A Conversation with Peter L. Berger
"How My Views Have Changed"
Gregor Thuswaldner

On September 12, 2013, the eminent Austrian-American sociologist Peter Berger visited The Center for Faith and Inquiry at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts. The following is a partial transcript of an interview conducted by Gordon College’s Gregor Thuswaldner.


Gregor Thuswaldner: When you started out as a sociologist of religion, you had a very different view of secularization than you do today. Can you tell us about the concept, the so-called secularization thesis, and what it’s about, and why you now think it’s wrong?

Peter Berger: Very good question. The best question you could ask, and we could now start a ten-hour lecture on this by me. Instead, I’ll give you a four-minute summary. Secularization theory is a term that was used in the fifties and sixties by a number of social scientists and historians. Basically, it had a very simple proposition. It could be stated in one sentence. Modernity inevitably produces a decline of religion. When I started out doing sociology of religion—like two hundred years ago—everyone else had the same idea. And I more or less assumed that it was correct. It wasn’t a completely crazy assumption; there were many reasons why people said that. But it took me about twenty years to come to the conclusion that the data doesn’t support this, and other people came to the same conclusion. I would say there are now some holdouts who I respect. I like people who say something else from what the majority has to say in the field. It shows character, but most ­people came to the same conclusion as I did. The world today is not heavily secularized, with two interesting exceptions that have to be explained. One is geographical, it’s Western and Central Europe, and the other is an international intellectual class that is heavily secularized. Why? This is something that can be studied. It has been studied, but I won’t go into this. The rest of the world is massively religious. In some areas of the world, more religious than ever. The theory is wrong. Now, to conclude that the theory is wrong is the beginning of a new process of thinking. I came to the conclusion some years ago that to replace secularization theory—to explain religion in the modern world—we need the theory of ­pluralism. Modernity does not necessarily produce secularity. It necessarily produces pluralism, by which I mean the coexistence in the same society of different worldviews and value systems.

That changes the status of religion. It’s a challenge for every religious tradition. But it’s not the challenge of secularity; it’s a different challenge. The problem with modernity is not that God is dead, as some people hoped and other people feared. There are too many gods, which is a challenge, but a different one. So this, in terms of my career as a sociologist of religion, has been my major change of mind. I think it’s very useful, and in intellectual history we’ve learned something from Thomas Kuhn, from his The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, that when one theoretical paradigm collapses under the weight of evidence, it opens up the possibility of new paradigms. And it’s very exciting. That’s what I and some other people have been much involved in in the last few years.

GT: What makes Europe different? Why is Europe not as religious as other places in the world?

peterPB: Well look, it’s something that one should never do, and that is quote one’s own works. But I have to. I did a book on this [Religious America, Secular Europe? London: Ashgate 2008] with Grace Davie, a British sociologist, who I think is one of the best sociologists of religion in the world. She is a professor at the University of Exeter, and incidentally, among other things, a lay cannon in the Church of England. (A cannon in the Anglican Church is an advisor to a bishop, and most of them are clergy, but she’s a lay cannon.) After much discussion, we came to the conclusion that there were eight reasons why Europe is different from the United States. I can’t go through that whole list. I would assume generally that any important social historical event doesn’t have a single cause. But among the reasons why Europe is different, I would say the most important reason has to do with relations of church and state. Every major tradition in Europe—Catholic, Protestant, and Eastern Orthodox—comes out of a history of being a state church. There are some exceptions—nonconformist in England—but most of them —Reformed, Lutheran, Catholic, Orthodox—were state churches. The United States started out with pluralism. Some of them didn’t like this at all. The Puritans in New England hanged Quakers on Boston Common. They weren’t tolerant of other religions. They had to become tolerant, because there were too many of these other people. You couldn’t hang them all. You couldn’t convert them all. It was, I think, a very good development. But what does a state church do in terms of people’s attitudes to religion? If a church is too closely linked to the state, every time people get annoyed at the state, they get annoyed with the church that is established by the state. It’s very simple. And that’s not good for religion, and it’s not good for the state, for different but ­similar reasons. That’s the most important reason, I think.

GT: And when it comes to the intellectual elites?

PB: That’s more complicated. It’s a particular kind of elite. The top of that elite are people mostly in the social sciences and humanities. Natural scientists are not so much in that groove. The problem, I think, has to do with—again—pluralism. It has to do with the relativization of worldviews and values, which is most conscious to intellectuals who are in literature, or sociology, or anthropology, or history, rather than chemists, let’s say, or physicists who are not as much affected by this relativization. I think an explanation can be made along those lines.

GT: Do you think this is going to change? Or do you anticipate that the intellectual elite will remain mainly secular? Do you see any changes going on right now?

PB: The most massive change is in the Muslim world. Turkey is a wonderful example. Turkey had a very secularist regime for many decades. When it became more democratic, all the so-called unenlightened masses started to vote, and they voted their values. But you still have the Kemalist elite, which is very secularist and very disturbed by what is going on. You get increasingly young people—college graduates, university graduates, young intellectuals—who, if they are women, appear at home with the kerchiefs, and if they are men, with the beards, to the utter consternation of their parents. So that’s a significant change. So you get now an intelligentsia in Muslim majority countries, which is heavily Islamic or even Islamist in the radical sense.

In the United States, I don’t see any remarkable change. The so-called atheist thing is a thing of public relations, a creation of certain publishing houses. We can talk about the people who say they have no religious affiliation. Most of those report that they pray irregularly, that they believe in God and life after death. Basically, these are mostly people who haven’t found a church they like. It is a different issue from secularization. I don’t anticipate any great changes in the United States.

In Europe, it’s a difficult question, and there are some hints here and there of a change toward, at least, even among intellectuals, a more tolerant attitude toward religion. And then you have a very important factor, which is immigration. Take Sweden, which is a kind of paradise for secularism. These secular Swedes who felt that their worldview was absolutely obvious suddenly are confronted with African Pentecostals, with Muslims, and this is having some effect on the indigenous white ­population of the country. This may change in Europe. There are no dramatic changes ­happening.

GT: Around twenty years ago, the historian Mark Noll, wrote a book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind [1994]. Back then, in the mid-nineties, he complained that there was not much of an Evangelical mind, but I think you could make the argument that especially in the last twenty years, things have changed quite a bit, especially among Evangelicals... I wouldn’t call it necessarily a revival, even though that would be a typical evangelical word to use, but I think there has been an intellectual renewal. Do you think that will be visible on a much larger scale at some point?

PB: Yes, probably not dramatically, but significantly. This is not my community. I’m evangelisch but not evangelical. I usually describe myself as incurably Lutheran, but I’m very comfortable with Evangelicals. And between Evangelicals and Mainline Protestants, I prefer Evangelicals for reasons theologically. But speaking as a sociologist, you point at something which is very interesting, which is a development in recent decades of a self-conscious Evangelical intelligentsia. Not only in institutions like this, and there’s a network of these institutions across the country with some very significant people. You mentioned Mark Noll. He is respected not just by Evangelicals, but as a historian. But [people like this are] also dispersed in other situations, not just Christian colleges. That’s a significant change. By the way, an interesting parallel is what happened to Jews in the 1930s, when places like Harvard and Princeton that were closed to Jews suddenly had an influx of very bright, ambitious, young Jewish professors and students, graduate students. Something similar is happening here, I think. These young, bright Evangelicals are invading old fortresses like Harvard or Princeton. The interesting question is how will this affect the Evangelical community, as it becomes more, well, educated, more respected, less marginal. It must have been about twenty years ago when James Hunter wrote this book [James Davison Hunter. Evangelicalism: The Coming Generation. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1987] in which he predicted that Evangelicals in another generation or so would become like other Protestants, as boring as Congregationalists let’s say. That has not happened, at least not yet. So prediction is very dangerous. What I would predict is there will be some effect of this, and there are some examples where Evangelicalism collided with general views of what the world is like. Evolution is an obvious example. But that so far as yet has not influenced the core of the Evangelical faith, and I don’t see this happening, yet. The future, one never knows.

GT: Let’s talk about Mainline Protestantism. In The Sacred Canopy [1967], you say that Protestantism has significantly contributed to the secularization of the West. There’s a quote actually in the book that says, “At the risk of some simplification, it can be said that Protestantism divested itself as much as possible from the three most ancient and most powerful concomitants of the sacred—­mystery, miracle, and magic. This process has been aptly caught in the phrase, ‘disenchantment of the world...’ The Protestant believer no longer lives in the world ­ongoingly ­penetrated by sacred beings and forces.” Can you elaborate on that, how Protestantism might have contributed to secularization?

gregorPB: An unoriginal idea. This was Max Weber. You quoted the “disenchantment of the world.” Yes, there’s something to that, and if you’re particular, Protestantism cannot be understood except against the Catholic background from which it came. And Catholicism, certainly even today, has more mystery, magic, and miracle than most Protestant denominations. That’s true. It’s not true, for example, when you talk about Pentecostals, which is a most rapidly exploding form of Protestantism. And to some extent, it isn’t even true of most Evangelicals. So I would be more careful now in formulating this.

GT: Would you say this would be true for Mainline Protestantism?

PB: No. And that is, I would say, a significant difference, and incidentally, since this is a Christian college, I don’t mind making theological statements. (At my age, I can say anything, what do I care?) I think that Evangelicals so far have resisted what has been I think the main sin—I wouldn’t call it a sin—the main mistake of Mainline Protestantism, which is to replace the core of the Gospel, which has to do with the cosmic redefinition of reality, with either politics or ­psychology or a kind of vague morality, which is not what I think the Christian Gospel is basically about. The Christian Gospel is about a tectonic shift in the structure of the universe, focused on the events around the life of Jesus. Obviously, there are a lot of implications to this. Evangelicals have not gone through this process. Luckmann many years ago called it “inner secularization.” Either it becomes politicized: What is Christianity all about? It’s some political program, which tends to be left of center, now it could just as well be right of center. That’s distortion. Or it becomes psychologized: it has to do with well-being and self-realization, Norman Vincent Peale type stuff. Or a kind of vague morality, which is usually something that most people would certainly approve of: don’t be nasty to little old ladies if they slip in the gutter. Okay, fine. But again, that’s not what the Gospel is about. And that is something that Evangelicals have retained, and I think, and I hope, will continue to retain....

GT: What have been some of the biggest surprises for you when it comes to the intersection of religion and society when you look back on the last five decades or so? Have there been developments that you didn’t anticipate?

PB: Well, I would say if you go back a few decades, my main surprise is that I discovered Pentecostalism as a significant sociological problem. It’s not a religious format that particularly appeals to me, but as a sociologist I find it enormously significant. And our research center has done a number of studies. In fact, we pioneered in the study of Pentecostalism. We first supported the work of David Martin, another British sociologist, sort of the Dean of Sociology of Pentecostalism now. He’s my generation. He still has interesting things to say. That’s been a big surprise.

GT: Can you elaborate on the surprise a little bit? What was so surprising about that particular religious group?

PB: Its size and the rate of growth. I would say Pentecostalism is the fastest growing religious movement in history. I mean, the Pentecostal core phenomenon—speaking in tongues, spiritual healing, miracles, exorcism—have been around for many years. Modern Pentecostalism, as most historians would agree, dates from the beginning of the twentieth century. The crucial event was the so-called Azusa Street Revival in 1906, when a one-eyed, black Baptist preacher came from Kansas to Los Angeles and started preaching in an abandoned stable on Azusa Street in a slum. He must have been quite a character, and within a few months, he… managed by his preaching to bring together a congregation that was inter­racial, which was very unusual for California. And it spread from there, first to other places in the United States and then abroad. The Pew Research Center a few years ago did a study on world Pentecostalism. These figures are very iffy, but it’s a very solidly based study. They estimated about 600 million Pentecostals in the world today. That is amazing. And this I didn’t know when I started out. I knew what Pentecostalism was. I’d come across it here and there, but the size of the phenomenon, I didn’t know. And also, its enormous influence, economically and politically, especially of course in the Global South. In the United States, it’s a little different. It’s been around a long time. It’s not as important, but in Black Africa, Latin America, and parts of Asia, it’s terribly important. I didn’t know this until later.

GT: You’ve written so many books; it’s really hard to keep track. There’s one book that fascinated me that came out just a couple of years ago on fundamentalism and relativism [Peter Berger and Anton Zijderveld. In Praise of Doubt. New York: Harper One, 2009] and finding a different position, a middle position between the two extremes. How do you explain that both fundamentalism and relativism are so popular in the twenty-first century?

PB: I would say they are two sides of the same coin. What pluralism brings about in the area of religion is that in fewer and fewer places in the world  there is one religious tradition which is taken for granted as a sort of hegemonic or monopoly status in society. So let’s just say if you lived in a Tyrolean village two hundred years ago, to be a Catholic was as natural as if you had blond hair or red hair. That is very difficult now to find in the world. You have to go into the center of Amazonia or Central Africa to find such tribes. And even in very remote areas, you find all kinds of pluralism. I could give you many colorful examples.

What does this mean for the individual? It means that instead of the religion into which he or she was born being self-evidently true, now you have to make choices. You can be this or you can be that, and even if you choose a very conservative version of your own tradition, say a very conservative kind of Catholicism, you’ve made that choice and that by implication means that you could make a different choice tomorrow. It becomes more precarious. Now, many people can live with this. I have no particular problem with this frankly, but some people find this very unsettling, and one can understand this. Human beings want some certainty in life. Both relativism and fundamentalism have ways of reducing that anxiety. The message of any fundamentalist movement—and the secular fundamentalisms too, not just religious fundamentalisms—to its potential recruits is, “Come and join us. We’ll give you what you always wanted: certainty. You’ll know what the world is like. You’ll know who you are. You’ll learn how to live. You will know how to live. We’ll teach you.” Relativism embraces the uncertainty, and says, “Don’t worry that you don’t know what is true and what is right and what is wrong. There are no objective standards. Everything is relative. And basically, you decide your own worldview.” That is, in a way, the opposite of fundamentalism, but it has the same psychological function. The middle ground is that you don’t give way to the fundamentalist promise, whatever it may be—political, religious, whatever. You accept the fact that there are many uncertainties in the world. And on the other hand, you don’t accept the proposition that we don’t know at all what is true or what is right or wrong. That is a middle position, which I would say is not that unusual—and there are millions of people in the world, and I’m being optimistic again, but I think it’s correct—who manage this in their own lives....

GT: What I like about that particular book is that you invited colleagues from different traditions to talk about how they would formulate their own middle ground. I recently had a conversation with a German Catholic theologian, who was shaking his head when I mentioned to him that the denominational boundaries are breaking down in the United States, that one could grow up Baptist, attend a Mennonite college, become a member of a Nazarene church, marry a Reformed person, and send their kids to an Episcopalian school. This may be a little bit of an exaggeration, but maybe it is not too far from reality. How is it possible that denominational boundaries and the different theological frameworks they’re supposed to provide seem to have lost their relevance. Was that foreseeable fifty years ago?

PB: It was beginning then, and I think one reason is that the dogmatic formulations of different religious traditions are still meaningful in describing in broad outlines what the tradition is still about, but professional theologians take it much more seriously than most people in the pews. Take a very concrete example. A friend of mine who is a Lutheran theologian was very involved in this. It took several years. They had a committee of theologians that tried to reconcile Lutheran and Roman Catholic views of justification. And after years of negotiation—I’m sure in comfortable hotels in Germany or Switzerland or wherever—they arrived at a formula both sides could accept. Most people, lay people couldn’t care less. They didn’t know what the original dogmatic formulations were, and they were not concerned about finding compromises. In a nasty moment, I called many such negotiations “border negotiations between nonexistent countries.” Let me give another example, not to talk all the time about Lutherans. There’s an interesting Catholic/Orthodox dialogue going on, again between theologians. And some of them have agreed that basically they agree on so many things. They’re really the same. Leave out the political aspect of this, but even from the point of view of the average believer, if you spend ten minutes at the Divine Liturgy in an Orthodox church and ten minutes in a Roman Catholic mass, you understand these are totally different pieties. And whatever the theologians have decided is the same, the little old babushka who kisses the icon knows that what she does is different from the Catholics down the road. So I think in answer to your question, the denominational divisions basically define theology, and for most lay people, the theological distinctions are not terribly real.


Peter Berger is Professor Emeritus of Religion, Sociology, and Theology and Director of the Institute on Culture, Religion, and World Affairs at Boston University. He is the author of numerous books including The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (1967) and, with Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (1966).


Gregor Thuswaldner is Associate Professor of German and Linguistics at Gordon College and a Fellow of the Center for Faith and Inquiry. 

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