Defining Religion Sociology Style





Sociology lacks agreement defining religion. For some it is based around theological definitions, for others practice of people and for others meaning.
A key word here is religiosity: possession by a person or group of some inner spiritual piety. This piety may or may not lead on to attachment to a religious practice or a pre-defined set of beliefs (religion can be DIY) but it should have some outward social impact, otherwise it is sociologically insignificant (except a significance that religion has become so privatised that it ended up being purely individual and secret). One such social sociolgical impact is enchantment, a term packed with psychological implications in terms of purpose and direction given to life, and without enchantment society as a whole can seem to lack overall purpose and meaning leaving its members lacking solidarity towards one another.





A quick way to find religiosity is identification with a religion and the probability of some practice. So a list of religions can be drawn up and a measure taken. This is exclusivist focussing on pre-packaged religions.
Yet this creates problems, because some religions may not define themselves as particularly religious (Scientology, for example) and some that do regard themselves as a religion may be described as little more than a philosophy (an accusation made at Buddhism).
Furthermore in the spirit of DIY people do make up their own religious packages, taking insights from different religions (and often changing their meanings) and adding in some of their own superstitions. Some people may regard themselves as religious, yet locate it purely in nature and awe which may seem not to be particularly religious at all.
Religions do not cover the whole spectrum of defining religion! Religiosity is found outside religions as well as within.
More than this, many religions contain plenty of social activities and being a member of a religious organisation might show only surface religiosity - only outward apprearances for social reasons.



Magic might be seen as displaying religiosity and thus constitutes religion. It is a localised form of worship and ritual without a grand theological or belief scheme.
There is a problem here. Magic may also be seen as a primitive science, a means of intervening in the workings of the world, in a pre-scientific outlook.
This creates another question, as to whether religion is just a developed form of magic, whether the supernatural is as grand, metaphorised, specialised, magic. Some sociologists, like Robert Robert Redfield and Max Weber, have considered vertical relationships of religion (that is cosmopolitan nad more philosophical, sometimes called Great Tradition as by Redfield), magical religion (localised version of religion, sometimes called Little Tradition as by Redfield) and magic (practices without a religion). This is fine for primitive or developing societies, but what about New Age? Is this magic, or does it carry a belief system, and does not all magic carry a belief system?
A good example is Astrology. Many see this as magic, or a form of religion because it carries a belief system. However, many astrologers reject it as a religion, because it is seen as analytical and about the actual universe. It does follow a definition of magic, and it does exist as a counter explanation to falsifiable science - but then astrologers say that what they do can be falsified too (but can it be?)


Myth Systems

Another definition of religion is having a myth system. This is a construction, that may or may not be true, that explains something about the origins of the universe or world and something about its end, and how people and individuals fit into its progress. This may mean sorting out any predicaments of that universe, its history and a people (as it sees its or their history) produces.
Not all myth systems are necessarily religious, nor are people who are immersed within a myth religious, and it is argued by some postmodernists that all paradigms of ideas that change are but myth systems. The evolutionary beliefs that dominate Western culture may follow falsifiable scientific rules, but that is part of a myth of truth finding and the whole package is a secular myth system.
The Middle Ages may have had a sacred canopy of Christian belief (Hassidic Jews call the Middle Ages "Torah friendly" and adopt the patterns of Middle Age Jewry in order to underline being religious in a secularised world). That time was religious. But if we have gained a modernist world view, this was not religious. That modernist world view has developed over recent centuries and decades, and some speak of a new postmodern flux instead. This means that there is no grand narrative of meaning, religious or secular any more. But in that there are religious people with their own choices of religious myths to live by, there are other people who have secular myths to live by. Myth is not necessarily religious!



To define religion as worshipping a God is one approach, but it is frought with problems. It condemns Buddhism as not being a religion. Yet Buddhism involves ritual practices that centre around a founder (Buddha), have a path (Dharma) and a collectivity (Sangha).
To define religion as a set of shared beliefs comes up against a problem of divisions now not just between religions but divisons within religions. Liberal Christians have fundamentally different attitudes and approaches from Conservative Christians; there are Shi'ite Muslims and Sunni Muslims which each have a different view of the Caliphate; Buddhists are divided by Hinayana, Mahayana, Tibetan, Zen and Western traditions (and the Tibetan strand in Yorkshire and Cumbria is rejected by the Dalai Lama; the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order are criticised by other Western Buddhists as trying to monopolise a claim to Western Buddhism), and Judaism is divided into Hassidic, Orthodox, Liberal and/or Reform, Restoration (radical), and Zionist (secular).
There is more potential in pursuing religion with the promise of salvation in some form or other. Even this must be treated with care, for some relegate the need for salvation as distant and negligible (for example, Jews who do not believe in the resurrection of the dead), whilst others build in qualifications so that in Buddhism, attachment to the "salvation" of nirvana is itself samsara, or the cycle of misery.



One measure of religion is outward signs of practice in places of worship.
The difficulty with practice is that many people are religious internally and show no outward commitment. Just because churchgoing has declined does not mean religiosity has declined. People might have replaced their beliefs, or see little role for churches in their private beliefs. Whilst people speak of secularisation, this may include the persistence of superstition (for example New Age consumerism, or Astrology). Some homes have shrines or items of religious significance, but then Hindu homes always have had. Some people have religious purely in the mind and it is expressed in general behaviour which any secular person would express.



For some, religion gives an interpretation of the world. The interpretation may offer an explanation of beginnings, endings and the person's place in the scheme. This may offer comfort or challenge. It may explain natural disasters or inhumane actions in the world. It may tie a person to the environment and lead to particular concerns. The meaning world may create social action. The difficulty is that this can be done by any ideology. Marxism had these features, and was regarded by some as a form of religion (but not by it).



It is arguably wrong to regard religion to be about the supernatural, never mind God. Aspects of Hinduism and Buddhism do not relate to the supernatural. Radical movements in Judaism (Restorationism) and relating to Christianity (Sea of Faith) reject the supernatural. The sacred is a better label and is contrasted with the profane. The sacred suggests some spiritual metaphor or category, something holy and numinous. People give something of themselves to receive a portion of this through faith via ritual activity. The problem is not solved, however, because sacred may only mean special, and if sacred is more than special then does it not imply something of the supernatural or at least a real spiritual realm? Is not religion defined by being of the Other or is it, esssentially, a set of ritualistic behaviours and ethical/ behavioural consequences whatever the Other?



For some, religion is when someone says it is religion. It is rather like how to define a Hindu - a Hindu is someone who makes that identification (given that beliefs and practices are so variable). Yet this should not simply be a private self-defining matter. Someone may say it is not a religion, but if it looks like a duck and quacks like one, it may well be right to say that religiosity is being detected.
Some people prefer the word spirituality to religion, and even reject religion, but if they do then sociologically they can still be counted as religious, even though it is important that they reject the label (it tells us something about religion today and its reputation and definitions). They are displaying religiosity by making a claim to spirituality.



Applied to religion functionalism is the positive relationship of parts to an existing whole that reinforce the whole and therefore emphasise conservatism. All functionalisms emphasise maintenance of the same over change, but religion has the sacred to give this more force, more clout. So religion is conservative if it is successful, using the functionalist view.
At the same time, a strong functionalist religion that feeds and supports nationalism set against a different functionalist religion supporting a different nationalism can produce two clearly identifiable coherent groups but which have a great distance between them. In Northern Ireland the Protestant side of Christianity gives identity to and coheres the Unionists who wish to be part of the United Kingdom, whilst the Catholic side of Christianity gives added identity and coheres the Nationalists who wish to join with the Republic of Ireland. The result is a huge division, and is dysfunctional in terms of society in the North of Ireland. In this case less functionalist religion would prove to be more functionalist for the whole of society there!
Where conflict exists, usually somewhere there will be functionalism acting on a sectarian group basis but not functionalism on a whole society basis. Complex societies of many faiths and none work when there are means of joining societies across religious boundaries, and where religion has fewer functionalist properties. This happens where religion is marginalised in terms of public life. However, religion, in tapping into the sacred, deals at a powerful emotional level with identity, where individuals acquire strong group identities. Religion may not overcome conflict but may intensify conflict where there is competition around understanding the sacred, as often adherents think that only their approach to something as powerful as the sacred can be right.
Content of religions is important. It must be said that some religions, notably Hinduism and Buddhism, either are plural by nature or tolerant and compassonate in content, and therefore the singularity of the tribal identity resulting from contact with the sacred may not apply - although in Sri Lanka and India both groups in conflict with others have shown religious defensiveness and have still developed group-nationalistic tendencies.
Christian liberation theology undermines functionalism and conservative roles for religion. It replies against the Marxist charge that religion is the opium of the people. Leonard Boff was the Catholic priest who jointly founded this movement and found himself in conflict with papal authorities. Although it unites groups, it takes biblical statements (such as the poor will inherit the kingdom of God) to raise awareness and liberate. There is emphasis on local communities, developing leadership and education (Paulo Freire is the relevant educationalist). Using a mixture of Christian and Marxist insights, it undermines any conservative purpose of religion, and promotes the need for change.


Conflict Ideology

Conflict perspective sees religion as another thought based means of control (ideological hegemony), an especially powerful ideology in that it uses the sacred. Marx compares the effect of religion on society and opium, because opium (a popular drug in the nineteenth century) has effects of relieving anxiety, is euphoric, and gives sedation at higher doses, is a painkiller, is addictive and generates tolerance to itself. Religion can be seen in these terms and is thus a drug. Partcipating in a good religious ritual creates a sense of renewal and fresh beginning without any change in material social circumstances.

So religion is a false consciousness, hiding the true interests of the oppressed in this world by deflecting attention to the eternal world, either living in hell or heaven or judgment on the last day. The sanction of hell for bad behaviour and heaven for good behaviour, or the judgment of God on the last day, is a means of social control. By this deflection it pacifies reaction to the social order.

Furthermore, aspects of its message and the establishment of the religious institution of Church seem to actively affirm the social order.
So there is a curious agreement here at one level with functionalism regarding its conservatism: the difference is that functionalists regard the conserving social function of religion uniting society as desirable whereas conflict sociologists see it as undesirable because of its class based winners and losers.
The conflict sociologist examines the religious ideology. The sacred reward of the afterlife is a deflection to emphasise less the necessity of improving this life. Whilst some religious people have protested for civil rights, legal equality, and political liberty with democracy, demands for inclusion have been specific, limited and not revolutionary.
Marx was interested in industrial capitalist societies, and Christianity was at the centre of his thinking. However, other religions can be seen to have the same effect, whether it is Buddhist focus on individualist meditation, and thus insufficient collective interest, or the Hindu caste system which fixes status for this life in one caste and only allows for improvement or reversal after reincarnation, the aim being to finally unite the Atman (soul) with God (Brahman) at moksha (salvation) and stop the repeat reincarnating into this world. All this is deflective for Marx with his this worldly one life revolutionary focus, for which society and not individuals displays objective historical development over centuries.
Again, liberation theology is an attempt to tackle injustice and recognises that a form of conflict may be necessary. It should be peaceful conflict enhancing the life of the poor but it may well have revolutionary effect. Marxists would want to indeed see it go so far, as some liberation theology seems to achieve little more than local support groups and labelling of the poor as worthy.

Later complex Marxists see the importance of tackling ideological hegemony with ideological alternatives such as indeed liberation theology (whilst classical Marxism says that ideology such as religion is but a superstructure from the ruling class and therefore is a tool of the class economic and social base; other later Marxists maintain that ideology can have other sources and can launch challenges against dominant hegemony and so support liberation theology).


Patriarchal System

Feminism also looks on religion, especially Judaeo-Christian (to Islamic and Bahai) as a system of ideology, language and structure. In religion there are stories of male supremacy (such as Adam, and Eve from his rib) and female subjugation. The Bible represents patriarchal societies inserted into faith. There is polygyny as well as the demand for monogamous marriage and no sexual contact at all (Paul) in the Bible but no polyandry. Woman's relationship to man as the head of the household, is as man's relationship to God.
There is the structure of ministry, which begins in the Bible. Whilst women should remain silent or head covered (in the name of Paul) the ministry was assumed to be male only (the female friendly Gnostic Christian alternative was supressed). In the Roman Catholic outcome, the male hierarchy was established and only in recent times have some churches taken on women priests and ministers. Other religions have a similarly restrictive attitude, with reformist tendencies elsewhere (sometimes at the margins), whether involving Muslim Imams or Hindu priests. The structure of ministry mirrors the dependence of the faithful on God.

Even if changes in the Christian ministry have made woman more equal (but not completely and not everywhere), the language remains patriarchal. This is more than God as he, but it is the form of language that stresses a male centred view. Mary is given as the mother of God, and achieves holiness as a mother and is an icon for a woman's proper role in society. Women are potrayed as temptresses outside the holy strictures.
Islam claims a genderless God, but is often criticised for oppression of women with varied sanctions. There are repressive states or women living in fear in some states undergoing conflict. For example, in Iraq women are returning to the hijab due to the pressure of Shi'ite Islam. However, some western Muslim women are choosing to wear the hijab, citing the sexist position of flesh displaying women under the male gaze or judgment. The hijab frustrates the male gaze and adds to a sense of female liberation. Paganism remains the most female friendly approach to religion, with a strong feminist element in contemporary neo-Paganism where God is a duality of male and female and strong female leadership.





Charles Glock and Rodney Stark

Features of a religion

This is a descriptive approach of essential features and then making measurement:
  • Ideology dimension or beliefs consequence
    • Creeds, articles and the main interpretations of scripture
      • Qur'an, Hadith, Bible, 39 Articles of Church of England, Tanakh or Hebrew Bible including the Torah, Bhagavad Gita, Ramayana, Upanishads, Vedas, Guru Granth Sahib, Sutras, Pali Canon...
  • Practice consequence with outward commitments
    • Attendance at mosque, church, home shrine, temple, gurdwara... Meditation, prayer, preaching...
  • Knowledge Dimension of traditions
    • Learning methods of spirituality, reading, conversation, online discussion boards
  • The subjective Expectation experience that results from outward commitment and behaviour
    • Spiritual insight, revelation, contemplation, group support
    • Holy Spirit, Angels, Light, Voices, awe, wonder
  • Consequence dimension affecting behaviour
    • Ethical duties and responses, charity work, responses to life challenges
      • But this was seen by Glock and Stark as secular and was later dropped because it may only have followed from religious involvement rather than been an essential part of it
Glock and Stark attempted to measure these through various indexes, and measuring is full of value judgment difficulty. Is the liberal any less religious than the othodox (who scores more highly on the ideological dimension?). What about ritualistic involvement: is private prayer less religious to an individual than private prayer plus outward church attendance? And how many sub-measurements or more dimensions are adequate? Should the stress be on the empirical (outward signs) or the conceptual (inner mind)?
Another difficulty here is that rule books, inspiring literature, attendance, experience and insight, learning and a behavioural response exist in ideologies and other forms of commitments. Bird watching for example can show fanatical devotion, learning, attendance at events, behavioural outcomes (binoculars not guns!) and even regard birds as natural and innocent compared with humankind. These different commitments between religious and non-religious types can be regarded as sociologically equivalent despite the attempt to categorise.
An exclusive response is to say we have categories of religions and other activites do not count, but sociological equivalence of such labelling categories does matter and produces an inclusivist approach.
As a result, some sociologists have investigated what it is to pursue the sacred and make a distinction from the profane, and to see a dynamic relationship between the religious and the secular.

Edward Bailey/ Grace Davie

Implicit Religion

Before looking at the sacred/ profane there is an almost polar opposite of Glock and Stark measuring religiosity. With implicit religion, people only pursue public rituals at key points in the human life cycle, but whilst they show little in the way of religiosity they retain implicit religion. This means, with use of public symbols and language (e.g. "Christ") self-constructed meanings. They'll go to church, occasionally, on their own terms: a baby is christened "properly" so that it is "done". It is a kind of weak Christian Hinduism, a diverse collection of superstitions, proprieties and infrequent religious activities between the individual and however they view the divine element. Is this any less religious than the regular religious person following another approach?
Grace Davie makes a distinction between believing and belonging. She sees people (especially in the UK and Europe) having beliefs but not belonging. So religion does not have to involve outward signs of practice. There is no social solidarity element (except that the British have always been to some extent agreed on privacy of belief - only more so now).
It is difficult to see here what constitutes religion other than a set of fragmentary beliefs with a decline in Christian memory through lack of active contact. Each sociologist is dealing with a Christian identity centred analysis however (even Church of England) and contribute to revising ideas on secularisation.

Emile Durkheim

Sacredness as means to social solidarity

He was interested in the level of social facts makes a division into sacred and profane.
What is sacred depends on the social collectivity's definition: it is what is special to them and carries more than mundane significance. Its sacredness impacts on to the individual) producing awe and respect.
This definition of sacred involves a wide extension of what is religious and comes into the same difficulties as Glock and Stark - that of an inclusive definition. Some things are regarded as sacred and therefore religious that others would say are not religious. They may be special, yes, but are they religious? Does not sacredness come from first being religious? A pop star, even a dead one, may receive the same awe as a figure more easily identifiable as religious, but is one special and another one sacred?
For Durkheim, sacredness is shared, and is part of the collective conscience. Carrying out ritual activity towards sacred objects or ideas is to reinforce the collective conscience. So religion is functionalist: whilst mainfestly one thinks they are worshipping in their religion or doing magical practices, they are latently worshipping society. To do this generates social solidarity. Whilst there are psychological and personal functions of religion, the main purpose is social solidarity.
There is an issue here using work done on primitive societies as part of social anthropology and application to more sophisticated societies. Durkheim studied aboriginal societies in Australia:
  • Division into clans
  • Each clan had its own totem (a picture symbol)
  • The picture symbol directly is of God
    • (Comparison with Hinduism - the murti is directly of God)
  • The symbol was carved on a bullroarer, already a most sacred object
    • (a swung humming sacred sound object used in naming ceremonies, and in making a sound back to the creator)
  • Thus God and clan were symbolically united
    • Durkheim claimed the "real" worship was of the clan
In societies with division of labour, described as organic, Durkheim realised that the collective conscience would decline in strength. The role of religion would decline, he thought. However, note that Durkheim's work does not show that Aboriginal society as a whole is united, if there is such a society, but only the clans, and the clans divide themselves from each other by the totem. So what collective conscience would exist on this basis in more complex societes? Well, in complex societies some ethnic groups have their own faith symbol system and therefore community in collective conscience, with social solidarity within these communities! But there is some social solidarity in terms of interdependence regarding the economy and the relative anonymity of urban life and flexibility of social relationships.
Durkheim believed that individualism would acquire sacred power in complex societies and individual dignity becoming the "cult of man".

Bronislaw Malinowski

Essential psychological needs socialised

He saw no essential difference between primitive society and complex society in terms of the essential psychological function of religion. Here he differs from Durkheim. He also differed from Durkheim in being much more descriptive and data rich and working from the bottom up in method. Like Durkheim sees religion as creating social solidarity, but from individual needs.
  • The first necessary psychological function was counteracting meaninglessness by going through rituals at key stages of life.
  • The second necessary function was at times of danger
    • Within the barrier reef safe fishing involved no rituals
    • Beyond the barrier reef risky fishing involved first doing rituals
Note that it has long been known that UK coastal resorts and ancient places of mining have exhibited highly superstitious versions of religion.

Talcott Parsons

Core values and social solidarity

  • Religion is a primary deliverer of meaning
  • When the meaning is shared, social solidarity exists
  • Religion is about answering why questions in life
Many aspects of life confront us and seem unfair. It is one definition of religion that religion seeks, though its own meaning system, to explain and even justify why things are as they are - why there is human suffering and why there are natural disasters. What may strike someone as meaningless becomes meaningful.
Religion works right into the individual level in a deeper way than philosophy can deal with these why questions.
It also distributes values from within the religion into society, and there is seen a similarity between Protestant values and American liberal-democratic values - with the effect that, because these have religious origins, they sacralise civil values. This itself generates social solidarity by giving a unity of core values.

Max Weber

Religion is making sense and identity

For Weber religion plays a crucial role in identity and meaning; such beliefs can go on to shape society. Religion is a form of motivation and leads on to interaction at the social level where meanings are shared.
Religion plays an essential part in two forms of authority - charismatic and traditional - where the sacred is interpreted. In the first, the sacred is in the individual's quality and in the second it lies in the sacred power of the tradition invested into an individual. Weber thought charisma was important if life was to not to be disenchanted due to the impersonal nature of modern bureaucratic authority. He wanted some charisma into political life, though not the charisma of Adolph Hitler who came to power from obscurity after Weber's death.
So religion was a key source of enchantment and making us animated humans rather than cogs in a technical social machine.

Robert Bellah

Civil Religion

This extends the definition of religion into civil values itself, so that whilst there are religions there is - as if - an overarching religion, but these are civil values. It brings back Durkheim's social solidarity as a broad brush core collective conscience and draws from Parsons on meaning (who himself drew from Weber and Malinowski).
This is not really a definition of religion: more a definition of secularisation from a sacred objects point of view, and religion dissolving into civil values including civic rituals. They become directly statements of solidarity and lose their religious mystique.
A discussion point is whether there is there a national religion of British values as there might be of identifiable American values? The plurality of definitions of being British, or English/ Scottish/ Welsh/ Cornish, Black British, Asian, Afro-Caribbean suggests not.
The government introduced a nationality ceremony for new immigrants to create a sense of commitment to British values, but Britain is not a flag waving country and has an unwritten constitution. Is there a British civil religion that comes from imperial times? Is patriotism a form of civil religion? Do our values derive from religion, or elsewhere?
Another interesting question is whether a religion can take back civil values and belief in one's country. Mormonism in the United States includes its Book of Mormon which claims that American prophets wrote to testify the coming of Jesus Christ. Mormon was a 4th century (301-400 CE) prophet who abridged ancient American writings and wrote the gold plates subsequently found by Joseph Smith, who was able to read the strange symbols on the plates by divine revelation. In other words, a sociological question is whether this is America sacrilising itself by having a religion that centres in the United States (rather as Islam brought to Arabia a monothesim to equate with that of Judaism and Christianity). In England, did the writing of the King James Bible with an economy of Elizabethan English for reading and comprehension (at the time of James!) and the writing of Cramner's liturgy produce a peculiarly English form of Church?

Clifford Geertz

Religion as active culture

He wants to combine Durkheim, Weber, Freud and Malinowski and does so by discussing culture as a meaning system transmitted between people through shared language symbols. We know what these symbols mean as a basis of communication and they shift as as a result of talking. A sociologist/ social anthropologist should interpret these meanings. Religion is a system of symbols that are culturally constructed . These develop moods (no end result) and motivations (outwardly visible) in people released in activity that generates a new conceptual reality. So religion is reality-producing and giving meaning to life but essential are the motivations first that are displayed in ritual activity, and these rituals become the reality. An example is the language of God and Christ in liturgy, or God and Muhammad often quoted in the first pillar of Islam that motivates people to believe in its reality and the existence of it all as factual. People's conceptual framework is thus shifted.
This is more Weberian than anything - interpretive sociology. It is meaning centred and needs understanding by plenty of sociological observation of the actions and words of participants. The main criticism must be that all behaviour is somewhat motivating, and produces beliefs, and that the conceptual universe in one's head becomes shifted. There is nothing particularly religious about this, even though religion has ritual activity.
Furthemore, surely culture encourages behaviour, so surely meaning comes first, to then be supported by ritual activity. People must acquire a reason to go into ritual activity first and then have the belief supported and generated. The reason of course can be random, or social, or because of some question. Then the ideology grows through activity. But this is true of a socialist group or birdwatching.
Geertz is not a functionalist. There is no analysis of social level need for particular meaning based activities. People just do interpret the world in the way that they do - culture builds - and that interpretation itself needs interpreting. It never gets off the ground as sociology in any systematic sense, except that culture exists.

Peter Berger, Hansfried Kellner and Thomas Luckmann

Pluralism, Meaning and the Homeless Mind

Peter Berger is an American Lutheran of fairly traditional religious views but fairly radical sociological views regarding religion, especially that meaning is socially constructed. Thomas Luckmann is interested in language and meaning. Religion is about meaning and concerns the sociology of knowledge (how knowledge is affected and distributed by social forces at work). In a world of plurality and choice, meaning can be chosen too, and religion becomes increasingly part of the private realm. It is still religion, even if fewer heads are counted at formal, public, religious activities and other heads escape to sectarian certainties.
Christian religion has itself negotiated with modernity, some trading dogmatic concepts for more secular understandings (e.g. dropping the virgin birth and physical resurrection) so as to stay closer to social relevance, yet he sees conservative sectarian aproaches as more coherent for religion itself. Such conservative groups uphold meaning and, again, enchantment, whilst society is becoming in and of itself increasingly meaningless as meaning is fragmented. The homeless mind finds no rest in the world of plurality.

Steve Bruce

Consumerism and Religious Indifference

Strong religious forms are reactive and ethnic, fuelled by nationalism. Secularisation has taken place, and the New Age is consumerist, and turns to the East for spirituality are shallow. The charismatic movement rather than being a revival of Christianity instead follows a well established pattern that sects moderate and become denominations as it is a means for hard line fundamentalists find more flexible form of committed faith. The next generation will follow the pattern of relaxation. He finds that Christianity:

  • Is losing power, pretige and popularity in the United States
  • It continues to secularise along the set pattern
  • The New Right does not have the impact it wishes to have in the USA
  • The diversity of the USA allows the New Right to have subcultures of existence more difficult to establish in the more uniformly secularised Europe

Surveys over-estimate belief and therefore the presence of religion. Prosperous, liberal, egalitarian, equalitarian states simply have no social solidarity function for religion and it withers away.

Roy Wallis

New Religious Movements

Wallis with an interest in new Religious Movements divides them into world rejecting, world accommodating and world affirming.
A world rejecting movement sees the world as evil or pursuing its own material goals. It is anti urban and anti capitalist, preferring instead what the guru demands and reducing the individual's ego. They see themselves as a vanguard of the new world order should they come to dominate the world. Examples are ISKCON, the Unification Church and Children of God. The world accommodating movement is a middling position which sees a difference between the spiritual and the world. It does not reject or affirm that world. NeoPentecostalism is world accommodating, although it is debatable whether this is an NRM.
The world affirming movement is progressive towards the world, and may be individualist for people to achieve their potential in the world. It may lack ritual, ideology, and may not even meet together. Transcendental meditation is world affirming.
These are ideal types, but with a problem. Although they run along a line, with two ends and one in the centre, he also presents these points as also a triangle with some religious movements in the centre (Jesus People, Meher Baba, and DLM). This is problematic. The centre position could even be redundant: two ideal types are enough with a centre position having characteristics of both in tension.
Another point must be that movements change their characteristics. What was once world rejecting may become world affirming.
Being world affirming is also problematic, because there is nothing more world affirming than large scale parish based Churches. What he means is that they are consumerist and part of the capitalist nexus.

Karl Marx; Antonio Gramsci, Jurgen Habermas

Religion of irrational false consciousness

For Marx religion is a form of false consciousness that exists to deflect people from revolutionary action, and to provide reward in the made up spiritual realm rather than where it should be, in the material realm. Churches offer messages of obedience and its own hierarchies associating with state hierarchies giving additional support to legitimise a state. Bourgeois groups support such church institutions for obvious reasons - back scratching.
Like Weber, Jurgen Habermas regards religion as connected to past forms of authority and is ideology. It has no positive input in contemporary times. For him, liberation can come through unimpeded and undistorted purely rational conversation towards truth by those fortunately unaffected in a world distorted by capitalist ideology and interests.
Many a religion, however, begins with the oppressed and outside the realm of the state. Gramsci is aware that culture can play a more autonomous role than classical Marxism allows and Maduro even thinks that churches themselves can express proloterian friendly ideas - the basis of Liberation Theology. So is such ideology purely caused by economic and social interests?

Peter Worsley

Beyond the technical normal

Religion is different from the everyday world in that it produces a set of beliefs set beyond the empirical-technical life-world that defines how we usually approach every day matters. Worsley wants to exclude pseudo-religious beliefs such as Marxism and Freudianism within Berger and Luckmann's scheme.






Religious Organisation

Again drawing on Christianity there are ideal types of religious organisation - these are both separate organisations and (this is important) tendencies within contemporary Churches:
Church James MartineauUnitarian who analysed this division of tendencies within his own denomination (in 1859), Ernst Troeltsch (1920s+) and Max Weber (1920s+) Born into or easy access, relaxed, traditional, national, and wide geographical coverage, can be a State body Anglican (England), Roman Catholicism (Italy, Spain) and Orthodoxy (Greece, Russia)
Denomination H. Richard Niebuhr Often an ex-sect, a moderated sect but not quite a church regarding coverage, relationship to the State or ease of membership (Methodists, United Reformed Church, Baptists)
Sect Martineau, Troeltsch, Bryan Wilson, Steve Bruce (1980s+) Sometimes completely world denying and State rejecting, evangelistic or defensive, dogmatic beliefs and high barrier to membership and high commitment expected (Jehovahs Witnesses, Pentecostalists, Independent Evangelicals, Ulster Protestant groups, fundamentalists)
Mysticism Troeltsch Enlightenment affected (but also Gospels based) individualism in the group, highly liberal and equalitarian, rejecting authority in terms of belief (Unitarians, Sea of Faith, Quakers)
Cult/ New Religious Movement Roy Wallis, Eileen Barker and George Chryssides (1990s and 2000s) Temporary around a leader and often esoteric but sometimes demanding high commitment like a sect being peculiar developments from a religion including of other cultures. Alternatively another feature is eclectic reborn Paganism with magical elements (Transcendental Meditation, Unification Church, Krishna Consciousness, Druids, Wicca). New Age can be considered part of guru or personality led esoteric Cults or separated into its own category, depending on emphasis given to consumerism and high modernity and postmodernity, with ease of joining and leaving groups affirming self-importance and status through payment.
These terms are becoming strained, even redundant. Church may achieve its characteristics by being liberal or traditional in a plural society which it no longer dominates or gives its culture, and a traditionalist is defensive regarding society whereas a liberal or radical is pro-society; Church and Sect tendencies can be applied to any ideological organisation (e.g. Labour Party as a "Broad Church". It may be better to consider terms like radical, liberal, traditionalist, conversionist;all these definitions carry difficulty. Other religions carry their own characteristics (except Judaism which follows Ultra-Orthodox, Orthodox, Reform, Liberal and Restoration groupings).


Note how much of the Sociology of religion in defining religion draws on Christianity for its own secularised concepts.





Bailey, E. (1990), "The Implicit Religion of Contemporary Society: Some Studies and Reflections", Social Compass, Vol. 37, pp. 483-497.

Bellah, R. N. (1967), "Civil religion in America", Daedalus, Vol 96, pp. 1-21.

Bellah, R. N. (1976), "Response to the panel on civil religion", Sociological Analysis, Vol. 37, pp. 153-159.

Bellah, R. N., Hammond, P. E. (eds.) (1980), Varieties of Civil Religion, San Francisco: Harper and Row.

Berger, P. (1967), The Sacred Canopy. Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion, New York: Doubleday.

Berger, P. L. , Berger, B., Kellner, H. (1974), The Homeless Mind: Modernization and Consciousness, London: Penguin.

Berger, P., Luckmann, T. (1984), The Social Construction of Reality, London: Pelican.

Bruce, S. (2002), God is Dead: Secularization in the West, Oxford: Blackwell.

Davie, G. (1990), "Believing without Belonging: Is This the Future of Religion in Britain?", Social Compass, Vol. 37, pp. 455-469.

Davie, G., (1994), Religion in Britain since 1945: Believing without Belonging, Oxford: Blackwell.

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Glock, C. Y. and Stark, R. (1965), Religion and Society in Tension, Chicago: McNally.

Glock C. Y. and Stark, R. (1968), American Piety: The Nature of Religious Commitment, University of California Press, Berkeley.

Glock, C. Y. and Wuthnow, R. (1979), "Departures from Conventional Religion: The Nominally Religious, the Nonreligious and the Alternativelly Religious", In: WUTHNOW, R. (ed. ) The Religious dimension. New directions in Quantitative research, New York: Academic Press, pp. 47-68.

Hill, P. C. and R. W. Morgan (Eds. ) (1999), Measures of Religiosity. Birmingham Alb.: Religious Education Press.

Luckmann, T. (1967), The Invisible Religion. The Transformation of Symbols in Industrial Society, New York: The Macmillan Company.

Niebuhr, H. R. (1957), The Social Sources of Denominationalism, New York: Meridan Books.

Niebuhr, H. R. (1963), The responsible self, New York: Harper.

Robertson, R. (1970), The Sociological Interpretation of Religion, Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Towler, R. (1984), The Need for Certainty: A Sociological Study of Conventional Religion, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Troeltsch, E. (1931), The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches, London: Allen and Unwin.

Wallis, R. (1984), The Elementary Forms of New Religious Life, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Wilson, B. R. (1982), Religion in Sociological Perspective, Oxford: University Press.

Worsfold, A. J. (1989), New Denominationalism: Tendencies Towards a New Reformation of English Christianity, University of Hull, unpublished Ph.D thesis.

Yinger, M. J. (1970), The Scientific Study of Religion, New York: Macmillan.



Adrian Worsfold

Pluralist - Liberal and Thoughtful