secularization thesis

Passing of sociologist Peter Berger provokes nostalgia about religion news coverage

Passing of sociologist Peter Berger provokes nostalgia about religion news coverage

Boston University’s iconoclastic sociologist Peter Berger, who died June 27 at age 88, was one of those doubly valuable stars of the religion beat, both as a provider of pertinent quotes (if you could get him on the phone) and as a thinker whose every book and article needed to be checked out for news potential.  

It was a pleasure to see the byline of Joseph Berger (no relation) on The New York Times obit. He boasts the unique distinction of winning the  top Religion Newswriters Association award three years running while with Long Island Newsday (1982, 1983, 1984) and covered the beat for the Times as well.

The combination of Berger and Berger provokes nostalgia about the past, with this for analysts of current media to ponder: What is the ongoing place for coverage of important religious scholarship and books?

Not so long ago, the better mainstream print media paid considerable attention to religious thought, with pieces often written by specialists, providing a refreshing break from the daily squabbles that tend to dominate news coverage. Today, such treatments are largely relegated to the Internet, and often presented from a sectarian viewpoint. (TV and radio news rarely did or do much.)

As the Times noted, Peter Berger got the widest notice when he twitted the “God Is Dead” fad with his 1969 book “A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural.” Ever the skeptic, Berger turned his skeptical eye toward skepticism, arguing that there’s good reason to perceive transcendent forces at work in the universe.

That contrarian claim emerged alongside Berger’s abandonment of the well-entrenched “secularization thesis” which he had long embraced.

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This just in from Oxford Press: Turning the intellectual tables on 'New Atheists'

This just in from Oxford Press: Turning the intellectual tables on 'New Atheists'

The atheist liberation movement of recent years has featured efforts to explain away the global prevalence of religion as totally the result of social forces that perhaps got imprinted into humanity’s evolutionary biology.

The tables are turned in a new book, “The Evolution of Atheism: The Politics of a Modern Movement” (Oxford University Press). Journalists: It’s heady stuff to be a hook for news treatment, but worth the effort.

The book analyzes atheistic causes in North America over the past century, including its internal schisms and contradictions. The work is based on Canadian author Stephen LeDrew’s doctoral dissertation at York University in Ontario and post-doctoral study in Sweden at Uppsala University’s Center for the Study of Religion and Society.

Religion newswriters are well aware that those aggressive “New Atheists” sometimes suggest faith is not just stupid but morally evil or a sort of mental illness, such that parents should be forbidden to infect their own children with it. Journalists may be surprised to learn that for LeDrew and others, this sort of anti-religion thinking is outdated and “utterly out of sync with contemporary social science.”

Social scientists long embraced the “secularization thesis,” according to which religion will inevitably decline as modern science advances. But now, says LeDrew, many acknowledge that scenario was “a product of ideology” rather than empirical fact. Thus, the New Atheism could be seen as a promotional effort to defend against “a perceived failure of secularism in practice in late modern society.”

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