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The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a…
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The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (edizione 1990)

di Peter L. Berger (Autore)

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"The most important contribution to the sociology of religion since Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism" (Commonweal).   Acclaimed scholar and sociologist Peter L. Berger carefully lays out an understanding of religion as a historical, societal mechanism in this classic work of social theory. Berger examines the roots of religious belief and its gradual dissolution in modern times, applying a general theoretical perspective to specific examples from religions throughout the ages.   Building upon the author's previous work, The Social Construction of Reality, with Thomas Luckmann, this book makes Berger's case that human societies build a "sacred canopy" to protect, stabilize, and give meaning to their worldview.… (altro)
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Titolo:The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion
Autori:Peter L. Berger (Autore)
Info:Anchor (1990), Edition: Reprint, 240 pages
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The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion di Peter L. Berger

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Notes and quotes.

Anomie

English word spelling is entirely of our own making. It has no authority but what we give it, persists only as long as we collectively enforce it. And yet for each individual, English word spelling imposes itself authoritatively, to be complied with or defied but not to be wished away.

The same is true of every other institution, though they are often less obviously human-made than English spelling. With proper maintenance the social world will not just present itself as something "out there" to be accommodated and respected, but also as things introspectively discoverable "in here," intimately about me: I have a role like uncle, an occupation like civil servant, a status like American citizen.

When these more intimate institutions and roles are experienced as imposed or false, there's a problem. The death of a friend might bring this on. The part I play feels put on, my life feels unreal, meaningless. That uncomfortable condition is what sociologists call anomie.

How to safeguard against anomie? One solution is make the institutions seem natural, fixed, nonnegotiable. Religion can do that job. It sanctifies our all-too-human arrangements, makes our particular way of organizing our lives seem like something laid down with the foundations of the world. Then the social world is felt to accord with the cosmic order, and disturbing either invites chaos.

Here's Berger: "If one imagines oneself as a fully aware founder of a society, a kind of combination of Moses and Machiavelli, one could ask oneself the following question: How can the future continuation of the institutional order, now established ex nihilo, be best ensured? There is an obvious answer to the question in terms of power. But let it be assumed that all the means of power have been effectively employed—all opponents have been destroyed, all means of coercion are in one’s own hands, reasonably safe provisions have been made for the transmission of power to one’s designated successors. There still remains the problem of legitimation, all the more urgent because of the novelty and thus highly conscious precariousness of the new order. The problem would best be solved by applying the following recipe: Let the institutional order be so interpreted as to hide, as much as possible, its constructed character. Let that which has been stamped out of the ground ex nihilo appear as the manifestation of something that has been existent from the beginning of time, or at least from the beginning of this group. Let the people forget that this order was established by men and continues to be dependent upon the consent of men. Let them believe that, in acting out the institutional programs that have been imposed upon them, they are but realizing the deepest aspirations of their own being and putting themselves in harmony with the fundamental order of the universe. In sum: Set up religious legitimations."

Theodicy

New problems can arise from this arrangement. A few impertinent types among us may begin to ask questions: can the ways of god be justified to man? why have evil at all? Does the comic ledger really add up? So theodicy begins.

Mysticism provides a neat response to these questions. It says the complaints about the cosmic ledger not adding up are misunderstandings. Your individual suffering and death are trivialities, insignificant non-events because this world is an illusion, your consciousness the smallest part of an unalterable cosmic whole -- so, actually, everything in fact is going well! Throw the ledger in the flames. Seek annihilation of the self, absorption in the divine. Rumi's mystical poetry is an example of this from Islam.

Another response that is nearly opposite along the same dimension is the Hindu one found in the the Upanishads. It says, actually, the cosmic ledger does add up via the accounting system of karma and samsara, where complaints of undeserved suffering and happiness are shown to be justified across rebirths, according to the individual's conformance with dharma across lifetimes.

A third response from Buddhism turns the complaints about cosmic justice around, declaring gods and demons irrelevant and informs the complainant that they alone must shoulder the burden of finding their own salvation by coming to understanding the impermanence of this world, its suffering, the fact of non-self, and thereby attaining nirvana.

Other responses include explaining discrepancies in the cosmic ledger by reference to a dualism, where some evil/disorder intrudes on and thwarts good/order. For Zoroastrianism the evil and good are posited as warring forces; in gnostic Christianity the evil is identified with the material world in which the individual's (good) spirit has unfortunately been placed, from which it must escape: "In that world [of darkness] I dwelt thousands of myriads of years, and nobody knew of me that I was there ... Year upon year and generation upon generation I was there, and they did not know about me that I dwelt in their world."

The main traditions of the Biblical religions posit a radical and ethical monotheism, and thus face the toughest accusations when it comes to the unbalanced cosmic ledger. Shiva dances on the skulls of the dead, but he is one among other gods; Yahweh is alone and sovereign. If put on trial, his move will be to denounce the legitimacy of the court and demand submission. The complainant must then abase himself, as Job: "Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him... Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” The tables are turned, and the accountant begins to tally the individual's sins against god.

Alienation

What makes religion such a strong bulwark against anomie is that it alienates us from the world. We mistake the social world we ourselves are producing as something given to us from outside. Social arrangements we could change are made to seem unalterable. Indefensible institutions are presented to us as glowing with more-than-human legitimacy.

Its interesting to consider how religion pulls this off. Berger connects it to Rudolph Otto's analysis of the sacred in *The Idea of The Holy*: encounters with the holy are dreaded, people have "the fear of god," not because punishment or anything as stupidly mundane as that is expected, but because the sacred is so incomprehensibly other as to undo or annihilate the self. Arjuna goes slightly insane when Krishna reveals his divine form.

Berger explains that religion "provides a semblance of stability and continuity to the intrinsically tenuous formations of social order. We can now identify more accurately the quality that permits religion to do this—to wit, the quality of its alienating power. The fundamental 'recipe' of religious legitimation is the transformation of human products into supra- or non-human facticities. The humanly made world is explained in terms that deny its human production. The human nomos becomes a divine cosmos, or at any rate a reality that derives its meanings from beyond the human sphere."

Exception: de-alienation via religion

It can happen that religious ideas attain a level of sophistication and life of their own, acting back on the social world to de-alienate it and strip its institutions of legitimacy, sanctioning anarchy. This is strange and rare but there are famous examples. Antinomianism in Christianity can have revolutionary effect, but other traditions have more conservative upshot, as seen in this passage from the Theologia germanica: "Thus order, laws, precepts, and the like are merely an admonition to men who understand nothing better and know and perceive nothing else; therefore are all law and order ordained. And perfect men accept the law along with such ignorant men as understand and know nothing other or better, and practice it with them, to the intent that thereby they may be kept from evil ways, or if it be possible, brought to something higher."

This kind of exception, where religion shows our institutions to be merely human is not unlike what happens with Protestantism kicking off secularization.


Secularization

A society secularizes when religion ceases to dominate its institutions or consciousness, when the religious justifications for our social arrangements lose their plausibility for ordinary people. Ironically, most scholars agree that one particular religious tradition, Christian Protestantism, bears most of the responsibility for secularization in the modern world. The thinking is, Protestantism's peculiar emphasis on salvation through God's grace alone removed the sacred mediating elements (mysteries, miracles, magic) that are essential for legitimizing our human institutions via alienation.

You can see how this might have happened in the exceptional, de-alienating traditions in some religions mentioned earlier: from the perspective of eternity, our worldly arrangements are shabby affairs unworthy of divine endorsement. Protestantism made a program of this and set about expunging all the mediating elements between God and man, and incidentally made room for rational investigation of a disenchanted universe by science and technology. As industrial society gets going, people with scientific mindsets are needed to keep things in order; they hold sway in the economic snd political sphere, entrenching secularism.

So much is the usual story. What Berger adds in the further argument that this wasn't something new that came only with the reformation, but a seed that was waiting to be watered since Yahweh was a desert god. He was unusual among gods in a few respects: radically transcendental, standing outside creation, demanding but not needing sacrifices, immune to magic, intervening in affairs that are unusually human-centered and historical, endorsing a rationalized ethics. This was all there from the start. Viewed in this light, the introduction of Jesus as mediating element is thus a backward step, bringing Yahweh into the world in a way that was more more typical for religions. Protestantism walked that back and released the secularizing potential that was always there.

Remainder

The last chapters of the book are about how theology has evolved since secularization began. Schleiermacher and Barth are important. This stuff is further from my interests, so I'll wrap it up here. ( )
  leeinaustin | May 17, 2021 |
Here is an older book I should have read a couple of decades ago (when it was not new), in order to apply its insights in my academic work. First published in 1967, Berger's The Sacred Canopy is subtitled "elements of a sociological theory of religion." Despite his insistence on sociology as an empirical discipline, the book is not oriented to primary studies of the sociological features of contemporary religious operation. Most of the book is trained on very large-scale phenomena over long periods, using lenses inherited and adapted from theorists such as Weber, Durkheim, and Mead.

Berger hardly touches the term "belief," but makes extensive use of the closely related concept of "plausibility," advancing the creation and maintenance of "plausibility structures" as inherent operations undertaken by society in the religious mode. There are useful distinctions between the methods used to maintain plausibility in religions that dominate entire cultures and the different strategies that are necessarily adopted by "cognitive minorities" He also highlights theodicy, taken in a sense generalized beyond the usual theological problem to any religious explanation of the anomic challenges of death, suffering, and evil.

The later parts of the book are preoccupied with the phenomena of secularization and their relationship to parallel and dialectically related developments in economic and scientific development. Throughout the book, Berger uses examples from a wide diversity of religions, but in these sections he pays special and deserved attention to Christianity generally, and Protestantism in particular. "If the drama of the modern era is the decline of religion, then Protestantism can aptly be described as its dress rehearsal" (157).

Perhaps the high point of the whole volume for me was "Appendix II: Sociological and Theological Perspectives," in which Berger points out some methodological distinctions, withdraws and revises positions made in a previous book (The Precarious Vision, 1961), and proposes possibilities for constructive dialogue between sociology and theology. He is clear that such possibilities may not be realized, because of the demands for "openness" that they make on both sides.
1 vota paradoxosalpha | Nov 20, 2020 |
This book is an extension of Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s earlier book, “The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge” written in 1966, in which the authors begin with basic sociological assumptions about mental representations and how human beings come to know the world and form impressions of it. “The Sacred Canopy,” while heavily informed by the ideas in “The Social Construction of Reality,” was written only by Berger himself. The book is a thoroughly Marxist critique of religion with a dash of Freud thrown in for good measure.

The Marxism comes from Berger’s understanding of human consciousness. He emphasizes the dialectical nature of individual man and his relationship to culture and society. According to him, we can only “world-build” (or “cosmize,” to use his argot) through a process of constant internalization and externalization of distinct mental representations. Berger defines religion as a sacred form of world-building, an “audacious attempt to conceive of the entire universe as humanly significant” (p. 28). (Forget temporarily, as I had to, that to call religion a “sacred” form of world-building seems to very much beg the question.) He argues religion to be the oldest, most powerful legitimizing order which plays a central role in construing order and rationality in our lives, and therefore in maintaining reality because they are the only things that can provide sacred legitimation for this socially constructed reality. Thus religion makes permanent the temporary, transcendentalizes the immanent, sacralizes the profane, and ensures a nomological (that is, rational and law-based) rather than chaotic reality.

Evil, death, injustice, and suffering can threaten the nomological world that is shored up by religious legitimation. However, theodicies minimize the threat to “nomos” by bestowing meaning on these things and by making them understandable in a larger epistemological scheme. Berger claims that religion is ultimately alienating, as it enforces the idea that the socially constructed world is not a human product, but rather a permanent product of divine construction; religion is, in other words, a source of false consciousness that perpetuates the idea that human beings had nothing to do with creating their social world. He also claims that the world is gradually becoming more secular.

For exactly these reasons, secularization is paradoxically both de-alienating, while at the same time anomic and ridden with existential anxiety precisely because religion, according to Berger, has lost its legitimacy, having slowly been replaced in the industrial world with a materialistic-positivistic model for knowledge. In short, secularization allows people to realize that the world is their own, not that of a distant, supernatural God, and that our disconnection from this leaves us hanging, alone, in a world devoid of any meaning or order.

Berger claims to break down the book into two parts, the first being the theoretical portion and the second providing the concrete, historical, empirical facts that support the theory. However, I found almost no substantive distinction in the level of theory used in the two parts. Both are highly theoretical and abstract, which is not to say that the text is difficult if afforded a careful reading. But the entire book is maintained on such a level of abstraction that it would be difficult to take any “applied” ideas away from it. This might have something to do with the fact that Berger recanted the central thesis of “The Sacred Canopy” about twenty years ago in the face of evidence that directly suggested that the boundaries of secularization and modernization were not necessarily coterminal.

Also, for being published less than fifty years ago, the ideas here seem much, much older. Connecting the ideas of secularization, alienation, and social anomy – which seem to me to the fundamental concept here – go back to the nineteenth century, and Berger doesn’t seem to work in any new ideas. This book is interesting for its historical value and arguments (it is still seen on sociology reading lists nearly everywhere), but it doesn’t bring much “value added” to the contemporary sociology of knowledge or religion. ( )
2 vota kant1066 | Feb 16, 2012 |
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"The most important contribution to the sociology of religion since Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism" (Commonweal).   Acclaimed scholar and sociologist Peter L. Berger carefully lays out an understanding of religion as a historical, societal mechanism in this classic work of social theory. Berger examines the roots of religious belief and its gradual dissolution in modern times, applying a general theoretical perspective to specific examples from religions throughout the ages.   Building upon the author's previous work, The Social Construction of Reality, with Thomas Luckmann, this book makes Berger's case that human societies build a "sacred canopy" to protect, stabilize, and give meaning to their worldview.

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