Passing of sociologist Peter Berger provokes nostalgia about religion news coverage

Boston University’s iconoclastic sociologist Peter Berger, who died June 27 at age 88, was one of those doubly valuable stars of the religion beat, both as a provider of pertinent quotes (if you could get him on the phone) and as a thinker whose every book and article needed to be checked out for news potential.  

It was a pleasure to see the byline of Joseph Berger (no relation) on The New York Times obit. He boasts the unique distinction of winning the  top Religion Newswriters Association award three years running while with Long Island Newsday (1982, 1983, 1984) and covered the beat for the Times as well.

The combination of Berger and Berger provokes nostalgia about the past, with this for analysts of current media to ponder: What is the ongoing place for coverage of important religious scholarship and books?

Not so long ago, the better mainstream print media paid considerable attention to religious thought, with pieces often written by specialists, providing a refreshing break from the daily squabbles that tend to dominate news coverage. Today, such treatments are largely relegated to the Internet, and often presented from a sectarian viewpoint. (TV and radio news rarely did or do much.)

As the Times noted, Peter Berger got the widest notice when he twitted the “God Is Dead” fad with his 1969 book “A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural.” Ever the skeptic, Berger turned his skeptical eye toward skepticism, arguing that there’s good reason to perceive transcendent forces at work in the universe.

That contrarian claim emerged alongside Berger’s abandonment of the well-entrenched “secularization thesis” which he had long embraced.

That theory said cultures inevitably move away from religion as they advance and modernize. This Austrian native decided hard evidence showed that’s true for Western Europe and intellectual bubbles elsewhere, but not for most people in most countries. The well-developed United States was a remarkable example of modern piety (though in the Obama-Trump years it appears to be caught in a secularizing phase).

Berger was quick with a quip, and a famous line referred to one of the world’s most devout national populations and one of its most irreligious: “The United States is a nation of Indians ruled by an elite of Swedes.”

Modernity is not creating secularization, Berger concluded, but, rather, pluralism, in which adherents of different religions increasingly live side by side. That led to one of his final essays a year ago, contending that pluralism carries great value for religious faith. Reasons: it enhances human freedom, assures faith is no longer taken for granted, strengthens churches because they’re truly “voluntary associations,” and helps distinguish between core beliefs and less important matters.

That piece appeared in First Things magazine, founded by Berger’s neoconservative ally Richard John Neuhaus. Berger quit Neuhaus’s editorial board (along with Gertrude Himmelfarb) over a 1996 symposium about the United States titled “The End of Democracy?” The writers complained that power over moral issues had shifted too far from the popular will to unelected judges, but Berger found the slams against America and its democracy a bit much.

Berger was a “mainline” Protestant who often expressed irritation at the vapidity of that group’s liberal drift. Depicting his personal religious outlook, Berger said he was “incurably Lutheran” but “not very orthodox.”

Worth reading: As a non-evangelical friendly toward evangelicals, Berger discussed his religious thinking in 2014 with the Center for Faith and Inquiry at evangelical Gordon College: Also note Spanish lay Catholic Miriam Diez Bosch’s analysis of Berger’s 10 most important points about understanding religion.

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