Peter Berger, influential sociologist and friend of the Berkley Center, died Tuesday, June 27.
During the course of Berger’s life, he wrote dozens of books examining the intersections of religion, society, government, and the economy. His 1966 book The Social Construction of Reality established him as a leading sociologist of religion, and it was later named the fifth most influential book of sociology in the twentieth century by the International Sociological Association.
Berger was the founding director of the Institute on Culture, Religion, and World Affairs at Boston University and held teaching positions at Boston University, Baylor University, and Rutgers University. Georgetown University and the Berkley Center, in particular, enjoyed a close relationship with Professor Berger, who was a frequent guest speaker on campus. Berger spoke at Georgetown about the importance of fostering interreligious dialogue as well as on his famous theory of pluralization rather than secularization.
From Secularism to Pluralism
Peter Berger was a prime example of a “convert” to belief in the vibrant and active roles of religious beliefs (as opposed to a prevailing secularization thesis that saw religion declining in importance with modernization). In the early years of his career, Berger subscribed to the secularization theory. Berger later disavowed this theory, explaining that religion is still a ferociously important societal force that influences almost every aspect of today’s modern world.
At a conference sponsored by the Berkley Center in 2011, Berger stated that as modernization occurs, what matters most is the increasing pluralism of societies, rather than a decline in religious beliefs or practice. Today, there are many more faith options to choose from. As we are encountering different ways of living and being together, there is more choice in religion, but the decision to be religious or spiritual is still one an overwhelming amount of people are making.
Part of what brought Berger to this conclusion was the time he spent in other countries.
We don’t live in a secular age. We live in a pluralistic age. I changed my mind about this not because of any religious or philosophical changes on my part…
It had to do with my reading of the evidence. I looked at religion all over the world, and it’s impossible to say that we live in a secular age. The empirical evidence just doesn’t allow it. We live in a furiously religious age,” Berger observed at a 2015 Berkley Center event.
Witnessing Religion’s Influence
In an interview with Berkley Center Senior Fellow Katherine Marshall, Professor Berger also discussed the powerful positive impact of religion that he had witnessed during his travels. In the interview, Berger discussed his involvement in South Africa at length, detailing the role religion played during apartheid. By the time Berger was on the ground in South Africa, the influential Dutch Reform Church, which had originally opposed the mixing of races, had formally changed its position and declared that apartheid was a sin.
“That change was politically very important… All the [political] actors went to church services every Sunday and they were all religious in some way. So how did that change in the church influence the thinking of the government?… The Dutch Reform Church is a big question mark. I think the church’s move away from opposition must have influenced the government. It’s very moving in retrospect,” said Berger.
Berger also took an interest in the social impact and broad appeal of Pentecostalism. He spoke at Georgetown in 2013 about the explosion of Pentecostalism and its ability to integrate itself into a variety of different cultures across the globe. Berger was fascinated by the movement and researching the ways in which the Protestant work ethic was evolving, especially in developing countries.
A Lasting Legacy
Throughout his life Berger was able to witness the very real effects modernity had on religion. His trenchant and insightful observations informed religious thought and teachings on religion and society for over half a century, and his contributions to the field of sociology and theology cannot be overstated.
Peter Berger was both a great sociologist and a great theologian.
commented Berkley Center Senior Fellow José Casanova. “Upholding the Weberian premise of ‘value-free’ science, he was methodologically meticulous about keeping his theological and his sociological ‘hats’ neatly separate. But in fact, his sociological and theological perspectives were much more intertwined than Berger himself believed.”
“Berger’s sociology of religion was always informed by his deep theological knowledge, from which it derived its unique critical edge and unmatched sophistication,” Casanova went on. “In turn, his theological works, which Berger tended to underrate as just the work of a ‘lay’ theologian, gained their depth and sophistication precisely from the sociological perspective which he brought into the analysis.”