Chapter 1: Sacredness and Everyday Life

Rediscovering the Sacred: Perspectives on Religion in Contemporary Society
by Robert Wuthnow

Chapter 1: Sacredness and Everyday Life

How does our experience of the sacred differ from our experience of everyday life? How does the sacred penetrate this reality? What can we learn about the nature and functions of the sacred by considering the nature and functions of everyday life?

It is perhaps odd to think of everyday life as the place to begin in searching for the sacred. Our daily lives, after all, are carried out largely in the context of a thoroughly secular environment. We eat and sleep, work and play, strive to achieve and seek comfort for our failures. But the world of the sacred is set apart. It concerns worship, beliefs in the supernatural, prayer, the ecstasy of religious experience, and the escape of meditative withdrawal. And yet there is much to be learned about the sacred by locating it in relation to the mundane experiences of everyday reality.

Peter Berger has offered a most persuasive formulation of the relation of religion to everyday life with his idea of the "sacred canopy."1 Not only is the definitional discussion of religion presented in Berger’s book by this title one of the most frequently referred to in the sociology of religion, but his conceptual framework has also provided the starting point for dozens of empirical investigations and theoretical essays.2

Despite its influence in the discipline, The Sacred Canopy has been superseded by many contributions to the sociology of religion in more recent years. Often stimulated by Berger’s work, contributions have appeared in a number of related fields, such as cultural anthropology, sociology of knowledge, sociolinguistics, textual criticism, and discourse analysis. Some of these contributions have drawn sympathetically on Berger’s ideas about the sacred and everyday life, recasting them in ways that further illuminate the significance of their original insights. Other contributions have provided empirical evidence that buttresses some of the initial claims. Still other work has raised questions about biases or limitations in the basic perspective. In addition, the corpus of work on this topic has grown so substantially that it is often frustrating to the beginning student. For these reasons, some attempt to summarize and evaluate the idea of religion as a sacred canopy seems in order.

There is, as well, another important reason for reconsidering the relation between sacredness and everyday life that we find spelled out in Berger’s work. Ironically, this relation has not yet been fully appreciated in the social science literature. Despite its considerable currency, the idea of religion as sacred canopy seems not to have been grasped in more than a superficial way in much of the literature. Empirical studies often refer to it almost in ceremonial obeisance while failing to incorporate it into the research design in any meaningful way. And theoretical discussions often praise its philosophical grandeur without providing any firm guidelines for empirical testing.

The result is that much of the broader significance of the original contribution has been missed. Religion tends to be understood in ways narrower than Berger would have had us recognize, while behaviorist and reductionistic conceptions of the individual — which discount the importance of religion — continue to hold sway in many places of power and influence. The significance of the sacred can be rediscovered by looking again at the theoretical breadth and humanistic depth we find in Berger’s perspective on the sacred canopy.

An Inventory of Basic Arguments

The prose in which Berger’s arguments are embedded is rich with suggestive examples and yet beguiling in its presentation of a vast armamentarium of conceptual and philosophical undergirdings. Berger is a skilled theorist who knows how to present a compelling example but also how to provide the necessary caveats and qualifications for his arguments. Consequently, the unsuspecting reader may find himself or herself lost in a thicket of densely entangled connections and presuppositions. To make matters worse, Berger’s formulations flow from a rich web of theoretical deduction from a body of assumptions that he has spelled out at length in three or four of his other book-length treatises. At the risk of oversimplification, then, it seems necessary to attempt a brief summary of the basic arguments we must grasp before we can understand critically the relations between sacredness and everyday life.

The Social Construction of Reality

The initial assumption in the theoretical perspective from which Berger and his followers have operated holds that reality is socially constructed. Like many other sociological theorists, Berger argues that the world we live in is essentially a world of our own design. This is not a way of acknowledging the simple fact that we live among people as well as things, or that we choose our own associates, or even that much of the material world is now the product of human construction. It is rather a more fundamental insight about how we perceive reality.

The basic argument is that a selective process governs the reality we experience. In its brute form, the actual world is infinitely complex, even chaotic, much too rich to experience meaningfully without some filtering process. This filtering process involves the use of symbolic categories. The words we know, the pictures and mental images we share all help to reduce the raw complexity of the world to a "reality" that has order and meaning.

The profound extent to which our experience is shaped by symbolism has been amply demonstrated by empirical research. Studies comparing different languages suggest that some languages are better than others at sensitizing us to certain kinds of experience. Some Native American languages fail to distinguish clearly between past, present, and future verb tenses and thus the linear progression of time may be more difficult to experience in these cultures. With more than twenty words in the Eskimo language to describe snow, some observers suggest that Eskimos actually experience snow in a richer and more variegated form than non-Eskimos. Along similar lines, physiologists believe that the human eye is capable of distinguishing among more than six million hues, and yet the fact that we typically use only about a dozen words to describe colors suggests that we see them much less richly than we are capable of doing.3

The role of words and symbols has also been emphasized by child psychologists. The reason children require a number of years to develop mastery of certain basic concepts, according to some child psychologists, is not that they are slow in learning the words — they actually know the words quite early — but that they have to start experiencing the world in a new, more simplified way that corresponds with the classifications suggested by these words.4 For example, young children may know the words spoon, teaspoon, silver, knife, and metal but find it difficult for several years to apply them appropriately to objects in their environment, the reason being partly that these words form multiple and overlapping classifications. Only gradually do the complexities of experience become simplified in ways that allow children to make sense of the categories.

The conclusion suggested by all these studies, then, is that the very world we experience — what we call reality — is shaped by symbols. We do not experience reality "directly," as it were, but through the filters of our symbols. And so we tend to experience what we have symbols for; the remainder is filtered out of our perception.

Recognizing the importance of symbolism — words, utterances, ritual, language, culture — is an important building block in the edifice on which Peter Berger constructs his arguments about religion. He rejects Marxist, behaviorist, and instinct theories that reduce human processes to sheer economic or physiological needs. In his view, and in the view taken by most sociologists of religion, the symbolic realm is both prior to and constitutive of our very experience of the world. And so when Berger says that religion is made up of symbols, he is not thereby asserting that religion is any less important; indeed, he affirms that religion is every bit as much a part of the reality we live in as any other symbolically mediated experience.

Everyday Reality

The second basic component of Berger’s argument is that something called "everyday reality" is paramount. If reality is socially constructed rather than simply received, then we must ask what kind of reality people generally construct for themselves. Do we create worlds that are purely idiosyncratic, or do we construct reality according to some common principles that make communication and hence social life itself possible? The answer Berger gives is an integral feature of his argument about religion. His answer, derived partly from the writings of German phenomenologist Alfred Schutz, is that we construct a shared world that can be called "everyday reality."

Everyday reality is constructed according to several distinct principles. Of course these principles are not consciously applied in the actual tasks of going about our daily business, but they can be inferred by the social theorist. First, primacy in everyday life is given to the "here and now." That which intuitively seems most real to us consists of those things closest to us in time and space — our immediate family and friends seem more "real" than persons in distant Tibet, for example,

and our immediate activities consume our attention In a way that memories of our childhood do not. As we sit at our desks or walk to class, the immediate faces and objects around us seem far more real than do the aspirations we have for ourselves in the future or even the fleeting images that may come to mind from last summer’s vacation.

Second, this here-and-now world is usually defined in terms of standard time and space. Time is linear, progressive, historical, inescapable, irreversible; space is three-dimensional, measurable in distances. We think of everyday life within the framework of minutes, hours, and days, and we measure it in standard spatial units such as feet, yards, miles, or kilometers. And since life revolves around linear time and three-dimensional space, we cannot really live our daily lives in the form of "flashbacks," we cannot escape our bodies, and we cannot occupy two places at the same time. To do any of these things requires us to adopt a different mental framework, a framework that consists of an alternative reality, an escape from the real world of daily life, such as a world of fantasy or daydreams.

Third, everyday reality tends to be a highly pragmatic world. It is the world of work, where things have to get done — the "real world," we tell ourselves. Objects and persons in this world tend to be evaluated instrumentally, in terms of their utility for accomplishing our tasks. Or, put differently, daily realities are supposed to be practical; being other than practical is likely to earn us a reputation of living in a fantasy world.

Closely related to the pragmatism of everyday reality is a fourth characteristic that Berger calls "wide-awakeness." By this he means that everyday reality commands our full attention. Perhaps we become bored and fall into daydreaming, but succumbing to these temptations is tantamount to removing ourselves, if only momentarily, from the reality of the world around us. Wide-awakeness also connotes a basic existential involvement in everyday reality. It is the world in which we live and die, the world in which we grow older and suffer illness, the world of real time where our purposes have to be accomplished.

Fifth, we "willingly suspend doubt" concerning everyday reality. Haunting suspicions that things may not be what they seem are pushed from the forefront of our minds so that full attention can be given to the tasks at hand. This means that everyday reality is a world of surface appearances rather than a world of mysterious essences or underlying principles that require theoretical reflection. It also means that everyday reality is by and large an efficient place in which to carry on our activities. Since we take so much of it for granted, we seldom have to spend time worrying about the reality of its existence.

Finally, we compartmentalize everyday reality into "spheres of relevance" — that is, we characterize some aspects of our daily world as being relevant to the accomplishment of a specific task (say, driving a car or playing tennis) and other aspects as being relevant to different activities. This compartmentalization reduces the inevitable complexity of the world. We simply "bracket out" everything that is not relevant to the task at hand. Thus the pragmatic objectives of everyday reality can be more effectively fulfilled.

Together, these features of everyday reality make it an efficient world in which to live. It is a routine world, an orderly world in which things have their place. Deeper questions, longer-range goals, memories of the past, fundamental values, ambiguity and complexity — all are minimized (to a certain extent) in relation to the pragmatic considerations that govern us in the here and now. Everyday reality is also a safe, secure world in which we know our place and can largely take for granted the objects and persons in our immediate environment. Furthermore, it facilitates social interaction: since time and space are standardized, we know what to expect, and since the norms governing this world make for familiarity and routine, we can interact with others on common ground.

Some of these characterizations of everyday life can, of course, be questioned. For example, it might be asked whether "everyday reality" in ancient India was constructed according to these principles as much as everyday reality in the contemporary West. In other words, Berger’s characterization may have more to do with our own experience in contemporary Western society than it does with the way things have to be or the way things always have been. Even in the contemporary West, it might be asked whether the high degree of emphasis given to long-range planning is fully compatible with Berger’s description of everyday reality as a world of the here-and-now. Nearly all of us, for instance, have probably experienced driving along the highway with so many thoughts about the future or the past on our mind that We were hardly living in everyday reality at all.

These questions notwithstanding, the idea of everyday reality seems to have enough intuitive appeal to at least support Berger’s use of it as a starting point for further theoretical considerations. His point is not that we should, or even do, live in everyday reality all the time; rather, it is that everyday reality is a familiar world and yet an arbitrary world, because it is a world constructed of symbols, social experiences, and casual presuppositions. Certainly the world of work, as most of us know it, tends to encompass a great deal of our waking hours, absorbs much of our immediate attention, and imposes a kind of pragmatic calculus on much that we do. It is for these reasons that Berger considers it the "paramount reality" — the world in which we spend much of our time and to which we inevitably return after brief excursions into the alternative realities of fantasy, sleep, or philosophical reflection.

Symbolic Universes

The third major component of Berger’s argument is that "symbolic universes" supply broader meaning to everyday life. Although we live mostly in everyday reality, this reality is seriously limited. We need h periodic escapes from the here-and-now. There has to be some means by which questions about longer-range values inform our day-to-day activities or we would merely go from one task to another with no basis for deciding what to do. Pragmatic interests must give way, at least on occasion, to concerns about basic truths, aesthetics, and human relationships. It seems doubtful that we make any of our major decisions about life and love strictly on the basis of pragmatic concerns. The "wide-awakeness" of our existential world is persistently haunted by the prospect of our own death. Experiences of grief— or even experiences of extreme joy or ecstasy — shatter the willing suspension of our doubts and raise questions about the deeper meanings of life. And the compartmentalized spheres of relevance in which we perform our routine tasks require some means of integration if we are to function as whole persons. In short, there seems to be a requirement for meaning that goes beyond the confines of everyday reality.

Following Max Weber, Berger recognizes that some of the lingering experiences of human existence, on the face of it, "make no sense." Innocent suffering, tragedies, and injustices fall into this category. They raise "why" questions. A plane crashes and a seven-year-old girl is badly burned. We feel the pain. We experience the sense of injustice. We ask why it had to happen. We ask why suffering has to happen at all. When such events are experienced personally, Berger argues, they seem to occur on the fringes of everyday reality, thus forcing us to reckon with broader questions about the legitimacy of that reality. They take us to the edge of our existence and force us to think about the meaning of it all. And the same can be said, albeit in a positive way, about experiences of play, beauty, or ecstasy that open up vistas of reality that seem to transcend daily life.

According to the perspective Berger adopts, there is also a requirement for meaning that integrates the separate spheres of relevance in everyday life. Implicit in his approach is the assumption that meanings are always contextually determined. For example, if I hold up my fingers in the sign of a V, I may mean "let’s fight to the bitter end and achieve victory" in one context, or in a different setting my signal may mean "peace." The meaning of this symbolic act clearly depends on the setting in which it occurs. By the same token, the meaning of any specific activity in everyday life (say, cooking dinner) is given by the broader sphere of relevance in which it occurs (e.g., being a parent). Without this broader context, it will seem arbitrary, something that has no significance. But these spheres of relevance, in turn, have meaning only in relation to some broader context, and these contexts to broader contexts still. In other words, any set of activities must be related to something larger than itself in order to have meaning: cooking to parenting, parenting to having warm human relationships, warm relationships to a sense of living in community, or whatever. The solution to the problem of meaning, then, is to posit a hierarchical series of symbolic frameworks that give meaning and integration to ever-widening segments of life. Within this logic, questions about "the meaning of life" itself represent the most encompassing form of symbolic integration.

Berger uses the term "symbolic universe" to refer to symbols or symbol systems that are concerned with providing meaning to reality in the most encompassing sense. He defines symbolic universes as "bodies of theoretical tradition that integrate different provinces of meaning and encompass the institutional order in a symbolic totality."5 Symbolic universes differ in scope from several other concepts that Berger employs to refer to understandings of more limited spheres

explanations, maxims, proverbs, propositions, and theories. Symbolic universes occupy a prominent place in Berger’s overall conceptual framework. They provide integration and legitimation at the highest level. And this integration and legitimation is necessitated by the limited character of everyday reality itself.


The final component in Berger’s argument focuses on religion, which he identifies as a type of symbolic universe. The need for some overarching symbol system can be fulfilled in a variety of ways: through personal philosophies of life, scientific worldviews, secular philosophies such as Marxism or nihilism, or commonsense ideas about luck and fate. Religion is one type of symbolic universe. In The Sacred Canopy Berger defines religion as "the establishment, through human activity, of an all-embracing sacred order, that is, of a sacred cosmos that will be capable of maintaining itself in the ever-present face of chaos."6 According to this definition, religion is a symbol system that imposes order ("cosmos") on the entire universe, on life itself, and thereby holds chaos (disorder) at bay. Elsewhere, Berger elaborates by pointing out that religions provide legitimation and meaning in a distinctly "sacred" mode, that they offer claims about the nature of ultimate reality as such, about the location of the human condition in relation to the cosmos itself.

Conceiving of religion in this manner and locating it in reference to everyday life helps to illuminate its typical functions. Religious teachings characteristically serve to shelter the individual from chaos— from a reality that seems to make no sense — by providing explanations for suffering, death, tragedy, and injustice. They integrate the individual’s biography by providing an overarching frame of reference that applies to all of life, that locates the individual ultimately in space and time, that specifies an ultimate purpose for the individual’s life and thus permits daily activities to be organized around the fulfillment of this purpose.

In addition to religious teachings, religious rituals provide mechanisms for containing the potentially disruptive experiences of mourning on the one hand, or. of transcendent joy on the other. Funerals, weddings, and other religiously orchestrated rites of passage (e.g., christenings, baptisms, showers, hospital visits) thus maintain the stability of everyday life by providing occasions on which the nonordinary can be experienced. And for a society at large, religion legitimates institutionalized life by relating its existence to the "nature of things," to the gods. As Berger puts it, "religion legitimates social institutions by bestowing upon them an ultimately valid ontological status, that is, by locating them within a sacred and cosmic frame of reference."7

In his definition of religion, Berger stresses that it is established "through human activity." This assertion is not meant to imply that religion is either false or ultimately nothing more than the fabrication of human minds — indeed, Berger argues in other writings that the transcendent seems to break through humanly constructed worlds, as it were, from the outside, However, the social scientist must recognize the degree to which religion, like all symbol systems, involves human activity. Religion is a reality that inevitably draws on cultural materials, that is filtered through the symbolically constructed reality of personal experience. Moreover, it is maintained through the social interaction of individuals. Thus, despite the fact that Berger gives prominence to religious symbolism, he also recognizes the importance of churches and synagogues, worship services, and religious communities for the perpetuation of any religious system.

In The Sacred Canopy Berger articulates the relation between religious symbolism and social interaction by suggesting a dialectic interplay between the two. Starting with a hypothetical individual who experiences a requirement for some form of all-embracing meaning, Berger imagines the emergence of a religious symbol system as a result of this individual interacting with others in similar circumstances. This phase of the dialectic he terms "externalization." In other words, the subjective moods and motivations of these individuals become an external reality in the form of concrete symbols that can be discussed or acted upon. Next, the emergent symbol system becomes "objectified"; that is, through further interaction it ceases to be the creation of any single individual but rather becomes something "out there" that may even be codified in formal creeds and sacred writings. No longer is it something that someone "made up" or has control over; rather, it is a feature of the outside world — a set of creeds, rituals, and institutions — that confronts the individual with authority of its own. Finally, this reality is "internalized," becoming once again part of the individual’s subjective identity.

Berger speaks of religion in these dialectic terms only for analytic convenience, of course. No assumptions are necessary about the historic origins of religion for the dialectic to be useful. What it highlights is simply that religion can be viewed from several different angles: as discourse and practice through which the individual expresses religious convictions (externalization), as a formalized cultural system or subsystem that can be examined to some extent independently of the individuals who believe in it (objectification), and as the beliefs, sentiments, and experiences of the individual (internalization).

Berger does introduce one important additional concept into his discussion of religion as dialectic, however: the idea of "plausibility structures." Any religious system remains plausible only as people articulate it in their conversation and dramatize it in their social interaction. The conversation and interaction that maintains religion, then, becomes its plausibility structure. For many, participation in religious institutions such as churches or synagogues serves as the plausibility structure for their religion. Kinship ties, friendship networks, and local communities may also serve the same purpose. As individuals discuss their beliefs with like-minded individuals, these beliefs become more believable, more compelling than they might otherwise seem, especially someone outside the community of faith.

Evidence Supporting This Conception of Religion

Among the numerous empirical claims on which this theory of religion rests, perhaps the most crucial is the assumption that people seek broader forms of meaning than those supplied by everyday reality. Only if people register concern for questions about the meaning of life, the causes of suffering, and so forth does it make sense to emphasize the role of symbolic universes of any kind, let alone religion. Put differently, religious beliefs may be empirically evident, but unless a more universal quest for overarching meaning exists, this approach to understanding religion may be the wrong way of going about it.

There is in the social sciences a rather well-established tradition that disputes the idea — as a theoretical proposition — of some intrinsic requirement for an all-embracing conception of meaning. According to this view, personal meaning does not somehow depend on the individual being more than a "sum of the parts" but results exclusively from the discrete roles an individual performs. Thus, well-being could be said to derive simply from the sum of responsibilities performed in everyday life, quite apart from broader questions about the purpose of one’s life. In a highly secularized society this argument naturally seems compelling.

The Quest for Meaning

This argument to the contrary, much evidence has been amassed in recent decades which supports the contention that people are concerned with broader issues of meaning and purpose. A cross-sectional survey of adults in the San Francisco Bay Area (in which only 30 percent identified themselves as church-goers) showed, for example, that 70 percent claimed to think a lot or some about the question of the purpose of life; 73 percent said they think about the existence of God; and 83 percent indicated thinking about why there is suffering in the world. Fewer than one in twenty claimed to have never thought about these questions or to have dismissed them as unimportant.8

In-depth interviews with people in that study also demonstrated a high degree of willingness to discuss broad questions of meaning and purpose in life. A thirty-nine-year-old public relations worker remarked, for example, that "the meaning of my life is to remember that there are goals that everyone should set and goals that give meaning to everything else you do." A forty-two-year-old social worker responded, "the purpose of life is to be in tune with all the forces and causes in the universe." In a similar vein, a twenty-seven-year-old secretary said, "I think there is harmony in the universe and this harmony gives me meaning." Using more traditional religious language, another person asserted that "we are like co-workers with God to help his will be done; so when we help people to know God, it gives our lives meaning and purpose."

None of this, of course, suggests that everyday life is unimportant as a source of meaning. To the contrary, most people seem to think immediately of daily activities as sources of meaning. For instance, a twenty-eight-year-old mother in the same study, like many other respondents, pointed to "my family and my children primarily, and my careers" Another person answered, "my child, my friends, my hobbies, and mostly my work; they give me a sense of achievement." More quantitatively, the same results were evident in a 1982 Gallup survey that asked people to say how important various things were to their "basic sense of worth as a person." Heading the list was "family" (93 percent listed it as "very important"), followed by "close friends" (63 percent), "financial well-being" (57 percent), and "work" (54 percent).9

Despite the high importance attached to everyday activities, though, most people continue to reflect on more cosmic questions. In the Gallup survey, for example, 90 percent of the public claimed to have thought about "living a worthwhile life" at least a fair amount (or a lot) during the preceding two years; 83 percent said they had thought often about their "basic values in life"; 81 percent gave the same response for "your relation to God"; and 70 percent gave similar answers for ‘developing your faith." The same study found that eight out of ten people believed that "everything that happens has a purpose" — an apparent substantiation of the claim that people want to shield themselves from chaos by imputing order to the universe. And on a question directly related to Berger’s idea that discrete spheres of relevance in everyday reality need to be integrated by some broader framework, respondents were asked, following a set of items dealing with family, friends, work, and the like as sources of meaning, if they "try to keep all these areas separate or tie them all together?" Seventy-one percent said they try to tie them all together.

Another feature of the argument about religion as a sacred canopy that has been affirmed by empirical research is the idea that experiences at the margins of everyday reality tend to be an important source of reflection about broader questions of meaning and purpose. In the study just cited, respondents were asked first to indicate which among a list of such experiences they had ever had and then whether or not each experience had affected their thoughts about the meaning and purpose of life a great deal. Generally speaking, those who had had these experiences were also prone to say that they had deeply affected their thoughts about the meaning and purpose of life. For example, of those who had ever had a deep religious experience, 83 percent said it had affected their thoughts about meaning and purpose a great deal; the corresponding proportion for those who had experienced having a child was 75 percent, and for those having experienced the death of a close relative or friend, 64 percent.

Systems of Meaning

Other research has explored the question of whether the content of different sacred canopies tends to be important. Berger’s discussion suggests that overtly religious symbolic universes and more secular symbolic universes may perform much the same functions and thus may compete with one another for adherents. He also suggests that in a pluralistic culture elements of several different symbolic universes may be combined to form an individual’s worldview. Several studies have sought to address these claims.

The Bay Area study mentioned previously gave respondents opportunities to apply different symbolic frameworks to broad questions such as how they understood the forces shaping their own life or how they explained the presence of suffering in the world. The results demonstrated a relatively high degree of pluralism among the responses. Most people were prone to perceive multiple influences and causes, including supernatural intervention, social and cultural forces, the functioning of heredity and will power, economic conditions, and luck. Several factor analyses of the responses revealed some clustering around religious, social, and individualistic ideas, but the results also suggested a high degree of "mixing" among different thematic traditions. About half of the respondents could be classified according to the thematic tradition on which they drew most heavily, but the remainder were genuinely eclectic, drawing equally from several traditions for their understandings.

Another study, also conducted in the San Francisco area, demonstrated that symbolic universes tend not to be applied with high degrees of consistency to different types of questions. On the average, about half the responses given to such questions as why racial differences exist, why someone might be killed in an airplane crash or die young, and why suffering in general exists were consistent with one another; the remaining half drew from different thematic traditions.10

The evidence thus tends to support the idea that in a pluralistic culture individuals are likely to draw on several different symbolic universes to cope with broad questions of meaning and purpose. Some evidence also suggests that eclecticism may be prominent even in less pluralistic settings. A national study of commune members, for example, showed that many individuals in these settings held assumptions different from the official ideologies of their communes.11

The fact that individuals do not draw consistently from a single symbolic universe in constructing their personal worldviews has been taken, on occasion, as evidence that the basic concept of symbolic universes is faulty.12 This criticism, however, mistakenly confuses consistency with coherence. Berger’s point is not that symbolic universes impose substantive consistency on a person’s attitudes but only that symbolic universes lend coherence to the reality they experience by linking it together and giving it overarching meaning.

Meaning Systems and Lifestyles

Research has also explored the question of whether the content of different symbolic universes tends to predict differences in more specific attitudes or lifestyle attributes. The Bay Area study which asked questions about personal meaning, for example, suggested that the content of different meaning systems was a good predictor of propensities to become involved in or to abstain from various social reform activities and alternative lifestyles. Persons whose symbolic universes emphasized the role of supernatural forces tended not to believe that society could be reformed through human action and refrained from experimenting personally with alternative lifestyles. Those who thought the world’s problems were mainly the fault of individuals (i.e., those who blamed the victims) were also reluctant to favor social reform efforts. In contrast, people who recognized the role of social arrangements as part of their broad explanatory frameworks tended to be supportive of reform efforts, including personal involvement in nonconventional lifestyles. And those who devalued the "givenness" of reality through mystical and other transcendent experiences also seemed willing to countenance reform and alternative lifestyles.

Much the same patterns were evident in the study of commune members and the San Francisco study focusing on racial attitudes. Despite difficulties in conceptualizing and measuring the idea of broad meaning systems or broad explanatory frameworks, the studies seemed to demonstrate the importance of such cognitive perspectives. The assumption’ behind all these studies was that general overarching frames of reference establish the context in which more specific activities are perceived to have meaning and thus are likely to shape the salience and direction of these activities. Insofar as this assumption seems to be empirically validated, Berger’s emphasis on the importance of sacred canopies gains additional support.

His idea of "plausibility structures" has also been employed in several research studies. One that was based on a survey of mainline church members, for example, suggested that identification with the local community served as an important plausibility structure for traditional religious tenets.13 Furthermore, those who made such localistic identifications were considerably more likely than "cosmopolitans" to espouse traditional religious beliefs (controlling for a variety of other factors) and to allow these beliefs to influence their thinking on racial and social questions as well.

Another study examined the effect of social networks, as a kind of plausibility structure, on components of symbolic universes among college students.14 Arguing that social networks among like-minded students constitute a plausibility structure of the kind Berger had discussed, the authors of the study demonstrated that traditional Christian worldviews seemed to be both more salient and internally more consistent than other worldviews in large part as a result of the fact that Christian students were more likely to have cultivated social ties with other Christians.

More recently, the idea of plausibility structures has been employed in several studies concerned with the question of how American evangelicals are able to maintain their traditional religious beliefs within the secular, pluralistic context of modern culture. One study, drawing on national survey data, indicated that evangelicals tend to be relatively isolated from the main sources of secular influence (e.g., higher education, professional careers, urban or suburban residence), thus permitting them to retain their plausibility structures more or less intact — although other modes of cultural accommodation were also evident.15

Another study sampled students at nine evangelical colleges in an attempt to determine how effective these institutions were in providing plausibility structures for evangelical beliefs. By comparing the six campuses that required statements of faith from all entering students with the three campuses that did not, the study was able to test whether a more "insular" setting actually served better to protect the plausibility of traditional beliefs. The results tended in part to confirm this supposition. Evangelical beliefs both were higher and remained stronger over the four years of college in the more insular settings.

However, a comparison sample of students drawn from a secular university showed that, although evangelicalism was much rarer, evangelical students were able to maintain their convictions in this setting as well. They did so mainly by adopting a more defensive stance toward the secular culture and by developing a relatively strong social and political ideology that protected their religious beliefs. Thus, the general importance of plausibility structures was affirmed, but the study suggested that religious plausibility can be upheld in a secular context as well as in isolation from it.16

On the whole, the idea of religion as sacred canopy has not yet been tested sufficiently to suggest that its merits outweigh those of several other contending approaches in the sociology of religion. Indeed, the basic ideas tend not to be at a level of specificity that would allow such tests to be made. But Berger and others working in the same tradition have made an important general contribution to reorienting research in the sociology of religion in recent decades. A view of the sacred has been posited that goes well beyond such conventional religious practices as church attendance and prayer. The emphasis on symbolic universes has placed the study of religion in a broader cultural context, suggesting means by which private experiences of the sacred, as well as functional trade-offs between religion and secular symbol systems, can be rediscovered. It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that this orientation has been particularly valued by scholars interested in exploring the changing face of contemporary religion.

 Critical Considerations

The view of religion as a sacred canopy is broadly informed by theoretical tradition, is generally supported by empirical research, and is sufficiently sophisticated to embrace the major variants and components of religious expression. Perhaps ironically, it is an ingenious blend of social science and theological philosophy that has found favor with both the detractors and defenders of modern religion. Those who deny the validity of religion point enthusiastically to Berger’s call for "methodological atheism," for example, and to his argument that religion is a socially constructed view of reality that depends to a large extent on arbitrary networks of social interaction for its plausibility. Friends of religion, in contrast, find support for their views in Berger’s criticisms of the limitations of everyday reality, in his argument for the role of overarching canopies of meaning, and in his openness to the possibility of "signals of transcendence" that break through the sheltering humdrum of everyday life.

On balance, Berger’s theoretical perspective has provided a modern apologetic for the value of religion, arguing not from theological tradition but from the secular premises of social science that humans cannot live by the bread of everyday reality alone. Insofar as meaning is contextual, the meaning of life ultimately depends on a different kind of symbol — not amenable to empirical falsification — which evokes a sense of the ground of being. There is always a tendency in the social sciences to debunk religion by positing its origins in human interaction, but Berger at least seems to have discovered a way of rescuing religion from this scourge.

For all its flexibility and its attractiveness to both the proponents and opponents of religion, the idea of a sacred canopy is not amenable to just any interpretation. It rests on a distinctive perspective and shows biases that account for both its strengths and its weaknesses. These biases need to be understood and evaluated in order to gain a proper appreciation of what this approach to understanding the sacred can do best and also to gain greater sensitivity to its limitations. Three issues in particular merit consideration: the role of plausibility structures, the role of subjectivity, and the role of rational cognition.

Plausibility Structures

The idea of plausibility structures has provided sociologists with their best entrée to the study of religion within the perspective outlined by Peter Berger. This is the concept that gives social factors an influential role in the shaping of religious convictions. Those who wish to see religion as an emergent or ultimate truth or as an autonomous cultural system shaped strictly by its own inner structure and meanings charge that the idea of plausibility structures opens the door for a type of sociological reductionism that explains away the reality of religion by attributing it to social conditions.

There is some basis for this charge, it appears, given the fact that Berger seems to treat plausibility structures as somehow prior to or more basic than the religious beliefs they make plausible. He seems to treat religious beliefs as objects that need to be explained and to introduce plausibility structures into the discussion without questioning their origin or the conditions maintaining them. One is led to wonder where plausibility structures come from, whether certain symbols encourage interaction more than others, whether the type of interaction possible depends on the type of discourse available, and what makes a plausibility structure itself plausible.

In contrast to the authors of many of the classical theoretical approaches to religion — Marx, Freud, and even Durkheim — Berger seems to give greater autonomy to the functioning of religious symbols and, indeed, suggests an interesting means of circumventing the problem of reductionism while giving social conditions a legitimate role. By setting his, discussion in the context of a dialectic (externalization, objectification, internalization), he has in effect stressed the importance of social interaction for the production and maintenance of religion but at the same time he has recognized the independent capacity of religion to exist as a cultural system and to shape individual thoughts and attitudes.

Sociologists can more tellingly object that plausibility structures may not go far enough toward specifying the importance of social conditions as an influence on religion. Social interaction — "conversation" — is surely important in maintaining religious realities, but putting the matter in these terms leaves the influence of social conditions largely indeterminate. For example, when research finds that Christian friendships reinforce Christian convictions, the question still remains why some people choose Christian friends and others do not. Ideally, theory would suggest which kinds of social contexts are likely to be the most or least supportive of certain beliefs. Berger’s perspective is, in short, a "weak" form of sociology-of-knowledge reasoning. It specifies only the most general connection between social conditions and beliefs. One gains the impression that any kind of conversational setting can sustain any kind of belief. Perhaps so, but that conclusion flies in the face of a long tradition of sociological research that has shown relationships between specific types of beliefs and variations in social class, region, family structure, and political system.

In addition, sociologists can object that the concept of plausibility structures as venues of discourse and interaction diminishes the importance of other kinds of social resources for maintaining religion. In a strict free market of ideas among autonomous and relatively equal individuals, discourse may be the decisive factor in shaping beliefs. But most religions have long histories as established organizations in which money, power, and professional expertise play an important role. Behind the scenes — making possible the very situations in which conversation about religion can happen — are massive ecclesiastical bureaucracies, hours and hours of administrative labor, vast fund-raising efforts, complex bookkeeping schemes, training programs, and patronage and other distribution agencies, all of which play their part in maintaining religious realities. Much of the literature on plausibility structures has missed the importance of these broader resources.


The question of subjectivity raises a second set of issues. Part of the intuitive appeal of this approach to religion is that it begins with the individual and stresses his or her subjective requirement for meaning in everyday life. Unpersuaded by rational-logical arguments about the existence of God, the student can find in this perspective an existential basis for seeking broader meaning in life, one solution to which may be the sacred canopy of religion. At the heart of this approach are the individual’s concerns about questions of suffering, purpose in life, coping with grief or ecstasy, and so on. Indeed, the emphasis on reality construction itself stresses the perspective of the individual and the manner in which the outside world is filtered through his or her world-view to become meaningful. This emphasis may provide a refreshing contrast to sociological approaches concerned with broad generalizations about culture and society — approaches in which the individual actor seems to have been lost. Yet there are costs associated with attaching this much importance to the individual.

The most obvious cost is that broader social arrangements may be neglected. To his credit, Berger’s own work often balances discussions of individual meaning with discussions of the legitimation of social institutions. However, the focus is often more on the ways in which individuals perceive institutions than on questions of institutional relations themselves. No theory need cover the entire range of social realities, of course, but it is worth noting that sociologists seem to have gained more mileage from this framework for their considerations of individual beliefs than for analyses of large-scale institutions.

Another limitation hinges on emphasizing the subjective when developing empirical generalizations. Critics of this perspective have sometimes pointed to its lack of testable hypotheses as well as its apparent failure to have produced a more substantial body of empirical research. Some of these criticisms are misdirected inasmuch as the perspective is intended to be more a metatheory of human nature than a set of testable hypotheses. Nevertheless, it does appear that the framework has received more use for appreciating religion than for studying it. And this reception has been influenced by the framework’s focus on individual meaning. Thus, studies such as the ones cited earlier have often been stymied by problems of how practically to assess such inherently private matters as questions of individual meaning. Little has been accomplished, it appears, other than demonstrating that individuals generally do have an interest in the topic of meaning and that they draw on a variety of thematic traditions in their attempts to construct meaning. Consequently, it is not surprising, as we shall see in the next two chapters, that many approaches have turned away from subjective meaning toward questions of symbolism and discourse.

An emphasis on symbolism and discourse offers a way of identifying observable, objective materials for analysis. The subjective emphasis on reality construction and personal meaning has pointed toward inner moods and motivations — phenomena that elude the usual methods of documentation and verification in the social sciences. Moreover, the idiosyncratic and fluid character of personal meaning has defied the very logic of seeking social scientific generalizations. Focusing on language and discourse, while not providing an escape from the hermeneutic circle or a pathway back to positivism, has at least paid high dividends in fields such as linguistics and artificial intelligence, and this focus seems to be capturing the interest of an increasing number of theologians and sociologists of religion as well.

Rational Cognition

Finally, the role of rational cognition in religion presents issues of concern. The main issue here is difficult to pin down precisely, but it has to do with the impression one gains from reading Berger that people act like amateur philosophers in constructing their religious views. He seems to suggest, for example, that people approach tragedies and grief not so much by grieving but by raising abstract questions about the causes of suffering in the world. And while he sometimes mentions religious experiences and rituals, he places principal emphasis on a broad philosophical system — the sacred canopy — that answers one’s questions about life.

This issue can be sharpened by contrasting Berger’s approach with that of Robert N. Bellah.17 The comparison is a natural one, since both start with similar presuppositions about symbolism, everyday reality, and the importance of meaning. Yet when it comes to religion, Bellah seems to draw a distinction between rational-logical discourse and the more intuitive, "iconic" symbolism he believes to be more characteristic of religion. Iconic symbols, he writes, "are nonobjective symbols that express the feelings, values, and hopes of subjects, or that organize and regulate the flow of interaction between subjects and objects or even point to the context or ground of that whole."18

Like Berger, Bellah has in mind the need for an overarching sense of meaning, but the symbols Bellah discusses seem not so exclusively to consist of "theoretical traditions," as Berger describes them, but of anecdotes, images, pictures, connotatively rich names and places, rituals, and personal experiences. Zen Buddhism seems to fit Bellah’s scheme, but not Berger’s.

The problem is not one of deciding in favor of Bellah’s emphasis or Berger’s (plenty of evidence exists to support the importance of both types of symbolism in most religions). But there is a fundamental ambiguity in Berger’s discussion of symbolic universes that has perhaps made his view of religion seem more rationalistic than it should. In defining symbolic universes Berger contrasts them with simpler levels of legitimation such as proverbs, maxims, and theories. But the contrast actually runs along two dimensions, not one.

On one dimension, symbolic universes are distinguished as the most encompassing: they embrace and integrate all segments of reality, all institutional or biographic spheres, rather than being limited to a single or narrow aspect of reality. On another dimension, though, symbolic universes are distinguished as being the most theoretically elaborate: they consist of whole systems or traditions rather than single theories or even simpler, more discrete statements such as an explanation or proverb. These are distinct dimensions, and it may be useful to draw a sharp contrast between the two.

It would appear that a relatively simple statement that leaves unsaid much of what it implies ("Jesus loves me") or a word such as luck that exists in the absence of any sophisticated theoretical tradition could evoke a sense of the meaning of life as much as an elaborate philosophical system. Even an icon or mandala might evoke a sense of encompassing meaning. In any of these instances cognition is involved, of course. But the meaning evoked may not consist so much of an orderly, systematic accounting of life as of a simple intuitive sense that life as such has meaning. With this important modification, it may be easier to think of the sacred canopy, then, as something other than a purely rational or cognitive philosophy of life.

Looking Backward

Returning then to the question of how the perspective on religion set forth in The Sacred Canopy is to be evaluated, given more than two decades of hindsight, it would appear evident that this perspective still contains much of importance to the contemporary situation. Written at a time when it appeared to many that the churches and synagogues were becoming increasingly irrelevant to the major questions facing contemporary society, this book offered an argument that explained why religion (in one form or another) would continue to be discovered and rediscovered over and over again. It predicted that the sacred would remain a vital feature of modern times.

And that prediction has proved accurate again and again in recent decades. A whole generation was reared on campus unrest in which religious experimentation played a significant role; then the phenomenon of an avowedly "born-again" president, Jimmy Carter, brought a different form of religion onto the national scene; and this was followed by religious resurgence in places as distant culturally and geographically as Tehran and Lynchburg, Virginia. All these events have underscored the abiding relevance of the sacred in contemporary society.

But if the perspective offered in The Sacred Canopy was largely accurate in predicting the continuing importance of the sacred, the social sciences have moved subtly away from some of the assumptions on which this perspective was based. There is in Berger’s discussion of religion and everyday life a courageous optimism, despite the existential despair in which humanity is assumed to live, a courageous optimism that the social sciences will reshape and reinvigorate our understanding of ourselves. There is a faith that greater understanding of the social sciences will give us renewed hope as individuals and a clearer sense of mastery as a people over the quest for guiding values.

That optimism no longer seems to characterize the social sciences to any prominent degree. Instead, it seems, technical concerns increasingly set the disciplines’ agendas, replacing the quest for fundamental values. Methods and data accumulate at a rapid pace, but the enthusiasm for a broader vision in the social sciences seems to have waned. It is as if the social sciences have been captured by their own version of everyday reality.

Recognizing the extent to which any conception of everyday reality depends on larger frameworks to give it meaning, though, is the first step toward correcting that imbalance. Indeed, the social sciences themselves seem to be rediscovering the sacred in unexpected places, among which are the sanctuaries of symbolism and religious discourse.



1. See Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1967).

2. According to the Social Science Citation Index, more than 250 publications have referred to Berger’s book, and the total number of references to related works ranges much higher. Berger himself has made extensive use of his original formulation in subsequent works on religion such as A Rumor of Angels (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1969) and The Heretical Imperative (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1979).

3. For a discussion of this and other examples, see Peter Farb, Word Play (New York: Knopf, 1973).

4. See Jerome S. Bruner, Rose R. Oliver, and Patricia M. Greenfield, Studies in Cognitive Growth (New York: Wiley, 1966).

5. Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1966), p. 5.

6. Berger, The Sacred Canopy, p. 51.

7. Berger, The Sacred Canopy, p. 33.

8. See Robert Wuthnow, The Consciousness Reformation (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1976).

9. Self-Esteem Survey (Princeton: The Gallup Organization, 1982).

10. See Richard A. Apostle, Charles Y. Glock, Thomas Piazza, and Marijean Suelzle, The Anatomy of Racial Attitudes (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1983), especially p. 207.

11. See Angela A. Aidala, "The Consciousness Reformation Revisited," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 23 (1984): 44-59.

12. See, e.g., William Sims Bainbridge and Rodney Stark, "The Consciousness Reformation Reconsidered,"Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 20(1981):1-15.

13. Wade Clark Roof, Community and Commitment (New York: Elsevier, 1978).

14. Bainbridge and Stark, "The Consciousness Reformation Reconsidered."

15. See James Davison Hunter, American Evangelicalism (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1983).

16. Phillip E. Hammond and James Davison Hunter, "On Maintaining Plausibility: The Worldview of Evangelical College Students," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 23 (1984): 221-38.

17. I draw here particularly on Bellah’s book Beyond Belief (New York: Harper & Row, 1970).

18. Bellah, Beyond Belief p. 252.