Scholar discusses effects of religious pluralism
“Things are not what you thought they were,” began Peter Berger, Boston University Professor Emeritus of Sociology, Religion and Theology in his Thursday lecture, “A New Paradigm for Pluralism and Modernity.” In his lecture, Berger argued that society is not moving toward religious secularism — as many would think — but to a form of religious pluralism.
Berger, author of the recent book “The Many Altars of Modernity: Toward a Paradigm for Religion in a Pluralist Age,” discussed religious pluralism — when many different religions coexist in a society — arguing, “We don’t live in the secular age. We live in a pluralist age, which challenges every religious tradition, but not in the way secularism does.” According to Berger, secularism challenges religious traditions by forcing them to be separate from public actions. Pluralism, on the other hand, challenges the tradition and unity of religious organizations by making communities less religiously homogenous.
He explained that pluralism as a concept first arose in the 1920s as a way of describing the diversity of the American population. He added that the suffix “-ism” would suggest that pluralism is an ideology, but he views the term as more of an observation or social fact, a reality that “hits you whether you like it or not.”
Regarding religious pluralism, he continued, “It’s not that there is no God; it’s that there are too many gods. … There are many religions coexisting, and that has many implications.” He described one experience in which he visited a Catholic cathedral only to see Hindu Hare Krishnas decorating the space. “That’s religious pluralism,” he stated.
In his lecture, Berger argued that religious pluralism has three different types of implications: those on individuals, those on religious institutions and those on political order. In terms of the effect on individuals, “the basic effect of religious pluralism is very simple: … it becomes very difficult to take the religion you were born into for granted,” he said. Historically, he elaborated, social psychology showed that individuals tended to follow their community’s status quo, which made it easier to stay with a certain religion when communities were mostly religiously homogenous.
Because religion can no longer be taken for granted, he continued, “you have to make a decision [about how to observe your religion].” A few examples of these religious decisions, he added, include choosing which practices to observe, how to observe them and whether or not to stay affiliated to that religion entirely.
Berger then discussed how the fall of the homogenous community has had implications for individuals on a national and international scale. “The combination of pluralism and religious freedom is explosive,” he said, explaining how the rise in religious freedom has caused strife in many societies that were historically homogenous but are now finding themselves pluralistic. He cited efforts to suppress pluralism and different religions in the Middle East, Russia, China and India as examples of the fallout from pluralism. “It’s very difficult to suppress religion, because people have very strong attachments to their religion,” he said.
Berger summarized: “Nietzsche was wrong … it’s not that God is dead; there are too many gods. … Religion has percolated upward in individual consciousness on what is taken for granted.”
Next, Berger discussed how the rise of religious pluralism has impacted the cohesiveness and power of religious institutions. “Whether they like it or not, … they become voluntary institutions.” He cited the changes between the Roman Catholic Church’s First and Second Vatican Councils — which differed in their approach to the relationship between the Church and the modern world — as an example of modernity impacting religious institutions. “Pluralism is a system where religion becomes a choice, not a fate,” he said.
Finally, he considered the political fallout from religious pluralism. “This pluralism needs to be politically managed because, otherwise, these groups will all be at each other’s’ throats,” Berger explained. “There has to be some secular space of the state where the state doesn’t enforce any religion and acts as more of a traffic cop.”
He explained that it took him over 20 years to view the secularization theory — which argues that society moves further and further away from religion as it progresses — as untenable. He argued that secularism and religion are not mutually exclusive and that many people are able to keep their religion separate from their professional life, as is the case with doctors or lawyers. Citing one example of a surgeon friend who is religiously observant, Berger said, “Every move that he makes [in surgery] must be as if God doesn’t exist,” yet he also noted that the surgeon does not magically stop believing in God for the duration of the surgery.
A question-and-answer session followed the lecture. The event was sponsored by the Religious Studies Program, the International and Global Studies Program and the Sociology Department.