The eminent sociologist Peter Berger, a pioneering theorist of “the secularization thesis,” as it is sometimes called, made news two decades ago when he announced that the thesis was “essentially mistaken.” In the 1990s, Berger came to the conclusion that the empirical evidence simply did not support the thesis; societies in the late modern world—with the exception of those in western Europe, perhaps—evinced considerable religious vitality, and scholars deluded themselves in sticking with the old paradigm—even if some have.
I think people should consider Berger’s change of mind when they say that believers in this or that religious-informed idea are “on the wrong side of history.” When people say this, they are making more of a political statement than a historical one. They are often expressing their own hopes for the future than giving an informed assessment of history’s erratic trajectory. In the early 19th century, for example, Thomas Jefferson thought that we would all be Unitarians. That did not happen. Instead, supernatural evangelical religion came to define American culture for the rest of the century. Or consider the rise of the Christian Right in the 1980s. Modern life does not always result in secularization.
Howard calls our attention to Berger’s new theory. Berger no longer argues that modernity leads to secularization. Rather, modernity lead to pluralism. Here is Howard:
Fortunately, in 2014, Berger published The Many Altars of Modernity: Toward a Paradigm for Religion in a Pluralist Age, which provides a much more nuanced understanding of religious pluralism in our globalized world. If I may simplify, he argues in this book that modernity leads not to secularization but to greater religious pluralism; processes of globalization in particular have led to the unprecedented intermingling of religious perspectives, especially in cosmopolitan areas. A time traveler from London in 1416 to London in 2016, I suspect, would experience first-hand the validity of Berger’s point…
At this point, one might sum up his argument as follows: if encountered in the right frame of mind, pluralism is on balance a good thing for people of faith, whether Christian or otherwise. Pluralism can provoke new insights into one’s faith and new insights about the purpose of religious community—for Christians, the church. It can also help believers distinguish the core of the faith from its more peripheral aspects. And not least, by encountering many religious “others,” one comes to learn first-hand about beliefs and practices quite different from one’s own, and this familiarity can, in turn, yield to understanding and tolerance.