Berger on Ritual, Religion, and Institutions

Peter Berger’s blog is quickly becoming one of my weekly regular reads — and as he explains in this post, blogging is a weekly affair for him.  One of the most incisive points he makes is about the ritualistic qualities and regularized patterns of the institutions that we construct for ourselves — a point that has not gotten as much attention with respect to legal institutions as it perhaps deserves.   Here’s a portion on the relationship of habits, rituals, and institutions:

[E]very habit has the potential to become a ritual. Since ritual is at the very heart of religion, and since I have assumed the obligation to blog about religion at least most of the time, the topic is not out of order here.

Forming habits is a basic requirement if human beings are going to live in a society (which in turn is a requirement for surviving as a species). Society is only possible because its members share mutually predictable programs of behavior. We are different from even our closest zoological relatives in that our biological makeup falls far short of supplying the required programs. The social philosopher Arnold Gehlen interpreted our species as being instinctually deprived, a “deficient being”. [He could also have called homo sapiens a biologically under-equipped chimpanzee, but philosophers, especially German ones, don’t use such colorful language.]  Since our instincts provide us with only a few programs of behavior, we must invent such programs ourselves. These ersatz instincts are what we call institutions (Gehlen has built a very interesting theory on this phenomenon). Let us assume that Adam and Eve, when they met for the first time, did have a built-in program driving them toward each other. Beyond this primal interaction, nature did not tell them what else they should do with each other. Consequently human beings constructed these immensely varied and complex institutions, which provide programs for tackling the problems of sexuality, procreation, child-rearing, nomenclature, the rights of property, and so on. If these institutions—we commonly call them kinship—did not exist, the rules of engagement would have to be renegotiated every time a man was attracted to a woman, down to the property rights of great-grandchildren. This process of endless renegotiation would take all available time: Nothing else would get done, including such urgent activities as agriculture and warfare.

ADDENDUM: I was remiss in failing to note for readers that for further reflections of a similar nature, see Berger’s wonderful book from a few decades ago, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion.

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