Robert Bellah on the Axial Age, Taking an Ethical Position, and Many Truths in Many Religions

Monday, November 12, 2012 - 10:24 am

Robert Bellah on the Axial Age, Taking an Ethical Position, and Many Truths in Many Religions

On October 15-17, the Center of Theological Inquiry in Princeton, New Jersey held an international symposium to foster interdisciplinary dialogue on spiritual progress. The forum was an invitation-only event that brought the insights of major thinkers, which included Lord Jonathan Sacks, Marilynne Robinson, and Robert Bellah. The forum was chaired by our very own host Krista Tippett at Benjamin Franklin Hall of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia.
Thankfully, the symposium recorded most of the conversations, and guided by Krista’s notes, I wanted to share some of the more interesting points of the conversations and responses. Robert Bellah is one of the premiere sociologists and educators in the United States. For more than 30 years, he was a professor of sociology at the University of California at Berkeley and recently published Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age. It’s an ambitious work, to say the least, that probes humanity’s biological past and “offers what is frequently seen as a forbidden theory of the origin of religion that goes deep into evolution, especially but not exclusively cultural evolution.”
In this first clip, Mr. Bellah refers to the Axial Age, a period of several hundred years during the middle of the last millennium BCE when religions played a vital role in the development of great civilizations of the East before Western European expansion came into play. As Mr. Bellah strenuously points out in one story, Confucianism has a deep sense of a “universal ethic” that transcends a more survivalist tribal sensibility:

And, Mr. Bellah challenges scientists and scholars to take a stance, an ethical position that takes into account “a concern for those who are left out” of the intellectual discussion about such things as the sociology of religion:

Near the end of his response to other scholars’ questions and statements, Mr. Bellah describes how his research into other religions has strengthened his Christian faith in practical ways — and that he has come to the conclusion that people cannot achieve agreement on one true religion and that no one religion has all the answers:

The complete audio of this symposium will appear on the Center of Theological Inquiry’s website later this year.

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is the cofounder of On Being and currently serves as publisher & editor-in-chief. He received a Peabody Award in 2007 for his work on “The Ecstatic Faith of Rumi” and garnered two Webby Awards (in 2005, and again in 2008). The Online News Association nominated his journalistic work multiple times in the general excellence and outstanding specialty journalism categories. Trent’s reported and produced stories from Turkey to rural Alabama, from Israel and the West Bank to Cambridge, England.

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