Troy University Islamic Religious Organization Discussion
For this assignment you are supposed to visit a religious organization that you are NOT familiar with. During your visit, you should pay attention to different details including architecture, demographics, rituals, and any details related to social and religious characteristics of the place. Applying class discussions and theories to explain your observations is the main goal of this assignment. Having conversation with people and attaching photos to your report can be great ideas. Get pictures off the internet of a mosque and go into detail about the difference between other religious places. 750 word
Sociology of Religion
CHURCHES, SECTS, DENOMINATIONS,
• Socializing young members, gaining new members, and maintaining a high level of
commitment from existing members is necessary for a religious group to survive.
• The commitment of individual members, however, is not sufficient to ensure the
group’s ongoing viability.
• Religions are not simply collections of individuals; They are organizational realities
that are greater than the sum of their parts.
• Ever since Weber first developed the proposition that religions generally start out as
cults headed by a charismatic leader, much of the sociological work on organizing
religion has revolved around the concept of charisma.
• However, Weber insisted that charisma is inherently unstable; if the group does
not institutionalize, it will die shortly after the founder dies.
• Many NRMs never make the transition into an institution and therefore never
develop into viable religions.
• Having examined the changes religious organizations undergo in the process of
institutionalization, church, sect, denomination, and cult are the most common
categories sociologists of religion have used to classify religious organizations.
CHARISMA AND THE CHARISMATIC
• Weber maintained that new religions generally get their impetus from the attraction of
a charismatic leader, a dynamic person who is perceived as extraordinary.
• Weber argued that the term “charisma” will be applied to a certain quality of an
individual personality, by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and
treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or exceptional powers or qualities.
• These are not accessible to the ordinary person, but are regarded as of divine origin or
as exemplary, and on the basis of them the individual concerned is treated as a leader.
• The charismatic leader is able to use this power to mobilize followers and to create
within them a sense of mission.
• One element of charismatic leadership that Weber thought to be especially
important was its antiestablishment and revolutionary tendencies.
• Weber believed that charismatic authority is intrinsically unstable and is
antithetical to social order:
• Charismatic authority is specifically outside the realm of everyday routine
and the profane sphere.
• In this respect, it is sharply opposed both to rational, and particularly
bureaucratic, authority and to traditional authority.
To what extent do you think world religions’ leaders had
anti-establishment and revolutionary tendencies?
Charisma as a Revolutionary Force
• Within the sphere of its claims, charismatic authority repudiates the past and is in
this sense a specifically revolutionary force.
• However, once the charismatic leader has emerged and developed a following it
is necessary for the group to undergo a transformation.
• Charismatic leadership is not only revolutionary but it is inherently unstable.
• Hence, the movement undergoes a process that Weber referred to as the
“routinization of charisma.”
• If the religious movement is to survive for any significant period of time, a stable
set of roles and statuses and a consistent pattern of norms must be established.
THE ROUTINIZATION OF CHARISMA
• Hence, the nature of the charismatic authority is transformed. In its pure form
charismatic authority has a character specifically foreign to everyday routine structures.
• If this religious movement is not to remain a purely transitory phenomenon, but to
take on the character of a permanent relationship it is necessary for the character of
charismatic authority to become radically changed.
• Indeed, in its pure form charismatic authority may be said to exist only in the process
• The authority of the charismatic leader must be routinized and the community gathered
around a dynamic leader must become institutionalized.
• Any group that fails to make this transition simply will not survive. Perhaps the most
critical test of a group’s institutionalization is the way it handles the issue of succession.
• When the charismatic leader dies, the group may quickly disperse; However, many
people have an interest in the survival of the group and will seek to ensure its viability.
• The problem is, who will provide the group with leadership? Equally contentious is
how that decision will be made.
• The transfer of power to the next designated leader has important implications for the
subsequent evolution of the group.
Using the example of Christianity how do you see
handling the issue of succession?
Transfer of Power
• First, the charisma that was once identified with a personality must be associated
with the religious ideology and organization.
• The group, the body of beliefs, and perhaps a written record (a scripture) become
sources of veneration.
• This more stable source of authority in itself changes the character of the group.
• Second, the decision-making process itself becomes sacralized as the divinely
appointed method of choosing the successor.
• This method may involve the designation of a successor by the original leader, some
form of divinely sanctioned and controlled election.
• In any event, the followers must recognize the new leader(s) as the legitimate heir(s)
• Otherwise, the group may be torn by schisms as various splinter groups identify
different individuals as the rightful leader.
• The new leader or group of leaders is not likely to possess the same sort of
unquestioned authority that was vested in the original leader.
• The rules and values of the group must be attributed with transcendent importance in
and of themselves.
• Commitment is now to the organization and to the ideology of the movement, and the
authority of the new leader(s) may be restrained by these stabilizing forces.
• No longer are the sayings of the leader taken as true simply because that person said
them; They must be evaluated in light of what the original leader said and did.
• In short, the new leader is usually an ideological leader rather than a charismatic one.
• Another issue of routinization has to do with provision of a stable economic base.
• If some members are to devote full-time to the service of the leader and the
movement, then a continuing and consistent source of income must be provided.
• This may come from some obligatory payment to the organization by members who
are employed in secular positions, from members begging or soliciting, or from the
establishment of some industry sponsored by the organization.
• However accomplished, this provision of a stable source of income is a critical
part of the routinization process.
• Without this financial base, there can be no full-time clergy, administrative staff,
or other regular employees.
• If there are no career opportunities within the organizational structure, staff
commitment may begin to wane.
• Furthermore, some type of full-time administrative staff may be necessary if the
group is growing and expects to continue expanding.
What are the major financial sources of religious
organizations in today’s society?
Dilemmas of Institutionalization
• However, normalization of roles and statuses, establishment of relatively stable
norms, and provision of a stable economic base usually have to be addressed long
before succession becomes an issue.
• If routinization does not occur, the viability of the group for any substantive period
after the death of the original leader is unlikely.
• Five “dilemmas of institutionalization” elaborated by Thomas O’Dea.
• O’Dea observed religion both needs most and suffers most from institutionalization.
• Although institutionalization is necessary, it tends to change the character of the
movement and to create certain dilemmas for the religious organization.
The Dilemma of Mixed Motivation
• When an enthusiastic band of disciples gathers around their charismatic leader, there is
a single-minded and unqualified devotion.
• The followers are willing to make great sacrifices to further the cause, and they
willingly subordinate their own needs and desires for the sake of group goals.
• However, with development of a stable institutional structure, the desire to occupy the more
prestigious positions in the organization can stimulate jealousies and personality conflicts.
• Concerns about personal security within the organization may cause members to lose
sight of the group’s primary goals.
• Mixed motivation occurs when a secondary concern comes to overshadow the original
teachings of the leader.
The Symbolic dilemma:
Objectification vs Alienation
• For a community to worship together, a common set of symbols must be
generated that meaningfully expresses the worldview and the ethos of the group.
• However, this process of projecting subjective feelings on to objective behaviors
can proceed to the point that the symbols no longer have power for the member.
• Religious rituals can become rote, or symbols like the cross can become so
ubiquitous that they no longer inspire believers.
The dilemma of Administrative order:
Elaboration of Policy vs Flexibility
• As a religious group grows, it may develop a bureaucratic structure.
• In so doing, a set of rational policies and regulations must be established to clarify
the relationships between various statuses and offices in the organization.
• While necessary to run a complex organization, this can result in much bureaucratic
• The need for clearly articulated policy can lead to an organization that is run entirely
by rigid rules and regulations.
• Not only is this uncomfortable and frustrating, but it also greatly reduces flexibility.
How do you compare bureaucratic organization of
Catholicism with other Christian denominations?
The Dilemma of Delimitation:
Concrete definition vs substitution of the letter for the spirit
• In the process of routinization, the religious message is translated into specific ethical
guidelines for everyday life.
• If this is not done, the religious belief system may remain at such an abstract level that
the ordinary person does not grasp its meaning or its importance for everyday living.
• In the process, however, members may focus so intently on the rules that they lose
sight of the original spirit or outlook of the faith.
• The religion may then degenerate into legalistic formulas for salvation or may become
moralistic and judgmental in a way inconsistent with the original intent of the founder.
The Dilemma of Power:
Conversion vs Coercion
• If a religious group is to stay together and sustain its common faith, conformity to the
values and norms of the group must be ensured.
• The core beliefs, values, and norms of the faith must be adhered to most of the time.
• In its early stages, the religious group is composed of members who have personally
converted to the group.
• They feel a personal loyalty to the charismatic leader, they have had a nonrational
conversion experience, or they have been motivated to internalize the faith.
• But, later generations never have personally experienced anything that compelled them
to accept the absolute authority of the faith or the authority of the religious hierarchy.
The Dilemma of Power:
Conversion vs Coercion
• They may be inclined to challenge official interpretations.
• To maintain the integrity of the organization and ensure consensus in their
basic worldview, religious organizations may resort to coercive methods
of social control, like threats of exclusion from the group.
• But, conformity due to internalization of norms can be more powerful and
durable than enforced conformity through coercion.
• Dilemmas of institutionalization do plague religious organizations, but
they are not inevitable or fatal.
Do you think those who convert to Christianity are
considered less devoted by religious people?
• To conduct research on religion and make generalizations about religious behavior,
sociologists have categorized groups with similarities into types, comparing and
contrasting characteristics of churches, sects, denominations, and cults/NRMs.
• Max Weber called such groupings ideal types.
• Generalizations about any social behavior can be made only by comparing and
contrasting phenomena that are in some respects similar.
• In fact, the concepts of church, sect, denomination, and cult have been used in a
variety of ways by various researchers, and this causes some confusion.
THE CHURCH–SECT TYPOLOGY
• Most discussions of the church–sect typology begin with the work of Max Weber.
• Weber emphasized that the sect is an exclusive group.
• To be a member, one must meet certain conditions such as adherence to a particular
doctrine or conformity to particular practices (like abstinence from alcohol).
• For Weber, the sect involved three characteristics:
• (1) Membership is voluntary,
• (2) it is limited to those who “qualify” for membership, and
• (3) it involves a substantial commitment by the members.
THE CHURCH–SECT TYPOLOGY
• The church, on the other hand, is depicted as
• (1) a group that one is typically born into rather than choosing,
• (2) is inclusive—that is, encouraging all members of the larger society to join, and
• (3) requires minimal commitment to remain a member.
• Niebuhr elaborated that the sect and the church are stages in the evolution of a
religious group and added a third type: the denomination.
• He also identified the factors that cause a group to move from one end of the
continuum to the other.
THE CHURCH–SECT TYPOLOGY
• The first generation of sect members stresses adult conversion and commitment,
but they also establish religious education programs for their children.
• Eventually, the children are accepted into full membership on the basis of their
knowledge of the faith rather than personal conversion.
• Often the later generations also experience upward social mobility and are no
• In the process, the sect gradually assimilates secular outlooks and becomes more
Can you name some sects in today’s society?
• In emphasizing the process of evolution from sect to church, Niebuhr developed
concept of denomination, another type of religious group in the continuum.
• Formality and orderliness (lack of spontaneity) were also marks of the trend to
denominationalism—a reflection of institutionalization.
• This is reflected in the tendency to a more sober, literate, intellectual, and orderly style
of worship as opposed to the emotional expressiveness of sectarian worship.
• Niebuhr stressed that the existence of different denominations is not due to mere
ideological differences; But, religious ideology is often used to justify economic selfinterests and groups from different social classes develop different theological outlooks.
• The stratification of society affects both the social organization and the theology of a
• The real source of the schism that eventually creates new denominations, then,
is social rather than theological; This was a radical idea at the time.
• Although many religious groups do fit Niebuhr’s sequential model some groups do not.
• Niebuhr described the predominant trend, but the sequential evolution of sect–
denomination–church and revolution back to sect is not universal.
• Most church–sect typologies are firmly grounded in the pattern revealed by
Christianity in the West, notably Western Europe and the United States.
To what extent do you agree the sources denominational
differences are social rather than theological?
DENOMINATIONALISM AND THE
• At least in the modern American context, it may be wiser to begin an understanding
of the organization of religion from a different starting point: denominationalism.
• The unique history of religious development in the US has led Greely to describe the
country as a “denominational society” and to specifically “reject the notion that
denomination is a compromise or halfway house between sect and church”.
• Denominationalism is a unique and recent way of organizing religion in the long
history of human society.
• Bellah maintained that the early stages of religious development are characterized by
an undifferentiated religious worldview, so that individuals experienced the world as
a single cosmos in which religion was diffused through all of life.
• Under these conditions, religious community and society are one and the same.
• In course of societal development, religion becomes symbolically differentiated from
other social institutions; distinct political and religious organizations arise.
• Initially, a single religious organization dominates a particular geographic area; This is
evident in the domination of Europe by the Roman Catholic Church.
• Over time, the religious sphere itself comes to be internally differentiated.
• In the Western world, the Reformation era (1517–1648) brought about the emergence
of different “confessions” that were doctrinally and organizationally distinct:
• Catholicism, Lutheranism, and Calvinism.
• Each confession attempted to align itself with the political powers to become the
officially sanctioned church in its territory.
• Thus, Lutheranism became the official religion in Scandinavia and parts of Germany
(e.g., Saxony) and Calvinism predominated in Switzerland and the Netherlands.
• Roman Catholicism continued to enjoy its official status in France, Spain, and Italy.
• In each case, political citizenship and confessional identity were linked.
• Consequently, conflict rather than peaceful coexistence dominated the scene, and
religious persecution was prevalent.
• The 16th and 17th centuries witnessed mass movements of religious refugees in which
Protestants drove out Catholics and Catholics drove out Protestants.
• Some of those driven out of Europe for religious reasons were followers of the
Calvinist Puritan movement who were seeking to reform the Church of England.
• They ended up founding the New England colonies and creating Congregationalist
religious establishments of in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire.
• In six other colonies, the Church of England was established (Georgia, Maryland,
New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia).
American Religious Scene
• Rhode Island, Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania had no religious establishment, the
latter three being among the most religiously diverse colonies.
• The result of this situation was that no single confession dominated American religious scene.
• Religious disestablishment and religious freedom are key social structural preconditions for
denominationalism to flourish.
• When Greeley refers to the US as “the denominational society,” he means a society that is
characterized neither by an established church nor by dissenting sects.
• Instead, American model is characterized by religious bodies or associations of congregations
that are united under a common historical and theological umbrella, that are presumed equal
under the law, and that generally treat other bodies with an attitude of mutual respect.
To what extent do you agree with Greely’s argument that
American society is a “denominational society”?
• As a consequence of this “social organizational adjustment to the fact of religious
pluralism”, there are hundreds of denominations in the US.
• This denominationalism has also become a global phenomenon.
• The World Christian Database reports over 9,000 Christian denominations worldwide.
• Although denominationalism is a Protestant dynamic, it has become fully accepted in
principle by all major religious groups in the US; in fact, one could say that the
denominationalizing process represents the Americanizing of a religious tradition.
• In this understanding, other Christian religious traditions like Roman Catholicism,
Christian Science, and Seventh-day Adventism are also considered denominations.
• Beyond Christianity, some have written about Jewish “denominationalism” in reference
to four branches of Judaism: Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist.
• The Nation of Islam and American Society of Muslims are distinctively American
• We can expect to see Sunni and Shia Islamic organizations develop as distinctive
Islamic denominations: Nigerian Sunni Muslims of America, American Federation of
Pakistani Shia Mosques, the Association of Indonesian Sunni Mosques in America.
• Buddhism and Hinduism also have different branches or schools, though like Islam
they were brought to the US in large numbers only recently.
Theology and Social Processes in the
Proliferation of Denominations
• The development of this diversity of American denominations has been the result of
theological differences and disputes, theological innovations by religious entrepreneurs,
and fundamental social processes such as immigration and racial conflict.
• Methodism, for example, has been influenced by theological differences and race.
• The denomination itself began as a revitalization movement in the Church of England
under the direction of John Wesley whose preaching emphasized personal holiness.
• As the movement spread, it eventually broke from the Church of England when the
Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States was organized in 1784.
• By 1816, the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church was founded by African
American congregations seeking independence from white Methodists,
• Not long after, the AME Zion Church ordained its first bishop, symbolizing its split
from the larger (white) body of the Methodist church.
• In 1939, the two historically white Methodist Episcopal denominations, along with the
Methodist Protestant Church, reunited to form the Methodist Church, which was
joined in 1968 by the Evangelical United Brethren Church to become the United
Methodist Church—the second largest Protestant denomination in the United States.
• All these splits and mergers were related to issues of race, not theological differences.
How different are denominational identity and religious
identity for different groups?
• Other denominations were also affected by racial differences and racial disputes.
• Presbyterians were split over the issue of slavery, dividing in the mid-19th century
between the United Presbyterian Church and the Presbyterian Church (“Southern”).
• The Southern Baptist Convention was formed in 1845 when Baptists in the South—
who maintained a biblical defense of slavery—split from Northern Baptists to form
their own denomination.
• Free slaves after the Civil War founded the National Baptist Convention in 1895,
creating yet another race-related schism.
• Lutheranism has been a predominantly white denomination in the United States,
owing to its historic establishment in parts of Germany and Scandinavia.
• Its history, therefore, has been shaped less by race than by immigration and
• When Lutherans immigrated, they brought their national churches with them, as well
as their particular languages and cultural practices.
• Over time, as these immigrants assimilated into American society, theological
differences became more prominent than differences of nationality.
• This is reflected in the current state of Lutheran denominations in the United States.
Mergers and Consolidation
• Important theological differences and religious practices exist between these three groups
(e.g., over the interpretation of scripture, ordination of women and gays, etc)
• The history of denominations is marked not only by division and schism but also by mergers
• For example, the largest Lutheran church in the United States, the ELCA, was formed out of a
complex series of mergers beginning in the early 20th century.
• It was formally established in 1987 with the merger of three Lutheran denominations which
were themselves formed from mergers of various Lutheran denominations.
• These developments are not just remnants of a historical past; In dynamism of the American
“religious economy,” denominations are continually developing, splitting and merging.
• A final significant source of new denominations in the United States is the theological
innovations of religious entrepreneurs.
• Joseph Smith founded Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1820s, Charles Russell
Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1870, and Mary Baker Eddy Church of Christ, Scientist in 1879.
• All of these groups are innovative developments of the Christian tradition.
• Although they were attacked early on as “cults” they have since grown to become
relatively large and respected denominations.
• Latter-day Saints and Jehovah’s Witnesses in particular have experienced significant
growth over the course of their relatively short histories.
Can you think of some other examples of merging or
splitting of religious denominations?
• Although the United States is still a “denominational” society, there are some
significant developments in American religious life that suggest the importance of
looking beyond denominations.
• These include trans-denominational evangelicalism and non-denominationalism.
• By all accounts, one of the most dynamic sectors of the American religious
economy—and, indeed, the global religious economy—is evangelical Christianity.
• Although still in the minority, evangelical Protestantism has made significant inroads
in Africa, Latin America, and Asia.
• In the US, evangelicals now constitute over half of all Protestants.
• Some scholars define individuals as evangelicals according to their denominational
affiliation, such as the Southern Baptist Convention and Churches of God.
• However, most recognize that evangelicalism is a movement, not a denomination or
even a collection of denominations.
• It is, in fact, a tran-sdenominational movement that had its origins at a specific place
and specific point in time: with the founding of the National Association of
Evangelicals in April 1942 in St. Louis, Missouri. According to Christian Smith,
• “Evangelicalism is not primarily denominationally based but a transdenominational
movement in which many people, in various ways, feel at home. Institutionally, this transdenominational evangelicalism is built around networks of parachurch agencies.”
• Smith and others are right to say that evangelicalism in the United States is not
• Evangelical Protestantism’s trans-denominational character may be one of the
sources of its strength today.
• The theoretical issue of interest with respect to evangelical strength has to do with
the plausibility of traditional religious worldviews in the modern pluralistic world.
• Plausibility structures—including rituals, symbols, music, reference groups, etc—are
critical in making beliefs seem credible, especially if they counter the larger society.
• Smith maintained that American evangelicalism as a religious movement is thriving
very much because of its confrontation with modern pluralism”
• Part of evangelicals’ collective identity has to do with distinguishing themselves from
non-evangelicals as a negative reference group and thereby creating some boundaries.
• But at the same time, they keep the boundaries somewhat permeable so as to not cut
themselves off entirely from the wider society (as fundamentalists often do).
• By doing so, they create the social basis necessary to support their religious beliefs.
• In the modern world, religion does survive and can thrive, not in the form of “sacred
canopies,” but rather in the form of “sacred umbrellas.”
• As the old sacred canopies split apart and their ripped pieces of fabric fell toward
the ground, many innovative religious actors caught those falling pieces of cloth in
the air and, with more than a little ingenuity, remanufactured them into umbrellas.
• In the pluralistic modern world, people don’t need macro-encompassing sacred
cosmoses to maintain their religious beliefs.
• They only need “sacred umbrellas,” small, portable, accessible relational worlds
“under” which their beliefs can make complete sense.
• Evangelicalism as a trans-denominational movement helps provide the plausibility
structures that support individuals’ beliefs and that help make evangelical
Protestantism one of the strongest traditions in American religion today.
Do you agree that evangelicalism is a response to
religious pluralism of modern life?
• A second religious development that takes us beyond denominations is the rise of nondenominationalism.
• Non-denominational congregations are the single largest category of faith community
in terms of affiliation and are a growing percentage of all congregations.
• Roughly 18% of congregations in the United States were nondenominational in 1998.
• That proportion had grown to 20.4% by 2007 and to 23.5% in 2012, a statistically and
socially significant change in less than two decades.
• If the unaffiliated congregations were all in one denomination, they would constitute
the third-largest U.S. denomination in number of participants.
• There is a strong connection between non-denominationalism and the megachurch
phenomenon, as well as “new paradigm” and “seeker” churches.
• Four of the five largest megachurches in the United States identify themselves as nondenominational
• Non-denominationalism is actually related in part to evangelicalism, and vice versa.
• In one survey, 20% of evangelicals reported attending non-denominational churches.
• From 1990 to 2008, most of growth in Christian population was among those who
would identify only as “Christian,” “evangelical,” or “non-denominational Christian.”
• Together, these three groups grew from 5% of the population in 1990 to 11.8% in 2008.
• Among all Christians, these generic Christians have the youngest age composition.
• Also, some have argued that a “generic form of evangelicalism is emerging as the
normative form of non-Catholic Christianity in the United States.”
• If this is true, it may soon be possible to view non-denominational and transdenominational evangelicalism as a sort of “denominational label”:
• a category people can use to identify themselves as holding certain beliefs and engaging
in certain practices in common with others across the US and, perhaps, around the world.
What are the major reasons for growing nondenominational religious groups?
NEW RELIGIOUS MOVEMENTS, A.K.A.
• The term cult is used by sociologists in two distinct ways—and by the popular
media in yet a third way.
• Sociologists feel that the popular usage has terribly misconstrued and distorted a
useful sociological concept.
• The popular media and many anti-cult movements define a cult as a religious
group that holds esoteric or occult ideas, is led by a charismatic leader, and uses
intense and highly unethical conversion techniques.
• Cults are almost always depicted as totalitarian, capable of bizarre actions,
destructive of the mental health of members, and a threat to conventional society.
• The tag cult is often used in this context as a stigmatizing label intended to discredit
a group rather than as a nonjudgmental technical term that describes a social unit.
• This view of cults is explicitly rejected by sociologists of religion, but this media use
has managed to cause confusion about NRMs and about the very concept of “cult,”
• Most people have little direct experience with new religious movements (NRMs);
Our ideas about them, therefore, are often based on stereotypes.
• Religion scholar Lynn Neal highlights the crucial role of the media, especially
television, in disseminating “cult” stereotypes in her article “They’re Freaks!”
Media Constructions of “Cult” Stereotypes
• Given how much Americans watch TV, it is not surprising that scholars find it plays
an important role in circulating ideas and ideals about all aspects of religion.
• Especially for less known and more marginal religions (like NRMs), televisions act
as “a powerful mechanism for the dissemination of stereotypical views.”
• Many sociologists now argue that the meaning of the term cult has become so
muddled and tainted by media misuse that it should be abandoned entirely.
• Because of this, most sociologists now use “new religious movement” in place of cult.
Sects vs Cults
• Because sects are schismatic groups, they present themselves to the world as
• They left the parent body not to form a new faith, but to reestablish the old one, from
which the parent body had “drifted.”
• Sects claim to be the authentic, purged, refurbished version of the faith.
• Whether domestic or imported, the cult is something new vis-à-vis the other religious
bodies of the society in question.
• If domestic the cult adds to that culture a new revelation or insight justifying the claim
that it is different, new, “more advanced.”
Sects vs Cults
• Imported cults often have little common culture with existing faiths; they may be old
in some other society, but they are new and different in the importing society.
• This emphasis distinguishes an NRM from a sect in that the latter tries to renew or
purify the prevailing religion, whereas NRM introduces a new and different religion.
• Sometimes it is difficult to determine whether a religious movement is attempting to
renew or replace the traditional religion, because a new religion often tries to gain
legitimacy and acceptability by exaggerating its continuity with existing faiths.
• Nonetheless, the issue of whether a group is trying to purify or to replace the
traditional religion of a society is central to this concept of cult.
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
• The early period of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints provides an
interesting example of an NRM.
Although they believe in the account of Jesus as the Messiah found in the original
Bible, Latter-day Saints also have a second book that they hold as sacred scripture.
The Book of Mormon came from Joseph Smith’s “translation” of golden plates he
found in upstate New York.
Smith taught that prophets in the early Americas had made a written record of
messages from God and of the visit that Jesus made to North America.
The last of these prophets buried the written record on golden plates, and Smith was
told in several visions where to find them and how to translate them.
Christianity and Latter-day Saints
• The Latter-day Saints emphasize that they are a branch of Christianity, but other
Christian denominations do not accept many of their theological innovations.
• It seems fair to say that at least the early Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
was an example of an NRM rather than a case of sectarian reform.
• The same was true of the initial decades of Christianity; first Christians tended to think
of their group as a faction of Judaism rather than the beginnings of a new religion.
• The difference is that Christianity eventually made a clean break and developed on its
own path quite independent of its parent group;
• However, Latter-day Saints have in some ways moved closer to traditional Christianity
in the 20th century rather than asserting independence and stressing differences.
Critical Thinking Question
Is the modern-day Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day
Saints just another denomination of Christianity? Or is it
a new religion that evolved out of Christianity?
The Role of Scripture
• While sects often place a strong emphasis on the authority of scripture, NRMs
frequently stress mystical, psychic, or ecstatic experiences.
• There is not a categorical difference between the two types of organizations on this,
but NRMs seldom use previously existing scriptures as a sole source of truth.
• In fact, it is not uncommon in the US for NRMs to generate their own scriptures.
• This penchant for articulating a scriptural basis for faith is probably caused by the
scriptural orientation of the American culture.
• Hence, if the traditional religion emphasizes the role of scripture, the NRM is likely to
develop its own alternative form of the “written word.”
• Another pattern that prevails in many NRMs is the centrality of a charismatic leader; a
person who is believed to have extraordinary insights and powers.
• Such a person is attributed with certain divine qualities and is believed to have direct
and unique contact with the supernatural.
• It is the unique insights of these individuals that are the basis for the alternative faith.
• Although most NRMs are founded by charismatic leaders, some believe that they can
also develop in a more spontaneous way through “spontaneous subcultural evolution.”
Sociology of Religion
RELIGION AND GENDER
• Religion can also be seen through the lens of gender.
• Although women have long been a significant portion of the human
population, they have not always received significant attention from
scientists in any field, including sociologists.
• If gender entered sociology in the 1970s, it did not arrive in the sociology
of religion in full force until the 1980s.
• Today we understand religion to be both a gendered and
a gendering social institution.
• That is, it is both gendered in that it reflects the gender order of society,
and it is gendering in that it helps to create and recreate that order.
Religion and Gender Inequality
• Since the gender order of society is not fixed, the nature of religion as a gendered
institution can change, and religion can also change the gender order of society.
• When women were brought more squarely into the study of religion, attempts were
made to understand why women seemed to be more religious than men.
• This seemed paradoxical to many feminists who saw the historical connection
between religion and gender inequality.
• This inequality can be seen in the theologies of many major world religions and in
the structures of religious organizations, especially the leadership.
RELIGION AS A GENDERED SOCIAL
• History has shown that human beings struggle with recognizing social differences
without creating social hierarchies; This is as true of gender as it was of race.
• The sociological approach, therefore, emphasizes the hierarchical ordering of people
• Gender inequality is not a modern phenomenon, of course; It is deeply rooted in
human history and culture.
• Often, gender differences have been viewed as creations of God and the associated
gender hierarchies as God-ordained; Religion, then, is a central gendering institution.
• Over the past half-century or more, attitudes toward traditional gender roles have
changed dramatically throughout the world, but especially in Europe and the U.S.
• In spite of the broad shift in the direction of more egalitarian views, religion
remains a strong predictor of traditional sexist gender ideologies.
• World religions generally support men’s headship and women’s submission, or the
belief that men and women were created by God to fulfill different and
complementary roles that tend to privilege the choices and decisions of men.
• Gender inequality is often deeply rooted in religious tradition; To take but one
example, in the Jewish tradition, the moral law was written by and for men.
Do you think there are differences among Christian
denominations regarding their gender ideologies?
• Gender segregation in religion is not the only religious regulation that is based on men
viewing women’s sexuality as corrupting; Gendered codes of dress are another example.
• For Muslims, hijab refers to women covering their heads as an act of sexual modesty.
• Hijab has also come to describe a particular style of scarf that covers the head and neck
but not the face.
• Many Christian traditions have discontinued this gendered practice, but it is still seen
among Anabaptist Christians (Amish, Hutterites), as well as among Eastern Orthodox
and some Roman Catholic Christians, especially outside the U.S. and Western Europe.
• In any case, the explicit goal of religiously sanctioned dress codes is modesty, but the
latent function is controlling the behavior—indeed, the very bodies—of women.
• The gendered nature of religion is not only seen in the religious sphere but is
intimately connected with the gendered nature of society generally.
• Although the specific theologies vary, religions often similarly promote the
differentiation and complementarity of gender roles.
• Put simply, this “complementarian theology” means that men and women perform
different roles and those roles support and reinforce each other.
• For example, women are seen as responsible for domestic, emotional roles and men
for public, authoritative roles.
• Leadership roles in most religions, therefore, have been reserved for men.
Negotiating Gender Roles
• The connection between active membership in particular faith communities and
sexist attitudes has been documented.
• Although evangelical Christians in the U.S. are increasingly negotiating gender role
expectations they continue to subscribe to the most traditional gender ideologies.
• Related to this phenomenon is the connection between particular religious beliefs
and gender ideologies.
• Those who believe that their holy scriptures are the literal word of God are more
likely to hold traditional gender role attitudes.
Masculine Image of God
• Another recent line of work looks at the effect of different “images of God” on
individuals’ attitudes and actions.
• Among the images that are included in survey studies are active, distant, critical,
angry, and loving.
• A less examined image of God is as a “He”; The more strongly individuals held a
masculine image of God, the more traditional were their gender role attitudes.
• Masculine image of God was a stronger predictor than either Biblical literalism or
• One of the clearest examples of religion as a gendered institution is the historical
exclusion of women from leadership positions.
Do you think masculine image of God is similar for male
and female believers?
• Although Hinduism includes many female gods (goddesses) in practice the religious
tradition has reflected the fact that Hindu societies have been strongly patriarchal.
• Similarly, Buddha went against cultural norms in India and admitted women to
• But, even today, in many branches of Buddhism in many parts of the world, women
are prevented from being invested with the full authority of monks.
• In Islam, women are generally relegated to supporting roles, not being permitted to
lead prayers in most mosques (the role played by the Imam).
• The question of authoritative leadership in religion often centers on what is
• Ordination is the process by which individuals are elevated above the
common members of a religious group.
• Buddhism, Judaism, and Christianity all formally ordain people, authorizing
them to exercise leadership in the religious tradition.
• Many scholars have seen ordination of women as a key issue in
understanding gendered religious organizational structures.
• The reasons for the exclusion of women from ordination in the Christian
tradition are noteworthy.
• Some scholars trace this exclusion back to Saint Paul who, in keeping with the
attitude toward women in his time, wrote that women were not to speak in church.
• However, he did not vigorously follow that policy himself, and he stressed that
gender was unimportant “in Christ.”
• When Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, it came under
some of the cultic attitudes then prevalent; Specifically, religious leaders were to
maintain ritual purity.
• Because women were viewed as unclean at particular times of the month because of
menstruation, they were unfit for ministry.
• In the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas adopted Aristotle’s view that women are
defective males—biologically, morally, and intellectually.
• Hence, he reasoned that only men could fully represent Christ in the ministry.
• Such a rationale would not likely have occurred if women had been part of the
hierarchy all along.
• Interestingly, although the Catholic Church does not ordain women as priests, many
of the most active members of Catholic parishes are women.
Do you think women have a higher chance for ordination
within Protestant denominations compared to
• Most denominations began ordaining women during one of the two major waves
of women’s rights activism
• The first African American denomination to ordain women was the African
Methodist Episcopal (AME) Zion Church in 1898.
• The connection between women’s movements and women’s ordination highlights
the influence of developments in the broader society on religious organizations.
• As gender equality has increasingly become a norm in the broader society, there is
greater pressure on organizations that care about legitimacy in the dominant secular
society to accept women as equals.
• Indeed, even in denominations that oppose ordaining women, the terms of the debate
have changed so that women’s inferiority is no longer an acceptable argument.
• The women’s movement has changed the grounds for the debate even in those
associations that resist female clergy
• Although considerable progress has been made by women in religious leadership,
religious organizations have a long way to go before they approach gender parity.
• Schleifer and Miller find that in the years 1976 to 1980, 6% of clergy in the United
States were female; By 2012 to 2016, the proportion had increased to 20%.
• The percentage of women in ordained ministry varies considerably across religious
• Three of the largest religious bodies in the U.S.—Catholic Church, Southern Baptist
Convention, and Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—do not ordain women.
• By contrast, in two of the most theologically liberal denominations, Unitarian
Universalists and United Church of Christ, half or more of clergy are women.
• It is important to note, however, that ordination to the clergy and leadership of a
congregation are not the same.
Do you think the major reason of some denominations’
opposition to women’s ordination is theological?
GENDERED PATTERNS OF RELIGIOSITY
• For several decades, sociologists of religion have been fascinated with a religiosity
gender gap, or the purported tendency of women to be more religious than men.
• Especially for feminist scholars, the involvement of women in a patriarchal social
institution like religion is something of a paradox.
• To begin in the US, men are much more likely than women to self-identify as
nonreligious: atheists (68% male), agnostics (62%), and “nothing in particular” (55%).
• There is no definitive explanation for this gender difference in religiosity.
• Some argue that differential gender roles explain the gender gap in religion.
• Women are responsible for child-rearing, so the argument goes, and this
encourages greater religious affiliation and involvement.
• Although it is true that parenthood has a positive effect on religiosity, the
effect of parenthood on religiosity is stronger for men than for women.
• Parenthood alone does not fully explain the gap.
• Others argue that not being in the labor force gives women more free time for
attention to faith issues.
• Full-time employment does have a negative effect on religiosity, but the gender gap
persists even when controlling for women’s employment status.
• In other words, women who work full-time are more religious than men who work
• Miller and Hoffmann developed a rational choice explanation for the higher levels of
religiosity of women relative to men that focuses on risk aversion.
• The basic premise of the rational choice perspective is that in making decisions
people try to minimize their costs and maximize their benefits.
• In terms of deciding whether to engage in religious practices, one of the potential
benefits of being religious is the possibility of a better next life, and one of the
potential costs of irreligion is the possibility of eternal damnation.
• From this perspective, irreligion is risky behavior.
• This approach argues that women are more religious because they have a lower
tolerance for risk than men.
• Much of the research in this area since the original statement of the theory has
focused on trying to understand the origins of risk tolerance and aversion.
Do you think women’s higher religiosity is due to their
lower tolerance for risk?
Nature and Nurture
• The major competing explanations are nature and nurture, biology and socialization.
• On the side of nature, physiological differences related to risk preference appear to
offer the only viable explanation of gender differences in religiousness.
• This position argues that men have a biological propensity for risk-taking owing to
higher levels of testosterone.
• Others have focused on nurture, examining how socialization processes could lead to
a gender difference in religiosity.
• One promising line of explanation is based on what is known as “power–control
• PCT was originally developed to explain gender differences in propensity to engage
in risky behavior—such as committing crime.
• PCT maintains that variations in the social control of sons and daughters within a
household are linked to risk preference and behavior outside the household.
• In more patriarchal households, daughters are more subject to social control than
sons, and so sons develop more preference for risky behavior than daughters.
• In more egalitarian households, there is less of a gap in risk preference between sons
and daughters, just as there is less gender-based difference in the control of children.
Gender Differences in Religiosity
• Gender differences in religiosity are greater for individuals raised in “traditional”
(patriarchal) households than those raised in more gender-egalitarian households.
• Also, women raised in more egalitarian households tend to be less religious than
women raised in more patriarchal households.
• This suggests that there could be a connection between the socialization of women
into risk tolerance or aversion that affects their subsequent levels of religiosity.
• One way to explore this complexity is to attempt to understand how the meaning and
practice of religion itself varies in different national, social, and religious contexts.
• Another important consideration in understanding risk preferences is what we mean
by “risk” itself.
Do you think having patriarchal attitudes is mostly
related to religious beliefs or other cultural factors are
important as well?
Marginalization as a Risk
• Because nonreligious people—especially atheists and agnostics—are socially
marginalized in the United States, being nonreligious is socially risky.
• Because women have less social power, the risk of social marginalization due to
non-religion is higher than for men.
• Consequently, women are more likely to be “nothing in particular” kinds of
religious “nones,” while it is the most socially privileged (college educated white
males) who are most likely to embrace the most risky “none” identity, atheism.
• Are women universally more religious than men? Are women in every religious
tradition and every social context more religious than men?
• One study of 81 countries found that women report higher levels of weekly
attendance at religious service in 30 countries.
• That same study, however, found that men report higher levels of service attendance
in 28 countries.
• Countries with more female participation tended to have large Christian populations
and those with more male participation tended to have large Muslim populations.
• In certain religious traditions—Orthodox Judaism and Islam—men
are more religious than women in terms of their attendance at religious services.
GENDER BEYOND WOMEN
• Much of the concern with gender in the study of religion—as in society
generally—is with women. But gender is not reducible to being female.
• Sociologists have begun to broaden their gender lens to incorporate the
study of men and those whose gender identities go beyond male or female.
• This is based on viewing gender as relational; You cannot understand one
gender without understanding its relationship to other genders.
• Central to understanding men and religion are the concepts of masculinity
and hegemonic masculinity.
• Masculinity refers to the gendered patterns of behavior and gender role
expectations of men in a particular culture or society.
Do you think God image is associated with masculinity
• Hegemony is a social scientific concept that refers to the dominance of one
group over others, particularly as legitimated by cultural norms and ideals.
• In places where men have power and privilege over other genders hegemonic
masculinity provides the ideological legitimation for male domination.
• Hegemonic masculinity from the perspective of men has been explored most
extensively in studies of evangelical Christians in the United States.
• Masculinity in the evangelical Christian context has three major components:
gender complementarity, male dominance, and heteronormativity
• Gender complementarity means that men and women perform different roles and
those roles support and reinforce each other.
• This can be seen most clearly in religiously justified gender difference in
expectations for work and family life.
• Some similar patterns can be seen in terms of male dominance; Leadership roles in
most religions have been reserved for men.
• The idea of male headship in the church spills over into male headship of the family.
• But even among evangelical Protestants, the role of men as heads of their families
are nuanced by broader trends in society.
• Burke and Hudec both recognize the reality of hegemonic masculinity and call into
question the idea of men as “one-dimensional patriarchs.”
• This highlights the third component of hegemonic masculinity: heteronormativity.
• Gender and sexuality are related; Part of the religiously supported gender role
expectations in society (“cisnormativity”) are having sexual desires for people of the
opposite gender (“heteronormativity”).
• In terms of masculinity, to be a “real man” means to be heterosexual.
• Male heterosexuality, in American culture at least, brings with it a number of related
expectations like a constant interest in sex and sexual conquest.
• Interestingly, some of the most insightful work on masculinity comes from studies
of “ex-gays”: men who transitioned from homosexuality to heterosexuality.
• Beginning in the 1970s, some evangelical Christians formed organizations to minister
to gay and lesbian people with the intention of “healing” their homosexuality and
converting them to Christianity.
• As part of the process of becoming straight, gay men were encouraged to adopt
masculine behaviors and interactional styles ultimately leading to heterosexual
marriage and fatherhood.
• But, Gerber found an emerging “godly masculinity” among ex-gay men that did
not simply replicate hegemonic masculinity.
• In fact, by religiously legitimating male emotional expressiveness and male–male
intimacy (though not sexual), and deemphasizing sexual performance, it
challenges aspects of hegemonic masculinity.
• These studies highlight how both women and men must negotiate religion as a
gendered social institution; Gender, after all, is a relational concept.
Are there still some churches which try to minister gay
and lesbians in order to encourage them to change their
GENDER BEYOND MALE AND FEMALE
• Gender scholarship in the sociology of religion is almost exclusively based on a
gender binary: “The social and biological classification of sex and gender into two
distinct oppositional forms of masculine and feminine selfhood.”
• The assumption that people conform to the gender binary and the marginalization of
gender minority identities is called “cisnormativity.”
• Though it is not restricted to the study of religion, the cisnormativity of scholarship
on religion parallels the cisnormativity of most religions.
• To be sure, studying gender minorities is more difficult than cisgenders (those who
conform to the gender binary), because they are a small minority of the population.
Religiously Legitimated Prejudice
• No doubt some of the marginalization of gender minorities is due to religiously
• A study of attitudes toward sexual minorities found that transgender people had one
of the least positive ratings, behind heterosexuals, gay/lesbian people, and bisexuals,
and only ahead of those who practice polygamy.
• Having a literal view of the Bible and identifying as more religious led to more
negative views toward transgender people.
• A basic assumption of sociological work is that gender is variable not fixed; Still the
study of gender has been driven by binary thinking—the dividing up of the world
into two categories, this or that.
• In the first instance, the gender binary was male vs. female.
• As people sought to move beyond that binary, inclusion of the category “transgender”
began; But over time, another binary emerged (transgender vs cisgender)
• This, too, failed to capture the full diversity and fluidity of gender identities.
• Today we use the abbreviation trans to include all those people whose identities go
beyond either transgender or cisgender, including those who are “gender fluid,
genderqueer, gender ambiguous, gender nonconforming, and nonbinary.”
Why do you think negative views toward transgender
people is higher than other sexual minorities?
Sociology of Religion
RELIGION, SOCIAL STABILITY, AND
• From this perspective, the function of religion (and other social institutions like the
family and politics) is to fulfill the need every society has for social stability.
• It does so by ensuring adequate socialization of individuals into the broader society—
providing both meaning and belonging—and by establishing the broader social order
(especially the cultural “rules”) into which people are socialized.
• Religion also plays a role in legitimating the social and political order, a process that
has been explored under the concept of “civil religion.”
• Religion, however, frequently appears to play a role in the creation of social conflict
as much as social stability.
• Therefore, rather than seeing social stability as the norm and social conflict the
result of exceptional circumstances, some place conflict at the center of social life.
• These sociologists often take their cue from a different founder of the discipline:
• Marx set the tone for much sociological work when he asserted that religion “is the
sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of
soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people”
• Religion, therefore, was viewed as inherently conservative because it serves to
legitimize an unequal social order.
Stability and Conflict
• Religion can also play an important role in motivating people to advocate for social
change; As Christian Smith has put it, religion can be “disruptive” of the status quo.
• We see this in the case of antislavery and civil rights movements in the U.S., the
antiapartheid movement in South Africa, the Solidarity movement in Poland, etc.
• As with most issues, then, the ultimate answer is not that religion is an opiate or a
stimulant, but that under certain social circumstances religion can act in either capacity.
• Both perspectives that see religion as playing a role in creating social stability and
those that focus on role of religion in fostering social conflict and, hence, social change.
Do you think the role of religion in today’s society is
more toward maintaining social order or toward
motivating social change?
RELIGION FUNCTIONS TO PROVIDE
MEANING AND BELONGING
• The function most explicitly associated with religion is providing individuals with a
sense of meaning in life.
• Religion offers a worldview by which injustice, suffering, and death can be seen as
• Friedrich Nietzsche said the same thing when he insisted that “he who has a why to
live can bear almost any how.”
• The desire to make sense out of the world in this way seems to be nearly universal;
Most people are unwilling to say that human events are entirely meaningless.
• Bafflement (lack of explanation) can be an extremely anxiety-producing
experience, and religion often acts to combat it.
• When experiences, events, or observations are set in a larger context imbued
with ultimate meaning, they can be viewed as having significance because of
their relationship to the “big picture.”
• Religion “can be defined as a system of beliefs and practices by means of which
a group of people struggles with these ultimate problems of human life.”
• Historically, traditional religious belief systems primarily fulfilled this meaning
Do you think many people believe in religion because
they want to avoid bafflement?
Religion and Social Belonging
• In the contemporary world, people may find meaning in any number of
religious or secular philosophies or in practices that on the surface do not
seem particularly “religious,” such as belly dancing and skateboarding.
• These more individualized and specialized forms of meaning-making,
however, may not serve the broader function of creating social stability by
socializing individuals into a common social order.
• Beyond meaning-making, religion also connects individuals to society by
providing a sense of social belonging and identity.
• The significant role of religion in the social incorporation of immigrants is
not just an American phenomenon.
Religion and State
• In Quebec, the relationship between church and state is one of conflict, with the
government distancing itself as much as possible from religious organizations.
• In France, the principle of laïcité (secularism) limits any public role for religious
organizations, rendering them invisible.
• In the US, as in Quebec and France, religion is formally disestablished; however, the
“free exercise” clause of the 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution creates context
much more open to religious voluntary organizations contributing to public life.
Do you think 1st amendment of the U.S. Constitution about
religious freedom has led to more religious diversity and
pluralism in American society compared to other countries?
Religion and Solidarity
• Along similar lines, in Poland, Ukraine, and other Eastern European countries that
were dominated by the Soviet Union, the Roman Catholic tradition became a source
of identity and solidarity for those opposing foreign control.
• In Poland, the church contributed a sense of commonality for people of several ethnic
groups and gave sacred sanction to their resistance to a government that they viewed
as an illegitimate puppet government controlled by Moscow.
• Unity of the Polish people—based on a common religious identity—was an important
component of their survival and ultimate success.
• Even beyond the cases of immigrants or of victims of colonialism, a sense of religious
belonging often affects individuals’ understanding of who and what they are.
Homogenous Society vs Diverse Society
• Greeley emphasized that while meaning functions may be primary the
belonging functions may actually be prior to meaning in terms of chronology.
• In a small, homogenous society, religious belonging is tantamount to social
belonging and thus contributes to social stability.
• But in a larger, more diverse society, a strong sense of belonging to a
particular religious tradition or group may actually serve to create boundaries,
dividing members of different traditions or groups.
• The consequence of belonging then would not be social stability but
parochialism, bigotry, ethnocentrism, and social conflict.
Do you think one source of ethnocentrism in American
society is related to religious belonging?
RELIGION AND LEGITIMATION OF THE
• Religion has often served to legitimate the social order, or the way a society is
structured. Who has political power? Who has social prestige? etc
• Although it is possible to enforce social order through brute force, social stability
can be achieved more peaceably if the mass of the population in a society believe
that “a rule or institution ought to be obeyed.”
• This is what we mean by legitimacy. Because it is concerned with ultimate
meaning, religion easily lends itself to legitimation.
• This was especially true prior to the advent of popular democracy, when
monarchs and other leaders ruled through “divine right.”
Religion and Political Order
• This meant there was no differentiation between the religious sphere and the
• In many countries today, religion has been separated from politics and “the
people” have a greater say in the leaders and laws that organize their societies.
• However, as political scientist Jonathan Fox warns we should not underestimate
the continuing power of religion in legitimating the social and political order.
• Fox has compiled a massive database on religious regulation and the regulation
of religion in 177 countries.
Religion and States
• He finds that 23.2% of countries still have official religions today, and
another 24.8% unofficially support one religion over others.
• Thus, “about half of all governments single out one religion for a special
relationship with the state.
• If we also include countries that give more than one religion preferential
treatment, this reaches around two-thirds of all countries.”
• Although these alliances foster legitimacy when one religious tradition is
dominant, as in Muslim states like Saudi Arabia, they can be a source of
conflict when there are diverse religious traditions co-existing.
To what extent do you think religion can provide political
legitimacy for modern nation-states?
• Religious conflict has led philosophers and sociologists to reflect on the question of
legitimacy beyond religious establishment.
• The French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau maintained the need for “sentiments
of sociality” outside of organized religion.
• The broader question motivating Rousseau concerned legitimation of the social and
political order without a single religion established to play that role.
• He used the term “civil religion” as cultural beliefs, practices, and symbols that relate
a nation to the ultimate conditions of its existence.
• In other words, civil religious ideals arise from national civil religious rituals.
Civil Religion in America
• Robert Bellah’s 1967 essay, “Civil Religion in America,” brought the concept back
into contemporary sociology.
• Like Rousseau and Durkheim, Bellah saw legitimation as a problem faced by every
nation, and civil religion as one solution—under the right social conditions.
• Bellah argued that in premodern societies the solution consisted either in a fusion of
the religious and political realms or in differentiation of the religious and political
but not formal separation.
• Civil religion comes into existence only in the modern period when church and state
are formally separated as well as structurally differentiated.
American Civil Religion
• In other words, a civil religion that is differentiated from both religion and the
government is only possible in a modern, secularized society.
• Bellah argued that civil religion in the United States exists alongside but distinct
from formal organized religion.
• It is actually a religious “dimension” of society, characteristic of the American
republic since its founding
• Civil religion is “an understanding of the American experience in the light of ultimate
and universal reality” and can be found in presidential inaugural addresses, sacred
texts and places (the Constitution), and community rituals (Memorial Day parades).
• The mythology of American civil religion began early in the nation’s history.
• In the speeches of some of the first presidents and in sermons of some colonial
preachers, America was treated as the “Promised Land.”
• This long process of myth development has grown through the past 200 years.
• The belief in the American Dream, the American Way of Life, and the fundamental
goodness of America is expressed with reference to a supernatural blessing:
• Civil religion is also expressed through the rituals that take place on such “high holy
days” as Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, and presidential inauguration days.
To what extent do you think national celebrations like 4th
of July may be examples of American civil religion?
Commitment for a Shared Purpose
• The ceremonies on these days express key American values and inspire a
feeling of unity and a sense of transcendence (greater purpose).
• The meaning of the nation is believed to transcend individual lives and is
important in understanding the significance of contemporary events.
• Currently, the mission of the American people seems to be focused on
ridding the world of terrorists.
• Following the events of 9/11, freedom has become a unifying value that
bonds people of many backgrounds and calls them to sacrifice and
commitment for a shared purpose.
• The paramount sacred object in this religion is the American flag.
• The importance of this symbol can be seen not only in the prescribed handling
of the flag but also in the intensity of the outrage when the stars and stripes are
• Particular national heroes, or saints, also serve as focal points for veneration
and myth development.
• Washington and Lincoln are the most important and most widely recognized
“saints,” and are paid homage on Presidents’ Day.
• Many observers of this American civil religion have been appalled by it, seeing it as
idolatry of the nation.
• American religious historian Martin Marty called it “American Shinto.”
• He was referring to Shintoism, the Japanese state religion prior to 1945 that involved
worship of ancestors and ancient heroes, a glorification of national accomplishments.
• Rather than operating alongside traditional religion and providing secular legitimation
for the nation, civil religion could easily become a harmful form of nationalism.
• Bellah recognized the dark side of civil religion when he insisted that “without an
awareness that our nation stands under higher judgment, the tradition of the civil
religion would be dangerous indeed.”
• It would be dangerous because it would serve only to sanctify the status quo and
the current social structures, regardless of whether they are just.
• He denied that the conservative function is the only role of civil religion in the U.S.
• Its structural position relative to both church and state allows civil religion to act as
a source not only of legitimation but also of prophetic judgment.
Do you agree with Belah’s argument that American civil
religion’s function is toward legitimizing the status quo?
American Religious Nationalism
• The ideals of the nation provide a foundation for criticism and improvement.
• According to Bellah, at its best civil religion guards against governments doing
whatever they want to do and then sanctifying their actions;
• Civil religion provides a standard of judgment for national policy.
• Although it appeared that a new phase of American civil religion might arise from the
rubble of 9/11, for many what has been aroused instead is a revitalized American
• The unlikely leader of this nationalist religious awakening is the real estate developer
and reality TV star who became the 45th President of the US, Donald J. Trump.
Make America Great Again
• Trump was propelled to the presidency by the overwhelming support of 81% of
white evangelical or “born-again” Christians.
• Even amid considerable turmoil as president, he continued to receive strong support
from this base constituency of white evangelical Protestants.
• Many have interpreted his calls to “Make America Great Again” as calls to make
America a white Christian nation again, and not a religiously, racially diverse nation.
• But according to Whitehead, it would be a mistake to understand support for the
Trump presidency solely in terms of theologically conservative Christianity.
To what extent do you think Trump’s call to “Make
America Great Again” was equivalent of call to make
America a white Christian nation again?
Toward a Global Civil Religion?
• Bellah expressed his expectation that a global civil religion would eventually emerge.
• Some argue that a global civilization could give rise to a global civil religion, whose
“pantheon of saints” might include Gandhi, Mother Teresa, and Dalai Lama.
• However, there is currently no such universal system of myths, rituals, and symbols
that powerfully unite the people of earth.
• More realistically, the spread of human rights and international law gives some
credence to the prospect of a global civil society united under common core beliefs.
• As a possible future George Thomas has observed that even the UNs’ Universal
Declaration of Human Rights has language that is offensive to some religious people.
• The very notion that one chooses one’s religion is itself a form of modernization, for
it stresses both individualism and freedom of choice.
• Choice relativizes religion—one has a right to choose Religion A or Religion B.
• Indeed, relativization of cultural values is central to the globalization process and is
an aspect of contemporary life that religious fundamentalists vehemently reject.
• In a pluralistic world, with extraordinarily powerful self-interests inclining nations
and societies to conflict, global organizations such as the World Court and the United
Nations lack the legitimated authority that civil religion can provide.
Global Civil Religion
• Without some sacralization of their authority, such bodies find it very
difficult to make their policies binding.
• Of course, many other sociologists insist that the primary “glue” that
unites most modern societies is not common beliefs and values anyway.
• Economic interdependence, technological linkages between social units,
and bureaucratic processes provide the primary coherence, they argue.
• For these scholars, a global civil religion is unnecessary.
How possible is the idea that globalization would
eventually lead to emergence of a global civil religion?
RELIGION AND SOCIAL CONFLICT
• Religion contributes not only to social stability, but also to social conflict.
• Islamophobia has been a part of Christian Europe since Muslim immigrants
began arriving in the 14th century and still persists today globally.
• Of course, anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States is not purely theological,
but is driven by a complex combination of religious, racial, and civic views.
• Conceptions of what national belonging itself means have been strongly
influenced by evangelical Christian thinking.
• As this diffuses into the broader culture, boundaries of national belonging are
often drawn in ways that exclude not just Muslims but the nonreligious as well.
• Conflict has certainly not been limited to that between Christians and non-Christians.
• Within many religious traditions, women and LGBTQIA+ people have been
marginalized and struggled for greater inclusion over the years
• Religion plays an ambivalent role in promoting both violence and peace.
• In the United States, Protestants historically used their dominant numbers and
established positions of power to oppress Catholic immigrants.
• Because they immigrated earlier, Protestants were well-established in the country
before waves of Irish and Italian Catholics migrated from Europe in the 19th century.
Do you think White Protestants are still domination over
established positions of power?
• The Know-Nothing Party and the Ku Klux Klan are two examples of American
movements that were intensely anti-Catholic and that limited membership to white,
• Some analysts insist that the temperance (anti-alcohol) movement was also essentially
an anti-immigrant phenomenon in which Protestants sought to force their own
definitions of Christian morality on Catholics and Jews.
• According to this analysis, Prohibition was largely an attempt to define ethnic
Catholic lifestyles as illegal and thereby to label Catholics as deviants.
• Protestants continued to dominate the top positions in business and finance into the
1950s, with Catholics—regardless of competence or credentials—effectively shut out.
• Still, Protestants have clearly been an interest group that used their position of power
and influence to ensure economic advantage.
• Religion may prove divisive in another instance: recognition of what constitutes
• The central value system of a religion may come into conflict with the secular legal
system; In this case, people must choose which set of values they will respect.
• Often this boils down to the issue of which value system is authoritative or which
leader is attributed with proper authority.
• In the 1980s, evangelical Christians bombed and sabotaged abortion clinics, despite
the illegality of the act in the civil law.
• The Amish regulation that their children must not go to school beyond the eighth
grade provides another example of conflict between religious and state authorities.
• When this norm conflicted with state law compelling all children to stay in school
until graduation or age 16, some Amish parents in the 1950s and 1960s chose to go
to jail rather than obey the law.
Conflict between Government and Religious
• In 1972, the Supreme Court settled the issue ruling that a state is in violation of the
the Constitution if it forces the Amish to send their children to high school.
• Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints also encountered
intense conflict with the federal government in the 19th century.
• In this case, the issue was over which authority, the church or the state, would
decide how many wives a man may have.
• The Supreme Court ruled against the church, and later Latter-day Saints leaders
revised their doctrine to conform with federal law.
Can you think of other examples of conflict between
religious beliefs and civil law?
RELIGION: OPIATE OR STIMULANT?
• Unlike Émile Durkheim and his intellectual descendants, Karl Marx
placed conflict at the heart of his analysis of society.
• For Marx the central conflict was between different economic classes.
• In this class conflict, the “haves” use every tool available, including
coercion and ideology, to sustain their advantageous position over the
“have-nots”; Among these ideological tools is religion.
• Accordingly, Marx viewed religion as an ideology that justifies the current
social arrangements. It serves as a tool of the upper classes.
Opium of People
• Marx, like Durkheim, viewed religion as a force for social integration. But for Marx,
this had a tragic consequence. Religion served to maintain an unjust status quo.
• Religion acted to unite people of various classes with one another when the lower
classes should be uniting in a struggle against their upper class oppressors.
• In fact, the religious ideology that promised rewards in an afterlife for conformity in
this world had the same pacifying effect on people as opium.
• Hence, his previously mentioned comment about religion being the opium of people.
• Certainly there are many examples that support the Marxian interpretation.
• The Hindu belief in reincarnation has led many lower-caste Indians to conform to the
laws of dharma.
• Only by conforming to dharma (which reinforces inequality between castes) can one
expect to be reincarnated in a higher position.
• Those who violate these laws can expect to be reincarnated in lower animal form.
• This sort of belief system tends to undermine any impetus to rebel against the social
• Christian beliefs in otherworldly salvation sometimes act in a similar way to pacify
the poor and the disfranchised; They will, it is said, receive their reward in heaven.
Tool of Control or Change?
• Marx maintained that religion gives the poor a feeling of solace and a hope of
compensation in the afterlife so that they will not rebel in the present.
• Those who maintain this position insist that religion serves as a tool of control for
the dominant economic class and ethnic group.
• However, more recently, sociologists have become interested in liberal religious
• Conflict is often viewed negatively, but conflict can become an important engine
for social change; And if the existing social order is unjust, social change is good.
Based on your experiences and what we discussed do you
think the role of religion in today’s American society is
more like an opium or a stimulant? A tool for social
control or a tool for generating social change?