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The sociology of religion is primarily the study of the practices, social structures, historical backgrounds, development, universal themes, and roles of religion in society. There is particular emphasis on the recurring role of religion in nearly all societies on Earth today and throughout recorded history. Sociologists of religion attempt to explain the effects that society has on religion and the effects that religion has on society; in other words, their dialectical relationship.
Typology of religious groups
According to what is one common typology among sociologists, religious groups are classified as ecclesias, denominations, cults or sects. Note that sociologists give these words precise definitions which are different from how they are commonly used. Note especially that the words 'cult' and 'sect' as used by sociologists are free from prejudice, even though the popular use of these words is often pejorative.
History and relevance today
The classical, seminal sociological theorists of the late 19th and early 20th century were greatly interested in religion and its effects on society. These theorists include Émile Durkheim, Max Weber, and Karl Marx. Like Plato and Aristotle from Ancient Greece, and enlightenment philosophers from the 17th through 19th centuries, the ideas posited by these sociologists continue to be addressed today. More recent prominent sociologists of religion include Peter Berger, Michael Plekon, Rodney Stark, and Robert Wuthnow.
Despite the claims of many classical theorists and sociologists immediately after World War II, religion has continued to play a vital role in the lives of individuals worldwide. In America, for example, church attendance has remained relatively stable in the past 40 years. In Africa and South America, the emergence of Christianity has occurred at a startling rate. While Africa could claim roughly 10 million Christians in 1900, recent estimates put that number closer to 200 million. The rise of Islam as a major world religion, especially its new-found influence in the West, is another significant development. In short, presupposed secularization (the decline of religiosity) might seem to be a myth, depending on its definition and the definition of its scope - sociologists of religion still have much to study
Claims that the sociology of religion has no predictive ability (only descriptive) can be dismissed by the example above. Many sociologists predicted a rise in religiosity when cultural and philosophical figures were claiming "God is dead." Of course, many predicted the same thing as these figures. Nonetheless, the example stands. Other examples include:
- –Peter Berger, noteworthy for predicting the "Culture Wars" of the late 20th century, especially its religious character.
- –Sociologists who predicted the rise of fundamentalist Islam and its connection with terrorism.
Among many other predictive endeavors, sociologists of religion (notably Robert Wuthnow) are currently attempting to predict the success of U.S. federal funding of Faith-based charities.
The view of religion in classical sociology
Durkheim, Marx, and Weber had very complex and developed theories about the nature and effects of religion. Durkheim and Weber specifically are often difficult to understand, especially in light of the lack of context and examples in their primary texts. To summarize their theories, especially in brief form, is a dubious enterprise. Any attempts should be tempered by a direct reading of their works or at least reference to other texts which interpret and summarize them. It is with this warning that a summary is provided. However, it should be noted that religion was considered to be an extremely important social variable in the work of all three:
It may be best to initially discard some common misconceptions about Marx’s ideas. First of all, Marx did not view his work as an ethical or ideological response to nineteenth–century capitalism (as most later commentators have). His efforts were, in his mind, based solely on what can be called applied science. Marx saw himself as doing morally neutral sociology and economic theory for the sake of human development. As Christiano states, "Marx did not believe in science for science’s sake…he believed that he was also advancing a theory that would…be a useful tool…[in] effecting a revolutionary upheaval of the capitalist system in favor of socialism." (124) As such, the crux of his arguments was the belief that humans are best guided by reason. Religion, Marx held, was a significant hindrance to reason, inherently masking the truth and misguiding followers. As we will later see, Marx viewed social alienation as the heart of social inequality. The antithesis to this alienation is freedom. Subsequently, to propagate freedom means to present individuals with the truth and give them a choice as to whether or not to accept or deny it. In this, "Marx never suggested that religion ought to be prohibited." (Christiano 126) But what led Marx to believe these things?
Central to his theories was the oppressive economic situation in which he dwelt. With the rise of European industrialism, Marx and his colleague Engels witnessed and responded to the growth of what he called "surplus value." Marx’s view of capitalism saw rich capitalists getting richer and their workers getting poorer (the gap, the exploitation, was the "surplus value"). And not only were workers getting exploited, but in the process they were being further detached from the products they helped create. By simply selling their work for wages, "workers simultaneously lose connection with the object of labor and become objects themselves. Workers are devalued to the level of a commodity – a thing…" (Ibid 125) From this objectification comes alienation. The common worker is told he or she is a replaceable tool, alienated to the point of extreme discontent. Here, in Marx’s eyes, religion enters.
As an "opiate of the people," Marx recognized that religion served a true function in society – but did not agree with the foundation of that function. As Marx commentator Norman Birnbaum stated, to Marx, "religion [was] a spiritual response to a condition of alienation." (Ibid 126) Responding to alienation, Marx thought that religion served to uphold the ideologies and cultural systems that foster oppressive capitalism. Thus, "Religion was conceived to be a powerful conservative force that served to perpetuate the domination of one social class at the expense of others." (Ibid 127). In other words, religion held together the system that oppressed lower–class individuals. And so, in Marx’s infamous words, "To abolish religion as the illusory happiness of the people is to demand their real happiness. The demand to give up illusions about the existing state of affairs to the demand to give up a state of affairs which needs illusions. The criticism of religion is therefore in embryo the criticism of the vale of tears, the halo of which is religion."
Emile Durkheim placed himself in the positivist tradition, meaning that he thought of his study of society as dispassionate and scientific. He was deeply interested in the problem of what held complex modern societies together. Religion, he argued, was an expression of social cohesion.
In the fieldwork that led to his famous Elementary Forms of Religious Life, Durkheim, who was a highly rational, secular Frenchman himself, spent fifteen years studying what he considered to be "primitive" religion among the Australian aborigines. His underlying interest was to understand the basic forms of religious life for all societies. In Elementary Forms, Durkheim makes the argument that the totemic gods the aborigines worship are actually expressions of their own conceptions of society itself. This is true not only for the aborigines, he argues, but for all societies.
Religion, for Durkheim, is not "imaginary," although he does strip it of what many believers find essential. Religion is very real; it is an expression of society itself, and indeed, there is no society that does not have religion. (That would not be possible for Durkheim.) We perceive as individuals a force greater than ourselves, which is our social life, and give that perception a supernatural face. We then express ourselves religiously in groups, which for Durkheim makes the symbolic power greater. Religion is an expression of our collective consciousness, which is the fusion of all of our individual consciousnesses, which then creates a reality of its own.
It follows, then, that less complex societies, such as the Australian aborigines, have less complex religious systems, involving totems associated with particular clans. The more complex the society, the more complex the religious system. As societies come in contact with other societies, there is a tendency for religious systems to emphasize universalism to a greater and greater extent. However, as the division of labor makes the individual seem more important (a subject that Durkheim treats extensively in his famous Division of Labor in Society), religious systems increasingly focus on individual salvation and conscience.
Durkheim's definition of religion, from Elementary Forms, is as follows: "A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden – beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them."
This is a functional definition of religion, meaning that it explains what religion does in social life: essentially, it unites societies.
This definition also does not stipulate what exactly may be considered sacred. Thus later sociologists of religion (notably Robert Bellah) have extended Durkheimian insights to talk about notions of civil religion, or the religion of a state. American civil religion, for example, might be said to have its own set of sacred "things": American flags, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, etc. Other sociologists have taken Durkheim in the direction of the religion of professional sports, or of rock music.
Max Weber differed from Karl Marx and Emile Durkheim in that he focused his work on the effects of religious action and inaction. Instead of discussing religion as a kind of misapprehension (an "opiate of the people,") or as social cohesion, Weber did not attempt to reduce religion to its essence. Instead, he examines how religious ideas and groups interacted with other aspects of social life (notably the economy). In doing so, Weber often attempts to get at religion's subjective meaning to the individual.
In Weber's sociology, he uses the German term "Verstehen" to describe his method of interpretation of the intention and context of human action. Weber is not a positivist -- meaning he does not believe we can find out "facts" in sociology that are easily causally linked. Although he believes some generalized statements about social life can be made, he is not interested in hard positivist claims, but instead in linkages and sequences, in historical narratives and particular cases.
Weber argues for making sense of religious action on its own terms. A religious group or individual is influenced by all kinds of things, he says -- but if they claim to be acting in the name of religion, we should attempt to understand their perspective on religious grounds first. Weber gives religion credit for shaping a person's image of the world, and this image of the world can affect their view of their interests, and ultimately how they decide to take action.
For Weber, religion is best understood as it responds to the human need for theodicy and soteriology. Human beings are troubled, he says, with the question of theodicy -- the question of how the extraordinary power of a divine god may be reconciled with the imperfection of the world that he has created and rules over. People need to know, for example, why there is undeserved good fortune and suffering in the world. Religion offers people soteriological answers, or answers that provide opportunities for salvation -- relief from suffering, and reassuring meaning. The pursuit of salvation, like the pursuit of wealth, becomes a part of human motivation.
Because religion helps to define motivation, Weber believed that religion (and specifically Protestant Calvinism) actually helped to give rise to modern capitalism, as he asserted in his most famous and controversial work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Capitalism.
In Protestant Ethic, Weber argues that capitalism arose in the West in part because of how the belief in predestination was interpreted by everyday English Puritans. Puritan theology was based on the Calvinist notion that not everyone would be saved; there was only a specific number of the elect who would avoid damnation, and this was based sheerly on God's predetermined will and not on any action you could perform in this life. Official doctrine held that one could not ever really know whether one was among the elect.
Practically, Weber noted, this was difficult psychologically: people were (understandably) anxious to know whether they would be eternally damned or not. Thus Puritan leaders began assuring members that if they began doing well financially in their businesses, this would be one unofficial sign they had God's approvial and were among the saved -- but only if they used the fruits of their labor well. This led to the development of rational bookkeeping and the calculated pursuit of financial success beyond what one needed simply to live -- and this is the "spirit of capitalism." Over time, the habits associated with the spirit of capitalism lost their religious significance, and rational pursuit of profit became its own aim.
The Protestant Ethic thesis has been much critiqued, refined, and disputed, but is still a lively source of theroetical debate in sociology of religion. Weber also did considerable work on world religions, including Hinduism and Buddhism.
Contemporary Sociology of Religion
According to the theory of R. Stark & W. S. Bainbridge, religions are systems of "compensators". Compensators are a body of language and practices that compensate for some physical lack or frustrated goal. They can be divided into specific compensators (compensators for the failure to achieve specific goals), and general compensators (compensators for failure to achieve any goal).
It has been observed that social or political movements that fail to achieve their goals will often transform into religions. As it becomes clear that the goals of the movement will not be achieved by natural means (at least within their lifetimes), members of the movement will look to the supernatural to achieve what cannot be achieved naturally. The new religious beliefs are compensators for the failure to achieve the original goals. Examples of this include the counterculture movement in America: the early counterculture movement was intent on changing society and removing its injustice and boredom; but as members of the movement proved unable to achieve these goals they turned to Eastern and new religions as compensators.
A general sociological theory of the formation of religions is contained in R. Stark & W. S. Bainbridge's book "Theory of Religion". This theory is outlined roughly below:
Most religions start out their lives as cults or sects, i.e. groups in high tension with the surrounding society. Over time, they tend to either die out, or become more established, mainstream and in less tension with society. Cults are new groups with a new novel theology, while sects are attempts to return mainstream religions to (what the sect views as) their original purity. Mainstream established groups are called denominations. The comments below about cult formation apply equally well to sect formation.
There are four models of cult formation: the Psychopathological Model, the Entrepreneurial Model, the Social Model and the Normal Revelations model.
According to the "Psychopathological Model", religions are founded during a period of severe stress in the life of the founder. The founder suffers from psychological problems, which they resolve through the founding of the religion. (The development of the religion is for them a form of self-therapy, or self-medication.)
According to the Entrepreneurial Model, founders of religions act like entrepreneurs, developing new products (religions) to sell to consumers (to convert people to). According to this model, most founders of new religions already have experience in several religious groups before they begin their own. They take ideas from the pre-existing religions, and try to improve on them to make them more popular.
The Social Model emphasises not the founder of the religion, but rather the early religious group. According to this model, religions are founded by means of social implosions. Members of the religious group spend less and less time with people outside the group, and more and more time with each other within it. The level of affection and emotional bonding between members of a group increases, and their emotional bonds to members outside the group diminish. According to the social model, when a social implosion occurs, the group will naturally develop a new theology and rituals to accompany it.
The Normal Revelations model was added to the theory by Stark in a later work. According to the Normal Revelations model, religions are founded when the founder interprets ordinary natural phenomena as supernatural; for instance, ascribing his or her own creativity in inventing the religion to that of the deity.
Some religions are better described by one model than another, though all apply to differing degrees to all religions.
Once a cult or sect has been founded, the next problem for the founder is to convert new members to it. Prime candidates for religious conversion are those with an openness to religion, but who do not belong or fit well in any existing religious group. Those with no religion or no interest in religion are difficult to convert, especially since the cult and sect beliefs are so extreme by the standards of the surrounding society. But those already happy members of a religious group are difficult to convert as well, since they have strong social links to their pre-existing religion and are unlikely to want to sever them in order to join a new one. The best candidates for religious conversion are those who are members of or have been associated with religious groups (thereby showing an interest or openness to religion), yet exist on the fringe of these groups, without strong social ties to prevent them from joining a new group.
Potential converts vary in their level of social connection. New religions best spread through pre-existing friendship networks. Converts who are marginal with few friends are easy to convert, but having few friends to convert they cannot add much to the further growth of the organization. Converts with a large social network are harder to convert, since they tend to have more invested in mainstream society; but once converted they yield many new followers through their friendship network.
Cults initially can have quite high growth rates; but as the social networks that initially feed them are exhausted, their growth rate falls quickly. On the other hand, the rate of growth is exponential (ignoring the limited supply of potential converts): the more converts you have, the more missionaries you can have out looking for new converts. But nonetheless it can take a very long time for religions to grow to a large size by natural growth. This often leads to cult leaders giving up after several decades, and withdrawing the cult from the world.
It is difficult for cults and sects to maintain their initial enthusiasm for more than about a generation. As children are born into the cult or sect, members begin to demand a more stable life. When this happens, cults tend to lose or de-emphasise many of their more radical beliefs, and become more open to the surrounding society; they then become denominations.
The goal or dream of most founders of religions is to convert their entire society; but of the myriad religions founded throughout history, few have been very successful. Most of the world's religious people adhere to one of a few major religions (Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism). It is very difficult for a religion to grow to this size. Most of these religions (especially Christianity) became established when they were adopted by politically powerful individuals. The religion of the common people took much longer to change (sometimes centuries).
Study of religion
- Kevin J. Christiano, et al, (2001), Sociology of Religion: Contemporary Developments, AltaMira Press, U.S.
- Max Weber, Sociology of Religion
- Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Los Angeles: Roxbury Company, 2002.
- Association of Religion Data Archives
- Hadden: Religion and the Quest for Meaning and Order
- A test of the Stark-Bainbridge theory of affiliation with cults and sects
- Verstehen: Max Weber's Homepage
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