Looking back at the year 2011, I think Robert Bellah’s book Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age (Harvard University Press, 2011) is arguably the most important book published last year. I hope the word “religion” in the title would not stop readers of this blog, who are interested in Chinese philosophy, from reading it. The book is really about civilization or culture (wen), which includes both religion and philosophy. One could understand the term “religion” in a very broad sense, which seems to be what Habermas does. In his blurb for Bellah’s book, Habermas says, “In the second part of his book, he succeeds in a unique comparison of the origins of the handful of surviving world-religions, including Greek philosophy.” In fact, since many of our readers believe that early Chinese thought is often both religion and philosophy, they might find this book especially stimulating.
There are four chapters devoted to the four axial civilizations: Ancient Egypt, Greece, India and China. Our readers may be especially interested in the chapter on early China, (a long chapter of 82 pages), plus a section on Shang and Western Zhou China in an earlier chapter. Bellah is best known for his 1985 co-authored book Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American life. However, not many people know that Bellah’s original field is actually East Asian studies. His PhD degree is a joined one from the department of sociology and the department of what was then called “Far Eastern Language” at Harvard University, and his dissertation was later published as Tokugawa Religion: the Cultural Roots of Modern Japan. What is even more interesting is that Bellah’s study of America is informed and shaped by his study of East Asia. For example, his 1967 essay “Civil Religion in America,” which made him famous and turned him eventually into an Americanist, was particularly influenced by his study of religions in East Asia. In December 2011, I attended a conference in honor of Bellah at the City University of Hong Kong, organized by P. J. Ivanhoe and Sungmoon Kim. The conference is called “A Habit of the Heart: Confucianism and Contemporary East Asian Cultures,” and it’s one of the most intellectually stimulating conferences I’ve been to.
I have written two short essays on Bellah’s book. Here are the links to them: