Peter Berger's Sacred Canopy

Chapter 2 -- Religion and World-Maintenance

Michael R. Leming, Ph.D.
Professor of Sociology
Spring Semester 1998

Important Points

  1. Nomi are precarious. Socialization and resocialization are necessary.
  2. The continuity of social order depends upon the process of "legitimation." Legitimation is the process whereby "knowledge" is socially objectified and is used to justify social order.
  3. This "knowledge" is independent of individuals and is possessed by the group (e.g. "Everybody knows that." or "It's only common sense.").
  4. This knowledge not only refers to what ought to be but also to "what is" -- the inherent meaning of the phenomena. (example: incest).
  5. The meanings of institutions (society, the family, religion, etc.) are nomically integrated. They are also "self-evident" to participants in the institutions. This causes an "objective facticity" to come into existence. (shared subjectivity).
  6. Social control and resocialization affirm both the disciplined or learner and the discipliner or teacher.
  7. Society cannot tolerate the challenge of that which is "taken for granted." If this happens, the nomos will become chaos.
  8. The most powerful method of legitimation is the process of internalization (or realization--Leming).
  9. Religion legitimates so effectively because it relates the precarious reality constructions of empirical societies with ultimate reality. (This is the projection of the nomos into the cosmos.) Religion bestows an ultimately valid ontological status upon the nomos. (Durkheim's idea--see O'Dea page 12.)
  10. The relationship between the society and the cosmos is one of microcosm and macrocosm. By participating in the institutional order, one participates in the divine cosmos. Religion serves to "locate" human phenomena within a cosmic frame of reference.
  11. Once this happens, the nomos obtains a stability even able to transcend the death of individuals and societies because the nomos is grounded in "Sacred Time" within which merely human history is but an episode. The nomos becomes immortal.
  12. As the individual's identity is located in the nomos, he or she gains immortality.
  13. Cosmozation assures the individual that society is much more than an ephemeral human projection.
  14. To go against reality as socially defined and legitimated is to risk plunging into anomy. As defined by the members of society, these persons are either evil or mad.
  15. Religion affirms the socially defined reality at the marginal situations of everyday life in society. Religious legitimations are always present at the marginal situations of human existence--death, war, natural disasters, and social upheaval.
  16. Each cosmos requires a social base for its continuing existence. This base is called a "plausibility structure." Therefore, each religion requires a community to act as its "plausibility structure." (Christianity depends upon the "Church" for its plausibility structure.)
  17. Without a plausibility structure the cosmos loses its ability to project a "taken for granted status." To maintain religion, one must maintain the plausibility structure. To be separated from ones religious plausibility structure is not only ritually restrictive but inherently anomic! (eg. the Jew, the college student, and the Gentile in Utah, the Baptist at St. Olaf.)
  18. To convert from a particular religious world view, and to "stay converted" one must disassociate from one's former plausibility structure, and intensively (or exclusively) associate with the new plausibility structure.


Berger defines religion as the establishment, through human activity, of an all embracing sacred order (cosmos) that will be capable of maintaining itself in the ever-present face of chaos. Religious legitimations arise from human activity, but once crystallized into complexes of meaning that became part of a religious tradition, they can attain a measure of autonomy as against this activity. Indeed, they can act back upon actions in everyday life, transforming the latter, sometimes radically. It is not implied that any particular religious system is nothing but the effect or "reflection" of social processes. Rather, the point is that the same human activity that produces society also produces religion, with the relation between the two products always being a dialectical one.

Go to Peter Berger's Sacred Canopy, Chapters 3 and 4 -- Theodicies and Alienation

Go back to Peter Berger's Sacred Canopy, Chapter 2 -- Religion and World-Maintenance

Go back to Discussion Questions

If you have any questions or comments please email: