Robert Neelly Bellah (February 23, 1927 – July 30, 2013)

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Robert Neelly Bellah (February 23, 1927 – July 30, 2013)

I regretfully wish to inform the members of the Canadian Society for the Study of Religion about the sad news of the death of a legendary scholar, Robert Neelly Bellah. He was a preeminent scholar of religion in America, a bestselling author and the Elliott Professor of Sociology Emeritus at UC Berkeley. He passed away on Tuesday, July 30, 2013 from complications related to heart surgery. He was 86.

Bellah was considered a renowned scholar in the field of sociology of religion – and many have called him one of the giants of American Sociology. Speaking of his career at UC Berkeley, Raka Ray, the chair of sociology at UC Berkeley shared her sentiments of her colleague: “Robert Bellah was a towering intellect, not just in the department — which he served so well for 30 years – but also in the discipline of sociology,” she said. “Not only did his scholarship transform the way we think about religion, American civic life, and the common good, but his teaching and mentoring shaped generations of scholars in the field.”

As noted in his obituary, Bellah won acclaim as a public intellectual with his essay “Civil Religion in America,” which examined how U.S. political figures use religious symbolism. His views were strongly influenced by the major events of that period, including the Vietnam War.

Jeffrey Alexander, American sociologist, wrote about Bellah’s last book after he passed: “Only after retiring did he return to his work in historical religious evolution, spending the last decades of his life on his magnum opus Religion in Human Evolution. Building upon Jasper’s interpretation of Weber’s sociology of religion, Bellah, a life-long scholar of Japan, found a way to transcend Weber’s orientalism by demonstrating that Buddhism, Confucianism, and Hinduism were as much “Axial Age” religions as their Western counterparts. With this decisive leap, Bellah joined his life-long friend Shmuel Eisenstadt in creating a bridge for Weberian sociology to move beyond its origins in the Western imperial age. One of the last living links to the fertile post-war period of American sociology, Bellah is a giant figure in the study of culture whose work will still be read in the century that follows.”

In 2007, Bellah received the American Academy of Religion’s Martin E. Marty Award for the Public Understanding of Religion for having helped shape the academic and public discourse on religion and morality in American society.

Although I am unable to do justice to Bellah’s work and life, his scholarly legacy remains a stronghold in the field and he will be greatly missed.

Ruby Ramji, President
Aug 2013

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