A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural

A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural

by Peter L. Berger

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With unparalleled creativity and impeccable scholarship, this path-breaking classic confronts head-on the thesis that "God is dead." The new essays include discussions on religious politicization and the dilemmas of hardline morality.


With unparalleled creativity and impeccable scholarship, this path-breaking classic confronts head-on the thesis that "God is dead." The new essays include discussions on religious politicization and the dilemmas of hardline morality.

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A Rumor of Angels

Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural

By Peter L. Berger


Copyright © 1969 Peter L. Berger
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4532-1543-2


The Alleged Demise of the Supernatural

If commentators on the contemporary situation of religion agree about anything, it is that the supernatural has departed from the modern world. This departure may be stated in such dramatic formulations as "God is dead" or "the post-Christian era." Or it may be undramatically assumed as a global and probably irreversible trend. Thus the "radical theologian" Thomas Altizer tells us with the solemnity of a confessional pronouncement that "we must realize that the death of God is an historical event, that God has died in our cosmos, in our history, in our Existenz." And Herman Kahn and Anthony Wiener, of the Hudson Institute, in their fascinating attempt to project the course of the final third of this century, manage to do so with only minimal mention of religion and on the assumption that twentieth-century cultures will continue to be increasingly "sensate"-a term coined by the late Harvard sociologist Pitirim Sorokin, and defined by Kahn and Wiener as "empirical, this-worldly, secular, humanistic, pragmatic, utilitarian, contractual, epicurean or hedonistic, and the like."

The departure of the supernatural has been received in a variety of moods—with prophetic anger, in deep sorrow, with gleeful triumph, or simply as an emotionally unprovocative fact. But the spokesman of traditional religion who thunders against a godless age, the "progressive" intellectual who hails its coming, and the dispassionate analyst who merely registers it have in common the recognition that such, indeed, is our situation—an age in which the divine, at least in its classical forms, has receded into the background of human concern and consciousness.

The term "supernatural" has been justly criticized on a number of grounds. Historians of religion and cultural anthropologists have pointed out that the term suggests the division of reality into a closed system of rationally comprehensible "nature" and a mysterious world somehow beyond it, a peculiarly modern conception, which is misleading if one seeks to understand the religious notions of primitive or archaic cultures. Biblical scholars have criticized the term as failing to convey the concreteness and historical character of the Israelite religious experience, and Christian theologians attacked it as offending the world-affirming implications of the doctrine of the incarnation, if not indeed of the doctrine of creation. Nevertheless the term, particularly in its everyday usage, denotes a fundamental category of religion, namely the assertion or belief that there is an other reality, and one of ultimate significance for man, which transcends the reality within which our everyday experience unfolds. It is this fundamental assumption about reality, rather than this or that historical variation of it, that is allegedly defunct or in the process of becoming defunct in the modern world.

The historian of religion Rudolf Otto, in The Idea of the Holy (originally published in German in 1917) attempted what may still be regarded as a definitive description of this "otherness" of religious experience. Otto emphasized that the sacred (that is, the reality man believes he encounters in religious experience) is "totally other" than ordinary, human phenomena, and in this "otherness" the sacred impresses man as an overwhelming, awesome, and strangely fascinating power.

As one might expect, there has been extensive controversy since then as to the validity of Otto's delineation of the sacred as the religious category par excellence in all cultures. Once more, however, these scholarly debates may be left aside. Instead, let us look at the ordinary world, which some philosophers have called the Lebenswelt, or "life-world," within which we carry on our "normal" activities in collaboration with other men. This is the arena of most of our projects in life, whose reality is strongest and thus the most "natural" in our consciousness. This, in the words of the social philosopher Alfred Schutz, is "the world of daily life which the wide-awake, grown-up man who acts in it and upon it amidst his fellowman experiences within the natural attitude as a reality." It is to this domain of taken-for-granted, "natural" experience (not necessarily to "nature" in the sense of, say, the eighteenth-century rationalists) that religion posits a "supernatural" reality.

As cultural anthropologists have pointed out, the everyday life of primitive man was, like ours, dominated by empirical, pragmatic, utilitarian imperatives geared to "this world"; he could hardly have solved the basic problems of survival if it had not been. This was even more true of daily life in the great ancient civilizations. The preoccupation with "natural" consciousness is not at all peculiar to the modern age. Someone once remarked that most present-day Anglo-American philosophers have the same conception of reality as that held by a slightly drowsy, middle-aged businessman right after lunch. Very probably slightly drowsy, middle-aged tribal warriors and ancient Greeks held very similar conceptions right after their lunches. But primitive and ancient men also accepted the idea of another, supernatural world of divine beings and forces as a background to the ordinary world and assumed that "the other world" impinged on this one in a variety of ways. This suggests that at least part of the reason why we today have embraced what we consider the "rationality" (or "naturalism") of modern science and philosophy is because we wish to maintain that "natural" consciousness is the only possible or desirable one—a point that will be taken up again later.

There is a German fairy tale about a young apprentice who is disturbed by the fact that he has never been able to experience gruesomeness and deliberately subjects himself to all sorts of situations that are reputed to evoke such feelings. The spiritual adventure of modern man seems to have been motivated by the opposite aim of unlearning any conceivable metaphysical terror. If the idea about the demise of the supernatural is correct, then the unlearning effort has indeed succeeded. How much evidence is there in support of the idea?

The answer hinges on what might be called the secularization theory of modern culture—using the word secularization not in the sense of what has happened with social institutions (such as, for example, the separation of church and state), but as applying to processes inside the human mind, that is, a secularization of consciousness. Here the empirical evidence is not very satisfactory. Considering the importance of the question, one might have expected professional observers of the contemporary scene, especially sociologists, to invest some energy in an attempt to provide answers. But in recent years sociologists, with very few exceptions, have shown very little interest, probably because they have sworn allegiance to a scientific "progressivism" that regards religion as a vanishing leftover from the dark ages of superstition and do not care to invest their energies in the study of a moribund phenomenon. The fairly small group of sociologists who have taken the sociology of religion as their professional specialty have not been terribly helpful either. They have not looked on religion as moribund, if only for reasons of professional self-respect, but they have regarded it almost exclusively in terms of the traditional religious institutions—that is, most recent sociology of religion has been a sociology of the churches. And it is from this somewhat restricted perspective that a good deal of sound evidence has, indeed, been accumulated on secularization. The largest body of data, most of which refer to Europe, comes from the school of so-called "religious sociology," which is largely Catholic-inspired. Recently there have been some interesting attempts quite distinct from this school to uncover motives for religious participation in America with the use of more sophisticated research tools.

On the basis of this evidence one can say with some confidence that churchly religiosity (that is, religious belief and practice within the traditions of the principal Christian churches) has been on the decline in modern society. In Europe this has generally taken the form of a progressive decline in institutional participation (attendance at worship, use of the sacraments, and the like), though there are important class differences in this. In America, on the contrary, there has been an increase in participation (as measured by church membership figures), though there are good reasons to think that the motives for participation have changed greatly from the traditional ones. It is safe to say that, compared to earlier historical periods, fewer Americans today adhere to the churches out of a burning desire for salvation from sin and hellfire, while many do so out of a desire to provide moral instruction for their children and direction for their family life, or just because it is part of the life style of their particular neighborhood. The difference between the European and American patterns has been aptly characterized by the sociologist Thomas Luckmann as, respectively, "secularization from without" and "secularization from within." In both cases there is strong evidence that traditional religious beliefs have become empty of meaning not only in large sections of the general population but even among many people who, with whatever motives, continue to belong to a church. All this, of course, leaves open the question of whether there may not be genuinely religious forces outside the traditional Christian or churchly frame of reference. Also, since sociologists and their ilk have been around for only a rather short time, it is not clear to what extent their findings can be rigorously compared with the situation in previous periods, for which different and only imperfectly comparable data are available. Sociologists, equipped with all the latest tricks of their trade, may be able to tell us with some precision why people join churches in America in the 1960s; to compare their findings with the situation in the 1860s we have to rely on what they would call much "softer" data.

All the same, the proposition of the demise of the supernatural, or at least of its considerable decline, in the modern world is very plausible in terms of the available evidence. It is to be hoped that more plentiful and more precise evidence will yet be produced, and that there will be greater collaboration between social scientists and historians in this undertaking. But even now we have as good an empirical foundation for the proposition as we do for most generalizations about our world. Whatever the situation may have been in the past, today the supernatural as a meaningful reality is absent or remote from the horizons of everyday life of large numbers, very probably of the majority, of people in modern societies, who seem to manage to get along without it quite well. This means that those to whom the supernatural is still, or again, a meaningful reality find themselves in the status of a minority, more precisely, a cognitive minority—a very important consequence with very far-reaching implications.

By a cognitive minority I mean a group of people whose view of the world differs significantly from the one generally taken for granted in their society. Put differently, a cognitive minority is a group formed around a body of deviant "knowledge." The quotation marks should be stressed here. The term "knowledge" used within the frame of reference of the sociology of knowledge always refers to what is taken to be or believed as "knowledge." In other words, the use of the terms is strictly neutral on the question of whether or not the socially held "knowledge" is finally true or false. All human societies are based on "knowledge" in this sense. The sociology of knowledge seeks to understand the different forms of this. The same quotation marks apply to my use of the adjective "cognitive," of course. Instead of saying that societies have bodies of knowledge, we can say that they have cognitive structures. Once more, this in no way implies a judgment of the final validity of these "cognitions." This should be kept in mind whenever the adjective is used in the following argument. Put simply, the sociologist qua sociologist always stays in the role of reporter. He reports that people believe they "know" such and such, and that this belief has such and such consequences. As soon as he ventures an opinion on whether the belief is finally justified, he is jumping out of the role of sociologist. There is nothing wrong with this role change, and I intend to perform it myself in a little while. But one should be clear about what one is doing when.

For better or for worse, men are social beings. Their "sociality" includes what they think, or believe they "know" about the world. Most of what we "know" we have taken on the authority of others, and it is only as others continue to confirm this "knowledge" that it continues to be plausible to us. It is such socially shared, socially taken-for-granted "knowledge" that allows us to move with a measure of confidence through everyday life. Conversely, the plausibility of "knowledge" that is not socially shared, that is challenged by our fellow men, is imperiled, not just in our dealings with others, but much more importantly in our own minds. The status of a cognitive minority is thus invariably an uncomfortable one—not necessarily because the majority is repressive or intolerant, but simply because it refuses to accept the minority's definitions of reality as "knowledge." At best, a minority viewpoint is forced to be defensive. At worst, it ceases to be plausible to anyone.

Highly intriguing studies, which it would be unpractical to review here, have been made of this social dimension of our cognitive life. One example may illustrate its importance. A person coming to America from a culture in which it is part of everyone's "knowledge" that the stars influence human events will, if he expresses this "knowledge" in the United States, soon discover what it means to belong to a cognitive minority. He will be listened to with shocked surprise or tolerant amusement. Attempts may be made to "educate" him, or he may be encouraged to exhibit his exotic notions and thus to play the role of ethnological specimen. Unless he can insulate himself against this massive challenge to his previously taken-for-granted reality (which would presuppose an available group of fellow astrologers to take refuge with), he will soon begin to doubt his challenged "knowledge." There are various ways of coping with doubt. Our cognitive exile could decide to keep his truths to himself—thus depriving them of all social support—or he could try to gain converts; or he could seek for some sort of compromise, perhaps by thinking up "scientific" reasons for the validity of his astrological lore, thus contaminating his reality with the cognitive assumptions of his challengers. Individuals vary in their ability to resist social pressure. The predictable conclusion of the unequal struggle is, however, the progressive disintegration of the plausibility of the challenged "knowledge" in the consciousness of the one holding it. The example may seem loaded—after all, presumably both the writer and the readers of this book "know" that astrology is a lot of nonsense.

To make the point clearer, the example can be reversed. An American stranded in an astrological culture will find his "scientific" view of the world tottering under exactly the same social assaults that undermine astrology in America, and the end result is equally predictable. This is the kind of thing that happens to cultural anthropologists in the field. They call it "culture shock" and cope with it by means of various rituals of detachment (this is the latent psychological function of field procedures), by staying in the company of or at least in communication with fellow outsiders to the culture being studied, and best of all by going home from the field after a relatively brief period of time. The penalty for failure in these efforts to remain outside the situation is "to go native." To be sure, cultural anthropologists like to do this behaviorally ("participant observation") and even emotion emotionally ("empathy"). If they "go native"cognitively, however, they will no longer be able to do cultural anthropology. They will have dropped out of the universe of discourse in which such an enterprise is meaningful or even real.


Excerpted from A Rumor of Angels by Peter L. Berger. Copyright © 1969 Peter L. Berger. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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