virus: Berger's theory of religion pt. 4: forgetfulness

David McFadzean (
Sat, 10 Apr 1999 11:07:00 -0600

The collective effort to fashion this nomos is 'totalizing'. The more encompassing and integrated the meaningful world order, the greater the stability and satisfaction. In fact, however, the nomos does not embrace all the discrete experiences of individuals. Ultimately it cannot do so. On the margins of life 'anomie', an anxiety-inducing sense of normlessness, is waiting.

In everyday experience of dreams, death, defeat, and the unexpected, we are repeatedly threatened with separation from the social world, and hence the loss of meaning. In Berger's words, 'every nomos is an edifice erected in the face of the potent and alien forces of chaos.' Religion seeks to provide the 'ultimate shield against the terror of anomie' by supplying the most effective legitimation of the social order.

Religious myths, rites, doctrines, and practices seek to assert the merger of the nomos and the cosmos. The social order, in Berger's words, is 'cosmologized' and rendered 'sacred'. The social order is no longer a human construct, subject to change, but a divinely given order subject to the will of the gods (or other supernatural forces) alone. The gods may choose to act through their human intermediaries, but the world is no longer a merely human creation.

In such a world, any attempt to deny the order that the religiously sanctioned society imposes is an act of evil as well as madness. Of course, it must be remembered that Berger is speaking hypothetically about the earliest states of human social development. There has been no real mass awareness of the creative role of humans in the construction of the world until modern times. Rather, as best we can tell, the gods evolved hand in hand with society from the beginning. Historically, 'forgetfulness' is the normal state, and 'awareness' is the modern aberration brought on by philosophy, science, and technology.

Next: anomie and alienation