Peter Berger's Sacred Canopy

Chapters 3 and 4 -- Theodicies and Alienation

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

  1. Any explanations of anomic phenomena involving religious legitimations are called theodicies. Since the nomos locates the individual's life in an all-embracing fabric of meanings (Cosmos) it is, by its very nature, transcendent--and therefore a theodicy.
  2. Every theodicy entails a certain denial of the individual self and its needs, anxieties, and problems. One of the key functions of nomoi is the facilitation of this denial in individual consciousness.
  3. The key characteristic of this denial is the intoxication of surrender to an other --complete, self-denying, even self-destroying. "I am nothing--He is everything--and therein lies my ultimate bliss." Berger calls this masochistic liberation. One finds one's true self by losing one's self.
  4. A plausible theodicy (which of course, requires an appropriate plausibility structure) permits the individual to integrate the anomic experiences of his biography into the socially established nomos and its subjective correlate in his own consciousness. In situations of acute suffering, the need for meaning is as strong as or even stronger than the need for happiness.
  5. One of the important social functions of theodicies is ability to explain the socially prevailing inequalities of power and privilege. Theodicies legitimate both the powerful and the powerless. Theodicies not only provide the poor with a meaning for their wealth.
  6. The individual's misfortunes, including the final misfortune of having to die, are weakened at least in their anomic impact by being apprehended as only episodes in the continuing history of the collectivity with which the individual is identified. This happened because the individual's mortality is empirically available, that of the collectivity, typically, is not.
  7. There are three types of theodicies:
    1. providing compensation for the anomic phenomena in terms of future this-worldly rewards.
    2. providing compensation for the anomic phenomena in terms of future other-worldly rewards.
    3. the universe is conceived of as the arena of a struggle between the forces of good and evil. The evil forces are responsible for the anomic phenomena and the good forces for nomization.
  8. In Christianity the solution to the problem of theodicy is found in Christology-- the incarnate God is also the God who suffers. Without this suffering, without the agony of the cross, the incarnation would not provide the solution to the problem of suffering. Only the sacrifice of an innocent god could justify the endless and universal torture of innocence.
  9. Christ suffered not for man's innocence but for his sin. Hence, the problem of theodicy is translated into the problem of anthropology.
  10. The nomos-cosmos is objectified by the society which externalizes it. It is real to the individual only to the extent that he participates, however reluctantly, in the objective meanings that have been collectively assigned by society.
  11. As in all products of internalization, there is a dialectical tension between identity as socially (objectively) assigned and identity as subjectively appropriated. The internalization process entails self-objectivation--a part of the self becomes objectivated, not just to others but to itself, as a set of representations of the social world--a "social self."
  12. There are two ways in which one may proceed--one, in which the self can be reappropriated by the "recollection" that the self is a product of one's activity--the other, in which such reappropriation is no longer possible, and in which the socialized self confront the individual as inexorable facticity analogous to the facticity of nature. The latter process may be called alienation.
  13. Alienation is an overextension of the process of objectivation, whereby the human objectivity of the social world is transformed in consciousness into the non-human objectivity of nature. The social world then ceases to be an open arena in which the individual expands his being in meaningful activity, becomes instead a closed aggregate of reifications divorced from present or future activity.
  14. The alienated world, with all its aspects, is a phenomenon of consciousness, specifically of false consciousness. Paradoxically, man then produces a world that denies him.
  15. Alienation is an entirely different phenomenon from anomy. Religion has been so powerful an agency of nomization precisely because it has also been a powerful, probably the most powerful, agency of alienation. Religion has been a very important form of false consciousness.
  16. Religion mystifies institutions by explaining them as given--over and beyond their empirical existence in the history of a society.
  17. The process of falsification--the creation of a false consciousness--brings about bad faith. Bad faith replaces choice with fictitious necessities--the individual who in fact has a choice between different courses of action, posits one of these courses and necessary. (The devil made me do it, or that's just the way I am.)
  18. A transcendent God may also relativize the social order to such an extent that one may validly speak of de-alienation--in the sense that, before the face of God, the institutions are revealed as nothing but human works, devoid of inherent sanctity or immortality. This is the prophetic function of religion.


The great paradox of religious alienation is that the very process of dehumanizing the socio-cultural world has its roots in the fundamental wish that reality as a whole might have a meaningful place for man. One may thus say that alienation, too, has a price paid by the religious consciousness in its quest for a humanly meaningful universe.


  1. What are plausibility structures and sub-societal plausibility structures? Why are both necessary for religion?
  2. Discuss the following as they function as plausibility structures: sectarian groups, tribalistic groups, and locally oriented communities.
  3. Discuss the following as they function as theodicies: dualistic world views and millenarianism.

Go to Peter Berger's Sacred Canopy, Chapters 5, 6, and 7 -- SECULARIZATION

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

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