virus: Berger's theory of religion pt. 1: world-building

David McFadzean (
Fri, 2 Apr 1999 10:48:17 -0700

In 1967 American sociologist Peter Berger published his seminal theory of religion in a book entitled "The Sacred Canopy". In this series of messages I will quote a summary of Berger's theory taken from "Comprehending Cults: the sociology of new religious movements" by Lorne L. Dawson.


Berger's highly influential theory of religion grew out of his earlier and equally important work with Thomas Luckmann on the social construction of reality. Building on a masterful synthesis of the insights of most of the foundational thinkers on contemporary social science (Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, George Herbert Mead, Sigmund Freud, Max Scheler, Karl Mannheim, Alfred Schultz, and many others), this theory begins with the startlingly simple premise that 'every human society is an enterprise of world-building'.

The world we live in, the world as perceived by humans, is constantly being created and re-created by us through a 'dialectical process' that has three aspects: 'externalization, objectivation, and internalization'. Our thoughts become embodied in the things we make and the things we do in the world -- they are externalized. Once in the world, these products of our thought (e.g. machines, art forms, and institutions [memetic phenotypes]) take on an independent existence as objects of our awareness -- objectivation occurs -- and they act back upon us, shaping and changing our behaviour and our further thoughts. We internalize the lessons of living in the world of these objects (physical, social, and cultural), adapting ourselves in thought, word, and deed to the presumed requirements of 'reality'.

We are the creators of our world, but we are in turn shaped by our creation and become one of its objects. We become the passive subjects of our creation, in part because we simply are not fully aware of the extent or nature of our creativity. Our lack of awareness stems in large measure from the fact that the creativity in question is a collective undertaking. World-building is a social process, and as such it is so complex and dispersed as to defy the ready comprehension or control of any individual or group.

Stay tuned for part 2: The human predicament.