Peter Berger on Globalization and Religion

I listened to Speaking of Faith program (transcript and audio here) from 2006 today that talked about how globalization has impacted religion.  You might be familiar with the rather Eurocentric thesis that said that secularism would accompany modernization, just as it had in Europe.  In fact, sociologist Peter Berger held this view as well, before realizing that it just hasn’t played out that way.

Rather, he said, modernity has brought pluralism and increased contact with multiple points of view.  People don’t live in areas where everyone shares a common belief system, where religion is taken for granted.

Now, this taken-for-granted status is lost with the coming of pluralism because you realize there are other possibilities of belief and of life. And therefore people are forced to make choices, and that is a very big change.

I’ve described modernity as a gigantic transformation from destiny to choice. People must choose what they believe, how they define themselves, how they are to live, which is quite a burden. I mean, it can be a liberation, but it’s also a burden. And then you have to ask, what are the ways in which people can cope with this loss of taken-for-granted status?

There are three options, as he sees it:

One is to try to restore taken-for-grantedness in the entire society, the totalitarian system. Now, the other little more plausible project is to forget about the larger society and to create a taken-for-granted subculture. So, if you like, it’s the sectarian option. You create little groups, tightly controlled, and within those groups, whatever the religious tradition is, it again becomes taken for granted. There are lots of examples of this. It’s also difficult because of the turbulent pluralism outside. So you have to keep very tight controls over your members. The third possibility is to engage with the pluralism and to enter into dialogue with the alternatives that exist to your own traditional belief system. That is difficult also. There are no risk-free options in any of this. But it’s possible, and many people go that way.

This helps to conceptualize the different responses we see around the world to modernization and globalization, I think.

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