From Secularity to World Religions

by Peter Berger

For several decades sociologist Peter Berger has been one of the most interesting writers on religion and modern society. Perhaps best known for his text on the sociology of religion,The Sacred Canopy, Berger has also shown a keen interest in issues of development and public policy and in the nature of religious belief in the modern world, as evident in A Far Glory: The Question of Faith in an Age of Credulity (1992) and in his most recent book, Redeeming Laughter: The Comic Dimension of Human Experience. For the past 12 years he has been on the faculty of Boston University and director of B U’s Institute for the Study of Economic Culture.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, January 16, 1980 pp. 41-45. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Both the extent and the inexorability of secularization have been exaggerated, even in Europe and North America, and much more so in other parts of the world.

To be asked to tell how one’s mind has changed over a decade is an invitation to narcissism. To accept the invitation would seem to imply a quite solemn view of one’s own importance. My incurably Lutheran sensibility tells me that such a view is sinful, and my even more incurable sense of the comic says that it is ridiculous. Still, after an initial hesitation, I accepted. I did so precisely because I believe that my mind is not so unusual for its peregrinations not to have some common utility. My experiences over the past ten years are, by and large, commonly accessible, and it seems to me that most of my conclusions could be arrived at by anybody.

Third World Influences

The time period suggested by The Christian Century’s series suits me very conveniently, at least as far as my thinking about religious matters is concerned. In 1969 my book A Rumor of Angels was published, and in 1979 my book The Heretical Imperative. In between; most of my work as a sociologist was directly concerned not with religion but with modernization and Third World development, as well as with the problem (which first preoccupied me in the Third World) of how sociological insights can be translated into compassionate political strategies.

Yet these sociological excursions, as it turned out, had an indirect effect on my thinking about religion. If I were asked for the most important experience leading from the one book to the other, I would have to say the Third World. In the 1960s I was preoccupied with the problems of secularity, and A Rumor of Angels was an attempt to overcome secularity from within. The Third World taught me how ethnocentric that preoccupation was: secularization is today a worldwide phenomenon, it is true, but one far more entrenched in North America and Europe than anywhere else, so that a more global perspective inevitably provides a more balanced view of the phenomenon. Conversely, the Third World impresses one with the enormous social force of religion. It is this very powerful impression that eventually led me to the conclusion, stated in The Heretical Imperative, that a new contestation with the other world religions should be a very high priority on the agenda of Christian theology.

As I understand my own thinking, it has not moved in a radical way during this period. The problems that have preoccupied me have shifted considerably, but my underlying religious and political positions have remained more or less the same. To the extent that I have moved, though, I have moved further to the "left" theologically and further to the "right" politically. This development has confused and also distressed some of my friends (though, needless to say, some have been cheered by what others found distressing).

Again, the Third World has been crucial for both movements of thought. It has given me empirical access to the immense variety and richness of human religion, and thus has made it impossible for me (once and for all, I believe) to remain ethnocentrically fixated on the Judeo-Christian tradition alone. I moved more radically in the 1950s and early 1960s in my thinking about religion (mainly, it seems in retrospect, under the impact of experiencing America after what John Murray Cuddihy has aptly called "the fanaticisms of Europe"), outgrowing the neo-orthodox positions of my youth and finally concluding that my thinking fitted best within the tradition of Protestant liberalism. But the personal as well as intellectual encounter with the Third World gave that liberalism a scope that I could not foresee earlier.

I can say with confidence that the human misery of Third World poverty and oppression has shocked me as deeply as it can anyone coming from the comfortable West, and I have been and continue to be fully convinced of the urgency of seeking alleviation for it. But my efforts to understand the causes of this misery and to conceive plausible strategies for overcoming it have impressed me with the utter fatuity of the alleged solutions advocated by the political "left." To be sure, this insight has not in itself been theologically productive, but it has prevented me from taking the currently fashionable route of doing theology by baptizing the empty slogans of this or that version of Marxism with Christian terminology.

Modified Views of Secularization

It so happens that, for me, the decade staked out by The Christian Century coincided with visits to Rome both at the beginning and the end. In 1969 I organized and chaired a conference there on behalf of the Vatican’s Secretariat for Nonbelievers. It was a fascinating event, especially in the contacts it provided between members of the Roman ecclesiastical establishment and a somewhat wild assortment of scholars who had worked on the problem of secularization. The proceedings of the conference were subsequently published in a book aptly titled The Culture of Unbelief.

One incident from the conference that has stuck in my memory took place at a party. A leading Demochristian politician, very puzzled, asked a monsignor from the secretariat what this conference was all about. "La secolarizzazione," replied the monsignor. "Secolarizzazione," repeated the politician, then asked: "What is this?" The monsignor valiantly rose to the challenge and gave a rather adequate ten-minute summary. The crusty old gentleman of the Democrazia Christiana listened very carefully, then raised his hand and said in a firm voice: "We will not permit it!"

At the time, the remark impressed me as very funny. A few weeks later I went to Mexico, at the invitation of Ivan Illich -- a trip that turned out to be decisive in concentrating my attention on the Third World. I remember telling Illich the story. He laughed, but he did not think it as funny as I did. Illich is often right (often, not always). In this instance, his finding the idea of prohibiting secularization less outrageous than I found it was wise.

In 1979 I was in Rome just as the Iranian revolution was breaking out. I watched the events in Iran on Italian television with a good deal of nervousness, as I was supposed to fly to India via Tehran. There were the vast masses of Khomeini followers, with their posters and banners, seemingly stretching to the horizon. And they kept chanting: "Allahu akbar!" -- "God is great!" I had to think of that remark about secularization of a decade ago, and it did not seem funny at all. Indeed, a dramatic prohibition of secularization is exactly what Khomeini had in mind, and, whatever the eventual outcome of the Iranian revolution, it must be conceded that he has been rather successful in this undertaking thus far.

Certainly in the Islamic world, from the Atlantic Ocean to the China Sea, it is religion that offers a militant challenge to every form of secularity (including the Marxist one), and not the other way around. In the event, the turmoil in Iran forced me to change my travel plans and fly directly to India -- my first visit there, one that immersed me more completely than ever before in a non-Western religious culture. And while Hinduism, for many reasons, does not exhibit the dynamism of contemporary Islam, it too most assuredly is not behaving as the idea of secularization I held in the 1960s would have predicted.

The Third World is not the only reason why I have modified my earlier view of secularization. There has been impressive evidence of religious resurgence in North America. There has also been a significant religious revival in at least certain sectors of Soviet society, all the more significant because of a half-century of determined and sophisticated repression. This does not mean, as some have suggested, that secularization theory has been simply a mistake. But one can now say, I think, that both the extent and the inexorability of secularization have been exaggerated, even in Europe and North America, and much more so in other parts of the world. In itself, this is no more than a revision of a sociological thesis under the pressure of empirical evidence. As such, it is theologically neutral. Yet, inevitably (it seems to me, at any rate), it suggests that the problem of secularity is not quite as interesting for the Christian mind as many of us used to think. After all, it is one thing to engage in intellectual contestation with a phenomenon deemed to be the wave of the future, quite another to do so with one of many cultural currents in play in the contemporary world.

The Crisis of Modernity

Sociologically speaking, the phenomenon of secularization is part and parcel of a much broader process -- that of modernization. In the context of Christian theology, of course, the dialogue with secularity (which, I suppose, one can simply describe as the mind-set resulting from secularization) has been pretty much the same as the dialogue with modernity -- or with that well-known figure "modern man, whom Rudolf Bultmann and others conceived to be incapable of believing the world view of the New Testament.

Speaking sociologically again, there are good reasons for thinking that modernity, and modern secularity with it, is in a certain crisis today. It became clear to me in the Third World that modernization is not a unilinear or an inexorable process. Rather, from the beginning, it is a process in ongoing interaction with countervailing forces which may be subsumed under the heading of countermodernization. It is useful, I think, to look at secularization in the same way -- as standing in ongoing interaction with countersecularizing forces. The details of this relationship cannot be spelled out here. Suffice it to say that countermodernization and countersecularization can be observed not only in the Third World but also in the so-called advanced industrial societies, those of both the capitalist and the socialist varieties.

All of this strongly suggests a shift in theological attention, away from the much-vaunted engagement with modern consciousness and its theoretical products. It should be stressed that this is not to say that some of the latter products do not continue to offer theological challenges. I suspect that this is particularly true of developments in the physical sciences, those prime products of modernity, but this is an area in which I’m woefully ignorant and into which I’m therefore most reluctant to venture. Also, it is clear that, theories and world views apart, the modern situation continues to pose ethical problems of great gravity -- but that is not quite the same as what the dialogue with "modern man" was to be about.

I would also like it to be clear that, in saying that modern consciousness is not as interesting theologically as many have thought (or not as interesting as it once was -- for example, in the 19th century, when Christian theology had to deal with the challenge of modern historical thought), I’m not in the least implying some sort of antimodern stance. There is much of this around today (for instance, in the radical wing of the ecology movement), and some of it is quite appealing, but it will not stand up under rigorous scrutiny. It is not so much that we cannot go back (there is no law that says that the clock cannot be turned back -- it can be, it has been), but that the human costs of demodernizing would be horrendously large. Take just one item: One of the most dramatic consequences of modernity has been the marked decline in infant mortality. I don’t see how any conceivably viable assessment of modernity could conclude that this has been a bad thing.

The Compulsion to Choose

Already in the early 1960s, when I was working with Thomas Luckmann on new ways of formulating the sociology of knowledge, it had become clear to us that secularization and pluralism were closely related phenomena. The root insight here is that subjective certainty (in religion as in other matters) depends upon cohesive social support for whatever it is that the individual wants to be certain about. Conversely, the absence or weakness of social support undermines subjective certainty -- and that is precisely what happens when the individual is confronted with a plurality of competing world views, norms or definitions of reality. I continue to think that this insight is valid. Increasingly, however, it has seemed to me that, of the two phenomena, pluralism is more important than secularization. Put differently: The modern situation would present a formidable challenge to religion even if it were, or would come to be, much less secularized than it now is.

Competition means having to choose. That is true in a market of material commodities -- this brand as against that, this consumer option as against that. Whether one likes it or not, the same compulsion to choose is the result of a market of world views -- this faith or this "life style" against that. I have called this crucial consequence of pluralism "the heretical imperative," and I have tried in my recent book of that title to analyze different theological responses to this rather uncomfortable situation. Again, I do not perceive my thinking as having changed dramatically on these matters. But at least two accents have changed. First, it is much clearer to me now why the theological method (not necessarily any of the contents) of classical Protestant liberalism, with its stress on experience and reasonable choice, is the most viable one today. And second, because of my previously mentioned encounter with the Third World, I now have a much broader notion of the range of relevant choices in religion.

As a result of this perspective on the religious situation and its theological possibilities, I have for quite a while found myself in a sort of two-front position. Fronting the theological "right," I’m convinced that any attempts to reconstruct old certainties, as if "the heretical imperative" could be ignored, are futile. This conviction makes it impossible for me to seek alignment with any form of orthodoxy or neo-orthodoxy. On the other hand, I see no more promise in the "left" strategies of trying to make Christianity plausible by secularizing its contents, no matter whether this "secularization from within" (one of Luckmann’s helpful terms) is done by means of philosophy, psychology or political ideology. All these strategies are finally (and, indeed, rather soon) self-liquidating, as they rob the religious enterprise of whatever plausibility it still has within the consciousness of individuals.

Incidentally, this does not mean that I have no empathy with either the "right" or the secularizing-"left" positions. The former was the position of my youth, in the form of a sort of muscular Lutheranism, and (if nothing else) the nostalgias of middle age assure a lingering empathy. As to the latter position, it is not just a matter of "some of my best friends" and all that. More important, anyone who lives and works in a modern secular milieu undergoes every day the same cognitive tensions that move people toward this position, and a high degree of empathy is thereby given almost automatically.

In this connection, a word should be said about an event with which I was associated, the so-called Hartford Appeal of 1975 -- a statement that forcefully repudiated various secularizing trends in contemporary theological thought. It was widely regarded as a neo-orthodox manifesto. Whatever may have been the understanding of others connected with the event, this was not the way I understood it. For me, Hartford delineated what separated me from those to the "left" of the liberal position I espoused. Such delineation continues to be necessary, I believe (though, in retrospect, it is debatable whether the style of the Hartford Appeal was the most suitable). For me, however, delineation with regard to the theological "right" is equally important, and I hope that The Heretical Imperative has now fulfilled this purpose.

The worst thing about being in the middle is not that one is shot at from both sides. In this instance that is not so bad, as there are a lot of people in the same location. More disturbing is the thought that a via media, especially in religion, is always beset with tepidness. And that has indeed been one of the recurring qualities of Protestant liberalism. True enough, but I don’t think that this is a necessary quality. Every nuanced, reflected-upon position is in danger of appearing tepid in comparison with the self-confident postures of those who claim certainty. It is important to understand the illusionary character of the self-confident postures, at which point mellowness acquires its own certainty, more quiet perhaps than that of the Barthians, say, or of the Christian revolutionaries, but also more enduring.

The Act of Preaching

Speaking of Barthians, there is one question that concerned them from the beginning, indeed that first motivated Karl Barth himself in his early theological thinking: "How does one preach that?" The question is a crucial one, not only for those who are vocationally charged with preaching, but also for those (including myself) who are committed to the public reaffirmation of the Christian tradition. It is many years now since, after one (very happy) year at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, I drew back from the ministry as my own vocational goal. All biographical decisions are murky, but this one was essentially simple: I felt that I could not be a Lutheran minister unless I could fully assent to the definition of the faith as stated in the Lutheran confessions, and I drew back from this role because I doubted whether I could give such unqualified assent. In other words, I felt that I, for one, could not preach "that." I do not regret this long-ago decision, but it is relevant to these observations that today I would arrive at a different conclusion. If "that" is now understood as being the liberal position alluded to above, then I’m deeply convinced that it can indeed be preached -- and, given the call to do that, I’m convinced that I could.

The reason for this conclusion is also essentially simple: I believe that at the core of the Christian tradition is truth, and this truth will reassert itself in every conceivable contestation -- be it with the multiform manifestations of modern secularity, or with the powerful traditions of Asian religion awaiting theological engagement. To be sure, no one who honestly enters into such a contestation emerges the way one entered; if one did, the contestation was probably less than honest. In the act of reflection, every honest individual must be totally open, and this also means open-ended.

The act of preaching is different. Here the individual does not stand before the tradition in the attitude of reflection but deliberately enters into it and reaffirms the truth that he has discovered through it, without thereby forgetting or falsifying the fruits of reflection.

There is no way of predicting the movements of the spirit. I have often thought that even a person equipped with all the tools of modern social science would have been hard put to predict the Reformation, say, at the onset of the 16th century. I will not make a prediction here, but I will make a guarded statement: It is possible that out of the contestations of our time will emerge preaching voices of great and renewed power. There is a kind of stillness now, and has been for quite some time. It is possible that the stillness will be followed by thunder. We do not know this. We are not supposed to know. But the possibility is worth a Cautious hope, and perhaps even a gamble of faith.