The Future of Religion

What are religion’s prospects in an increasingly individualistic society? Tricycle contributing editor Andrew Cooper speaks with prominent sociologist Robert Bellah.

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Few people can address the social dimensions of religion with the knowledge, insight, and eloquence of Robert Bellah. Through his teaching and, especially, his writing, Bellah’s ideas have traveled beyond the academy to influence the culture at large. In 2000, in recognition of his accomplishments in joining distinguished scholarship with committed citizenship, he received the National Humanities Medal from President Bill Clinton.

Bellah is Elliott Professor of Sociology, Emeritus, at the University of California at Berkeley. Prior to coming to Berkeley in 1967, he was a professor at Harvard University, where he completed his undergraduate and graduate study. His 1957 book, Tokugawa Religion, based on his doctoral dissertation, first established his reputation as a formidable scholar of Japanese religion. From 1960 to 1961, as a Fulbright research grantee in Japan, he continued his study of the role of religion in what he speaks of as his “other culture.”

Later, in such books as Beyond Belief, The New Religious Consciousness, and Uncivil Religion: Interreligious Hostility in America, Bellah focused on the changing place of religion in American society. In 1985, with coauthors Richard Madsen, William Sullivan, Ann Swidler, and Steven Tipton, he published Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life. Habits explores the diminishment of community bonds in an increasingly individualistic society, and the book’s interpretation of the social anomie of American life struck a chord with readers. The book became a national best-seller and the subject of wide and vigorous scholarly and popular debate. In 1991, Bellah and his cohorts followed up Habits with the equally trenchant The Good Society. Today, at age seventy-seven, he has, as a writer, barely lost a step, and is now hard at work on a book about the highly contested topic of religious evolution.

I first heard of Bellah sometime in the early 1980s, when I was a staff member of the Zen Center of Los Angeles. ZCLA and the San Francisco Zen Center had cosponsored a scholar’s conference, held at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, on the work of the great thirteenth-century Zen master Eihei Dogen. Bellah had been among the small group of participants, and a friend of mine, a Buddhologist and one of the conference organizers, spoke to me effusively of the event, reserving special praise for Bellah’s presentation. His paper was entitled “The Meaning of Dogen Today,” and in it he cautioned against reading Dogen’s words—and, by implication, those of any seminal religious figure—outside the social context in which they were recorded. Failure to take proper account of this context, he argued, could lead to unintended and socially deleterious consequences.

For me this was exciting yet sobering stuff. Bellah wasn’t just making the familiar case that Buddhism must adapt to changes in the social environment; he was addressing issues of the cultural transmission of religion with a thoroughness I had never before encountered. He asserted that to view spiritual truths apart from their historical context would be to risk tailoring them to cultural assumptions that might be anything but emancipatory.

In the following years, I tried to keep up with Bellah’s work, at least those writings geared toward a general audience. But it was not until three years ago that I finally had the good fortune to meet the man himself, when I interviewed him for an online journal. Although things having to do specifically with Buddhism were outside the journal’s purview, some of the most intriguing things he had to say came up when we got off our topic and on to a Buddhist tangent. I knew at the time that these digressions would not make it into the published interview, and I left our meeting with the hope that we would one day have the chance to pursue them in greater depth. And as it turns out, we did. What follows is drawn from conversations I’ve had with him, in person and by email, since the summer of 2003.

—Andrew Cooper


Can you say something about your background and how you came to the study of religion? I was raised in the Presbyterian and Congregational churches, but it wasn’t until high school that a youth minister got me excited about the Bible, the Hebrew prophets in particular. The prophets taught me about social justice, but later, when through friends I discovered Marxism, I felt I’d found a more modern and scientific approach than that offered by the Bible. It wasn’t so much that I lost my faith as that I exchanged one faith for another. In graduate school I rediscovered Christianity through the work of the Protestant theologian Paul Tillich, who convinced me that “faith is not belief in the unbelievable,” which, under the influence of Marxism, I had come to think it was. Even though I abandoned Marxism as an all-embracing ideology, a commitment to social justice has motivated my work throughout my life.

In college I discovered Zen Buddhism through the work of D. T. Suzuki and found it helpful, especially since it didn’t seem to conflict with Marxism. It was partly through the influence of Zen (and Japanese aesthetics generally), and partly through the interesting parallels between Japanese and Western development in making the transition from feudalism to capitalism, that I decided to go into Japanese studies in graduate school. My later shift to American studies was largely accidental, having to do with the Vietnam War and my effort to show that it was incompatible with America’s deepest values. Once pulled into the American discussion, I could not easily extricate myself, and, until recently, I had to put my East Asian studies aside.

My scholarly interest in religion stems from my belief that religion is the primary way we humans have tried to understand the cosmos and ourselves. Seeing how that understanding has changed over time helps us comprehend where we are now. Early in my career, I published an article entitled “Religious Evolution.” Now, many years later, I’ve been able to return to that subject. So that is what I’m working on now, a kind of Bildungsroman of the human race.

Religious evolution is an area rife with controversy—the validity of the term “religious evolution” itself is in dispute. Those who argue for an evolutionary view of religion often assume that newer is somehow better, asserting, for example, that religious history reflects moral progress or the advancement of human consciousness. Those who argue against the idea say that religion is inherently self-serving and is a means of justifying all manner of misdeeds aimed against “less evolved” cultures. Or they might argue that “evolution” is a term that is perfectly valid when applied to biological change, but that it is not adequate to describe cultural change. Perhaps you could walk us through this minefield of ideas and tell us something of how you negotiate your way. To answer this question at all adequately would require a book, not a paragraph. Let me just say there are many questions of human evolution, both biological and cultural, that are very much in contest at the moment. Yet there is a wide consensus that since we are bio-socio-cultural beings, humans are part of the evolutionary process and always will be. There is no built-in guarantee of “progress” in either biological or cultural evolution. Both have plenty of examples of extinction. It is quite possible that humans are on the way to extinction—and sooner rather than later.
The path of religious evolution is anything but smooth. Hunter-gatherers are basically egalitarian, and although homicide is common, organized warfare, as distinct from occasional raids, is absent.

Their religion helps to maintain their egalitarianism. The early state, on the other hand, is intensely hierarchical, and the elevation of divine kings is everywhere accompanied by human sacrifice, carried out through religious practices. Is this progress? Well, archaic states can do things that neither hunter-gatherers nor early horticulturalists ever could. The increase in social power can be used for good as well as evil. For example, literacy makes possible a whole new level of cultural complexity, makes philosophy possible for the first time. But here, too, literacy can be used for domination as well as for greater intellectual freedom. All human history is ambiguous, and Hegel was right to speak of the “slaughterbench of history.” But it may help us to know how we got here if we are to avoid the catastrophe that all too obviously awaits us.

In the late 1980s you served on the board of directors of the San Francisco Zen Center. Could you say something about that? Though I have never systematically practiced zazen, I never lost my interest in it. I think it was Steve Tipton, then a graduate student of mine and an old Zen student under Suzuki Roshi, who introduced me to the San Francisco Zen Center in the early seventies. Some of the people there consulted me at the time of the breakup with Baker Roshi, and I did what I could to give moral support. [In 1983, the San Francisco Zen Center community, out of widespread feeling that its abbot, Richard Baker, had misused his authority, insisted that he resign, which he did.] Later I was asked to serve on the Zen Center board, which I did for a year. I visited Tassajara in the summer for several years and did the early morning sitting. Like many Christians, I am very open to Zen practice and have learned much from the Mahayana view of the world, particularly the teachings on nonduality, such as emptiness and the unity of samsara and nirvana. But I am an active member of an Episcopal parish, and pleased, by the way, with the action of the General Assembly in confirming a gay bishop, which is a good example of how religious institutions can maintain their traditions yet remain open to change.

I’ve noticed in our conversations that you have of late grown uneasy with the term “spirituality.” Why is that? I am not so much bothered by the term “spirituality,” which is ancient and valuable in its traditional meanings, but only with the contemporary use of the term, which is only twenty or thirty years old. Traditionally, spirituality was an aspect of religious life. In its recent usage, however, spirituality is a contrast to religion, or what is often called “institutional religion,” which means a church, a continuing solidary community. Spirituality in this new sense is a private activity, though it may be pursued with a group of the like-minded, but it is not “institutional” in that it does not involve membership in a group that has claims on its members.

An institution expects loyalty from its members, expects that they will stick it out even when the going gets tough, and will not leave at the first indication that their needs are not being met. A genuine understanding of marriage is an example of such an institution, as opposed to the serial monogamy so common in America today.

The way “spirituality” is often used suggests that we exist solely as a collection of individuals, not as members of a religious community, and that religious life is merely a private journey. It is the religious expression of the ideology of free-market economics and of the radical “disencumbered” individualism that idolizes the choice-making individual as the prime reality in the world.


In your essay “The Meaning of Dogen Today,” you assert the importance of understanding the particular cultural context in which the words of Dogen, or any religious figure, were recorded. Specifically, you are concerned that, lacking such understanding, “We can easily reinforce the very things that are most problematic about our society if we are not careful.” In what ways should we be careful, and what should we be careful of? Zen Buddhism began in Japan at a time when strong social structures hemmed in individuals on every side. The family you were born into determined most of your life chances. Buddhism was a way to step outside these constricting structures. Becoming a monk was called shukke, literally, “leaving the family.” We live in an almost completely opposite kind of society, where all institutions are weak and the family is in shambles. You don’t need Buddhism to “leave the family.” To emphasize primarily the individualistic side of Buddhism (especially Zen) in America is only to contribute to our pathology, not ameliorate it. My experience with San Francisco Zen Center is that they discovered they needed to build a strong sangha in order to survive. A purely private Zen is a contradiction in terms (Suzuki Roshi famously said that “our practice is for others”), and sitting by oneself, with no teacher and no fellow students, can lead to madness.

In the same essay you write, “Our problem is: How can we reformulate or re-create some kinds of viable intermediate structures that can put our society together again?” What do you mean by “intermediate structures”? What do you see as some of the more promising trends in revitalizing such structures in contemporary religious life? Religious communities are an example of intermediate structures. Even private spirituality depends on them. Making up your own spirituality with no knowledge of any tradition is a virtual impossibility and, if it were attempted, would be more a sign of insanity than of insight. Spirituality and religion (which means communities and institutions) require each other and could not survive separately. Yet all intermediate structures in our society, including religious communities, are in decline. We are making an experiment to see if a society can survive in which there are only individuals seeking their own interests. The results so far are not promising.

Years ago, I attended a retreat with a renowned Theravada Buddhist meditation master and scholar. His mastery of the scriptures and commentaries was impressive, but the idea of studying a text critically—for example, questioning its claims to historical authenticity—was completely foreign to him. A statement was true because the Buddha said it, and we know the Buddha said it because tradition says he did. End of story. Although this was at first disconcerting, I later came to understand that his approach was entirely the norm in traditional religious scholarship—which was also disconcerting, but in a different way. This approach sharply contrasts with modern notions of religious scholarship, which view religion with critical distance and, to use the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur’s term, suspicion. The traditional approach affirms religious truth but does so by retreating from any substantive dialogue with the realities of the modern world; the modern approach opens religious study to the world but undermines faith and the value of tradition. What are the essential characteristics of an approach to the study of religion that is both affirmative and critical? Ricoeur has the answer to the doubt he raised. First, he speaks of “primary naivete,” such as your Buddhist meditation master’s unquestioning acceptance of religious authority. Next, he describes criticism, which arises on several levels from the modern pursuit of suspicion of all received truth.

Then he outlines a third perspective, which he calls “second naivete.” Modern criticism is suspicious of received truth as a form of domination, class interest, or psychological self-delusion—the “masters of suspicion” are Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud. Second naiveté accepts the critical process, yet “in and through criticism” it lets the symbols and narratives embedded in tradition speak again; it listens to what they are saying. From the position of second naiveté, one opens to the possibility that these traditional forms arise not from reason but from the immediacy of experience, and that their depth and meaning is inexhaustible. I believe that modern critical inquiry actually deepens our understanding of the tradition. It helps us see how different the world of the great texts was from our world, how hard it is for us to listen, how easy it is for us to read our own presuppositions into the text. I think criticism increases the power of the texts to open us to what we don’t know, to make us realize we must change our lives and not conform to the culture of individualism that surrounds us.

You’ve said that fundamentalism and the New Age are two sides of the same coin. How so?
We live in a disorienting world in which all the traditions have been called into question. But the need to make sense of the world is as urgent as ever. Those struggling to get ahead in a world that doesn’t make sense find fundamentalism attractive. It gives them clear and pat answers, and it helps them discipline themselves for the task of upward mobility. For those of privileged backgrounds for whom “making it” seems senseless but individualism is unquestioned, New Age religion seems to give them exciting possibilities to pursue their “personal spiritual journeys.” The path you take is determined in considerable part by social class. Unfortunately, neither fundamentalism nor New Age spirituality have any valid answers to the problems posed by our incoherent culture. Only a reappropriation of the great traditions through second naivete has any chance of doing that.

Where do you as a religiously minded person find hope, guidance, or inspiration in engaging the dilemmas of our contemporary dialogue with religious tradition? This question would require an essay I am not at the moment prepared to write. If I had any inspiring examples that I could easily describe, I would do so, but most of us are just struggling in the dark. I’m afraid I must leave your readers to do the same.

Andrew Cooper
is a writer and editor living in Oakland, California. He is a contributing editor to Tricycle.

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mpoliver's picture

Personally I see great benefit in an individual approach to spiritual practice, for me their is more truth in a field looking up at the sky, or sitting in meditation looking within, than their is in a group of other people, having to deal with different personalities and the pressures of inter-human politics (agree with this, don't agree with that, be yourself, but if you're not like this we'll reject you, sometimes group interaction seems more trouble than it's worth).

The older I get the more I understand why so many of the great spiritual masters chose to go off in seclusion.

wilnerj's picture

And yet the eremite still resides in a community. This seclusion is not in opposition to community but a form of it. And the eremite remains faithful to a tradition and to a lineage and hence bound to community..

zenmezzo's picture

The term "second naivete" is new to me, but very interesting and helpful. As a Zen practitioner, I realize the tremendous importance of sangha as a vessel that transmits Dharma and spiritual truth through human relationships. I had a wonderful upbringing in Catholicism, and as an ex-Benedictine monastic still allow the wealth of Jesus' teachings and Christian symbols to inspire and guide me. I have been uneasy the the "go it all on your own" kind of "spirituality," and am grateful for the analysis provided in this article. Ignorance, (one of the primal Buddhist delusions, along with greed and hatred) of the wealth contained in religious teachings and a complete lack of community involvement can lead people into a spiritual desert, unaware of their own ignorance and divorced from the great wisdom of religious tradition and community. It can result in the kind of individualism that is uninvolved with the social teachings of religion, with justice and equality, with the needs of the poor and exploited, and with the responsibility enjoined by all great religions for our fellow human and all beings.