Peter Berger, a Lutheran in the ELCA, is an important sociologist of religion. Back in the 1970s, he was one of the scholars who advocated the “secularization” thesis, that as societies grew more modern, they grew less religious. But now he says that he was wrong. Today, as societies in Asia, Latin America, and Africa are modernizing, they are becoming MORE religious. Berger says that what modernity brings is not secularism but religious pluralism. He says that what we face today is not “God is dead,” but “too many gods.”From A Conversation with Peter L. Berger: “How My Views Have Changed” The Cresset, Lent 2014:
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.
He goes on to give a remarkable analysis of the religious scene in America and the rest of the world. He suggests, for example, that the animus against Christian believers among the intellectual elite may be like that against Jews in academia in the 1930s and that things may be starting to change.