Adventures of an Accidental Sociologist: How to Explain the World Without Becoming a Bore
by Peter L. Berger.
Prometheus Books, 2011, 264pp, hardcover, $26.

A good friend studied sociology at Boston University where Peter Berger spent much of his career. He recalls that Berger rarely missed an opportunity to tell a joke. His intellectual autobiography follows suit.

A patient is told by his doctor that in all likelihood he has only a year to live. After absorbing this awful news, the patient asks what the doctor would recommend.

“Marry a sociologist and move to North Dakota.”

“Will this cure me?”

“No, but the year will seem much longer.”

I can’t vouch for the lack of excitement in North Dakota, but if the sociologist in question were Berger, the punchline would miss the mark. The book achieves what very good volumes by great minds do, which is the feeling of a long, unhurried conversation well worth having.

Berger became such a big name because he escaped the confines of his guild and gained the general prestige of a public intellectual. With the security of one who has accomplished his goals, he reminds us that his career began on the margins of the academy at a fledgling graduate institution largely for working adults, the New School for Social Research. He was successful almost immediately, really shockingly so. His third book, written in about three weeks, was Invitation to Sociology, which has sold more than one million copies. In a few short years, Berger went from being on the margins of university existence to being a million-selling author. Such a life might be expected to set the table for the attainment of unique perspective. Berger didn’t miss his chance.

The famed sociologist made his greatest reputation as an analyst of religion in modernity. His conception of a society built on “structures of plausibility” and dwelling beneath a “sacred canopy” was seminal. The fundamental idea was the modernity undercuts religious belief by constantly introducing contrary influences in the form of non-believers and adherents to other faiths. In other words, modern, open society is not likely to remain a religious society for long. In accord with his own theoretical framework, Berger told the New York Times around 1970 that he expected the arrival of the millennium would find only small groups of believers huddled together against the onslaught of the modern world.

One thing that makes Berger special is that he revised his view as he saw reality moving in a different direction. Islam came back from the dead. Conservative Christianity explosively re-emerged publicly in the United States. Pentecostalism began to spread across the southern hemisphere. Against this backdrop, Berger realized that secularization was not an adequate account of the world. Not only did he revise his theory; he came up with a better alternative. Professor Berger observed that modernity produces pluralism, but pluralism does not necessarily produce secularism. That is a better description of the world in which we live. Religion is not uniquely under siege. Worldviews are under siege. All worldviews all the time. The modern human being is under constant pressure to justify himself and his opinions. That fact may explain why we flock to sources of news and opinion that confirm our outlooks. It feels good to find reassurance in such contested space.

Another one of Berger’s stories illustrates the matter well. One of his female friends was very supportive of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. He decided to introduce her to a Latvian couple capable of describing the persecution they had endured at the hands of Communist enforcers. After a certain point in the conversation, the young woman put her hands over her ears and said she did not want to hear any more. Afterwards, she told Berger that she believed the Latvians, but was sure that there was some additional information that would change everything they said. She told Berger she would check it out. He never saw her again. The point is clear. People maintain all kinds of beliefs against disconfirmation. The specific beliefs can be judged on their respective merits rather than consolidated as one type (religion) and then treated as an undifferentiated whole.

Until his heart attack later in life, Berger was an enthusiastic smoker and ended up paying quite a bit of attention to the anti-smoking movement. The matter of beliefs cropped up again there. He noticed that members of the anti-smoking crusade acted aggressively to protect their own consensus about things such as the effects of second-hand smoke. In one brief sketch, he outlines the hostility that rapidly overwhelmed a couple of Danish academics on the anti-smoking side who suggested the data on the effects of second-hand smoke might not be as compelling as previously believed. Once we settle a matter in our minds, we are extraordinarily loath to reconsider. We protect these understandings as jealously as we might our most dear material possessions. Looking back on the massive class action lawsuits that resulted in gigantic payments from the tobacco companies to the states (and a number of very shrewd trial lawyers), Berger concluded the affair represented the “largest extortion in human history.” More broadly, it crystallized his own view that government exists to protect human beings from each other rather than from themselves.

As with secularization theory, the Austrian experienced another change of heart during his career with regard to capitalism. His early work was basically agnostic between socialism and capitalism, but over time he found his estimate of the relative merits of the two systems had changed. He found himself repelled by Marxism and increasingly convinced that the fundamental claim of capitalism to lift great masses of people out of abject poverty and into a decent standard of living is “empirically valid.” Interestingly, Berger saw his embrace of capitalism as primarily a matter of pragmatism. In other words, he moved away from socialism and toward capitalism because he felt the former does not work, whereas the latter does. But in thinking through the book as a whole, one can also see Berger lean toward a brand of libertarianism because of the very great value he places on freedom. Freedom in business, freedom to smoke, freedom in religion, and . . . reproductive freedom. Indeed, one of his differences with Richard John Neuhaus, he informs us, is that the great “RJN” became very ardently pro-life, while Berger himself did not. Indeed, the two men were once close collaborators, but Neuhaus’s strong pro-life ethic and his eventual conversion to Catholicism created some distance between them. The relationship with Neuhaus is an interesting recurring theme, and the book is worthwhile for this reason alone. One of his more humorous tales involves a medical condition that overtook Neuhaus on a trip to Africa and his manner of informing Berger, but I dare not spoil it by letting the cat out of the bag here.

This review has scarcely scratched the surface of Adventures of an Accidental Sociologist. Berger has many wryly funny jokes and clever vignettes that he uses to season what he calls a biography of his intellectual career with inviting context. The book reminds me, a little, of one by his fellow Austrian professor made good in America and social observer Peter Drucker. It was called book cover imageAdventures of a Bystander and featured Drucker moving through life in the company of a number of fascinating individuals. Berger’s book focuses more squarely on his life than Drucker’s book does on his own, but the result is equally interesting. If only Hayek had produced a book like this one . . .  

Hunter Baker is an associate professor of political science at Union University and the author of The End of Secularism (Crossway, 2009) and Political Thought: A Student’s Guide (forthcoming from Crossway).