I have been learning from Peter Berger ever since I was in graduate school, but back then I, like so many others, did it through books. Lately I have been able to learn from Peter more directly, in conversations and in letter exchanges. It has been a joy as well as a continuous edification, as is Peter’s new book, The Many Altars of Modernity, which I read on a five-hour airplane ride earlier this week en route to California. Reading Peter’s writings these days, on his blog and beyond, is like talking to him. You know the wisdom will be entwined with literary wit and judiciously placed humor, and it invariably is. You can “hear” him write.
In answer to my question about the possibility, nature and consequences of cross-cultural atheism, Peter has produced a miniature tour de force on comparative theodicy. I see from his answer, however, that I asked the wrong question, or asked it in a misleading way. So let me re-ask the question in discursive form.
I suppose what I should have asked is this: Given the accelerating power of pluralization to upset and cast into doubt most traditional forms of religious belief, how will different forms of disbelief, emanating from different cultural contexts, differ (and not) from the forms of disbelief we in the West know best—that of atheism arising out of Christian and Jewish religion? So what I should have asked is broader—not just about belief or the lack thereof in an Abrahamic creator God, but about belief or lack thereof in any system of religious ideas. And the question flows from the assumption that any given form of rejected belief will take much of its shape from what it is rejecting. George Williams once noted that you should “be cautious when you choose your enemy for you will grow to be more like him”; I think one can apply this basic idea orthogonally to the question at hand in the sense that a former belief system becomes the enemy, so that what results from rejecting it may be closer in form to it than what the denier may suppose or hope.
I probably should have made more explicit, too, that what interests me has to do with the social capital that faith communities invariably build and sustain. So I am interested not just in individuals parting with traditional creedal propositions, but also with them parting from the communities in which those propositions are consensually held. As a sociologist, Peter knows a lot more about the social aspects of religious communities than I ever will. I put it this way because it seems to me evident that pluralization not only makes traditional religious beliefs harder to hold, but also that it rends faith communities. But since human beings are social animals and crave company, it is natural that people will seek new associative ties if older ones lose their captivating power (gerund chosen carefully).
It follows, I think, that the problem of theodicy is far from the only reason people reject religious belief. Some may reject not so much belief as such as reject the stultifying or obsessive-compulsive or restrictive or even painful rites and laws of a faith community. I doubt all that many people, believers or otherwise, spend a lot of time thinking about the theodicy puzzle. Some never even pose the question, and I suspect that most who do pose it go through the turnstile pretty fast in order to deposit the question into the proverbial “too-hard” box. Those who do ponder it at length are not like the rest of us, who prefer less taxing entertainments.
This takes me back to a question I asked Peter some years ago, and that resulted in a blog post on the improbability of religious myths. My point, for those who missed it, is that the highly improbable stories all religions tell about origins and the like are not atavisms from mythic times nor are they the dizzy but engrossing ruminations of pre-modern mystical masters. Rather, they are both tests and terms of association: If someone can believe something very improbable, or at least claim they do, their membership in an in-group is strengthened and through them the group itself is strengthened. To hold highly improbable beliefs people need help, and that is precisely why such stories form the glue for the social capital they build for in-groups so that they may more effectively face out-groups.
So what I am trying to ask now is, if pluralization depletes social capital, then might cross-cultural non-believers find some way to join together to create new forms of social capital, both in situ and virtually via the internet for example? In short, I am asking a sociological question about the sum of individual behaviors.
I think this may, just by the by, help solve a problem that pops up in Peter’s aforementioned book. One of the commentators to the book (and there are three Peter allows to carp at him), Detlef Pollack, tries to take Peter’s logic to the syllogism woodshed. Berger no longer believes that modernization leads to secularization, Pollack notes uncontroversially, because that is a given in the book. But, writes Detlef, “if modernization provokes pluralization”, as Berger still insists, “and pluralization undermines religious certainties, the consequence must be that modernization is accompanied by a weakening of religious convictions. That proposition is the core of any secularization theory.” (pp. 115-16) Detlef thus poses a “cake-and-eat-it-to” challenge: “Berger will have to make a decision between abandoning the secularization theory or adhering to the theory of undermining. Only if he also decided to abandon the theory of undermining would he truly overcome secularization theory. But this he does not want to do…”
This appears to be a weighty challenge, but only if one conflates the creedal aspects of belief with the associative ties than inhere in a faith community. The reason Peter, and many others, do not accept secularization theory anymore is that it is manifestly empirically false, or seems to be. But what if modern faith communities thrive not because people believe, but because they want to but can’t, except with a lot of help from others? Hence the surge in Pentacostalism, it seems to me, with its highly improbable and, indeed, outlandish propositions. So perhaps modernization can undermine religious certainties but strengthen faith communities at the same time. I think that possibility allows Peter to have his cake and eat it, too. (I would like a slice, please.)
Which brings me back to my question about atheism and why I asked it in the first place. People want and need to belong, so that rising numbers of non- or ex-believers from non-Western cultures are not all destined to either become Pentacostals or remain hermits or social outcasts. They, together with Abrahamic non-believers, could form a new twelve-step organization called Deities Anonymous, perhaps. The question is whether they will do anything together or not. I suspect in time that many will. Who will do this, how, with what enticements, and to what broader social consequences I have not a clue. I would probably be better off pondering theodicy.