on 18 December 2010
Ha ha. Good old Peter Berger and his sacred canopy. Years ago, when I took comparative religion classes, this book was required reading already at the very first course, which included students fresh out of senior high.
Don't worry. None of us understood it either. The poor professor (a competent Indologist, by the way) had to spend an entire lecture explaining Berger's opus.
But no, the book isn't incomprehensible. Not really. However, unless you are pretty grounded in Hegel, Weber, Durkheim, Luckmann or Marx (not necessarily in that order), you might find this a hard read. When I re-read parts of the book this week, I thought it was easier than average scholarly literature. But then, that's me. I also noticed Berger's uncanny humour, which I didn't ten years ago. As when the author writes: "My communication with denizens of the realm of theology has, much to my regret, shrunk in recent years. But I would like to mention James Gustafson and Siegfried von Kortzfleisch as two theologians in whom I have always found an unusual openness to sociological thinking for which I have been grateful on more than one occasion".
The book itself is difficult to summarize, but here goes.
The first part is a theoretical exposition of Berger's sociological theory of religion. Berger believes that humans are biologically fated to "exteriorize" and fill their world with meaning, i.e. create a culture, which is then "interiorized" by a process of socialization. Often, this leads to "alienation", since humans start to regard products of their own activity as natural, unchanging and eternal objects "out there". Humans suffer the constant dread of anomie, a terror of meaninglessness. Religion is a potent weapon against anomie, ironically precisely because it alienates man from his real existence. Religion functions as a protective canopy, bestowing meaning on the world, including the meaning of suffering or even death. Often, religion has a conservative function in society, giving a sacred character to the rulers or dominant institutions. Thus, to be against the system means that you are both insane and evil. Berger admits, however, that religion in some instances also functions as a de-alienating force, precisely by *refusing* to grant a sacred status to certain institutions, against whom it thus becomes right to rebel. However, Berger doesn't believe in a complete abolition of alienation, nor does he think that alienation is a product of class society. Rather, alienation is rooted in our anthropology. Berger also attacks something he calls "the masochistic attitude", which he believes is a innate human tendency and plays a central role in religion, especially mystic religion and monotheism.
Since I haven't read Berger's magnum opus "The social construction of reality" (co-written with Thomas Luckmann), it might be risky to criticize this, but Berger sounds too "constructivist" for my tastes. He does admit that humans are biologically fated to produce a culture through exteriorization, but he seems to think that the concrete products of exteriorization are all sui generis. This is unconvincing. While human cultures are indeed very different from each other (just compare the Aztecs and the Indus Valley civilization, or a penal colony with a sociology class), there is still an underlying unity more fundamental than simply the rather trivial observation that all humans have a culture. Indeed, Berger himself seems to believe that "the masochistic attitude", fear of death and meaninglessness, and mystic experiences are universal human traits. But surely these are rooted in our shared nature?
Berger mentions language as an example of a human construct that moulds our thinking, while implying that each language is unique. But all languages have categories such as subject, verb and object, or present and past tenses, and all (as far as I know) can be translated to any other language, once again showing an underlying unity. Language does indeed expand or inhibit our thinking (yes, really!), but it also creates a certain shared conception of the world. Humans aren't exteriorizing tabulae rasae, but share a kind of common nature (let's call it "creative and co-operative") which directs the exteriorizations. Some of these are common, others rare and some non-existent.
Berger does point out that human products can start to "live their own life" and subordinate humans to their wishes, so to speak, as when humans become dependent on certain tools or technologies they have invented themselves. However, he doesn't emphasize this enough, creating the strange impression that human cultures can somehow take any shape at any time, since they are human-created rather than natural.
The next section deals with the process of secularization in the West, and here Berger does mention salient material factors, such as industrialization, bureaucratization, and so on. He extends Weber's classical analysis of the secularizing function of Protestantism to include Old Testament Judaism as well. (This is unconvincing.) The rest of his analysis of American religion was probably correct in 1967, when the book was originally published. Thus, Berger describes how Christianity has lost its monopoly on truth, how Christian groups compete as if on a marketplace, how religion becomes more private and psychological, and how American churches have survived by adapting to the trends of secularization. Parts of this analysis still holds, but it needs to be heavily amended, due to the rise of Christian fundamentalism and various religious cults or near-cults after 1967. Also, Berger's analysis feels too "local" in today's globalized reality. What about Muslim fundamentalism? What about a nation such as Japan, which combines Buddhism and Shintoism with modernity? Can China's secularization be explained by the character of Chinese religion, or is it all due to Communism?
The major shortcoming of "The Sacred Canopy", however, is that it never seems to face up to the consequences of its own theory. If humans need to exteriorize and interiorize, if they fear anomie and if religion (be it alienating or de-alienating) is the most potent weapon against it, shouldn't we expect a resurgence of religion? Whence and wither secularism? At the very least, we should expect the rise of substitute "religions". It can hardly be denied that science plays such a role to many people, including scientists. (This is not to suggest, by the way, that science isn't sound. Such ontological claims must be rigorously bracketed in any sociological analysis.) The frantic and obviously megalomaniacal search for a "theory of everything", Consilience, Artificial Intelligence or whatever, is clearly connected to the idea of the scientist as hierophant. To other people, the substitute might be some obscure political philosophy, hedonistic pleasure-seeking, body building or what not. Personally, I get my kicks by writing reviews on Amazon...
That being said, Peter Berger's "The Sacred Canopy" is still an essential read for everyone interested in the whys and whats of religion. My personal copy of the book is filled with marginal notes, often just as hilariously funny as the iconoclastic humour of the author (as when I exclaim: "yawn", "oh my god, what on earth is the point", or "MAKE UP YOUR MIND, BLOODY IDIOT"). And yes, I got a straight A at that course!
Recommended. Sort of. ;-)
on 24 February 2014
Peter Berger's book was composed nearly 50 years ago yet the reality of the circumstances of religion in modernity that it describes, and arguably remain somewhat the same in what some have called 'post modernity', are still important and yet still wilfully ignored by many contemporary church people. As a Christian minister in an ancient institution I see around me a great deal of collective denial, but as the book shows the role of religion in the maintenance of human reality and sanity is such that the undermining of its traditionally super-naturalist orientation was always going to be powerfully resisted by some. Berger's beautifully, clearly written book describes the dialectical process of human reality creation, a collective, subjective reality that is expressed and made objective, which subsequently becomes intuited as a reality in itself apart from human creativity, and then is re-subjectified, internalised by socially participating human beings along with their social roles as the shape of reality itself. This reality is maintained and honed by people through an ongoing conversation with other people and things in the business of life. Human beings reaffirm as well as innovate on this reality in the course of their conversational interactions. The reality upon which they depend to make sense of their selves and their world, therefore, depends upon the continued presence especially of certain key interlocutors, key institutions. But what if such key people die, institutions collapse? There is a basic instability about human reality which is potentially extremely disturbing, in which self and world might always loose their stable, lawful aspect and both poles collapse into chaos and even madness. The aspect of human culture that projects eternal verities therefore, that is religious culture, has the vital role of providing a stable underpinning to that more mundane reality that is always subject to potential, radical alteration, thereby allowing individuals to continue to orientate themselves in their world through the contingencies that spatial temporal reality is actually subject to. But Berger makes the important point that with the onset of industrial capitalist and scientific disenchantment of the objective realms the capacity of religious people to rely upon the credibility of a transcendent, objective reality to perform this function has become profoundly undermined. He asserts that western Christianity has retreated into a collective subjectivity where the objective, public realm has been spiritually evacuated, and that despite the re-assertions of something like neo-orthodoxy, the capacity of most people to credibly intuit transcendent objectivity has never recovered. Secularisation has become effectively the subjectivisation of religion and in its most radical forms has reduced a once considered supernaturally objective reality to symbols of various forms of existential and psychological reality. It is this that allows religion to tenuously hold onto to some credibility, but when one of the Church's greatest theologians and martyrs, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, could envisage the future of Christianity in religionless terms - a theme taken up in English Christianity with the publication of Honest to God - then perhaps it is time that the attempt to continue to reassert Christian religiosity in its more traditional forms, in the present era, be supplanted by something much more radical. I would definitely recommend Berger's book long after its original publication as a convincing analysis of the situation of western Christian religiosity even now.