Pluralism, Secularism, and Christianity: Responding to Peter Berger

In the course of a recent online discussion on the merits of a pluralistic society, particularly where Christianity is concerned, a good friend recommended that I read up on eminent sociologist and theologian Peter Berger (1929-2017).

Selecting his last work, The Many Altars of Modernity: Toward a Paradigm for Religion in a Pluralist Age, I soon realized what an outstanding recommendation that was. Besides being highly informative, Berger’s writing style is engaging and full of a light sarcasm that made perusing this book a truly enjoyable experience.

Before diving into the meat of Berger’s thought, a couple examples of what I mean:

On universities:

“The university changed as a result, but it survived in its basic functions, e.g., to transmit bodies of knowledge and to serve as a holding pen for notoriously misbehaving young humans.” (7)

While relating an anecdote about a sticky situation he got himself into in Spain:

“I told them that I was an American citizen, thus by definition an ignorant foreigner.” (41)

On the development of “denominations” within American Judaism:

“An old joke illustrates this point: An American Jew stranded by himself on an island builds two synagogues – one in which he prays, and one in which he would not want to be found dead.” (45)

Note: All page numbers following quotes are from the Kindle version of the book.

Besides “Many Altars”, I also watched a Veritas Forum conversation between Berger and Ross Douthat, in which many points brought up in the book were discussed. If you are at all interested in the subject, you should really watch the video.

Why is Berger important?

Perhaps a better way to frame the question would be “why am I, a missionary in Brazil, investing  time and energy in a discussion about Berger’s theory and philosophy?”

It’s a fair question and not one that is hard to answer. Theoretical philosophy has a way of filtering from the ivory towers of academia down into the culture at large. This is not always a bad thing. For example, John Calvin’s journey from Roman Catholicism began when he was in the the university. Conversely, anti-Christian ideas that germinated in the “ivory towers” of academia back in the 1960’s are in full bloom today. It is important to pay attention to the lines of thought that are developing in the institutions of higher learning – especially, but not limited to, the humanities.

As to Berger’s relevance to my host culture, the conversation that led to my sudden immersion into his thinking was carried on in a specifically Brazilian context, the sub-context being the current politico-religious climate of Brazil. Concepts of religious liberty, freedom of thought and expression, and secular society are very much “a flor da pele” here.

There can be no doubt, these debates happening at the macro level have a direct effect on the lives of those to whom we minister on the micro level.

So who is Peter Berger?

Peter Berger was born in Vienna, Austria in 1929, and died in Massachusetts in 2017. He had an illustrious academic trajectory, including prestigious positions at Rutgers and Boston University.

Early in his career he was a proponent of the idea that secular modernity would inevitably lead to the demise of religion in Western society. However, when the opposite proved to be the case, he set out to discover why, and chart a way forward for religion in a secular world. “Many Altars”, his final work, proposes a sort of purposeful pluralism where all religions function equally under the banner of a mostly-benign state that operates “as if God did not exist” – a phrase he borrows from 17th century Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius.

So as not to misrepresent him, here is how he summarizes his main thesis in “Many Altars”:

“Secularization theory, based on the idea that modernity necessarily brings about a decline of religion, has for a time served as a paradigm for the study of religion. It can no longer be maintained in the face of the empirical evidence. A new paradigm is needed. I think that it must be based on the many implications of the phenomenon of pluralism. I propose that a new paradigm should be able to deal with two pluralisms – the co-existence of different religions and the coexistence of religious and secular discourses. This co-existence occurs both in the minds of individuals and in social space. I intend this book to be a step toward such a paradigm for the understanding of modernity and religion.”

In researching Berger, I have learned just how much influence his thinking has had on current conceptions of religion and society.

So, without further ado, here are some of my own takeaways:

It is important to note that Peter Berger does not approach this subject from a Biblical perspective.

Berger is quite forthright about his own foundation for theological thought. From “Many Altars”:

“My own religious position has not significantly changed since my youth; it is a position best described as a nervous Christianity, in the form of a theologically very liberal Lutheranism.” (19)

In the video I linked above he goes further, saying that for him, the only “non-negotiable” of the Christian faith is the resurrection. He at one point states that he doesn’t feel God is terribly interested in what one does with one’s genitalia.

Those of us who hold the Bible as the inspired Word of God know that God would beg to differ.

This of course does not mean that he has nothing valid to offer. Quite to the contrary, he brings some very valuable insights to the table – more on that later. What it does mean, however, is that Bible-believing Christians will necessarily approach the subject from a radically different standpoint than does Berger. This is essential to keep in mind as one interacts with any worldview –  not just Berger’s.

Berger is not a proponent of either socialism or relativism.

He clearly has no time for either of these philosophies. The sections where he dealt with them in “Many Altars” were among my favorites of the entire book.

On Marx:

“For example, the history of Marxism can be seen as the extended comedy of a Quixotic quest for a cognitively privileged elite. Marx thought that the proletariat had such a privileged view of reality because its condition of exploitation as it were burned away the false consciousness of the bourgeoisie and thus made it possible for the proletariat to become a revolutionary class. It was left unexplained how Marx, a bourgeois if there ever was one, married to an aristocrat and financially dependent on a capitalist friend, managed to escape the false consciousness of his class.” (12)

On Gramsci:

“The Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci, imprisoned by Mussolini under conditions that allowed him to write, argued that the true revolutionary class would be the intelligentsia. That theory, whether they knew it or not, inspired the student rebels of the late sixties, who broke all the rules of the academic institution by, among other transgressions, defecating in the dean’s office. I could go on, but perhaps the point has been made.” (12)

On relativism and post-modernism:

“The basic method here is to translate affirmations of truth or virtue into expressions of allegedly underlying interests that have nothing to do with truth or virtue –interests of power, or greed, or lust. Machiavelli, Marx, and Freud are major representatives of this type of worldview. They have not only served to legitimate extant relativity, but they have engendered political and cultural movements from which followers could derive programs of behavior. So-called postmodernism has been a recent theoretical flowering of this worldview.” (11)

Berger makes an important distinction about the Enlightenment

A knowledge of the so-called Enlightenment is essential to understanding the various political and social movements that have followed. Usually treated as a monolithic phenomenon (at least from where I sit), Peter Berger makes an important distinction:

“The American and French revolutions, both (though in different versions) inspired by the Enlightenment, inaugurated an era in which genuine religious freedom was increasingly realized.” (38)

And again…

“This development (that of American religious freedom) occurred while a political ideology was at hand to legitimate and even to sanctify it – the ideology of the Enlightenment, in its religion-friendly British rather than its secularist French version.” (44)

I really wish he had unpacked this more, but at least he made the distinction. Why did the Franco-European version of the enlightenment result in the massacre of over 40,000 people in one year and the rise of Napolean and the subsequent carnage he brought upon Europe, while the Anglo-American version gave birth to a stable Constitution and one of the most prosperous (not perfect, mind you) societies on earth?

Among the many factors that can be cited, I believe ample credit must be given to the idea that, while the French revolution was based on the easily re-definable concepts of “Liberty, Fraternity, Equality”, the English Enlightenment had deep roots in English Puritanism. Thus “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” were “inalienable” because they were “endowed by (our) Creator”.

This has a specific application to the Brazilian society where I live and work. It is my observation that the Enlightenment principles taught in the schools here are overwhelmingly Franco-European. Thus the confusion over the concept of free speech, to cite but one example. (For a look at how this mentality bears out in modern-day France, check out this very entertaining Twitter thread. Relevant tweets are towards the middle.)

Berger’s “way forward” is problematic for Bible-believing Christians.

Like many non-believing authors I have read and enjoyed (see here and here for a couple examples) Berger is very good at describing how we arrived at the point where we are. It is in the “what we should do now” part that the weakness of his position becomes evident.Berger proposes the continued development of a dual pluralism (his term), the first being horizontal (different religions relating to each other), and the second being vertical (religion as a whole relating to the state). Individual religions are relegated to their sphere of influence, and people are thus able to carry on their business “as if God did not exist”.

Here are some of the major issues I have with Berger’s thinking, beginning with the most obvioius:

Christians are not supposed to be doing anything “as if God did not exist”. The Bible is fairly explicit about this:

Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God. (I Corinthians 10:31)

This “all”, related as it is to eating and drinking, the most basic of our daily activities, is pretty comprehensive.

Berger tries to make the point that there are many things that we do without reference to religion at all, from flying a plane to taking out the trash. This may be true, but if so it represents a failure on the part of believers. It’s a bug, not a feature.

The Christian’s role in society is not coexistence. Christians are to be pro-active agents of change, not passive “live and let live” pluralists. Hear Christ’s words (emphases mine):

“…All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen.” (Matthew 28:18-20)

Throughout his book, Berger treats other religions as if on the same level as Christianity, and his view of pluralism puts all belief-systems on equal footing. Whether or not it is ideal for the government to look at us this way (more on that later), Christians cannot share this worldview.

The prevalence of this thinking has lead to monstrous errors in the name of “tolerance”, like the “Evangelical” church here in Brazil that donated R$11.000,00 (almost $3,000 at today’s exchange) for the construction of an afro-Brazilian religious center (terreiro de Candomblé). What’s more, I believe current events are making clear that Berger’s two-tiered pluralism ultimately leads to the relativism and post-modernism he (rightly) despised.

The results of a pluralistic mentality within the church.

Berger’s version of pluralism is bound to fail.  This goes back to the difference Berger himself made in passing about the difference between the French and English Enlightenment. He should have spent more time there.

If he had, he might have come to the conclusion that the only workable form of tolerance for other faiths is found in a society built on the idea that rights come from the Creator. If the state is the dispenser of rights, then the state can modify or remove them at will. If, however, those rights come from Almighty God (as they do), then they cannot be so easily revoked.

A quick anecdote: a few years ago, when my sons participated in the Scouting movement here in Brazil, the troop they belonged to used the facilities of a Masonic lodge. One day the Masons invited us to attend a lecture they were giving about Masonry. Interested, I tagged along.

At one point in the session, the speaker sought to put people’s mind at ease with regard to the stories that abound about the sinister nature of the Lodge. “Our motto,” said he, “is ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’. How can anything sinister be associated with that?” 

How indeed. (img src)

Finally, Berger’s view of pluralism has no place for biblical Christianity. He makes this abundantly clear, frequently positing fundamentalism as the other side of the coin of relativism.

An example:

“Fundamentalism balkanizes a society, leading either to ongoing conflict or to totalitarian coercion. Relativism undermines the moral consensus without which no society can survive.” (15)


“Both relativism and fundamentalism are dangerous for individuals and much more so for society. Relativism moves individuals toward moral nihilism, fundamentalism toward fanaticism. Neither is attractive as a way of life, but as long as my nihilistic or fanatical neighbors do not seek to impose their views on me, I can live with them and collaborate in taking out the trash. However, the threat to society is harder to manage.” (75 emphasis mine)

But perhaps by “fundamentalism” he means something other than biblical Christianity?

Well, no:

“A recent controversy in the United States has been provoked by a (mostly Evangelical) movement that calls itself “creation science.” Its key proposition is that the theory of evolution as taught by standard biology is not supported by the scientific evidence. “Creation science” is supposed to offer an alternative, supporting the biblical account of creation in the book of Genesis. The demand that this allegedly scientific theory be taught in public schools alongside standard biology has led to a flood of litigation….(H)ere is another (not very sophisticated) attempt to do away with the boundary between religious and secular discourses by claiming the legitimating banner of “science” for a religious worldview.” (75)

So what is to be done with us “crazy fundamentalists”?

“Individuals and churches are free to proclaim this faith from pulpits, on street corners, and in schools they support, but not in science classes paid for by taxpayers.”

In other words, a society born of Christianity must extirpate Christianity from it’s public school system, also born of Christianity, in the name of modern science which was (you guessed it) born of Christianity.

This is not a way forward. This is a recipe for disaster. When you remove the Creator, you also ultimately remove all that He has endowed, including but not limited to those “inalienable rights”.

In Conclusion

At this point, if you have endured thus far, you may have a question: “isn’t what you are advocating some sort of the theocracy?”

Well…yes. Yes it is. And before you bring out the knives and pitchforks, let me remind you that every society is a theocracy. The only thing that changes, from one society to the next, is the theos.

But if our gospel be hid, it is hid to them that are lost: In whom the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them. (II Corinthians 4:3-4)

I desire a peaceful, tolerant, free and open society. I’m positive Peter Berger desired the same thing. He thought it could happen in a pluralistic society under the oversight of a secular State. I believe this is folly. The only society that can come anywhere close to that ideal is one founded upon Christian principles and in whose population a Christian worldview prevails.

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