Peter Berger's The Homeless Mind thesis
(taking his work as a whole)

For Peter Berger the sociologist , religion has always been a human construction, a social universe of meaning projecting a sacred cosmos. Because the supernatural is a realm set against the reality of every day life and is often seen to surround it, it can only be communicated by sacredness through religions' collective symbolisations. Sacredness is a quality of power realised in experience and objects of life. So religion is constructed to be a canopy of sacred objects and meanings, a universe of built meaning to reflect collective and therefore project itself right into the personal beliefs of the individual and human groups. Thus there is a relationship between institutions, the forms of work and life, and both social and inner meaning.

This sacred canopy is maintained by the social order, and in turn makes the objective social order subjectively legitimated to every thinking individual. The objective institutions of society are placed into history and the very drama of unfolding life, and that history reflects the playing out of divine reality. The Church, of course, is the key institution uniting the supernatural and the progress of the world.

Furthermore, the subjective impact of this construction and reflection is in the explanation of events of significance, thus explaining the perceived good and bad of life within that order. It pervades every area of life right down to the very personal, so that sexual relationships reflect the divine to human relationship, and health and wellbeing reflect the condition of the individual in relation to the divine will.

It is a very thorough, united and uniting ideological system with sacred and supernatural support, and through modernity it has been crumbling away into a shower of parts.

Modernity and pluralism have successively reduced religion to a private sphere. In the socio-economic sphere the change to bureaucractic, rational and technical modes of organisation and therefore ordinary practical-based thinking has undermined the social plausibility of the sacred. There has been a deinstitutionalisation of meaning (due to bureaucracy running on rational, technical grounds) and therefore religion.

Secularisation, that general area of consciousness once inhabited by the sacred canopy, is in a sense a by-product of choice, and secularisation also works at the level of the subjective consciousness. Secularisation is also the product of the Judaeo-Christian tradition itself, that Judaism and Christianity are this worldly and rooted in history and this location in this world (Christ was fully human) makes Christianity its own gravedigger (the Sacred Canopy, 1967, 129). Art, philosophy, literature and science move away from the domination of the agenda of the sacred. Secularisation is the way people ordinarily think day to day in contemporary times, as opposed to how they ordinarily thought in previous times.

 A plurality of meanings replaces one general meaning and these often compete. This, in the Durkheimian sense, is seen as instability replacing stability, and thus Berger's use of the title "The Homeless Mind" (1974). This has deep social and pyschological consequences in terms of theodicy, in that what once could be explained in terms of life and death are now bereft of general explanation. We are seen to live in a meaningless state, and human life is less easy to bear. Secular ideological approaches have been nowhere near as successful in explaining a meaningfulness of personal events and place in the universe as the religions have been. Anxiety increases because anomie cannot any longer be resolved in a sacred order.

There is no general way back to rebuilding the sacred canopy. The ecumenical response after the growth of many denominations is an institutional rationalisation in the face of decline, but that is all they can do and they cannot rebuild that sacred canopy that once existed.

Another key response to modernity has been accommodations to it with changing theologies. They nip and tuck their dogmas and their understanding of dogmas to fit with modern plausibility, and yet it has been a losing battle of negotiation. Theology is therefore itself part of the sociology of knowledge - a change in ideas and understanding in response to social change. Some religious activists have reverted to traditionalisms of an alternative but removed counter-universe of meaning, while others as radicals absorbed the pluralist of the world and the secularisation of understanding. The least successful are the mid-way liberals with give and take. At the core of this shift is the loss of religion's plausibility structures - that institutions are no longer able to deliver meaning as they once did and so now we no longer believe in general these doctrines as given, the world view of causalities that they represent. It takes a huge sectarian effort to believe religious doctrines once taken for granted due to their loss of place.

Of course religious beliefs do not vanish. What is at stake is their de-legitimisation, the decline of general religious plausibility structures. However, within the generality of pluralism, and the competition of meanings, there is space for small resurgences of religion. Personal religion may be highly effective, but highly sectarian too.

In terms of sociology the Berger approach pursues a humanistic approach against an over emphasis on general structures and determinism, whilst taking structures into the approach. Like Weber, meaning at a subjective is given strong place in the context of bringing both macro and micro approaches together. Humankind has its place in society and the meaning of society is subjectively placed in humankind's consciousness. The references to culture, knowledge, meaning, and consciousness draw upon phenomenology and the very way we communicated and mean. Whilst changes in modernity can be discussed generally, Berger, the Lutheran, is interested in religion and its changes and responses to social change and sees religion contributing to social change through its history as well as being changed by broader forces.


How much is based on real research?

How much of this works with Eastern religions?

What is the relationship between primary carriers of modernisation in terms of bureaucracy (the Weberian sense) with the socio-economic system, including class and power (Marxist sense), and the secondary carriers of modernisation, generally being culture, family, religion, geography and biography?

Can this general approach unite Marx (historical change through class), Weber (forms of institutional authority and modernisation), Schutz (phenomenology) and Mead (social interactionism) and is this possible?

How does the "homeless mind" relate to Habermas's "legitimation crisis"? Habermas is also intersted in how the modern socio-economic system creates a crisis of legitimation and meaning.

Is there a direct connection between this analysis and postmodernism with its further developments, or is this simply a stable modernist analysis (a question made complicated by the issue whether postmodernism is itself only a form of high modernity)?


Berger, P. L. (1967), The Sacred Canopy, Doubleday.
Berger, P. L., Berger, B., Kellner, H. (1974), The Homeless Mind: Modernization and Consciousness, Penguin.
Berger, P. L. (1977), Facing upto Modernity, Basic Books.
Berger, P. L. (1979), The Heretical Imperative, Doubleday.