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15 - Confessing away the soul with the sins, or the risks of Uncle Tomism among the humanists: a reply to Robert Bellah

from Part III - Teaching religion

Scott S. Elliott
Affiliation:
Adrian College, Michigan, USA
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Summary

In the December 1970 issue of this Bulletin, Robert Bellah makes two eloquent appeals. One is for humility, rather than arrogance, in the study of religion; the other is for an inductive approach that starts with respectful attention to experience rather than with conceptual schemes. His testimony was so ardent that it led the editor, understandably, to use a title that cast the paper in the mode of conversion and confession: “Confessions of a Former Establishment Fundamentalist.”

In fact, the ardor of the confessions is so great that the author could easily be misunderstood as renouncing not only the twin sins of arrogance and abstraction, but also the scientific enterprise of making interpretive generalizations about religion within the social scientist's frame of reference. This seems to be exactly what happened the last time Bellah addressed similar confessions to a similar audience, in his Sanders Theatre address to an AAR-SSSR meeting October 25, 1969 (published, with responses, in Bellah 1970a, and alone in Bellah 1970d). The delighted applause of the humanists and the angry sense of abandonment expressed by the social scientists suggested that all thought they had witnessed the capitulation of social science to humanistic study. Bellah had to add a rejoinder saying this wasn't so. And he interposes occasional remarks in his present “confessions” to the same effect. But these we may judge from the concluding remarks about de-differentiating the disciplines.

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Reinventing Religious Studies
Key Writings in the History of a Discipline
, pp. 95 - 98
Publisher: Acumen Publishing
Print publication year: 2013

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