In today's society, religion is less applicable and important in the hearts of men than ever before. It is portrayed as too traditional, restricting, and incomprehensible. This realization leads many to wonder how religion went from being widespread and valued to being negligible and forgotten. We find the answer to this thought in the way religion is structured and where its roots lie. In The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion, sociologist Peter L. Berger argues that religion is a product of society, something that is continuously changing before our very eyes. His book has a good grasp on problems of legitimacy in religion to the modern individual, but, as everything does, holds some faults. Nevertheless, his sociological input is relevant to several topics discussed in the Intro to Sociology course, making it an insightful piece of work in my studies.
In the beginning of the book, the author informs the reader of the steps required for a society to be formed: externalization, objectivation, and internalization. Externalization is the outpouring of man into the world. People practice objectivation when this man-infected world becomes reality outside of the human being. Internalization happens when man recognizes this world as reality and places it into his subjective consciousness, letting it soak into the mind and soul as the object it has become and allowing it to mold and shape in some fashion. Even with an objective and subjective identity, though, humans continue to search for the meaning of life tied to personal identities. Threats, the main one being death, impose terror on these meaningful identities. Society has constructed various antidotes to this defeat through religion, “the audacious attempt to conceive of the entire universe as being humanly significant” (Berger 28).
Religion is proven in history to be the most effective and widespread form of legitimation, which answers life's major “why”s. The theory is that religion is built upon the worry that order in society constructed by man will not be forever established unless it was set in place since the beginning of time. By instilling this idea, rather than people acting out of forced tradition, they are “realizing the deepest aspirations of their own being and putting themselves in harmony with the fundamental universe” (Berger 33). Religion legitimizes itself by explaining and interpreting all aspects of reality, with the main one being death. These legitimations come from human acts, and once they are materialized into meaning outside of individuals, they can then “act upon actions in everyday life”, just like other aspects of society (Berger 41). Because of this, religion's power depends most heavily upon the credibility of the information it puts in the hands and hearts of its men.
Berger believes there poses a problem, however, when we defend “God's” goodness and unlimited power as having reign over the existence of evil. This concept is coined “theodicy”, and it's problem lies in the fact that this idea must be extremely institutionalized to continue on into the future, despite the threatening aspects of evil, hardship, and death. Self-transcendence or masochism, the idea of self-denial and total surrender to an other, lies underneath every form of theodicy. The more irrational type of theodicy is the “transcendence of self brought about by complete identification with the collectivity”, which problematically leads a person to understanding misfortune as okay, so long as they are continuing the history of their group (Berger 60). There are also several intermediate forms of theodicy that are various degrees of rationalization, but it is clear that these religious worlds humans build will always be fought and challenged with chaos.
Berger also denotes another hindrance that can be derived from religion: alienation, the concept of humans failing to acknowledge their role in co-producing their world. This can be described as false consciousness solely because “religion tends to alienate” a human from itself. Alienation imposes a fake certainty on the world, thus convincing humans that all they need to know is who they are in the context of their faith. The world a person has constructed becomes entirely out of his means of affecting, which is false, considering that, regardless of the reality of religion, man has constructed a religious society that has shaped its appearance here on Earth. This concept of alienation is derived from the natural human hope that reality might have some type of meaning or purpose.
All of the information previously given is Berger's way of setting the stage with various need-to-knows for the main argument. It is here that he discusses a term that has a long history in the realm of religion: secularization, the separation of sections of modern culture and society from the church and religious factors. The descriptive word “modern” is key here because secularity has increased significantly throughout the years. Berger believes it is for this reason that humans must conclude that religion collaborates or operates with the social world; some even argue that some bodies of believers have become “highly secularized themselves” (108). Reality for these people must take two ideas into account: that of divinity and secularity. Without this integration of reality, the world might be secularized quicker because of the apparent harsh distinctions. Still, the fact remains that today more than ever, people are turning away from religious “meanings” of life and more towards living their lives without the incorporation of any divine meaning or purpose.
This secularization has produced a major downfall in the validity of religious realities. Although many turn to religion in their personal lives, the public realm deems it almost entirely irrelevant. The separation of church and state, for example, proves to hurt the dominant religious institution in place by not enforcing and advocating for it. Along with the new fad of private and potentially dynamic religious practices, this opens the door for competition with other institutions for the people's attention. Because commitment and allegiance becomes freely chosen, religions that have previously been “authoritatively imposed” now have to begin marketing in order to escape risk of collapsing (Berger 138). When an institution relies on consumers they can't control, the consumer ends up obtaining all of the control. The product of religion thus introduces the element of modification in order to remain relevant with the modern world.
This concludes the “crisis of theology” Berger is mainly concerned with (155). The principal trouble of legitimizing a religious establishment, he states, is that its origins are modified with pluralism, secularization, and subjectivization. Traditions have been altered in order to meet the public's desires of a personal internal faith, causing them to gain additions from more than just the original source, which in turn excludes them from the original institution. To Berger, something cannot be truly legitimized when it is ever-changing to please its potential consumers.
Being a believer in Christ, “religious” if you will, one would tend to think that I would disagree with most of Berger's argument. He has a well thought-out understanding of why many view religion as illegitimate, but the idea that something is just because it can be viewed in that certain way is completely misconstrued. I tend to pay more attention to the examples of religions I am familiar with, so the connection and falsity between Catholicism and Protestantism intrigued me the most. Catholicism, as Berger implies, is the traditional that has its origins straight from biblical times and beliefs. Protestantism, as a whole, is a modification of Catholicism to better fit human desires and make Christianity look more personal, thus making it more attractive in modern times. Catholicism is not the origin, though; yes, it was the most traditional form of Christianity for an extensive time period, but we find in the Bible, whether one believes it is true or not, that the path to salvation in vastly differs from that of Catholicism. For example, Catholicism teaches that good works will save a person's soul, while the Bible says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (English Standard Version, Eph. 2:8-9). Catholicism branches off from this idea Paul was teaching in the days directly proceeding Christ's ascension into heaven. His ideas are the origins of modern Christianity, considering he was the main vessel that carried the gospel all across the Eastern world; therefore, Catholicism cannot be considered an origin of Christianity, making the notion of Protestantism's illegitimacy due to its modifications from Catholicism inaccurate. If anything, in my opinion, it is closer to the origin by deriving its beliefs more directly from those expressed in the Bible.
As previously mentioned, I acknowledge that Berger's depiction of the illegitimacy of religion is intriguing and can be correct to some. There are many today that do not see any form of religion as remotely possible or legitimate because of how many different types there are and how it can sometimes be marketed to its “consumers”, but I do not believe that people simply market it to keep tradition alive as Berger made it out to be. A devout religious person's faith is so strong that they earnestly want others to share it for positive purposes. No one shares something as wholeheartedly and earnestly as these people do without believing that it can help those around them. In this sense, marketing is not necessarily a bad thing; rather, it is a helpful tool used to share faith.
So many of the concepts we have discussed in Intro to Sociology can relate or parallel with some of the concepts Berger addresses. Religion needs justification just as much as masculinity does in the hearts and subconscious of males. Both are threatened daily with possibilities of illegitimacy. Because we are not forced to live a religious lifestyle, we have the blessing of choice; therefore, we need a good reason to live in a religious fashion. If no justification is ever given, then there would be no followers or believers to keep the religion alive; religion lives on justification. Masculinity is what makes a male a man in our society. If that aspect of a male is threatened in any way, the male feels powerless. The male population will do just about anything to reclaim their masculine identity and make it clearly known to their surrounding environment. Racial stereotypes relate to Berger's concept of religion as well in that they are ideas we have made up for ourselves that we view as completely outside of our creation. Yes, there are groups with different physical traits and cultures, but these groups are still a part of the same species. They all look the same on the inside, meaning not one should have the upper hand on the other just because of a certain set of genes. This act of relating race to hierarchy is entirely discriminatory and scientifically inaccurate. The same is with religion. Although religious peoples view the world in the context of their faith, they cannot ignore that they created a lot of it. Here is an example in my protestant religion. In the Bible, community and brotherhood is stated as a great and vital part of a Christian lifestyle. Fellowship and accountability with believers is imperative to a strong, joyous, focused walk with Christ. The Bible does not say, however, how this should be done. Modern protestants have created this part for themselves with bible studies, life groups, and simply hanging out with friends they can discuss Christ with. The bible also does not say what type of music should be played in a church service; the church body decides this based on what they can worship to the best.
Berger's thoughts on religion are insightful and have allowed me to make my familiar religion “strange” in a sense. He does a good job at recognizing and explaining different aspects of religion, even though some of his examples are a little mistaken. Even so, this book very well relates to other aspects of society we have discussed in class, enhancing its relevance. My faith still stands after reading this book, but I now see Berger's argument from an outsider's point of view: religion is difficult to legitimize in the modern world.
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