Peter Berger – Religion as Establishing a “Sacred Cosmos”

Peter Berger (1929-2017) was a theologian and sociologist. He is considered one of the most influential American sociologists of the last century, especially for his work in the sociology of religion (1). In this entry, we look at Berger’s working definition and theory of religion, and some of his ideas about the concept of secularization.

Berger sees all religious propositions as “projections grounded in specific infrastructures” and defines religion as “the human enterprise by which a sacred cosmos is established.” For Berger, the human awareness of the sacred is crucial to religious consciousness. Without this consciousness, it would not have been possible for human beings to conceive of a cosmos. Berger writes,

“It can thus be said that religion has played a strategic part in the human enterprise of world-building. Religion implies the farthest reach of man’s self-externalization, of his infusion of reality with his own meanings. Religion implies that human order is projected into the totality of being. Put differently, religion is the audacious attempt to conceive of the entire universe as being humanly significant” (2).

Berger claims that religion is to be found in institutional form and the ongoing constructing of symbolic universes of meaning and value legitimation within society,

“Religion legates social institutions by bestowing upon them an ultimately valid ontological status, that is, by locating them within a sacred cosmic frame of reference. The historical constructions of human activity are viewed from a vantage point that, in its own self-definition, transcends both history and man… to repeat, the historically crucial part of religion in the process of legitimation is explicable in terms of the unique capacity of religion to “locate” human phenomena within a cosmic frame of reference. All legitimation serves to maintain reality—reality, that is, as defined in a particular human collectivity. Religious legitimation purports to relate the human defined reality to ultimate, universal, and sacred reality. The inherently precarious and transitory constructions of human activity are thus given the semblance of ultimate security and permanence” (3).

And,

“Religion thus serves to maintain the reality of that socially constructed world within which men exist in their everyday life… the establishment, through human activity, of an all-embracing sacred order, that is, of a sacred cosmos that will be capable of maintaining itself in the ever-present face of chaos” (4).

Berger believes that the same human activity that produces society also produces religion. Berger also claims that any links between society and religion become vulnerable to secularization. What is secularization? Berger offers his definition,

“By secularization we mean the process by which sectors of society and culture are removed from the domination of religious institutions and symbols… [W]e imply that secularization is more than a social-structural process. It affects the totality of cultural life and ideation, and may be observed in the decline of religion’s contents in the arts, in philosophy, in literature, and, most important of all, in the rise of science as an autonomous, thoroughly secular perspective on the world. As there is a secularization of society and culture, so is there a secularization of consciousness. Put simply, this means that the modern West has produced an increasing number of individuals who look upon the world and their own lives without the benefit of religious interpretation” (5).

According to this view of secularization, many people in the modern Western world no longer accept traditional Western religion. They cannot accept religion’s version of the world as being plausible. Berger calls this a “crisis” over the “plausibility of traditional religious definitions of reality.” Secularization is also a challenge to religion, such as in religious institutions need to learn how to “keep going in a milieu that no longer takes for granted their definitions of reality.”

But Peter Berger has come to doubt the secularization hypothesis, or at least what one could call the strong version of the concept,

“I believed in secularization theory because everyone else did. It wasn’t crazy. There were some good reasons for it. Its basic proposition is very simple: the more modern, the less religious. It took me about 25 years to conclude that this was a mistake. Empirically untenable because of what I said in my first thesis. The world is not becoming more secular. The world remains strongly religious” (6)

Berger does yet see the role that the secular space plays in modern society: “Every modern society needs a secular space. The basic reason for this is science and technology. You cannot have a modern society without at least the minimum of technology.” Even “temples of modernity” such as hospitals have a religious aspect because they are constantly infiltrated by religion: hospital chaplains, visiting clergy, patients who pray, nurses who have prayer circles, medical faculties who are interested in alternative healing methods which are usually from India or China; according to Berger, these secular “spaces are not isolated from religion, it interacts with religion.”

References

  1. Hjelm, Titus. 2018. “Peter L. Berger and the sociology of religion.” Journal of Classical Sociology 18(3):231-248.
  2. Capp, Walter. 1995. Religious Studies: The Making of a Discipline. Minneapolis: Fortress Press. p. 183.
  3. Capp, Walter. 1995. Ibid. p. 183.
  4. Capp, Walter. 1995. Ibid. p. 183.
  5. Capp, Walter. 1995. Ibid. p. 185.
  6. YouTube. 2016. Peter Berger on whether the world is becoming less religious. Available.

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