Sociologist of the Spiritual: Peter Berger, 1929-2017


Peter Berger
(Photo: Patrice Flesch/ Boston University Photography)

Peter Berger, a sociologist of religion, unlikely culture warrior and founder of the Institute on Culture, Religion, and World Affairs on Boston University, died on June 27. He was 88.

While his The Social Construction of Reality cemented his reputation among his academic peers a half century ago, it was Berger’s role in the theological debate about the relevance of God — at about the same time that Reality was published — that brought him to the public’s attention. The headline of his obituary in his hometown paper, The Boston Globe, for example, read as the “theologian who fought ‘God is Dead’ movement.”

It was in 1969 that Berger’s A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural came out. In it, he defends an individual’s decision to retain a spiritual orientation in the face of rampant, and inevitable, secularization. “Whatever the situation may have been in the past,” he wrote in the book, “today the supernatural as a meaningful reality is absent or remote from the horizons of everyday life of large numbers, very probably the majority, of people in modern societies, who seem to manage to get along without it quite well.” Despite that dour prognosis, he argued that it was a mistake to ignore these “signals of transcendence” or deny their ability to describe the world for some people.

“Berger’s sociology of religion has to confront a basic and difficult problem,“ Bryan S. Turner writes in Profiles in Contemporary Social Theory. “The problem of a meaningful order is solved in Berger’s sociology of knowledge by claiming that religion is a necessary condition of social existence. Without a sacred canopy, social life would be impossible.”

While Berger retained his defense of the transcendent, over time he reversed his belief in the inevitability of secularization. “It wasn’t a dramatic change—it happened in stages,” he told interviewer Charles T. Mathewes, “and it wasn’t due to any change in theological or philosophical position. It was basically the weight of evidence, as I think a social scientist should base his theories on evidence.” He noted two key populations had secularized – Western Europeans and devotees of the humanities and social sciences – but came to believe that the religious impulse had morphed into a plurality of creeds that could all reside in the big tent of religion. He detailed this new feeling in a 1996 article in The National Interest:

The religious impulse, the quest for meaning that transcends the restricted space of empirical existence in this world, has been a perennial feature of humanity. (This assertion is not a theological statement but an anthropological one – an agnostic or even an atheist philosopher may well agree with it.) It would require something close to a mutation of the species to finally extinguish this impulse. The more radical thinkers of the Enlightenment, and their more recent intellectual descendants, hoped for something like such a mutation, of course. Thus far this has not happened and it is unlikely to happen anytime in the foreseeable future.

While his 2011 memoirs were titled Adventures of an Accidental Sociologist, the term accidental could just as accurately be used to describe his role as a sociologist for quarters that traditionally would have had no use for sociology. “His form of religiosity was an old-fashioned Lutheran variety that left little room for social activism and the cultural compromises with modernity that many liberal Christian congregations have adopted,” recalled Mark Juergensmeyer in a tribute at Religion Dispatches. “For that reason he was often regarded as politically conservative, though in Pyramids of Sacrifice: Political Ethics and Social Change, he tried to be as critical of capitalism as he was of radical socialism.”

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Peter Berger was born to a Jewish family in Vienna on March 17, 1929. While his family converted in 1938, the same year that Nazi Germany took over Austria, their newly acquired Christianity offered them no protection, and they survived the Holocaust after spending World War II in British-run Palestine. At the war’s end Berger, age 17, emigrated to the United States. He attended college in New York, first at Wagner College and then at the New School, where he matriculated amid the great influx of European social scientists who fled to the U.S. before the war.

As The New York Times observed, “He also spent a year as a candidate for the ministry at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia before deciding to abandon the quest. He was reluctant, he later said, to preach the definition of Christian faith strictly according to the Lutheran Confessions. His thinking, he decided, fit best ‘within the traditions of Protestant liberalism.’”

He served with the U.S. Army for two years and taught at East Coast universities like Boston College, Rutgers and the Hartford Seminary Foundation. In 1959 he married Brigette Berger, a then a sociology student from an anti-Nazi family who he first met in Germany and later again in New York. Brigette went on to become a prominent sociologist; their marriage only ended with her death in 2015.


Uncongenial sociology

In 2011 Boston University’s press office interviewed Peter Berger about his then new memoir, Adventures of an Accidental Sociologist: How to Explain the World Without Becoming a Bore . In this excerpt, Berger explains toon interviewer Rich Barlow what Berger meant when he wrote that sociology has “moved in directions that are uncongenial to me.”

One I call methodological fetishism, which means that you only study things that can be quantified. Quantification is sometimes useful. But things that are more complex are very hard to put in a survey. Some sociologists have decided that Japan is a very secular country. If you know anything about Japan, that’s crazy. It’s full of religious movements. The questionnaires that are used are based on western bias; if you ask a Buddhist, “Do you believe in God?” that’s a meaningless question. So you get sociologists saying, “They don’t believe in God; that means they’re atheists.”

The other one is that sociology for many has become an ideological instrument, mostly advocating various countercultural or left-of-center causes. If a science becomes simply advocacy, it ceases to be a science.


Throughout his career Berger proved a prolific author of important texts on sociology, theology – and humor. (“He had an astonishing memory and verbal faculty for joke telling, typically related in a dead-pan manner but with a trademark twinkle in his eye,” Hefner recalled.) Among those many volumes, The Social Construction of Reality, co-authored with his life-long friend, Thomas Luckmann and released in 1966, remains at the top of the heap. The International Sociological Association named it the fifth most influential sociology book of the 20th century.

“A whole generation of young scholars became excited about the importance of the social sciences through his co-authored Social Construction of Reality, which taught us that all of the realities of everyday life are in some way socially constructed,” wrote Juergensmeyer. “The point was not to trivialize what we think of as reality, but to demonstrate the power of the social imagination in informing our sense of what we think of as real in the world.”

That book, wrote Robert Hefner, “is recognized as one of the most original and influential books in the sociology of knowledge ever written.  It was translated into more than 20 languages; its English-language edition sold more than one million copies in paperback.”

All told, Berger published more than a score of books on sociology, including Invitation to Sociology, which Juergensmeyer describes as a textbook in spirit yet “largely Berger’s ruminations on the sociological imagination.” Berger also did work on capitalism and development in the developing world, “believing,” as a tribute from the American Association of Political and Social Science puts it, “that capitalism and democracy were linked, as were socialism and authoritarianism.”

Bryan summarizes Berger’s work as a convergence of the mundane and the supernatural:

Berger’s work is a synthesis of sociology and theology in the sense that he has been committed to understanding the relevance of sociology to the human condition and the dilemmas of modern society. Within this synthesis of ethical and sociological perspectives, the concept of theodicy has played a central role. Within theological discourse, it is concerned with the problem of explaining the contradiction between the existence of evil and the nature of divinity. If God is all powerful and merciful, how can evil exist? Berger has transformed this theological question into a powerful sociology of knowledge that is concerned with how the social world can be justified or legitimated.

In 1981 Berger joined Boston University with a remit that spanned sociology, religion and theology. In 1985 he founded the Institute on Culture, Religion, and World Affairs in 1985, and served as its first director until 2009. As Hefner, who was Berger’s associate director and would follow him as director of the institute, noted that under Berger the institute promoted more than 140 research projects in 20 countries, resulting in 130 books.

“Peter’s legacy runs deep and wide in multiple fields, especially the sociology of religion, sociology of knowledge, and theology,” eulogized Mary Elizabeth Moore, dean of the Boston University School of Theology. “His work has been ground-breaking for a vast range of people wrestling with thorny questions of human culture, religion, secularity, and meaning. His written legacy will go on, but his large personal presence will be missed by everyone who knew him.”


Michael Todd

Social Science Space editor Michael Todd is a long-time newspaper editor and reporter whose beats included the U.S. military, primary and secondary education, government, and business. He entered the magazine world in 2006 as the managing editor of Hispanic Business. He joined the Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media and Public Policy and its magazine Miller-McCune (renamed Pacific Standard in 2012), where he served as web editor and later as senior staff writer focusing on covering the environmental and social sciences. During his time with the Miller-McCune Center, he regularly participated in media training courses for scientists in collaboration with the Communication Partnership for Science and the Sea (COMPASS), Stanford’s Aldo Leopold Leadership Institute, and individual research institutions.

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