Secularisation Theory Re-Examined

Revisiting and Confronting Peter Berger’s Sociology 

Recently, I participated via email communication in an academic symposium that assessed the perspective recently developed by the well-respected Austro-American sociologist of religion, Peter L Berger (1929- ). This was part of a project generated from Gordon College, Wenham, Massachusetts. Various scholarly responses have since been compiled together in a book that may shortly arrive on academic bookshop shelves. It concerns Berger’s claim that his recently announced “pluralism theory” challenges the taken-for-granted “secularisation theory”, which had been the ruling orthodoxy for so much social scientific and historical research in the 2nd half of the 20th century. Besides, Berger had himself set forth his own contribution to sociology by assuming this view was basic to a correct and social- scientific understanding of modernity (i.e. since the 16th and 17th centuries). Readers can explore Berger’s view, and also some of the responses that will be included in the future publication here. It is a significant contribution since it is about how a central and defining proposition in sociology is now understood by one who, but a few decades ago, was one of its leading proponents.

The ambiguity in Berger’s professed Christian contribution was the focus of my contribution to the symposium. He asserts that there can be no Christian sociology but completely ignores the fact that such a view was implicit to the former “secularisation theory” that was now to be superseded by “pluralism theory”. As such the symposium was as much a consideration of an ambiguity inherent in Berger’s own “intellectual biography” as it was dealing with antinomies inherited and then re-invented in the discipline of sociology. My 1969-1971 experience of “secularisation theory” in undergraduate sociology at Monash University came when structuralist understandings of religion were entrenched and we were in the earliest days of Peter Berger’s pragmatic-phenomenological insistence that sociology required a “biographical approach”.

My university studies presupposed an “everyday secularisation”. Whatever went on in church, or ISCF or Christian clubs on campus, was presumed to be “religious” and what went on in lecture theatres and tutorial classes was “secular”. A critical moment for many students who saw themselves as “religious” was when these “spheres” seemed to intersect, namely within the tutorial concerned with the sociology of religion. That was where we heard about “secularisation” as a retreat of religion from the public square, as a sine qua non of modernity.

The Christian ministers and leaders who advised me at this time, did not see any need to challenge the inherently problematic dimension of any Christian university student’s experience. It was to a significant extent not only accepted but vigorously promoted within church circles. For instance, it was very difficult to raise political questions within the context of a “Christian” association or a church. These matters were said to be “secular” and outside the sphere of the spiritual concerns of the church. But of course this view was contested and on one occasion I recall it came as a pronouncement from a prominent evangelical philosopher that he saw no problem with being a Marxist in his public life, if he remained convinced of the Gospel in his private life.

Another example of how “secularisation theory” was at work in the modus operandi of evangelical Anglicanism (in Melbourne Diocese at least) can be seen in the way in which young students were told that before they studied theology they should get a grounding in a basic undergraduate degree. What was problematic with that? We shall return to this question in a later post and discuss how it could not but be an encouragement to a basic accommodation to the “problem solving way of life” that dominated the latter-day humanistic world-view.

It did not occur to us as we sat in sociology lectures and tutorials that the extensive social experiences of “everyday secularisation” from our own twenty years of Australian social experience should have been openly discussed and analysed in such classes. Besides, to do so, would mean presuming that students were ready to engage in such “auto-biographical” discussions. And was that not tantamount to giving ground for students to merely “rave on”? Peter Berger’s implicit “biographical” approach as sine qua non to the new style sociology had only just begun to make its appearance in the way the sociology curriculum was being formed and it should have already challenged this exclusion. Indeed, my university studies in sociology, may have come mid-stream of such a transition. But it is a problem much wider than can be discerned within one separate discipline. For some lecturers and students, sociology may have been taught as if it were a “world unto itself” but students had other subjects to study as well and an overall programme that linked the social sciences was not available apart from the presumption that the vital inter-linkages (between psychology, economics, politics, history, geography) would be forged within any one student’s own head – and yet there was no place whatsoever to test those interlinkages in an disciplined interlinking way. given that, was it not preparing students to make a personal confession as follows:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
W B Yeats “The Second Coming” (1919)

We “Baby Boomers” have repeatedly been told that these “late 60’s early 70s” years were the the crucial time for the transition to what has been termed “post-modernity”. One has to wonder whether that interpretation of history was simply a part of a self-oriented secularised “Baby Boomer” self-definition. For us of that generation, it seems a somewhat way of understanding the world to refer to those years when we were deemed to become responsible adults to then consider it was when “everything changed”. But Yeats’ poem was 50 years earlier!

Peter and Brigitte Berger published Sociology: A Biographical Approach in 1975 and this followed up and develop the comprehensive overview of sociology based upon the perspective he had outlined in his 1963 classic Invitation to Sociology: a Humanistic Approach. (That 1963 volume had been listed as the “recommended pre-reading” in the Monash Handbook. These were years when Handbooks were compiled in the expectation that students were coming to universities and needed guidance as to what they should read. Besides, Berger’s book begins with his subtle caveat: “This book is intended to be read, not studied”!) A careful examination of Berger’s writings would indicate that his sociology was expressive of his desire to strongly endorse the need to include within the sociology curriculum the examination of biographical examples of “everyday secularisation” from students. And so this was taken up by including a “social setting” exercise in first year sociology. But that was the extent of the “phenomenological” renovation of the functionalist curriculum at the time I encountered it (and it prevailed for decades afterwards) and as with Berger’s Invitation, the approach he implied – which was to develop a social scientific “perspective” rather than endorse a particular “theory” – was not carried through to subsequent courses in later years. Maybe that was because the distinction between “perspective” and “theory” – as he set it forth – simply could not be maintained.

But the impact of the sociology aligned with the Bergers’ biographical approach was longer-term; my initial grounding in sociology was before it could be integrated into the sociology curriculum, and then in my final year we were introduced to the Berger and Luckmann philosophical treatise in the sociology of knowledge: The Social Construction of Reality (1966).

A Christian University Student Confronts the Secular University  

The assumption that “religion” was a “private” matter was firmly entrenched, so much so that its privatisation as that had occurred in our own personal lives was rarely discussed. It is, I guess, a failure to be explained by various contextual factors, not least the intellectual elitism that was part of the positivist world-view that had superficially absorbed the “Protestant Ethic” thesis of Max Weber, and what was said to be his version  of “value free” scientific inquiry (see comment quoted by Hugh Stretton in a later post). In this way a taken-for-granted historical interpretation of the “privatisation” process was simply oriented to ignore any doubts that students might have raised about this “privatised” view of religion drawing on experience from, say, the previous 5 years. In a university context, all such doubts needed to be considered as  (merely) “private”. Even so, the teaching of Jesus Christ about what it meant to be his disciple had become so very important in an everyday sense and so “being a Christian” became more and more a way of life, something to be lived out, something that could not but have public expression. It was not just a matter of what I said to people on the bus I took to take me to the campus. Even the bus ride made sense as part of the life Jesus Christ called me to live. But did that simply mean, courteously thanking the driver and talking quietly about my personal beliefs to the person who happened to sit next to me? Although I could not accept a “privatised” view of religion, I was not so clear about what “being a Christian” meant for the sociology lecture, where we might be invited to ask questions, or the tutorial where we were required to give a brief paper. Was I ready and able to reflect upon what might be called the “everyday secularisation” that had already become part of my life?

We will come back to this in a later post in which I discuss how such an initial confrontation is something I cannot now ignore, 50 years later.


Redraft: 15.5.17


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