From an interview with Robert N. Bellah

Bellah’s new book, Religion in Human Evolution, is just out. I’ve linked to an earlier interview here.

This interview with Nathan Schneider is well-worth reading; full of insight and food for thought. But there are two quotations that I especially like:

The academic world is one of the few places where prejudice is supposed to be totally banned, and we’re politically correct on everything, but it’s still a place where you can attack religion out of utter, complete, bottomless ignorance and not be considered to have done anything wrong. It’s astounding to me to hear what some people can say with the assumption that everyone would agree with them, based on nothing whatsoever.

Schneider asked about “Sheilaism,” first identified in Habits of the Heart, the phenomenon that Americans increasingly create spiritual and religious meaning for themselves, without connecting to community of any sort. Here’s the interchange:

NS: An important part of your message has been the famous concern expressed in Habits of the Heart about “Sheilaism”—the kind of individualistic spirituality that you and your colleagues saw at work in the United States. Some have suggested recently, including your former student Harvey Cox, that some of these nontraditional spiritualities are finding a place in social and political life in a way that wasn’t quite recognized before. Is the way you think about new kinds of spiritualities evolving?

RB: I certainly think that so-called spirituality can have social and even political consequences. I’ve seen this among environmental activists, who often have some kind of eco-spirituality and who are very organizationally loose. They switch from one group to another, and if one group isn’t pure enough they go to another. And yet they spend a long period of their lives doing good work in a cause. In the end what I feel is most problematic about “I’m spiritual but not religious” is: what the hell are you going to tell your children? I’m allergic to the notion that so-called institutional religion—by which people mean organizations such as churches and synagogues—is bad. Institutions are very important and if you think you can get along without them, you’re putting yourself on the wrong line; you can’t.

NS: So your conclusions in Habits of the Heart stand?

RB: If you think about what has happened in American society, or even just today with what is going on with the Tea Party movement, Habits of the Heart was so right on. Radical individualism is even more evident today than when Habits was published twenty-five years ago. It describes the default mode of this deeply misguided society beautifully—horribly, but beautifully.

Bellah’s cautions concerning “radical individualism” are borne out in this article from USA today: “More Americans tailoring religion to fit their needs.”



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