Social Theory: Peter Berger

13th Jul 2022 by Mustafa Menshawy

Social Theory: Peter Berger

Peter Berger is interested in a key puzzle related to the creation and evolution of religion. Religion is mainly a social construct or a human activity, but man loses control of this construction process. Along the lines of functionalist schools of thought in the sociology of religion such as Emile Durkheim[1], Berger conceptualises religion as a social construct or, as he phrased it ‘worlds are socially constructed or socially maintained.’[2] However, this construction is qualified in a ‘dialectical’ relationship under which it is a ‘human product, and nothing but a human product, that continuously acts back upon its producer’[3] as Berger succinctly put it in his seminal reading The Sacred Canopy. Berger resolves the puzzle through identifying three categories: objectivation, externalisation and internalisation. Nevertheless, his solutions, or perhaps the application thereof, create new puzzles or problems appertaining to agency and situating the individual within the religious landscape. 

Berger in Theory 

Religion is a human activity but it attains the status of ‘objective reality’ or what Berger calls ‘coercive factivity’[4] in a number of ways. The sacredness of religion is institutionalised into historical roots. In other words, every religious practice finds for itself a history older than it. As such, this practice which is made out of the ground or ex nihilo can thus appear as ‘the manifestation of something that has been existent from the beginning of time, or at least from the beginning of this group.’[5] We can argue that religion thus comprises of a conflation of tenses where the present is an extension of the past. 

Along with objectivation, the malleability of constructing and reconstructing religion is neutralised by what Berger terms ‘plausibility structures’. These are structures which can fixate specific meanings, shapes or features of religion through material and non-material aspects of culture. Think of holy books such as the Bible and Quraan or rituals repeating again and again what is mentioned in them by followers of each religion. The performance of sacramental acts or prayers, or what Berger calls ‘religious motifs’ as specific pattern or gestalt of religious experience as it continues over a period of time’[6], by reiterativeness. Structures can be also physical such as mosques or shrines which followers visit and pray. All these plausibility structures add what I elsewhere call ‘discursive alignment[7]’, that is where different discourses coalesce into building a specifically shaped entity such as religions. Berger demonstrated how this plausibility empowers religion as a force of legitimation. He mentions the ‘paraphernalia and ritualism’ of death during ‘official exercise of violence’ such as wars. Having an individual sent to war or being killed in it is celebrated rather than regretted or lamented through prayers and blessings as the ‘ecstasies of fear and violence are, by these means, kept within the boundaries of “sanity”, that is, of the reality of the social world.[8]

Through objectivation and plausibility structures existing ‘outside’ our own consciousness’[9], religion stands as an external reality confronting us, i.e. the producers of religion, as ‘factivity external to and other than to themselves.’[10] However, part of the process includes internalisation under which we have to ‘reappropriate’ this same reality by transforming it from structures of the objective world into structures of the subjective consciousness[11].’ Just to stay with the example of killing in the name of religion, a man has to replace the ‘real self’, which is afraid and has scruples, by internalising the objectivated reality under which she or has to play the role of ‘self qua role-carrier (warrior, hangman and what not, in which roles he may act the hero, the merciless avenger, and so on)’.[12]

Berger in Application 

Berger’s theory can help us understand and explain reality of Middle East politics including - but not limited to - growing tension between the Sunnis and Shias and their alleged political manifestations of Saudi-Iranian rivalry. For example, let us take this specific statement made in May 2017, by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman who said dialogue with Iran is impossible. His reasons are mainly religious with him saying that Iran’s actions and ideology are based on the belief that 'The Imam Mahdi will come and they must prepare the fertile environment for (his) arrival ... and they must control the Muslim world.’[13] Accordingly, he elaborated, ‘we know the aim of the Iranian regime is to reach the focal point of Muslims (Mecca)'.[14]

Religion turns this mere statement, a human activity or production by being Bin Salman’s words, into ‘objective reality’ as if it is extraneous to his subjective consciousness or, to follow Berger, being ‘out there’. His words gain ‘ultimately valid ontological status[15]’ by historicization. He bases his argument on a specific historical disagreement over the leadership of the Muslim community after the death of Prophet Muhammad and over the latter’s succession leading to the subsequent killing of the Prophet’s grandson, Hussein ibn Ali, at the hands of forces loyal to the Umayyad caliph Yazid in the Battle of Karbala in 680 AD. The disagreement is the base of sectarian perceptions under which the Shia perceive the Sunni as supporters of power usurpation and the Sunni perceive the Shia as ‘apostates’ deviating from ‘true Islam’ and seeking to reverse history in their favour. Bin Salman also builds his own plausibility structures, possibly discursive by reiteration by others within state institutions and bodies sponsored, instigated or financed by the Saudi regime. For example, many religious scholars have apostatised the Shiite in Syria and Iraq and stating that jihadi fighters should ‘kill them’[16]

The same applies to the discourses on the other side. For example, Iran and Lebanese Shia group Hezbollah justified their military involvement in Syria after 2011 in religious terms supported with plausibility structures such as protecting Shia sites in Syria, prominently including shrine of Zaynab. Zaynab was one of the only surviving adult members of the Prophet’s family after Imam Hussein’s death at the hands of Yazid, a tyrannical ruler of Iraq, in the 7th-century epic Karbala battle. Iranian fighters in Syria mobilized in different ways across these lines such naming their battalion ‘the Defenders of Zaynab’, thus contributing to internalising this belief among the Iranians. This is a letter carried by Iran’s official media and sent by a young Iranian woman to her fallen husband, a pro-Assad fighter in Syria: 'This shrine [the Zaynab shrine] is sacred … I am worried about people who throw stones at it and so I sent you to protect it. But I, like you, are immersed in the love of Zaynab and that is what keeps me strong in your absence'.[17]

Death thus ‘makes sense’ to the wife as religion treats it as a ‘marginal situation’ and integrates it into a comprehensive ‘nomos’. Berger’s words. Debating whether Iran should join the Syrian conflict or incur losses is out of the question as the matter is linked to an ultimate reality grounded in what Berger calls the ‘sacred realissimum, which by definition is beyond the contingencies of human meanings and human activity.’[18]

Issues to be Aware Of 

Berger’s theory faces the criticism of de-individualisation. The individual’s capacity to act and manifestations of this capacity in actions are limited as she or he is thus always part of the group or society with ‘social structures within which this reality is taken for granted’[19] the individual has no ‘choice’ but to set his life ‘co-extensive’ with the dominant religious world, and challenging the latter would imply the ‘the threat of anomy’.[20] Religion is based on the ‘surrender of the self to the ordering power of society[21].’ Scholars criticise this argument as ‘fundamental though irrational.’[22]Although man creates religion, in Berger’s viewpoint, the creation is followed by a ‘severance’[23]between man and her or his product. Berger’s argument is closer to that of Durkheim and his idea of ‘collective conscience’ permeating and shaping the behaviour of individuals, and distance itself from rational choice theories based on the ‘supply side[24]’ empowering individuals against religion (perhaps this opens the door for a comparison or a link with another lacking in literature related to religion-based phenomena such as sectarianism where scholars mainly under-explore individuals at the expense of what is collective and totalising) 

Aware of the potential criticism, Berger dedicated space to consolidating his argument on basis of power relations. Man is weaker in front of religion as human, unlike other species, is basically ‘unfinished’ at birth with an instinctual ‘instability’ in man’s relations with the outside world[25]. Man is the one in need for religion to construct and stabilise her or his relations with the surrounding world, or what Berger calls ‘world-maintaining’ function or elsewhere refers to as ‘order.’ Religion is thus more powerful enough to gain the ‘capacity to impose itself upon the reluctance of individuals.[26]’ Religion will remain powerful by being in need to bring in stability and order to a reality that is ‘inherently precarious.’[27] However, as remainder of the dialectically-based relations remain, order brings with in disorder since religion is used and functionalised within a hostile, dichotomous and oppositional environment. 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. Every human society, however, must maintain its solidarity in the face of chaos… The world of sacred order, by virtue of being an ongoing human production, is ongoingly confronted with the disordering forces of human existence in time'[28].

This brings in another confusion as per Berger’s conceptualisation. Religion’s dominance cannot be guaranteed in a multiple environment full of different versions of religions with contradictory plausibility structures. Meanings are always negotiated, contested and falsified in the post-structuralist sense of being a process of shifts within power and resistance. Indeed, Berger realises this confusion by showing how religion can play contradictory functions including disordering surrounding world by another alienation/dis-alienation dichotomy. Berger’s contention is thus based on the premise of a paradox: Religion can be both world-maintaining and world-shaking force, and this again can help us apply Berger to the Middle East politics where we can identify dynamics drawn on such duality[29].

 Conclusion

Berger focuses on less on substance of religion and more on its functions and uses. He takes it as ‘the historically most widespread and effective instrumentality of legitimation.’[30] The legitimation evolves within objectivation as if religion is an objective reality. This reality exists ‘outside’ of man’s own consciousness. Any consciousness man owns is ‘false’ as man is given the impression that he cannot change religion, a ‘human activity’ in Berger’s words. Man has further to internalise religion by necessity not choice especially as religion gains a dominant power with all of its plausibility structures adding to its factivity. Still, man can still resist or challenge his lost power in the ‘dialectical’ relationship since religious beliefs and traditions can made fragile in a precarious surrounding full of conflictual interests, contradictory ideologies and competitive agents as the Middle East region can attest to.

 

Key Texts

Peter Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion, New York: Anchor Press: 1969)

Berger, Peter, and Thomas Luckmann. "The social construction of reality." In Social Theory Re-Wired, pp. 110-122. Routledge, 2016.

Harvey, Van A. "Some Problematical Aspects of Peter Berger's Theory of Religion." Journal of the American Academy of Religion 41, no. 1 (1973): 75-93


[1] Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (Collier Books, New York, 1912, 1961). 

[2] Peter Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion, New York: Anchor Press: 1969), p. 45

[3] Ibid, p. 11 

[4] Ibid, p. 11

[5] Ibid, p. 33

[6] Berger, Peter L. "The Sociological Study of Sectarianism." Social Research (1984): 367-385 (p. 378).

[7] For further readings on alignments across discourse, see Menshawy, M., 2021. Sovereignty alignment process: strategies of regime survival in Egypt, Libya and Syria. Third World Quarterly42(12), pp.2804-2821.

[8] Berger, The Sacred Canopy, p. 44

[9] Ibid, p. 10

[10]Ibid, p. 4 

[11]Ibid, p. 4.

[12] Ibid, p. 44

[13] Sami Aboudi and Omar Fahmy, ‘Powerful Saudi prince sees no chance for dialogue with Iran’, Reuters, May 2, 2017, https://www.reuters.com/articl...

[14] Aboudi and Fahmy, ‘Powerful Saudi prince’

[15]Berger, The Sacred Canopy, pp 33-34. 

[16] Quoted in Darwich, M., & Fakhoury, T. (2016). ‘Casting the Other as an existential threat: The securitisation of

sectarianism in the international relations of the Syria crisis’. Global Discourse, 6(4), 712–732.

[17] https://www.aljazeera.com/feat...

[18] Berger, The Sacred Canopy, p.32.

[19] Ibid, p. 46.

[20] Ibid, p. 50

[21] Ibid, p. 54.

[22] Harvey, Van A. "Some Problematical Aspects of Peter Berger's Theory of Religion." Journal of the American Academy of Religion 41, no. 1 (1973): 75-93 (79).

[23] Berger, The Sacred Canopy, p. 93

[24]Rodney Stark and William Sims Bainbridge, The Future of Religion: Secularization, Revival, and Cult Formation (University of California Press, 1985)

[25] Berger, The Sacred Canopy, p. 5

[26] Ibid, p. 11.

[27] Ibid, p. 50

[28] Ibid, p. 51.

[29] See the duality of Wahhabism as ordering/disordering force in the Saudi-Qatari relations, 

[30] Ibid, p. 32