporary, pragmatic agreement. Bellah’s definition illustrates the artificial nature of the word “religion” and thus the need for people to come to an agreed usage of the word before arguing about its characteristics.  See my similar posts here.

Bellah’s Definition of “Religion”

I start with Clifford Geertz’s definition of religion in his “Religion as a Cultural System,” which I should give in my abbreviated version to clarify what I mean and don’t mean by religion: “Religion is a system of symbols which, when enacted by human beings, establishes powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations that make sense in terms of an idea of a general order of existence.” I should point out that neither Cliff nor I use the terms gods or God. What Geertz meant by a cultural system is very dependent on his reading of Alfred Schutz, particularly his paper on multiple realities or multiple worlds, terms which Schutz took from William James. Besides what Schutz called the paramount reality, the world of daily life, what Weber called “the everyday,” Schutz distinguished the world of science, the world of religion, and the world of art.



Filed under Philosophy & Religion

9 responses to “Defining Religion: Robert Bellah

  1. rautakyy

    A late officer of the Finnish military intelligence core in the WWII Olavi Paavolainen wrote after the war in his rather dark contemplations about how that war came about and how he himself had admired the German Nazies, that Nazism is the only surviving truly and originally European religion. I guess, what he meant was, that it was not a political movement with actual political goals, rather it was a popular movement with a saviour character at the core and that people followed it with the fervour and zeal of the religious and similarly taking it at face value, or rather by faith.

    Nazism offered the people “good things” like social order, conservative safety, and an imaginary guilty party to relieve them of their former mistakes, like the economic depression and defeat in WWI. But I am not sure if it still would mean it actually was a religion, even though it used previous religious concepts and similar mind manipulation as involved in religions.

  2. Yep, depending on the definition, lots of groups and worldviews could be labeled “religion”. Interesting stuff, thanks.

  3. Earnest

    @ Rautakyy: you are saying dangerous things that seem true.

  4. R Vogel

    I don’t know if you have read Ernest Becker’s Denial of Death, but I am sympathetic to his definition of religion as a Hero System designed to help us assuage our existential dread cause by the knowledge of our own immortality, which is also free of the supernatural. I have found that it provides any interesting explanation of many religious myths and places religion convincingly within culture.

  5. @ R Vogel,
    Hero System stories are certainly a part of what makes up many myths. And I am sure you agree that many other tropes and methods can be employed in doing many of the things that religions offer. But likewise, these things can obviously used secularly for re-assurance, entertainment, bonding and much more too.

  6. Am I missing something? Didn’t you comment on my blog that defining religion is a trap or a game not worth playing. I also remember you warn me about an echo chamber… so this guy’s broad definition is okay and mine isn’t? I’m confused. Maybe taking it too personal and being defensive. Can you slow it down and unpack it for me? Anyway… wanted to drop by and ask questions and also wish you and your daughter blessings on your trip.

  7. Yeah, Luke, I think you missed something. I am just showing another person’s fumbling attempt at defining religion and pointing out the shortcomings. So if you actually read this post, you’d see I was not saying his definition was OK at all. In fact I had planned a whole bunch of examples of scholars fumbling in attempts to define religion — this is just one of them.
    As my post states,

    So what is the perfect balance? For me, There is no perfect balance. There is only temporary, pragmatic agreement. Bellah’s definition illustrates the artificial nature of the word “religion” and thus the need for people to come to an agreed usage of the word before arguing about its characteristics. 

    So, I don’t think I have to slow it down and unpack it for you, I simply think you need to slow down and read a bit more carefully and less defensively — as you wisely suspected.

    PS- I am on the road in England with my daughter, thus the delayed message.

  8. associatedluke

    I read it and I guess I missed the moral. Could have been more strongly stated. Or not resting on the assumption that I read all of your other posts leading up to this one. I get it and understand your stance of “Religion is a word that’s loaded and ppl can only agree on the meaning of the word temporarily.” Not a bad stance, I can see why you would think that. Enjoy your travels in merry ol’ England!

  9. Glad you understand now. During our travels in Wales and England, all of that couldn’t be more clear. I have talked with everyone about their “religion” and found the way people hold things to vary widely.

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