Peter Berger

The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion

Review by Tim Knepper, 2001

Berger, Peter L. The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion. Garden City: Doubleday, 1967.

(Note: the following review treats solely the first half of the Sacred Canopy, i.e., not the secularization hypothesis of the second half that was later rejected by Berger.)

As a component of social reality – particularly that component of social reality that legitimizes anomy (see below) – religion, according to Peter Berger, is a “dialectical phenomenon.”  Thus, while religion emerges out of human beings as part of an ordered and meaningful social reality, humans – at the very same time – emerge out of this socially-constructed world and, indeed, are only human because of such emergence.  This dialectical phenomenon is parsed out by Berger in terms of not two, but rather three concepts: externalization, objectivation and internalization. 

Externalization of a meaningfully ordered worldview is “an anthropological necessity,” compelled by the “unfinished” nature of human biological constitution.  Drawing upon the work of sociologist Arnold Gehlen, Berger insists the weak instinctual nature of human beings necessitates the externalization of a social world.  This social world provides order, meaning and security, thereby completing that which remained “naturally” incomplete – human nature.  One might say in the case of human beings that the artificial is the natural.  It is natural for humans to create an artificial world.  Culture is this artificially natural world – humanly-created, thereby artificial, yet created as the natural necessity of human biological incompleteness.

If externalization is the process whereby social reality is constructed, objectivation regards this socially constructed reality as a facticity, i.e., as something that is not “merely” constructed.  Language, for example, is obviously a human construction, yet it also exists outside of its human creators and exists in such a manner that everyone may regard it in essentially the same manner, as essentially the same language.  This “double meaning” of objectivation stipulates not only that social reality is “there,” but that social reality is “there for everyone.”  This quality of there-ness gives culture the appearance of facticity.  Culture is “taken-for-granted” as natural, imposing “itself back upon the reluctance of individuals” as a brute fact.

This imposition constitutes the last segment in Berger's dialectical process of world building – internalization.  By the process of internalization the socially-constructed world that is regarded as “there” and “there for everyone” becomes “there in me.”  In Berger's words, “the objective facticity of the world becomes a subjective facticity as well.”  The ordered structure of culture becomes the ordered structure of individual human consciousness.  The languages, values, meanings, institutions, etc. of society become the languages, values, meanings, institutions, etc. of the individual.  It is important to keep in mind, however, that “the individual is not molded as a passive, inert thing.”  The individual's ongoing activity of externalization and active appropriation of social reality precludes hard-core determinism.

Because socialization is an active, ongoing dialectical process, the individual is never completely socialized.  Difference always exists between the “out there” and the “in here.”  When this difference gets too great, anomy (a sense of orderlessness) rears its ugly head.  On the other hand, when this difference gets too small, or goes completely unrecognized by the human actor, alienation results.  To treat the latter of these two concepts first, alienation occurs when humans regard social reality as facticity without the dimension of externalization, i.e., when humans forget social reality is actually created in the first place and, therefore, may be modified.  By using terms like “alienation” (Marx) and “bad faith” (Satre), however, Berger seems to move from descriptive sociology to normative sociology, betraying an existentialist orientation: the human who projects her or his own possibilities in the face of death is most authentic; the human who forgets to do so, failing to realize they are in control of their own destiny, is inauthentic. 

To speak about anomy is to return to Berger’s initial presupposition that social reality is constructed in order to complete human nature.  Humans crave meaning and, therefore, instinctually create meaning socially.  Social reality, therefore, gives order, meaning and security to a human existence that is naturally bereft of such qualities.  Social reality provides a shield against the forces of chaos – particularly death, suffering and evil – that threaten to dis-order human existence.  Separation from this well-shielded world results in anomy, the danger “par excellence” of human existence.  The individual who has become separated from social reality “loses his orientation in experience” and, in extreme cases, “loses his sense of reality and identity.”  Such an individual “becomes anomic in the sense of becoming world-less.”

Religion’s role within a socially-constructed world is that of theodicy – the legitimation of anomic phenomena.  By the term legitimation, Berger refers to “socially objectivated ‘knowledge’ that serves to explain and justify the social order.”  Legitimations are both “cognitive” and “normative” in character.  They address not only question of “what should be,” but also question of “what is.”  As such, legitimations are quite frequently prethematic – language, gestures, routinized social behavior and identities, moral maxims, popular myths – but may also consist of very complicated theories explicitly designed for the purpose of justification.  All these legitimations, from the most implicit to the most explicit, serve to maintain socially constructed reality.  As such, legitimations work best when they “hide, as much as possible,” their “constructed character” (as well as when they engender plausability structures that ground legitimations in the fabric of social structure, thereby, making explicit legitimation unnecessary).  In Berger's words: “Let that which has been stamped out of the ground ex nihilo appear as the manifestation of something that has been existent from the beginning of time or at least from the beginning of this group.”

Religious legitimations serve this function best by grounding themselves the divinely-ordained, sacred order of the cosmos, most frequently by isometrically identifying the human cosmos “down here” and divine reality “up there.”  As such they are best equipped to handle the issue of theodicy, warding-off the anomy that constantly threatens to break in upon the sheltered nomos by appealing to the deepest order of society – the sacred cosmos as sacred canopy.  Berger typologizes religious theodicies in terms of a rational-irrational continuum.  Indic karma-samsara theodicies constitute the rational pole; primitive, Chinese and mystical microcosm/macrocosm theodicies constitute the irrational pole; and, other assorted theodicies – future compensation, dualism, inscrutability, etc. – compose the middle of the continuum.  Berger makes it clear, however, that irrationalism underlies all the theodicies insofar as theodicy, in its very essence, calls for “the surrender of self to the ordering power of society.”  All theodicies require a bit of “masochism” insofar as the individual must deny herself in order to subsume herself under the ordered and meaningful sacred canopy.  In Berger’s words: “It is not happiness that theodicy primarily provides, but meaning.”  Thus, and in summary, religion emerges within a socially-constructed nomos as that part of the nomos which serves to legitimate anomy by providing a well-ordered, meaningful “sacred canopy”.