Analysis of Peter Berger’s The Sacred Canopy Essay

Peter Berger’s The Sacred Canopy utilizes a version of social constructivism as the foundational framework of its argument. In accordance with his previous work, The Social Construction of Reality, Berger’s version of social constructivism states that human knowledge is explainable in social terms since it is causally determined by various social factors. Social reality, in this sense, is seen as generated by the actual and empirically ascertainable fixed habits of thought prevalent in a given society which are fixed since they are considered as the causal product of certain aspects of social reality.

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In this case, its “determinacy is derived from certain laws specifying the causal, social determination of cognitive processes” (Berger and Luckmann 12). This implies that human knowledge is not dependent for its determinate content upon some infinite hierarchy of negotiated agreements, nor is it fixed by standards of rationality that are themselves relative to the social setting in which knowledge evolves.

According to Berger and Luckmann, “society is an objective reality (and) man is a social product” (23).

In other words, social reality is a human construction since man and his habits of thought are shaped by social factors. Humans create social institutions, as they are iterated and typified. In this sense, social reality determines man but man also determines social reality. Within this scheme, social reality is not a social fact but it is something produced and communicated. Society is thereby a product of humans and humans are products of society.

However, it should be noted that, humanly constructed worlds are constantly threatened by their creators’ “self interest and stupidity” (Berger 29). If such is the case, in order for society to maintain order there is the necessity to formulate [and in a sense construct] internal supporting structures. In Berger’s The Sacred Canopy, he argues that legitimation stands as the most important internal supporting structure (29). Berger notes that legitimation stands as the rationale for the creation of institutional arrangements (29).

This can be further understood if one considers that legitimations belong to the objective side of our dialectic social relationship. Through repetition and their objective status, legitimations continually reinforce the institutional arrangements prevalent within a given society. Such a process stands as the anchor for the new [the children] and the forgetful as well as for the periods of collective or individual crisis where the veil between meaning and chaos grows particularly thin.

In the same manner that legitimations reinforce social institutions, plausibility structures may also be considered as upholding such legitimations. Plausibility structures refer to the specific social processes that continually reinforce and reconstruct both the legitimating world as well as the result of such a world [the legitimated world] (Berger 45).

The correlation between the plausibility structure as well as the process of legitimations are evident if one considers that when the plausibility structures are strong, the legitimations are simple and when plausibility structures are weak, the legitimations are stronger. Berger notes that religion [as a social institution] has been shown to take effect in both situations [instances wherein the plausibility structures are strong and weak].

It is within the aforementioned context that Berger considers the strength of religious institutions. Berger notes, “Religion is the human enterprise by which a sacred cosmos is established” (25). Such a statement can be understood if one considers that the steadfastness of religious institutions lies in its ability to locate human phenomena within a cosmological framework thereby providing the support for religious institutions a universal [in the sense  of cosmic] status. Such a status, due to its universal cosmic character thereby has the capability to transcend the mundane experiences of life thereby providing a new dimension for the analysis of human experience (Berger 35).

According to Berger, the importance of such is evident if one considers that by providing human existence with various dimensions [e.g. physical as opposed to the spiritual], the socialized individual is given a framework of understanding reality [in its different levels] that enables the assumption of the possibility of the existence of peace and security within his role in society. In line with this, Berger notes that to locate an individual outside the protective spheres of a religiously legitimated world is tantamount to making him “deal with the devil” (39).

In accordance with the aforementioned function of religion, Berger notes that one of the reasons that religion serves, as a prevalent [and effective] method of legitimation lies in its function as a powerful agency of alienation (87). Alienation refers to a condition wherein an individual forgets that he is co-creator of his world (Berger 85).

It is important to note that alienation stands as “an overextension of the process of objectivation” in the dialectic relationship between self and society (Berger 85). Berger notes that through the objectivation of legitimations, alienation renders them virtually unassailable as long as an alienated conscious can be maintained. Within such a context, de-alienation may only occur as a result of the demise of a particular institutional framework.

In relation to this, Berger notes that the function of religious legitimation is that of enabling theodicy wherein theodicy refers to the explanations of the human condition [e.g. life and death]. Theodicy, in this sense, is highly irrational since it necessitates a surrender of the self to the ordering structure of society (Berger 54). Consider for example the most prevalent form of theodicy: Christian theodicy. Within the framework of Christian theodicy, an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent entity [God] is depicted as suffering for humanity.

Such a theodicy is questionable in relation to the existence and prevalence of various forms of disasters [both natural and unnatural]. In addition to external assailants of religious plausibility structures, Berger argues that Protestantism itself carried the seeds for its own destruction (129). In its critique of Catholicism, Protestantism enabled a more rational, individualistic world divided into secular and sacred spheres (Berger 123). As the secular sphere expanded to encompass everything outside of the church, Christianity became marginalized in a pluralistic society. It is within this context that the concept of pluralism arises.

According to Berger, pluralism refers to “a social-structural correlate of the secularization of consciousness” (127). In addition to Protestantism, industrialization tends to lead the political order away from the influences of religion (Berger 130). This process compartmentalized religion into the private world creating a pluralistic market situation. Such a situation thereby fails to enable the continuance of the universal cosmological ordering function of religion. This is evident if one considers that within pluralistic conditions, various [and different and sometimes contradictory] conditions of truth exists. Such a condition, according to Berger, leads to a relativistic conception of reality which leads to a relativized theodicy and hence an unstable conception of reality.

            As was mentioned at the onset of this paper, the aforementioned conception of social reality rests upon the framework of a socially constructed reality. It is within the context of this framework that I will assess the viability of Berger’s aforementioned claims as specified in his book The Sacred Canopy. Within the aforementioned context, a socially constructed conception of reality fails on the grounds that it accounts for all bodies of doctrine in a non-discriminatory fashion. This is possible since Berger perceives “‘reality’ and knowledge as initially justified by the fact of their social relativity”. Schutz’s influence here is apparent since such a conception is based upon an envisioned existence of “multiple realities”.

Rationality then is perceived as relative in so far as the system allows the demarcation of individuals into social groups, which are seen as having different conceptions of rationality “on a pattern of a neat one to one correspondence”. However, if such a one to one corresponds occurs, how is it possible to consider the conflicting frames of reference [in relation to understanding reality] as different individuals converge within a social sphere. In the aforementioned context, the individuals specified may be specifically construed as individuals who belong within different religious groups.

In a sense, the problem with the above conception of reality fails on the grounds that, in the same manner that a particular theodicy fails within a pluralistic society, such a conception of reality fails within a pluralistic society itself since in order to assume the existence of religious institution as a institutional structure which enables legitimation, it is important to account how such is possible within a society with varying [yet conflicting] theodicies.

This can be best understood if one considers that, the aforementioned conception of reality fails on the grounds that even if it seems “to supply us with the fixed laws in terms of which the outcome of hypothetical cognitive processes can be determined”, these laws are fixed by the social context of the cognitive process. This however leans towards a form of epistemic hierarchy since the laws will also be constructed via a particular society’s presupposed notion of the existence of social construction. In Collin’s words, “we cannot define social fact as the product of a hypothetical societal discussion (since)…the laws…would rely for this hypothetical prediction are themselves social constructions, the outcome of societal consensus” (23). This thereby leads to the problem of regress.

Works Cited

Berger, Peter. The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion. New York: Anchor Press, 1990.

Berger, Peter and Thomas Luckmann. The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise of the Sociology of Knowledge. California: University of California Press, 1967.

Collin, Finn. Social Reality. London: Routledge, 1997.

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