walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
Published on: July 9, 2010
An Introduction

A Chinese sage wrote to an elderly scholar retired from official duties with two suggestions—to acquire a young concubine, or to learn how to paint dragons on red silk.  I am an elderly scholar and I have now retired from most of my official duties.  I have given serious thought to the two suggestions and have concluded that they are impractical in my case.  Just then the nice people at The American Interest came with a very different suggestion—that I should write a blog under their auspices (if that is the right term in cyberspace language), dealing mainly with current developments in religion, but allowing for occasional excursions into other areas.  My relationship to computers is roughly comparable to that of a caveman trying to fly a jet airliner.  Still, the prospect of writing a blog with this description intrigued me. It definitely seemed more practical than the two Chinese suggestions.  So, here we go:

Religion and Other Curiosities

Why should anyone be interested in what I have to say on religion?  So far, a lot of people have been interested in my off-line (so to speak, caveman-era) utterances on the subject—reading my books, attending my lectures, coming to talk with me. Will this translate to on-line interest? I have no idea. We shall see. But let me say a few things about my particular angle on the subject of religion, both professionally and personally.

Much of my professional career has been as a sociologist of religion. Ever since my graduate studies, my approach to sociology in general and to the sociology of religion in particular has been very much influenced by Max Weber. This is an approach which takes history seriously, which is broadly comparative, and which tries to be objective. I think that this is commendable for any branch of sociology, but it is very commendable indeed if the topic of inquiry is religion.

Quantitative methods of research can be very useful if one is dealing with large-scale social phenomena, including religious ones. Very often, however, the survey data can be distortive if the questions posed were formulated in ignorance of the cultural context of the respondents—a context invariably shaped by history.  Two examples from research into religion: Survey data have suggested that Japan is very secularized because, among other things, many Japanese say that they do not believe in God—of course not, if their religious beliefs have been shaped by Buddhism and Shinto.  Survey data have also suggested that Orthodox Christianity is in bad shape in Russia because few Russians go to church with any regularity—a fact that will not impress anyone familiar with Orthodox piety, in which church-going is much less important than it is in Roman Catholicism or Protestantism. (Foreign visitors to the Hermitage Museum in St.Petersburg have noticed how many people pray in front of the icons displayed there.)  It goes without saying that knowledge of religious history will have to include knowledge of the relevant theology. Thus Max Weber felt obliged to delve into the intricacies of Calvinist theology in order to understand the motivations of Puritan entrepreneurs, which were rooted in a worldview that, in a greatly mutated form, continues to reverberate in American economic culture centuries later.

(Virtually no Americans today believe in “double predestination”, if they ever heard of it, but economic success still gives the assurance that one is among the “elect”.)

In an age of globalization sociology benefits by being comparative.  Even if one is only interested in one country, one will understand that country better if one can compare it with other countries. Take the so-called “culture  war” in America.  Much of it revolving around church-state issues. I think it is helpful in understanding these if one sees the parallels with what goes on in other countries—for example, in Turkey. In both countries a secularist elite relies on non-elected institutions to counter the democratic pressures from a vocal religious populace—on the federal courts in America, on the military in Turkey. (It is more than a joke if one says that the American Civil Liberties Union, in its view of the proper relation between church and state, has a Kemalist ideology.)

All of sociology, but the sociology of religion above all, should be an enterprise of objective (Weber would say “value-free”) empirical inquiry. In the course of my career I have explored religious groups with whose beliefs I identified, some to whose beliefs I was indifferent, and some which I disliked. I have tried very hard to use the same approach to all of them, both in my research and in my teaching. I really don’t think that this is all too difficult—not any more difficult than giving a fair grade to a student one likes and a student one finds positively irritating.  Research:  In the example I just gave, I would approach the issue no differently if I were an Evangelical Christian in America, a pious Muslim in Turkey, or an agnostic  in either country. (There is no “Christian sociology” any more than there is a “Christian chemistry”.) Teaching:  When I first taught undergraduates, it came to my attention that most of them were convinced that I was an atheist—they were not able to tell from my teaching that I was (in the words  of a friend of mine), an “inveterate Godder”.

This is the right place to disclose my personal angle. My friend was right. I am indeed a “Godder”.  Specifically, I am a Christian believer—more specifically, a theologically very liberal Lutheran. Let me say once more:  This should have nothing to do with anything I might say as a sociologist. (If it ever does—we all stray sometimes—please report me to the Weberian central committee). To complicate matters somewhat, I have also written and lectured as a lay (that is, thoroughly unaccredited) theologian. There is nothing wrong with this. We all wear different hats. In this instance it is very important to be clear under which hat one is speaking at any given time. I have always been careful to do that, and I will be careful in the same way if I should be moved to put on my theological hat in this blog.

The treatment of religion in academia and the media leaves something to be desired, so the approach I have outlined above can make a useful contribution. The problem comes at least in part from the fact that these are two institutions which, in their elite echelons, are staffed by what is the most secularized group in American society. Unlike many of their colleagues in Europe, these people are not particularly hostile to religion. But they don’t know too much about it, and its more passionate expressions make them uncomfortable. As a result they are tempted to explain religious phenomena as being “really” about something else—ethnicity, class, politics.  Sometimes, of course, this is indeed the case.  Thus there are processes of “religionization”, in which a conflict about political power (as in Northern Ireland) or about territory (as between Israelis and Palestinians) morphs into a religiously defined conflict (though even then many people may sincerely believe in and be motivated by the religious definitions of the situation). In any case, it is important to realize that religion is a phenomenon sui generis, which must be understood in its own terms and not right away be interpreted as being “really” something else.

Secularist bias can produce blinders.  Evangelical Protestantism is the most explosively growing religion worldwide.  Media coverage is generally very poor, subsuming it under a vague category of “fundamentalism”, with peaceful missionaries being put in the same box with suicide bombers. Much academic treatment is equally prejudiced. The media coverage of the sexual abuse crisis in the Roman Catholic church very often has an undertone of gleeful Schadenfreude, with little skepticism about events going back thirty years, alleged by individuals with hard vested interests in their version of the events.  Academics and journalists have every right to be secularists, but they should bracket their personal beliefs when they try to understand reality—as should “Godders” like me.

Am I putting myself forward immodestly as owning the only sure answers to all questions about religion in the contemporary world?  Certainly  not. I suppose I should conclude these introductory observations with some truly humble disclaimers. I am held back by the memory of something that Golda Meir is reported as having said to one of her ministers: “Don’t be so humble. You are not that important”.

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  • GC

    Mr. Berger I will be pleased to follow your blog, hopping you can shed some light over the complex relation between society and religion.

  • WigWag

    “Ever since my graduate studies, my approach to sociology in general and to the sociology of religion in particular has been very much influenced by Max Weber. This is an approach which takes history seriously, which is broadly comparative, and which tries to be objective.” (Peter Berger)

    If Peter Berger, as a “Weberian” tries to be objective, I wonder why he bothers telling us about his personal feelings about religion at all.

    Economists, as practitioners of the “dismal science” may be Keynesians, neo-Keynesians, monetarists, Marxists, or supply-siders; their professional perspective clearly impacts their writing and analysis. Nevertheless, they rarely feel compelled to share with us exactly how they’re investing their 401Ks.

    Chemists may be interested in organic chemistry, inorganic chemistry or even molecular biology; nevertheless, they rarely feel obligated to share with us their deeply personal feelings (if any) about the periodic table.

    Cosmologists and astrophysicists are invariably interested in understanding the origins of creation and they work hard to catalog the series of events that began from the inception of the “big bang” but they rarely feel motivated to report their beliefs about what happened before the “big bang.”

    I wonder whether at the inception of his blog (which I am excited to start reading) Dr. Berger might be better off not sharing his personal views about religion with us. Would his being a “Godder” or even a “theologically liberal Lutheran” have mattered to Weber?

    Should it matter to us?

  • John Barker

    I don’t think all significant experience of a spiritual nature is contained in religious doctrine or practice. What about the 16th century Family of Love or the writings of the modern American mystic Jane Roberts.Will you explore such phenomena?

  • vanderleun

    ” Media coverage is generally very poor, subsuming it under a vague category of “fundamentalism”, with peaceful missionaries being put in the same box with suicide bombers.”

    Have there been that many Protestant suicide bombers or do you mean to cast a wider net?

  • Steve

    Great post
    Do you think you could blog about the Twelfth in Northern Ireland?
    Discussion on Slugger O’Toole has reawakened my interest.

  • Lorenz Gude

    Being a Godder myself I did more than a few courses at Union Theological when I was an undergraduate at Columbia in the early sixties. The comparative approach I learned has been amazingly helpful in my personal search for God – I accept help from anywhere – any tradition, any direct experience. :-) Naturally I ended up a Taoist which would permit me to take up the suggestions with which you opened your essay – but alas a modest pension does not run to such splendid comforts. Welcome to the Bolgosphere, mate!

  • K2K

    Memo to Weberian Central Committe: the conflict between Israelis and Arabs, and then Palestinians was never about territory.
    That is a very western, liberalist frame that has greatly complicated any chance for peace.

    Just like Kashmir is not ‘merely a border dispute’.

    Neither long-running conflict is solely about religion either.

    Perhaps you could start with explaining Turkey. Why are some Kurds Alevi and others Sunni? Why are most Zazas Alevi?
    Why are Alevis considered Shi’a instead of a third sect of Alevi? The answers are needed to figure out the next parliamentary election in Turkey, assuming there will ever be another election.

    Ok, if Turkey is too hard, please start with the separatist movements in Africa based on Christianity v Islam (Nigeria, Sudan, possibly Ethiopia and Kenya).

    The last thing we need is another liberal framing Israel as a territorial dispute. Go look at any map in Damascus or Ramallah and see if you can find Israel.

    • John Larson

      As a Calvinist by birth and training, I will be interested in your blog. As to media bias, I think one should distinquish between those living in NY and DC from the rest of the world. Many local TV media folks are religious, and their stations allow reporting of church and religious events that seem out of the ordinary, say a funeral for a slain child or a prominient person, a politician preaching at a local church, etc. Many small town media report even routine religious events. Academia is another world entirely……Thanks for your work.

  • Matthew

    Thank you Mr. Berger. I will look forward to reading your blog “religiously.” I would be very much interested in your take on the possible consequences of Muslim immigration to Europe. Are we seeing 476 AD redux?

  • Kevin

    Thank you for taking the time to contribute. I hope you will do a book list (Kindle owner here) for those who want to read more deeply on these and other issues you will be discussing. I’m very excited to read your upcoming posts!

  • Frank!

    As an Evangelical Calvinist Baptist (say that three times fast!) I’m grateful for your even handed presentation of Evangelicals. As for your explanation of religion being sui generis, it would seem that many on the internet seem to quickly jump on religion as being “the opiate of the masses” or “the search for a father figure” a crutch” or the risingly popular “an evolutionary development meant to help us cope with the unknown etc…” It would be nice to get your thoughts on that. I might add, that Parchment and Pen blog will soon be releasing it’s findings for the Association of Historic Evangelicals on a definition of “Evangelicalism”. The graphic on their blog is worth the view. It would be great to see you interact with that. As you know, in some circles, there seems to be a debate as to what ‘evangelical’ means anymore, as in many cases (like mine) the term is used, while dying the death of a hundred qualifications.

  • Stephen

    Having read some of your “cave drawings,” I am exciting to see what comes of this blog.

    One note, though: I would suspect that there are more double predestinationists around than you assume. Obviously, I have no hard evidence, but one runs across such people often in Evangelical and Fundementalist churches, and the more confessionalist strains of Reformed faith are finding plenty of fertile soil in the Southern Baptist Convention, among other places.

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    It is a delight to find Dr Berger’s blog, albeit belatedly.

    In reply to commenter WigWag above, you nonetheless may find Dr. Berger’s books of “non-professional” theology interesting. To give you a flavor you might read my review of his book A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural posted at, link below:

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    I should have added in my post above, that it is delightful that Dr. Berger has found a blog home after he was “outed,” or rather departed, from in 1997 over the contentious issue of the Supreme Courts usurpation of democracy involving the abortion issue. Professor Berger no longer has a “homeless mind” (see his book The Homeless Mind).

  • Julie Leighton

    Although the phraseology may be different, is there a fundamental change between Putin’s March and April rhetoric? Has his message altered? Are his goals different? Has his overall direction shifted course?

    No, everything remains the same. March’s “Terminator” and April’s “Mr. Congeniality” are two sides of the same coin. What did change, and what can account for us seeing both of sides of Putin’s personality in such quick succession, was the format of the announcements.

    In March, Putin delivered his address to the nation while standing at a podium. He was tense, brash, aggressive, and overly defensive about Crimea and Russia’s involvement. The international community had discredited the referendum. Western politicians were openly questioning his competence and sanity; pundits were accusing him of beginning a new Cold War; and others were openly comparing him to Hitler. He was effectively being attacked from all sides, and this was very apparent in his conference. He alone was accountable, and he was pinned to the wall.

    April’s telethon saw a very different character. He was seated and surrounded by officials, casual, congenial, agreeable, willing to interact and debate, he even entertained questions from the dissenting intelligentsia. Why? This was Putin as a man of the people. Here he was accountable to his domestic audience, who he is largely popular with. The questions were carefully and obviously filtered, the quoted statistics, histories and facts were easily amended to accommodate Putin’s actions. Anything that verged on being disagreeable or unpleasant was literally laughed off. Everything was carefully staged and scripted. Putin was cheerful–and why shouldn’t he be? Surrounded as he was by supporters and admirers?

    Has Putin really changed? Is there a true difference between the March and April versions? No, he is the same. The West should not be fooled by April’s stagecraft.

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