The sociologist and public intellectual Peter Berger, who died in June at the age of eighty-eight, left a lasting impact on many areas within his field of study, but perhaps religion was what interested him most. At a time when most social scientists saw modernity as bringing inexorable secularization along with it, he was among the first to realize that religion wouldn’t simply wither away. James Nuechterlein reflects on Berger’s upbringing, his intellectual development, and his ideas:
Peter’s ironic temperament marked his complicated and unsettled religious views. He was born in Vienna in 1929 to Jewish parents who converted to Christianity when he was a child. (The family immigrated to America, by way of Palestine, when Peter was seventeen.) At our first meeting in the early 1980s, he described himself as a liberal Protestant, but while he shared that heritage . . . he had little in common with most of those who currently go by the name. . . . His bourgeois mentality and his conservative politics made him a stranger to the culture that prevails in [today’s liberal Protestant circles]. . . . Toward the end of his life, he confessed that he alternated in his religious identity between “agnostic” and “relatively conservative Lutheran.”
[Berger] was a reformer in the 1960s . . . but a reformer who scorned ideologues and who never in his life experienced a utopian temptation. He grasped the fragility of the social order. To the injunction of the youth culture to “let it all hang out,” he responded typically, “Tuck it all back in.” . . .
Early in his career, Peter was convinced that modernization was an inevitable carrier of secularity. But over time the evidence changed his mind. Most of the modern world, he concluded, is decidedly unsecular: the principal exceptions are Western Europe and the non-geographical category of intellectuals. What modernization decrees is not secularity but pluralism. Our modern problem, he concluded, is not the absence of God, but the presence of many gods. There is no available route back to a world taken for granted. We might choose to quarrel with modernity, but we cannot pretend it does not exist.