Return of the Sacred — Ringing Daniel Bell

On rare occasion, one encounters a thinker and writer of extraordinary talent; the author, intellectual, and sociologist Daniel Bell is one such person.  Bell is perhaps most famous for his 1976 book, Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism.  It was with great interest, therefore, that I read his 1977 Hobhouse Memorial Lecture, “The Return of the Sacred? The Argument on the Future of Religion,” published in The British Journal of Sociology and delivered at the London School of Economics.

Bell’s lecture (which I cannot believe he actually delivered; it would have taken hours) is a literary and intellectual tour de force, even if he gets many things wrong and his forecasts have missed the mark.  It is a perfect example of the kind of thing that happens when you combine an obviously brilliant mind with too much time in elite New York City intellectual circles and a long stint at Harvard.  This is an insular (and in some ways artificial) environment, where books and theory rule, and those immersed in it vastly overestimate the power of high culture and influence of the intellect.

Bell is clearly exorcised by an impressive host of thinkers, writers, poets, and philosophers, the majority of whom most people have never heard of let alone read.  Bell thinks he is diagnosing all of Western culture and civilization, when in fact he is diagnosing the concerns and preoccupations of a few, as if they somehow reflected the entirety of Western societies and cultures over the past 300 years.

Throughout the essay, Bell talks casually about “human universals” and “human nature,” though he seems to be ethnographically and evolutionarily illiterate.  He also seems to be infected with a sort of intellectual Janus disease, given his penchant for characterizing everything on his mind or which he discerns as “dual” and “double.”

Contrary to Bell’s guiding assumption, Western culture and history is not world culture and history.  Bell’s concept of traditional religion — which in typical (and wrong) Durkheimian fashion — holds society together, is a thinly veiled fantasy about how Christianity supposedly held the West together for thousands of years before the perilous and immoral onslaught of modernity and science.

In the end, I found myself agreeing with Bell only on a single point which he presents as a forecast — “the return of the sacred” and resurgence of religion:

If there are to new religions — and I think they will arise — they will, contrary to previous experience, return to the past, to seek for tradition . . . I do not know how these will arise, but I have some dim perception of the forms they may take.  The first [possible form] I would call moralizing religion.  Its roots and strength are in a Fundamentalist faith, evangelical and scourging, emphasizing sin and the turn away from the Whore of Babylon.

As is evident, Bell correctly predicted the resurgence of fundamentalism not only in United States, but elsewhere in the world — especially some Islamic parts of it.   This is what happens in the cultures of late capitalism, where mindless materialism and empty consumption rule, and when those cultures reach out to touch — and affect — other parts of the world, which must be integrated into the system.

But what of this “past” that Bell provincially speaks?  There is much more to history, culture, and humanity than the West.  History, thinking, and religion did not begin with the Greeks, as so many Western intellectuals mistakenly assume.

World cultures have a much deeper history and broader scope — as anthropology continuously attests.  A year or two of reading in ethnography, evolution, and archaeology would have done Bell much good (and resulted in a different lecture on religion, which is more than moralizing monotheism).  Isn’t it time to look beyond the parochial canon of classicism and shackles of sociological theory?

In the end, Bell seems to sense that he is operating in a rarefied intellectual atmosphere that may be — and in fact is — out of touch with “ordinary” people or what he calls “a large substratum of society” consisting traditionally of “farmers, lower-middle class, small town artisans, and the like.”

Yes, Daniel, there is life outside of New York, Harvard, Christianity, and the intelligentsia — all of which have far less influence, and importance, than you think.

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