Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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(1929-) Professor, Boston University; Director, Institute for the Study of Economic Culture, Boston. Leading scholar in the sociology of religion and the sociology of knowledge. Lay Lutheran theologian. Frequent contributor to public policy debate. Education: Wagner College, New School for Social Research. Has held faculty positions at Evangelical Academy (Bad Boll, West Germany), University of North Carolina, Hartford Theological Seminary, New School for Social Research, Rutgers University, Boston College. Honorary doctorates from Loyola University, Wagner College, University of Notre Dame. President, Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, 1966-1967.

Berger's work in sociology and theology is notable for the scope and depth of his analysis, the lucidity of his style, and the consistency of his efforts in facing some of the basic dilemmas posed by the modern age. Much of his work may be understood as a systematic attempt to understand modernity's characteristics and its implications for individuals and sociocultural institutions.

Developing a Sociology of Religion

Berger first gained a national profile in the United States with the publication of two books in 1961. In The Noise of Solemn Assemblies and The Precarious Vision (both Doubleday), he strongly criticized contemporary Protestant theology and religious institutions. He accused Protestant clergy of failing to meet the challenge of offering individuals in modern America a means for understanding and living in accordance with Christian beliefs. In attacking what many saw as the smug conservatism and spiritual emptiness of the Protestant establishment, Berger also drew attention to the social control functions it willingly performed. He viewed the church as giving legitimacy to the social fictions and injustices of the time. The power of a Christian faith rooted in transcendent experience and meanings was not being called upon in offering individual believers a more authentic existence. Although not without its detractors, Berger's polemic was applauded by many within the upcoming generation of Protestant clergy. He had captured their concerns about the direction of mainstream Christianity in a rapidly changing world.

Although he would later question the neo-orthodox content and "stern, quasi-Barthian" style of the theological perspective advocated in these early books, Berger nevertheless had begun expressing a number of important themes that would become central to his later works: the development of a sociological critique of modernity, the tensions between sociological and theological paradigms, the implications of modernity for institutions, beliefs, and personal identity, and the quest for an ethic of responsibility in a social context characterized by moral relativism. Underlying all of these efforts was what would eventually become a highly influential theoretical perspective. During the first half of the 1960s, Berger had begun to identify and integrate, in collaboration with Thomas Luckmann, among others, the key elements of this approach. Drawing upon influences as diverse as Marx, Durkheim, Weber, Gehlen, and Pareto, and heavily indebted to members of the growing school of phenomenologists, most notably Alfred Schutz, this sociology of knowledge framework focused upon the meanings and social processes through which individuals construct reality in everyday life.

Berger soon began applying this perspective to the sociological study of religion and, more specifically, to the analysis of modernity's impact on religious institutions and beliefs. In The Sacred Canopy (Doubleday 1967), he argued that, from a sociological perspective, religion must be understood as a social construction, a human projection of a sacred cosmos. Throughout history, these projections or "externalizations" (to use the more technical language of Berger and Luckmann's sociology of knowledge) have played a crucial role in constructing and maintaining social institutions and processes. Key to religion's significance is the legitimation of social realities through its claims of accessibility to nonhuman or transcendent powers.

Much of the book's argument was an encounter with the Durkheimian legacy. Yet Berger characteristically reached beyond what might otherwise have been a strictly functionalist interpretation of religion to explore its social psychological implications. Religion, according to Berger, is essentially a set of alienated and alienating realities that become "internalized" within individual identity. Through religion, believers are offered crucial explanations and ultimate meanings needed for making sense of their lives and the surrounding universe, especially during times of personal or social crisis. Religion is a kind of "canopy" that shields individuals and, by implication, society from the ultimately destructive consequences of a seemingly chaotic, purposeless existence.

Methodological and Theoretical Positions

With Sacred Canopy , Berger outlined the analytical framework that would guide many of his subsequent efforts in the sociology of religion. He also identified some of the central methodological and theoretical questions and issues facing the discipline. On the level of methodology, Berger encouraged fellow sociologists to draw upon Weber when designing their overall research strategy, to examine the full significance of Verstehen and systematically understand religion from the believer's perspective, that is, "from within." He was convinced that sociologists of religion should demonstrate a "methodological atheism" whereby, in the course of studying religious phenomena from a social scientific perspective, they would maintain a strict detachment from personal theological leanings. Religious truth claims must always be "bracketed" in the sense that they cannot be verified using the tools of the social scientist. Berger has consistently maintained his commitment to these methodological principles in explaining and promoting his understanding of an interpretive sociology.

On the level of theory, however, Berger has changed his views somewhat. Sacred Canopy , like many of his publications in the mid- to late 1960s, examined in depth the challenges posed to religion in the modern world by secularization and pluralism. Berger focused on the dialectical relationship between these two phenomena. Secularization generates pluralism by undermining the plausibility structure of monopolistic religious institutions and beliefs. Pluralism, on the other hand, relativizes the taken-for-granted or "objective" nature of religious meaning systems, thereby encouraging secularization. Partly because of the Western bias then prevalent in sociological circles in the United States, secularization was seen by many sociologists, including Berger, as representing the more serious problem for religion. Beliefs and symbols had apparently become hollowed out, stripped of their former religious significance. The canopy that protected individuals and societies from the terrors of a chaotic, anomic cosmos no longer appeared so sacred or intact.

Through the years, Berger has shifted much of his attention away from the secularization thesis to the study of pluralism. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, travel to non-Western religious cultures led him to question the inevitability of secularization. Even in the most "modern" societies, there was strong evidence of countersecular developments. Although secularization was not a spent force, it was less pervasive than once thought. Pluralism, however, seems to have raised critical problems for religion. The coexistence within a pluralistic society of multiple meaning systems, each with its own truth claims, has weakened the plausibility or certainty of religious traditions and beliefs. In many modern societies, religion has receded or been pushed almost entirely into the private sphere. For individuals living in those societies, religious commitment has become a highly personal choice (what Berger has called "the heretical imperative") and subject to revisions resulting from ever changing sociocultural and biographical factors.

Concerned that Sacred Canopy seemed to have been misunderstood by some readers as an atheistic treatise that left little hope for religion's future, Berger responded with the largely theological A Rumor of Angels (Doubleday 1969). Applying the sociological perspective with which he had analyzed religion, he now "relativized the relativizers" of religious beliefs by examining the socially constructed nature of modern consciousness. Modernity has not, Berger argued, negated the possibility of the supernatural. Rather, the secularism and pluralism of the modern age have made the theological task of uncovering religious truths more difficult. Berger proposed an "inductive approach," a return to the spirit of the liberal theology initiated by Friedrich Schleiermacher and his followers. With the benefit of phenomenological theory, this strategy would seek out "signals of transcendence" within modern human experience.

Developing a Critique of Modernity

Scholars disagree about whether Berger is correct in his analysis of pluralism's extent and consequences. Some question whether pluralism is a particularly new phenomenon in human history. Others believe that he has exaggerated its supposed unsettling effects on modern consciousness. Berger himself has not disputed the existence of pluralism in earlier eras. His argument has been that the scope and intensity of modern pluralism are historically unprecedented. Like any other social construction, however, pluralism (and modernity itself) is not inevitable. Even while speaking metaphorically about the "homeless mind" of modern individuals, Berger has consistently pointed to evidence of countermodern trends and the need for a critique of modernity that is informed by a multidisciplinary approach.

For Berger, an important goal for both sociologists and theologians in this regard is to understand modern pluralism's characteristics, limitations, and likely impact on religious institutions and faith. In carrying out these tasks, they should avoid repeating their earlier failure to recognize countersecular developments and other indications of religious resurgence throughout the world. Theologians especially must not allow themselves to become conceptually or methodologically blinded to signals of transcendence. Berger's own contributions in this area include the further exploration, in The Heretical Imperative (Doubleday 1979) and A Far Glory (Free Press 1992), among other publications, of the inductive method outlined in A Rumor of Angels Berger's overall impact on sociological and theological thinking has been enormous. And, as one of the most frequently cited authors of the twentieth century, his influence has now extended far beyond the social sciences and religion. Perhaps a key reason for this phenomenon lies in the accessibility of his writing and the ultimately hopeful message in his thought. With a skillful and seemingly effortless style, he has applied a complex analytical framework to the core questions and dilemmas facing modern individuals and institutions. Unlike those of his contemporaries who see little of value in modernity, Berger has tempered his criticisms of modern excesses with an informed awareness that this age also brings with it significant human and spiritual possibilities.

Bruce Karlenzig


P. L. Berger and T. Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1966)

J. D. Hunter and S. C. Ainlay (eds.), Making Sense of Modern Times (New York: Routledge, 1986).

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