Sunday, March 7, 2010

Book Review: The Sacred Canopy by Peter L. Berger

In The Sacred Canopy Berger attempts to “push to the final sociological consequence an understanding of religion as a historical product (pg vi).” His argument falls into two categories he describes as systematic (or a theoretical sociological exercise in which he attempts to explain the dialectics of religion phenomenon) and historical (in which he applies his dialectical model to specific socio-historical situations).

He begins his systematic study by examining the role of religion in the construction of the social world. Here he posits a series of dialectical relationships that work toward the construction of a world-view for humanity in relation to a constructed society. People cannot exist apart from the dialectic process of society consisting of three steps: externalization, objectification, and internalization. By the ordering of experience, humanity imposes nomos (or meaningful order) upon the social world by both objective (via institutions) and subjective (via consciousness) constructs. When this nomos is instinctually assumed either cosmologically or anthropologically “it is endowed with a stability deriving from more powerful sources that the historical efforts of human beings (pg. 25).” Here religion enters the social world as a human enterprise by which a sacred world is established. Essentially for Berger, these orders all work within society to give it meaning, order, and to protect against the terror of chaos. “Religion is the audacious attempt to conceive of the entire universe as being humanly significant (pg. 28).”

Religion is instrumental to the process of legitimation by locating social institutions within the sacred and cosmic frame of reference. This ‘maintenance of reality’ integrates a comprehensive nomos of marginal situations in which the reality of everyday life is questioned and creates an all-encompassing sacred reality. Here a social base (plausibility structures) for the continuing existence of society is real to humanity. The process of the explanation is called a Theodicy, which “allows individuals to integrate the anomic experiences of his life into the socially established nomos and its subjective correlate in his own consciousness (pg. 58).” In fact anomic phenomena can be legitimized by reference to a future nominization resulting in the masochistic submission to the total other.

Religion also plays a role in the alienation of humanity to nature. A duplication of consciousness occurs when the social world is internalized and results in the privileging of one part of the consciousness over the rest. Others and ‘otherness’ is interjected into consciousness as the works of humanity become part of a reality other than itself. This alienation creates a ‘false consciousness’ in which reality is inverted and the producer of society is apprehended only as a product. Religion reinforces this falsification of humanity’s “consciousness of the part of the universe shaped by [its] own activity, namely, the socio-cultural word (pg. 90).”

In his historical model Berger uncovers a process of secularization; which he defines as “the process by which sectors of society and culture are removed from the dominion of religious institution and symbols (pg. 107).” The roots of this process is found in the Hebrew Bible with the notion of the transcendence of God and the ‘disenchantment of the world’ which opened space for both human and divine actions. Law and ethics are not grounded in timeless cosmic order but in the concrete and historically mediated commandments of the ‘living God’ (pg. 119) and this rationalizing model was effective in the formation of the modern West via Christianity and the formation of the Christian Church. In the process of secularization, the modern industrial society has produced a social area within the competing pluralities of denominations that constitutes a ‘cultural lag’ between the economy and the state and family. Individualization gives rise to privatized religion as a matter of choice or preference which leads to the ‘demonopolization’ of religious traditions and to a competitive religious market. This results in a change of location of religion within consciousness from assumption to an act of faith. Religion is discovered within the subjective consciousness of the individual (ala Kierkegaard). Protestantism works as a prototype in which its crisis of theology demonstrates the problems of legitimation in which religion no longer defines the world.

I found his argument to be encompassing and relevant to the social progression of religion in the West. I particularly found the systematic section of his argument to be thought provoking and worthy of further study. He certainly uses Feuerbach, Marx, Hegel, Durkheim, and Weber for his backdrop to construct a sociological model for the phenomenon of religion in western society. Certainly from his sociological model the importance of Theodicy in the explanation of creation and religious progression is viable and to my mind, certainly reflects historical development.

- Safari Bob

[1] Berger, P. L. (1990). The Sacred Canopy. New York: Anchor Books. ISBN: 0-385-07305-4

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