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Robert Bellah’s Sociology of Religion Lectures, Spring Semester 1996 at UC Berkeley

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I typed up about 100 pages of notes that I took in Prof. Bellah’s Sociology of Religion lectures,  while another student agreed to type the rest. Alas, he did not do his part and I have not yet had the time to listen to the tapes and annotate the rest of the lectures. I start with the first lectures I heard. I missed his real first two lectures because the classroom was so crowded that I stood out in the hall and couldn’t hear anything.

I was looking for the place where Bellah explained that science operates in an alternative reality from that of everyday life. I ended up including my notes of the first lecture of the course, because they are so rewarding. I’ll have to search whether Prof. Bellah has published these thoughts in one of his books and then reference it so that his words can take precedence over my notes.

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1996

Department of Sociology             Professor Robert N. Bellah

Sociology 112

Sociology of Religion

Excerpts Prof. Bellah=s lectures for Theological Consideration

with comments by Peter Krey in the footnotes

January 15, 1996 to February 26, 1996

Overcrowding made it impossible to follow the class discussion from outside the door in the hall.

Jan. 18th: Missed Lecture.

Jan. 23rd:    For the study of the Sociology of Religion it is important to be able to bracket out your own belief. A radical atheist or a person who believes theirs is the true faith might not be able to do this. Just take the attitude, AIt might be true.@ Generalities are made here about religions, but nothing applies to them all.

What is reality? Berger and Luckman wrote a book entitled The Social Construction of Reality. From Alfred Schutz we also discover that reality is not a given. Defining reality delivers real power far superior to that of Bill Gates. Psychology and sociology overlap enormously here. This power is derived from the capacity to set the ideological agenda in the society; setting the parameters for what can be taken seriously; what is real and what isn=t real. For example in the scientific field that power determines who gets tenure and who not, and that concerns whose view of reality is accepted. When a scholars views are not considered real, their suffering becomes very real. Balancing the budget deficit is another example. Who now questons it? Will it redistribute massive new wealth to the rich?


To repeat: What is reality? Berger and Luckman wrote a book entitled The Social Construction of Reality. From Alfred Schutz we also discover that reality is not a given.[1] Defining reality delivers real power far superior to that of Bill Gates. Psychology and sociology overlap enormously here. This power inherent in defining reality is derived from the capacity to set the ideological agenda in the society, i.e., setting the parameters for what can be taken seriously, what is real and what isn=t real. Balancing the budget deficit is a particular example. Who now questions it?[2]

There are three approaches to religion:

1) the cognitive propositional

2) the expressive experiential

Using a Noam Chomsky expression, there is a deep structure to all religions and there are surface structures. Psychology has a preponderance in our society.

3) the cultural linguistic

Religion is a whole way of life. Learning religion is like learning a language with a whole grammar into which one is inducted over a long period of time. Religion is a system of beliefs and practices relative to the sacred creating a moral community. This moral community is critical. Private religion violates moral community. This definition of religion marginalizes private religion.


Chuang Tzu dreamt he was a butterfly and awoke, not knowing if his waking state was a dream or his dream was his waking state. Was he Chuang Tzu or a butterfly? This example concerned alternate realities and identities.

Alfred Schutz noted in 1930 that realities come in multiples and it is not just one thing. The wide awake grown up man sees reality of the world very differently from the way it is seen by a child. Reality could be gendered according to some feminist epistemology. But it would seem to be possible to move between these gendered realities.

Thy World of Daily Life

It is characterized by a natural attitude of which we are not conscious. Reality is what it seems to be, and what it seems to be I will take for granted is. This world as given in the reality of daily life is not experienced in the full immediacy of absolute “hereness and nowness”. It always thinks: AWhat next?@ And thus does not live in the radical sense of the here and now. The latter is a different reality, which is dominated by a practical and pragmatic interest of doing something and getting it done. Or thinking about what one hasn=t done yet and has to do.

Schutz was a phenomenologist and described how in the world of daily life one brought about a projected state of affairs by bodily movements, i.e., working. Thus it is changing things from how they are to how we/they/or professors prefer they be. Because the world of daily life concerns striving beyond working, and is about concerted effort, it always entails the background element of anxiety (to which we return after describing its sense of space and time).


In the world of daily life standard time and space are used. Clock time, in other words, and measuring-stick space, which is mechanical and utterly featureless: twelve o=clock midnight is the same as twelve noon; twenty miles whether coast land or hills, it does not matter. Nothing is pertinent here but exact measurement. The world of work is built on our common agreement on time and space. And standard time is very recent in our history. Not long ago every town had its own time. The railroad changed this and now standard time dominates us so completely we do not think about it.

Schutz was Jewish and hailed from Austria and then Germany.

A fundamental anxiety underlies the reality of daily life. It derives from the knowledge that we all must die. Subliminally we are aware of the fragility of things. Nothing will last. People will abandon us and we ourselves are mortal. As a child Professor Bellah himself was taught the children=s prayer:

If I should die before I wake

I pray the Lord my soul to take.

In the same fragility of life, children still die even now. Thus this anxiety plays into our working and striving. So that a big hole will not open in front of us, we always have to work very hard to keep things going. This characterizes the epoché.  Such doubt needs to be bracketed out. We do not raise that question. Children are more into the here and now because they are less into working. And they perceive the world differently. In taking a trip from his town into Basel, his child stepped out of the car and exclaimed:

ALook! The sun came with us!@


Question: If mentally challenged people have delusions, and if we argue that the reality of daily life is just another delusion, then how can it be shared? Dreams and delusions are individual.[3] The world of daily life is a socially constructed world, a collective representation, in Durkheim=s words. Realities are different in different subcultures. Thus what is being described here is not a psychology, but we are concerned with shared beliefs and these can be true or untrue. Think of the tulip mania in Holland. This was a common delusion.

Our selfhood is not a given. Selfhood in Bali is very different from our definition of it.

Occasionally daily life has intrusions which do not fit the rules. But this is experienced as strange. Bob Dillon=s ABallad of a Thin Man@ comes to mind:

ASomething is happening here, and you don=t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?@

When this happens something lifts the brackets of the epoché.

Thus the reality of the daily world is not the only reality any of us live in. No one can stand to live in it all the time. Some can=t stand to live in it at all. We leave it when we sleep. And here dreams are necessary as sleep. The structure of dreams is almost antithetical to the reality of the daily world and its space and time. To escape we also day-dream. At home we switch on the TV. One study speaks of the happiness quotient involved, and finds that TV leaves its viewers mildly depressed. But it gets us out of the reality of daily life with its anxieties and concerns. But TV can produce its own anxiety. But that is not real but play-anxiety.


Games represent another multiple reality. They are not played in the world of daily life, but in an artificial world as a parody of daily life. The latter is simplified to having one clear goal, that of winning. Games have a means-ends structure. Our lives do not. Games violate standard time and standard space. In a football game one hour is really more like three hours. Clock time is not equal to game time. In football the space is arbitrarily limited to end at a line. Thus the limiting of space gives it intensity. If we care too much about who wins or loses, then games do not do much for our psychic states.

Travel also helps get away from daily life.

Church services put us into a different reality.

Science operates in an alternate reality. It does not wish to discover useful answers, but merely how the world is. Practical and pragmatic concerns are in all the sciences, but they do not predominate. Science cannot accept the brackets of the daily world, of the epoché, because it looks beneath the surface. What is really going on is not what seems to be going on. The earth goes around the sun, according to science. But can anyone in this room demonstrate that this is really so? We still take it on faith. Even science cannot doubt everything at once. On the other hand, systematic doubt cannot characterize the daily world. It would drive you nuts. Science however uses systematic doubt.

Art responds with more immediacy to realities. If we were to open ourselves to great works of art enough, they might say to us: AChange your lives!@ Such masterpieces pull us into themselves so deeply that they lift the brackets and place us into question.


We tend to think daily reality is really real and all others are not quite real. Even our dreams. Even the university is not quite the real world. But the insulation of the university makes it more real rather than less real. Our culture, however, denies these alternate realities, while other cultures have considered other realities much more real. Especially religious reality has been considered that way. From the world of daily reality, they will all wake up, because daily life is a dream. It is an illusion that one is a ruler another a herdsman. The Buddha exclaimed that the world is a burning house – get out of it. Daily life is an illusion and those who put their trust in this world are lost and deluded. Such a religious reality is a direct frontal assault on the reality of daily life and a variation of outcomes results. In tribal religion the reality experienced in the great ceremonials is really real in comparison with hunting and gathering and digging in the fields. There is a contest for what is really real among alternate realities. In our culture, daily life makes religious reality go under. If it is asked whether religious reality is merely an escape from daily reality, then one needs to take account of the fact that the realities of daily life for different cultures are also different. Cultural variability demonstrates that reality also has some variability.


[1]Alfred Schutz, The Problem of Social Reality, (The Hague: Nijhoff, 1962).

[2](This note is added by Peter Krey.) A good portion of it (18%?) will be redistributed to the rich giving them massive new wealth. If we owed the national debt to ourselves, repayment would not be a redistribution-of-wealth problem. But when Reagan made huge tax cuts in the 1980’s, while increasing military spending, the tax cut amounts needed to be borrowed from the financial community and the people of wealth here and abroad, to whom our government is now beholden (yes) for over 15% of tax income for debt service. I write these figures from memory from the New Grollier Encyclopedia, but I believe they are pretty accurate. P. Krey.

[3]These words are the approximate sense of the question that I myself asked Prof. Bellah.

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Written by peterkrey

April 28, 2010 at 5:47 pm

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