Religion not only has survived the modern world but also continues to thrive. In the secularization paradigm, modernity has been seen as bringing about the decline of religion (20), but this has faced many challenges when accounting for empirical religious resurgence and reconceptualizing its internal premises. Social scientists became divided into two camps: those who refuse the paradigm and those who partially retain it. Peter Berger (1929–2017), a prominent sociologist of religion and knowledge, and once a proponent of the secularization paradigm, strived to renounce its basis in his The Desecularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics (1999).

This endeavor has made a further step in Berger’s latest book, The Many Altars of Modernity: Toward a Paradigm for Religion in a Pluralist Age, providing an alternative paradigm rooted in pluralism while reformulating his insights about the secularization paradigm. Berger’s thought-provoking book treats systematically the question of pluralization and secularization of consciousness. It is a summation of his thought journey in the world of the sociology of religion. This review summarizes his latest book while critically assessing its argument and its contribution to the field of sociology of religion.

This book is divided into six chapters authored by Berger himself and followed by three responses by Nancy T. Ammerman, Detlef Pollack, and Fenggang Yang. It distills its essence in the preface, suggesting the need for a new paradigm based on pluralism defined on the twin meanings of the coexistence of different religions and the coexistence of different religious and secular discourses. Chapters 1–3 discuss pluralism in the first meaning (coexistence of different religions); chapters 4–6 discuss the second sense (coexistence of different religious and secular discourses).

Berger claims in chapter 1, “The Pluralist Phenomenon,” that pluralism relativizes since it produces an ongoing “cognitive contamination.” He defines pluralism as “a social situation in which people with different ethnicities, worldviews, and moralities live together peacefully and interact with each other amicably” (1). Though pluralism is intrinsic to Homo sapiens, modernity unleashes all the forces that make for pluralism (urbanization, mass migration, general literacy and higher education, and all the recent technologies of communication), thereby “globalizing” its character. It increases the range of choices available for people, leading to a transformation in the human condition from “taking for granted” (fate) to choice. This choice is further protected and intensified by the capitalist structures. Berger borrows the German social theorist Arnold Gehlen’s concepts of foreground (the realm of choice) and background (the realm of fate) to explain the compartmentalization of consciousness. The background becomes institutionalized to erect a stability accounting for the meagerness of human instincts while the foreground is deinstitutionalized (subjectivized). Society is both a background and a foreground allowing changes through “routinization of charisma”—a Weberian concept of a disturbing force. Thus, Berger reaches the conclusion that pluralism expands the foreground, disturbing the certainties of the background. This ensues in choice and anxiety. Resolving this dissonance brought about by pluralism, humans either restore the threatened certainty (fundamentalism in its two components: reactionary and progressive) or embrace the creed of relativity (relativism). Eventually, both are dangerous, which requires the political imperative to manage the doubt.

After sketching the theoretical framework of pluralism, Berger moves to connect it with religion’s two aspects of consciousness and human behavior, and collective institutions.

In chapter 2, “Pluralism and Individual Faith,” Berger extends pluralism to include not only a social component but also the personal component of mind, relativizing the worldviews of people and disturbing what they took for granted. He exploits a Freudian conception of the mind as ascending layers of unquestioned certainty, cognitive and normative definitions of reality, and preferences and opinions. As a result of pluralism, religion percolates upward in the consciousness to reach the level of opinion. Berger then connects pluralism with his core concept of “plausibility structure,” a social context in which any cognitive or normative definition of reality is plausible. Pluralism multiplies the plausibility structures available for people in their environments. Pluralism as such changes the “how” of religion rather than the “what.”

In chapter 3 “Pluralism and Religious Institutions,” Berger claims that pluralism—being ushered by modernity—changes the character of religious institutions and their relations to other institutions in society. Faith is based on a personal choice and this choice is institutionalized in the form of voluntary association, the typical social form of religion in a pluralistic situation. Pluralism undermines the taken-for-grantedness of religion initiating a process of deinstitutionalization subjectifying religion. This “undermining theorem” is the core of secularization. Above all, on the individual level, choices between religious and non-religious possibilities became available. The collective correlate of the individual’s freedom is the choice of voluntary association. The character of the institution that is based on voluntary association (subjective decision) and a non-taking-for-granted quality (objective fact) is a “secondary institution,” using Gehlen’s term.

Now Berger moves to connect the institutional differentiation with the pluralism character. “Societal functions” that used to be vested in religious institutions have now become differentiated between the latter and other institutions (church and state, religion and the economy, religion and education, and so forth). Berger’s differentiation can be seen as the objective component of secularization, as Jose Casanova sees it. Religion has withdrawn from many of these other areas of social life. The most important differentiation has been between religion and the state. Berger provides a historical account of different relations between church and state to shed a light on the tension between the two. This constant tension has led state institutions to manage the religious institutions and control the degree of influence between the two.

Pluralism as a fact and religious freedom as a political norm became a global phenomenon. Already said, pluralism changes the relationship between the clergy and the laity and between the different religions. Since every institution has a correlate in consciousness, differentiation (if happened) has a manifestation in the consciousness of individuals.

In chapter 4, “The Secular Discourse,” Berger breaks through the secularization theory by considering the mistake of its opponents in “over-estimate[ing] the coherence of human consciousness” (53). He invokes Charles Taylor’s concept of “immanent frame” and his teacher Alfer Schutz’s concepts “multiple realities” and “relevance structures” in order for the former to explain the expansion of the secular discourse in people’s lives and the latter to account for the cognitive balancing of modernity existing in society and in consciousness.

Pluralization does not lead to the disappearance of religion in individual consciousness, but rather the relocation of religion in individual lives. This discourse exists in the subjective minds of individuals and in the objective order of society (institutions). Berger reiterates the Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius’s proposition, “as if God did not exist,” as a methodological atheism that explains the framework of the secular discourse. He gives the secular discourse a privileged position as it is inserted into the turbulent world of religious pluralism. Two types of pluralism exist as a result: the coexistence of different religious options and the coexistence of different secular and religious discourses. Berger ruminates that handling the different discourses, different “relevant structures,” is a trait of a modern person. This is because these are not mutually exclusive. Faith and secularity can be seen in a “both/and” mode rather than “either/or” one. “Every taken-for-granted definition of reality is relativized by the corrosive insight of pluralism” (64).

Thus, Berger concludes that doubt is the pivot around which the dynamics of pluralism whirl. This doubt, as seen above, leads to fundamentalism or relativism. Here lies the need to manage this doubt by a political imperative discussed at the end of the book, since both are potentially dangerous. Relativism produces nihilism and fundamentalism produces fanaticism.

In chapter 5, “The Secular Discourse: Religion and Multiple Modernities,” Berger configures the relation between secularity and modernity, stretching his idea of pluralism using Shmuel Eisenstadt’s concept of “multiple modernities.” “Modernity does not come in one version only, but in several versions” (68). Berger includes some illustrative examples that show that religion has flourished under modern conditions, which has led to an unusual symbiosis between religion and secularity. However, every modern society depends on a secular infrastructure (technological and organizational). This discourse has a privileged position in public life. Thus, we have a proliferation of the pluralism of different versions of modernity, religious discourses in the minds of individuals and in society, and secular and religious discourses. How can this be managed at the level of politics?

Chapter 6, “The Political Management of Pluralism,” comes to offer the solution by suggesting different “formulas of peace.” The theory of religious proposes that pluralism must combine the individual and the political components of the phenomenon. Religious pluralism begets two distinct political problems of how the state defines its own relation to religion, and how the state sets out to regulate the relations of different religions with each other. Berger considers these to be the dilemmas of Islam and Muslims. He claims that two questions concerning Islam are troubling people in the contemporary world. The first is how a believing and practicing Muslim can also be a modern person? The second is what could and should a modern Islamic society be like? These questions are also of political urgency for other religions. The history of Islam shows the difficulty of providing answers to these questions. Islam had/has to deal with two issues of how to cope with religious pluralism in a Muslim society and how to deal with the pluralism of Islamic and secular discourses. For Berger, the debate revolves around the idea that Shari’a is all-encompassing to the degree that there is no room for secular discourses. As a result, there is no comparable traditional Muslim formula of “the other pluralism” which is between the Islamic and modern discourses. Berger differentiates between the ideas of Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) on Islamic democracy (“Islamic principles”) and the Egyptian one (“Islamic rulings”). Based on this, he predicts that many Muslim-majority countries will not adopt a strict separation between the state and the mosque. Rather, the outcome will be somewhere between the two above-mentioned alternatives, with the constitution being based on either “Islamic rulings” or “Islamic principles.”

Berger then looks historically at the different historical formulas of peace differentiating between the old and the new ones due to the geographical scope and presence of the secular discourse. He takes the reader on a journey extending from the varieties of Euro-secularism (the indifference of the pre-Constantinian Roman Empire’s separation of church and the state-secular republic), to articles of the US constitution, to the Ottoman Empire’s millet system, to the Chinese Confucian–Mandarin formula, to the dhimmi formula in the Muslim world, etc.

Berger includes in his book three responses by sociologists of religion, Nancy T. Ammerman, Detlef Pollack, and Fenggang Yang, which added much value to his theoretical book. These responses bring the authors’ own empirical research connecting it with Berger’s theoretical frame.

First, Ammerman supports Berger’s theory of modernity as an intertwining of the religious and secular (both/and). She studies the “lived religion” to highlight the pluralism of consciousness in everyday life, the newly proposed paradigm of Berger. Thus, one can see the validation of Berger’s theory.

Second, Pollack offers a more critical response considering Berger’s paradigm of pluralism based on his secularization “theory of undermining.” Berger’s inconsistency in argumentation supports secularization. Modernization inevitably provokes pluralization, and pluralization undermines religions. In addition, Berger’s thesis of coexistence of religious and secular discourses, called “compatibility theory,” is unconvincing. Religious and secular discourses are not always on good terms, which led Berger to suppose that pluralism affects the “how” of religion and not the “what.” Pollack considers this argument invalid since the form and the content cannot be detached. Finally, empirical religious–sociological research has shown that in countries with a growing religious plurality, the contents of faith become increasingly vague, diffuse, and undetermined, which challenges Berger’s pluralism.

Third, Yang adds a Chinese perspective on the multiple versions of secularities supporting Berger’s claim. He suggests agency-driven secularization as an alternative, referring to Berger’s political imperative. He criticizes Berger’s concept of imperialism as normative rather than descriptive, since this peaceful symbiosis of interactions is unattainable. He then discerns pluralism from plurality to suggest that modernity leads to a higher plurality rather than pluralism. In this, he provides a journey into recent Chinese history, examining its modes of pluralism and plurality.

Berger’s book offers a critical theorization interrogating the contemporary religious landscape. It is a summation of Berger’s work over the years, which can be seen as a dense export of wisdom and expertise examining the global religious landscape. Berger synthesizes in it his entire journey from secularization theory to renouncing it completely and finally to renouncing it partially.

My own understanding of the book lies in the same area as Pollack. Berger puts his secularization theory in a fresh garment. Here, secularization will be the end result if we followed Berger’s logic. Pluralism leads to doubt, which in turn undermines religion. This means that secularization is still the basis for Berger’s thought. Berger’s implied analysis is that secularization is slower than what we expected. On the other hand, the privileged discourse in society is that of secularism, according to chapter 4. Thus, we will reach the conclusion that secularism will be reached just “slowly and gradually.” The explosion of religion is only a matter of an enclave of religion in a secular framework.

Second, in light of the change in the “how” of the religion, we refer to the “what” to bring a more connected “how” and “why,” especially if we take Islam as a case. The “how” and “what” walk hand in hand and cannot be separated. Any change in one will lead to the creation of sects. For instance, the new trend in Muslim life of praying using non-conventional, content-related moves, using yoga and considering it as praying. This practice is inspired by the “what” and the multiple secular discourses. A change in the “how” is then related to two levels: a revision-rereading in the “what” and an extrapolation from a secular discourse.

Third, the examples used in the book about Islam are not rooted in the Islamic social context, making it based on Shari’a and Qur’an only.

Fourth, there is a continuous contradiction/struggle between the religious and the secular discourses and not always this “both/and” relationship. Rather, there is also “either/or” and a lot of compromises and struggles. Berger does not account for this struggle in the life of people.

The Many Altars of Modernity defends pluralism by providing an analytical framework that runs smoothly through the book, connecting and organizing this process. The examples and anecdotes used give valuable insights into each argument, keeping the reader’s attention on point. The book is very enjoyable, comprehensive, and easy to read for unspecialized as much as specialized readers.


Berger, Peter.
The Desecularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics
Grand Rapids