In The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion, published in 1967, Peter Berger analyses religion as socially constructed knowledge. His description suggests to me that our body of knowledge about the history and evolution of life could serve as the basis for a religion.
Berger sees three steps in the process by which humans construct their society and are in turn constructed by it.
The first is externalization, “the ongoing outpouring of human being into the world, both in the physical and mental activity of man.” Unlike more instinctual mammals whose world is essentially prefabricated, “Man must make a world for himself.” The result of this work is his culture, made up of his tools, language, ideas, and institutions.
The second step is objectification. The culture that people create becomes a fact outside of themselves. Although produced out of their subjectivity, it becomes objective reality, an entity that they can no longer manipulate at will. “Once produced, this world cannot simply be wished away.” As a result, it acquires a coercive character, as illustrated by the power of our legal institutions, the limits of our technology, and the persuasiveness of our political ideas.
The third step is internalization. Society, a human creation and an objective reality, now creates the individual through the process of socialization in the family, schools and community and at work:
“The social world…is not passively absorbed by the individual, but actively appropriated by him.” (emphasis Berger’s)
The individual is a constant participant in this internalization. He “keeps ‘talking back’ to the world that formed him and thereby continues to maintain the latter as reality.”
This dialectic of externalization-objectification-internalization turns out to be essentially “an ordering of experience. A meaningful order…is imposed upon the discrete experiences and meanings of individuals.” Its role is primarily “as a shield against terror.” It takes on a “sheltering quality.” When this ordering “is taken for granted as appertaining to the ‘nature of things,’… it is endowed with a stability deriving from more powerful sources than the historical effort of human beings.” It becomes, in other words, religion.
“The cosmos posited by religion both transcends and includes man. The sacred cosmos is confronted by man as an immensely powerful reality other than himself.…Religion implies the farthest reach of man’s self-externalization, of his infusion of reality with his own meanings…. Put differently, religion is the audacious attempt to conceive of the entire universe as being humanly significant.” (Berger)
A religion of life on Earth
Our knowledge of the history and evolution of life on earth conforms to this description in most ways. The work of scientists is certainly their “externalization,” their unique type of out-pouring and “world-building.” As for “objectification,” it is fair to say that scientists’ goal in the first place is to demonstrate that their hypotheses describe objective realities and not just possibilities. The objectification stage often happens slowly; witness the gradual acceptance of the germ theory in the 19th century and the theory of evolution today. As for “internalization,” knowledge of basic genetics, psychology, and evolution have become for many people a seamless part of their understanding of themselves and the lives around them.
Like religion, knowledge about the 3.8 billion year history and evolution of life “both transcends and includes man.” Like religion, it describes a reality that is immensely more powerful than the individual and that “locates his life in an ultimately meaningful order.”
To use Berger’s phrase, I do “talk back” to the natural world that formed me, with the result that it is indeed a “sheltering” reality for me. My knowledge about it guides me to a sense of purpose, it consoles me, and though it may not protect me in any magical way, it helps me understand the risks of illness, social disruption, emotional extremes. It is my “sacred canopy.”
This article first appeared at 3.8 Billion Years.
I grew up in New York City and now live in New Jersey, where I taught English for four decades at a community college, a profession I found varied and rewarding. I’m married, with family in the area.
I retired in 2006 in part to fight poverty as best I could, at every level I could–locally, nationally, and in Africa. I’ve become a local volunteer and on-line advocate and along the way have learned fast about the economic, political, and legal issues that accompany poverty.
I also found myself thinking more about the central questions that catch up with us sooner or later: What is my purpose? How will I face death? What do I believe in? I have always liked the descriptions from science about how living things work, about the history of the earth, about the nature of the cosmos. But I could not put those pictures together with my questions. Gradually I came to see that life’s history over 3.8 billion years stood inside and throughout my being and constituted my livingness at its core. In my blog at threepointeightbillionyears.com, I’ve been exploring the variety of ways in which our experience is anchored not just in our evolution from primates but in the much longer lifespan of life itself.
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