How To Make a Religion

In The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion, published in 1967, Peter Berger describes religion as a type of knowledge that we make out of our own lives. He explains three stages: briefly, we pour ourselves out into our social and physical surroundings, then we believe that such outpourings are facts, then we absorb this created world into our lives. In other words, we construct a culture and then are constructed by it, viewing it as a religion when its source seems to lie beyond ourselves.

Berger’s first step is externalization, “the ongoing outpouring of human being into the world, both in the physical and mental activity of man.” Unlike more instinctual mammals, “Man must make a world for himself.” The result of this work is his culture, made up of his tools, language, ideas, and institutions.

The second step is objectification. The culture that people create becomes a fact outside of themselves. We can no longer manipulate it at will. “Once produced, this world cannot simply be wished away.” As a result, it acquires a coercive character. We created laws, political institutions, and technology. Now, they have power over us.

The third step is internalization. Through socialization in families, schools, work, and communities, “the social world…is not passively absorbed by the individual, but actively appropriated by him.” (Italics in the original.) The individual is a constant participant in this internalization. He “keeps ‘talking back’ to the world that formed him and thereby continues to maintain the latter as reality.”

The sacred canopies of St. Mark's Basilica in Venice (

The sheltering canopies of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice

Taken as a whole, this three-step process turns out to be “an ordering of experience. A meaningful order…is imposed upon the discrete experiences and meanings of individuals.” Its role is primarily “as a shield against terror.” It takes on a “sheltering quality.” When this ordering “is taken for granted as appertaining to the ‘nature of things,’… it is endowed with a stability deriving from more powerful sources than the historical effort of human beings.” It becomes, in other words, religion.

“The cosmos posited by religion both transcends and includes man. The sacred cosmos is confronted by man as an immensely powerful reality other than himself.…Religion implies the farthest reach of man’s self-externalization, of his infusion of reality with his own meanings….Put differently, religion is the audacious attempt to conceive of the entire universe as being humanly significant.”

To me, Berger’s analysis makes sense as an explanation of how religion can be both a fallible human product and an authoritative, powerful creation at the same time. And his description is relevant to my view of our biological history. Our organic history serves as a “sacred canopy” for me. It consoles me and I experience it as as “meaningful order” that “transcends and includes” all life. But while it is a spiritual home to me, it does not play the authoritative or socializing role for an entire society that characterizes religions.





6 thoughts on “How To Make a Religion

  1. To create a religion from your world view requires finding others who share it and then building a community out of that group and using that community to externalize the viewpoint into so that it can come flowing back with the authority it needs to truly create a full canopy over you. There are those who are doing just this thing. Earth-based religious naturalists are growing in number and coalescing. We want you to join us. We want to join you.

  2. I’ve commented elsewhere that I’m reading ‘Surfing Uncertainty: Prediction, Action and the Embodied Mind’ by Andy Clark which proposes that how we get to know the world relies on:

    “a simple but remarkably powerful trick or stratagem. That trick is trying to guess the incoming sensory stimulations as they arrive, using what you know about the world. Failed guesses generate ‘prediction errors’ that are then used to recruit new and better guesses, or to inform slower processes of learning and plasticity.”

    This applies all the way up from basic sensations to higher cognitive levels, error signals working up, prediction models working down. We end up seeing the world as a set of predictive models and our consequential actions, corrected by errors in prediction. It’s an efficient way of processing the world’s data using minimum effort. As a consequence we come to see the world in terms of what has been successfully modelled for human actions – so ‘creating a social world’ and the ‘appropriating it’ is just another example (at a high level) of this prediction/error/action processing.

    Apparently this prediction/error/action processing may also go some way to explaining the sense of agency and perhaps consciousness, but I’ve not read that far yet…

    • The book sounds good. You say we would create a social world on the basis of what has been modeled for humans. Would animal sociability work by means of the same strategy used at a different level. I’m wondering where the mental strategy fits in to brain evolution. A matter of degree, I guess.


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