For the book by Max Weber, see Sociology of Religion (book).
For the academic journal, see Sociology of Religion (journal).
Sociology of religion is the study of the beliefs, practices and organizational forms of religion using the tools and methods of the discipline of sociology. This objective investigation may include the use of both quantitative methods (surveys, polls, demographic and census analysis) and qualitative approaches such as participant observation, interviewing, and analysis of archival, historical and documentary materials.
Modern academic sociology began with the analysis of religion in Émile Durkheim's 1897 study of suicide rates among Catholic and Protestant populations, a foundational work of social research which served to distinguish sociology from other disciplines, such as psychology. The works of Karl Marx and Max Weber emphasized the relationship between religion and the economic or social structure of society. Contemporary debates have centered on issues such as secularization, civil religion, and the cohesiveness of religion in the context of globalization and multiculturalism. The contemporary sociology of religion may also encompass the sociology of irreligion (for instance, in the analysis of secular humanist belief systems).
Sociology of religion is distinguished from the philosophy of religion in that it does not set out to assess the validity of religious beliefs. The process of comparing multiple conflicting dogmas may require what Peter L. Berger has described as inherent "methodological atheism". Whereas the sociology of religion broadly differs from theology in assuming indifference to the supernatural, theorists tend to acknowledge socio-cultural reification of religious practice.
History and relevance
Classical, seminal sociological theorists of the late 19th and early 20th century such as Émile Durkheim, Max Weber, and Karl Marx were greatly interested in religion and its effects on society. Like those of Plato and Aristotle from ancient Greece, and Enlightenment philosophers from the 17th through 19th centuries, the ideas posited by these sociologists continue to be examined today. More recent prominent sociologists of religion include Peter L. Berger, Robert Neelly Bellah, Thomas Luckmann, Rodney Stark, William Sims Bainbridge, Robert Wuthnow, Christian Smith, and Bryan R. Wilson.
View of religion in classical sociology
Durkheim, Marx, and Weber had very complex and developed theories about the nature and effects of religion. Of these, Durkheim and Weber are often more difficult to understand, especially in light of the lack of context and examples in their primary texts. Religion was considered to be an extremely important social variable in the work of all three.
"Marx was the product of the Enlightenment, embracing its call to replace faith by reason and religion by science." Despite his later influence, Karl Marx did not view his work as an ethical or ideological response to nineteenth-century capitalism (as most later commentators have). His efforts were, in his mind, based solely on what can be called applied science. Marx saw himself as doing morally neutral sociology and economic theory for the sake of human development. As Christiano states, "Marx did not believe in science for science's sake…he believed that he was also advancing a theory that would…be a useful tool…[in] effecting a revolutionary upheaval of the capitalist system in favor of socialism." (124) As such, the crux of his arguments was that humans are best guided by reason. Religion, Marx held, was a significant hindrance to reason, inherently masking the truth and misguiding followers. As we will later see, Marx viewed alienation as the heart of social inequality. The antithesis to this alienation is freedom. Thus, to propagate freedom means to present individuals with the truth and give them a choice to accept or deny it. In this, "Marx never suggested that religion ought to be prohibited." (Christiano 126)
Central to Marx's theories was the oppressive economic situation in which he dwelt. With the rise of European industrialism, Marx and his colleague Friedrich Engels witnessed and responded to the growth of what he called "surplus value". Marx's view of capitalism saw rich capitalists getting richer and their workers getting poorer (the gap, the exploitation, was the "surplus value"). Not only were workers getting exploited, but in the process they were being further detached from the products they helped create. By simply selling their work for wages, "workers simultaneously lose connection with the object of labor and become objects themselves. Workers are devalued to the level of a commodity – a thing…" (Ibid 125) From this objectification comes alienation. The common worker is led to believe that he or she is a replaceable tool, and is alienated to the point of extreme discontent. Here, in Marx's eyes, religion enters. Capitalism utilizes our tendency towards religion as a tool or ideological state apparatus to justify this alienation. Christianity teaches that those who gather up riches and power in this life will almost certainly not be rewarded in the next ("it is harder for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven than it is for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle...") while those who suffer oppression and poverty in this life, while cultivating their spiritual wealth, will be rewarded in the Kingdom of God. Hence Marx's famous line – "religion is the opium of the people", as it soothes them and dulls their senses to the pain of oppression. Some scholars have recently noted that this is a contradictory (or dialectical) metaphor, referring to religion as both an expression of suffering and a protest against suffering.
Émile Durkheim placed himself in the positivist tradition, meaning that he thought of his study of society as dispassionate and scientific. He was deeply interested in the problem of what held complex modern societies together. Religion, he argued, was an expression of social cohesion.
In the fieldwork that led to his famous Elementary Forms of Religious Life, Durkheim, a secular Frenchman, looked at anthropological data of Indigenous Australians. His underlying interest was to understand the basic forms of religious life for all societies. In Elementary Forms, Durkheim argues that the totems the Aborigines venerate are actually expressions of their own conceptions of society itself. This is true not only for the Aborigines, he argues, but for all societies.
Religion, for Durkheim, is not "imaginary", although he does deprive it of what many believers find essential. Religion is very real; it is an expression of society itself, and indeed, there is no society that does not have religion. We perceive as individuals a force greater than ourselves, which is our social life, and give that perception a supernatural face. We then express ourselves religiously in groups, which for Durkheim makes the symbolic power greater. Religion is an expression of our collective consciousness, which is the fusion of all of our individual consciousnesses, which then creates a reality of its own.
It follows, then, that less complex societies, such as the Australian Aborigines, have less complex religious systems, involving totems associated with particular clans. The more complex a particular society, the more complex the religious system is. As societies come in contact with other societies, there is a tendency for religious systems to emphasize universalism to a greater and greater extent. However, as the division of labour makes the individual seem more important (a subject that Durkheim treats extensively in his famous The Division of Labour in Society), religious systems increasingly focus on individual salvation and conscience.
Durkheim's definition of religion, from Elementary Forms, is as follows: "A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden – beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them." (Marx, introduction) This is a functional definition of religion, meaning that it explains what religion does in social life: essentially, it unites societies. Durkheim defined religion as a clear distinction between the sacred and the profane, in effect this can be paralleled with the distinction between God and humans.
This definition also does not stipulate what exactly may be considered sacred. Thus later sociologists of religion (notably Robert Neelly Bellah) have extended Durkheimian insights to talk about notions of civil religion, or the religion of a state. American civil religion, for example, might be said to have its own set of sacred "things": the flag of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., etc. Other sociologists have taken Durkheim's concept of what religion is in the direction of the religion of professional sports, the military, or of rock music.
Max Weber published four major texts on religion in a context of economic sociology and his rationalization thesis: The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905), The Religion of China: Confucianism and Taoism (1915), The Religion of India: The Sociology of Hinduism and Buddhism (1915), and Ancient Judaism (1920).
In his sociology, Weber uses the German term "Verstehen" to describe his method of interpretation of the intention and context of human action. Weber is not a positivist; he does not believe we can find out "facts" in sociology that can be causally linked. Although he believes some generalized statements about social life can be made, he is not interested in hard positivist claims, but instead in linkages and sequences, in historical narratives and particular cases.
Weber argues for making sense of religious action on its own terms. A religious group or individual is influenced by all kinds of things, he says, but if they claim to be acting in the name of religion, we should attempt to understand their perspective on religious grounds first. Weber gives religion credit for shaping a person's image of the world, and this image of the world can affect their view of their interests, and ultimately how they decide to take action.
For Weber, religion is best understood as it responds to the human need for theodicy and soteriology. Human beings are troubled, he says, with the question of theodicy – the question of how the extraordinary power of a divine god may be reconciled with the imperfection of the world that he has created and rules over. People need to know, for example, why there is undeserved good fortune and suffering in the world. Religion offers people soteriological answers, or answers that provide opportunities for salvation – relief from suffering, and reassuring meaning. The pursuit of salvation, like the pursuit of wealth, becomes a part of human motivation.
Because religion helps to define motivation, Weber believed that religion (and specifically Calvinism) actually helped to give rise to modern capitalism, as he asserted in his most famous and controversial work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.
In The Protestant Ethic, Weber argues that capitalism arose in Europe in part because of how the belief in predestination was interpreted by everyday English Puritans. Puritan theology was based on the Calvinist notion that not everyone would be saved; there was only a specific number of the elect who would avoid damnation, and this was based sheerly on God's predetermined will and not on any action you could perform in this life. Official doctrine held that one could not ever really know whether one was among the elect.
Practically, Weber noted, this was difficult psychologically: people were (understandably) anxious to know whether they would be eternally damned or not. Thus Puritan leaders began assuring members that if they began doing well financially in their businesses, this would be one unofficial sign they had God's approval and were among the saved – but only if they used the fruits of their labour well. This along with the rationalism implied by monotheism led to the development of rational bookkeeping and the calculated pursuit of financial success beyond what one needed simply to live – and this is the "spirit of capitalism". Over time, the habits associated with the spirit of capitalism lost their religious significance, and the rational pursuit of profit became an aim in its own right.
The Protestant Ethic thesis has been much critiqued, refined, and disputed, but is still a lively source of theoretical debate in sociology of religion. Weber also did considerable work on world religions, including Hinduism and Buddhism.
In his magnum opusEconomy and Society Weber distinguished three ideal types of religious attitudes:
- world-flying mysticism
- world-rejecting asceticism
- inner-worldly asceticism.
He also separated magic as pre-religious activity.
Symbolic anthropology and phenomenology
Symbolic anthropology and some versions of phenomenology argue that all humans require reassurance that the world is safe and ordered place – that is, they have a need for ontological security. Therefore, all societies have forms of knowledge that perform this psychological task. The inability of science to offer psychological and emotional comfort explains the presence and influence of non-scientific knowledge in human lives, even in rational world.
Unlike symbolic anthropology and phenomenology, functionalism points to the benefits for social organization which non-scientific belief systems provide and which scientific knowledge fails to deliver. Belief systems are seen as encouraging social order and social stability in ways that rationally based knowledge cannot. From this perspective, the existence of non-rational accounts of reality can be explained by the benefits they offer to society.
Rationalists object to the phenomenological and functionalist approaches, arguing that they fail to understand why believers in systems of non-scientific knowledge do think they tell the truth and that their ideas are right, even though science has shown them to be wrong. We cannot explain forms of knowledge in terms of the beneficial psychological or societal effects that an outside observer may see them as producing. We have to look at the point of view of those who believe in them. People do not believe in God, practice magic, or think that witches cause misfortune because they think they are providing themselves with psychological reassurance, or to achieve greater cohesion for their social groups. They do so because they think their beliefs are correct – that they tell them the truth about the way the world is.
Nineteenth-century rationalist writers, reflecting the evolutionist spirits of their times, tended to explain the lack of rationality and the dominance of false beliefs in pre-modern worlds in terms of the deficient mental equipment of their inhabitants. Such people were seen as possessing pre-logical, or non-rational, mentality. Twentieth-century rationalist thinking generally rejected such a view, reasoning that pre-modern people didn't possess inferior minds, but lacked the social and cultural conditions needed to promote rationalism. Rationalists see the history of modern societies as the rise of scientific knowledge and the subsequent decline of non-rational belief. Some of these beliefs, such as magic and witchcraft, had disappeared, while others, such as religion, had become marginalized. This rationalist perspective has led to secularization theories of various kinds.
Typology of religious groups
Main article: Sociological classifications of religious movements
One common typology among sociologists, religious groups are classified as ecclesias, denominations, sects, or cults (now more commonly referred to in scholarship as new religious movements). Note that sociologists give these words precise definitions which differ from how they are commonly used. In particular, sociologists use the words 'cult' and 'sect' without negative connotations, even though the popular use of these words is often pejorative.
Some sociologists of religion explore the theoretical analysis of the sociological dimensions of religiosity. For example, Charles Y. Glock is best known for his five-dimensional scheme of the nature of religious commitment. His list consist of the following variables: belief, knowledge, experience, practice (sometimes subdivided into private and public ritual) and consequences. Glock's first four dimensions have proved widely useful in research, because generally, they are simple to measure survey research. Similarly, Mervin F. Verbit's contribution was a twenty four-dimensional religiosity measure which includes measuring religiosity through six different "components" of religiosity: ritual, doctrine, emotion, knowledge, ethics, community, and along four dimensions: content, frequency, intensity, centrality.
In prosperous democracies, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy, and abortion. As the author Stephen Law paraphrases in his book War For the Children's Mind, "The most theistic prosperous democracy, the U.S., is exceptional, but not in the manner Franklin predicted. The United States is almost always the most dysfunctional of the developed democracies, sometimes spectacularly so...The view of the U.S. as a "shining city on the hill" to the rest of the world is falsified when it comes to basic measures of societal health."
The study also notes that it is the more secular, pro-evolution societies that come close to "cultures of life". The authors conclude that the reasonable success of non-religious democracies like Japan, France and Scandinavia has refuted the idea that godless societies suffer disaster. They add "Contradicting these conclusions requires demonstrating a positive link between theism and societal conditions in the first world with a similarly large body of data – a doubtful possibility in view of the observable trends."
BBC News reported on a study that attempted to use mathematical modelling ('nonlinear dynamics') to predict future religious orientations of populations. The study suggests that religion is headed towards 'extinction' in various nations where it has been on the decline: Australia, Austria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Switzerland. The model considers, not only the changing number of people with certain beliefs, but also attempts to assign utility values of a belief as per each nation.
Thomas Luckmann maintains that the sociology of religion should cease preoccupations with the traditional and institutionalized forms of religion. Luckmann points instead to the "religious problem" which is the "problem of individual existence." This is the case as with the advent of modernity, religious meaning making has shifted more into the individual domain.:82
Secularization and civil religion
Main articles: Secularization and Civil religion
In relation to the processes of rationalization associated with the development of modernity, it was predicted in the works of many classical sociologists that religion would decline. Despite the claims of many classical theorists and sociologists immediately after World War II, many contemporary theorists have critiqued secularization thesis, arguing that religion has continued to play a vital role in the lives of individuals worldwide. In the United States, in particular, church attendance has remained relatively stable in the past 40 years. In Africa, the emergence of Christianity has occurred at a high rate. While Africa could claim roughly 10 million Christians in 1900, recent estimates put that number closer to 200 million. The rise of Islam as a major world religion, especially its new-found influence in the West, is another significant development. Furthermore, arguments may be presented regarding the concept of civil religion and new world belief systems. In short, presupposed secularization as a decline in religiosity might seem to be a myth, depending on its definition and the definition of its scope. For instance, some sociologists have argued that steady church attendance and personal religious belief may coexist with a decline in the influence of religious authorities on social or political issues. Additionally, regular attendance or affiliation do not necessarily translate into a behaviour according to their doctrinal teachings.
In other words, numbers of members might still be growing, but this does not mean that all members are faithfully following the rules of pious behaviours expected. In that sense, religion may be seen as declining because of its waning ability to influence behaviour.
According to Rodney Stark, David Martin was the first contemporary sociologist to reject the secularization theory outright. Martin even proposed that the concept of secularization be eliminated from social scientific discourse, on the grounds that it had only served ideological purposes and because there was no evidence of any general shift from a religious period in human affairs to a secular period.
Peter Berger observed that while researchers supporting the secularization theory have long maintained that religion must inevitably decline in the modern world, today, much of the world is as religious as ever. This points to the falsity of the secularization theory. On the other hand, Berger also notes that secularization may be indeed have taken hold in Europe, while the United States and other regions have continued to remain religious despite the increased modernity. Dr. Berger suggested that the reason for this may have to do with the education system; in Europe, teachers are sent by the educational authorities and European parents would have to put up with secular teaching, while in the United States, schools were for much of the time under local authorities, and American parents, however unenlightened, could fire their teachers. Berger also notes that unlike Europe, America has seen the rise of Evangelical Protestantism, or "born-again Christians".:78
Bryan R. Wilson is a writer on secularization who is alarmed about the nature of life in a society dominated by scientific knowledge. His work is in the tradition of Max Weber, who saw modern societies as places in which rationality dominates life and thought. Weber saw rationality as concerned with identifying causes and working out technical efficiency, with a focus on how things work and with calculating how they can be made to work more effectively, rather than why they are as they are. According to Weber, such rational worlds are disenchanted. Existential questions about the mysteries of human existence, about who we are and why we are here, have become less and less significant.
Wilson insists that non-scientific systems – and religious ones in particular – have experienced an irreversible decline in influence. He has engaged in a long debate with those who dispute the secularization thesis, some of which argue that the traditional religions, such as church-centered ones, have become displaced by an abundance of non-traditional ones, such as cults and sects of various kinds. Others argue that religion has become an individual, rather than a collective, organized affair. Still others suggest that functional alternatives to traditional religion, such as nationalism and patriotism, have emerged to promote social solidarity. Wilson does accept the presence of a large variety of non-scientific forms of meaning and knowledge, but he argues that this is actually evidence of the decline of religion. The increase in the number and diversity of such systems is proof of the removal of religion from the central structural location that it occupied in pre-modern times.
Unlike Wilson and Weber, Ernest Gellner (1974) acknowledges that there are drawbacks to living in a world whose main form of knowledge is confined to facts we can do nothing about and that provide us with no guidelines on how to live and how to organize ourselves. In this regard, we are worse off than pre-modern people, whose knowledge, while incorrect, at least provided them with prescriptions for living. However, Gellner insists that these disadvantages are far outweighed by the huge technological advances modern societies have experienced as a result of the application of scientific knowledge.
Gellner doesn't claim that non-scientific knowledge is in the process of dying out. For example, he accepts that religions in various forms continue to attract adherents. He also acknowledges that other forms of belief and meaning, such as those provided by art, music, literature, popular culture (a specifically modern phenomenon), drug taking, political protest, and so on are important for many people. Nevertheless, he rejects the relativist interpretation of this situation – that in modernity, scientific knowledge is just one of many accounts of existence, all of which have equal validity. This is because, for Gellner, such alternatives to science are profoundly insignificant since they are technically impotent, as opposed to science. He sees that modern preoccupations with meaning and being as a self-indulgence that is only possible because scientific knowledge has enabled our world to advance so far. Unlike those in pre-modern times, whose overriding priority is to get hold of scientific knowledge in order to begin to develop, we can afford to sit back in the luxury of our well-appointed world and ponder upon such questions because we can take for granted the kind of world science has constructed for us.
Michel Foucault was a post-structuralist who saw human existence as being dependent on forms of knowledge – discourses – that work like languages. Languages/discourses define reality for us. In order to think at all, we are obliged to use these definitions. The knowledge we have about the world is provided for us by the languages and discourses we encounter in the times and places in which we live our lives. Thus, who we are, what we know to be true, and what we think are discursively constructed.
Foucault defined history as the rise and fall of discourses. Social change is about changes in prevailing forms of knowledge. The job of the historian is to chart these changes and identify the reasons for them. Unlike rationalists, however, Foucault saw no element of progress in this process. To Foucault, what is distinctive about modernity is the emergence of discourses concerned with the control and regulation of the body. According to Foucault, the rise of body-centered discourses necessarily involved a process of secularization. Pre-modern discourses were dominated by religion, where things were defined as good and evil, and social life was centered around these concepts. With the emergence of modern urban societies, scientific discourses took over, and medical science was a crucial element of this new knowledge. Modern life became increasingly subject to medical control – the medical gaze, as Foucault called it.
The rise to power of science, and of medicine in particular, coincided with a progressive reduction of the power of religious forms of knowledge. For example, normality and deviance became more of a matter of health and illness than of good and evil, and the physician took over from the priest the role of defining, promoting, and healing deviance.
The sociology of religion continues to grow throughout the world, attempting to understand the relationship between religion and globalization. Two older approaches to globalization include modernization theory, a functionalist derivative, and world-systems theory, a Marxist approach. One of the differences between these theories is whether they view capitalism as positive or problematic. However, both assumed that modernization and capitalism would diminish the hold of religion.
To the contrary, as globalization intensified many different cultures started to look into different religions and incorporate different beliefs into society. New interpretations emerged that recognize the tensions. For example, according to Paul James and Peter Mandaville:
Religion and globalization have been intertwined with each other since the early empires attempted to extend their reach across what they perceived to be world-space. Processes of globalization carried religious cosmologies – including traditional conceptions of universalism – to the corners of the world, while these cosmologies legitimated processes of globalization. This dynamic of inter-relation has continued to the present, but with changing and sometimes new and intensifying contradictions.
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Sociological and anthropologicaltheories about religion (or theories of religion) generally attempt to explain the origin and function of religion. These theories define what they present as universal characteristics of religious belief and practice.
From presocratic times, ancient authors advanced prescientific theories about religion.Herodotus (484 – 425 BCE) saw the gods of Greece as the same as the gods of Egypt.Euhemerus (about 330 – 264 BCE) regarded gods as excellent historical persons whom admirers eventually came to worship.
Scientific theories, inferred and tested by the comparative method, emerged after data from tribes and peoples all over the world became available in the 18th and 19th centuries.Max Müller (1823-1900) has the reputation of having founded the scientific study of religion; he advocated a comparative method that developed into comparative religion. Subsequently, Clifford Geertz (1926-2006) and others questioned the validity of abstracting a general theory of all religions.
Theories of religion can be classified into:
- Substantive (or essentialist) theories that focus on the contents of religions and the meaning the contents have for people. This approach asserts that people have faith because beliefs make sense insofar as they hold value and are comprehensible. The theories by Tylor and Frazer (focusing on the explanatory value of religion for its adherents), by Rudolf Otto (focusing on the importance of religious experience, more specifically experiences that are both fascinating and terrifying) and by Mircea Eliade (focusing on the longing for otherworldly perfection, the quest for meaning, and the search for patterns in mythology in various religions) offer examples of substantive theories.
- Functional (and in a stronger form reductionist) theories that focus on the social or psychological functions that religion has for a group or a person. In simple terms, the functional approach sees religion as "performing certain functions for society" Theories by Karl Marx (role of religion in capitalist and pre-capitalist societies), Sigmund Freud (psychological origin of religious beliefs), Émile Durkheim (social function of religions), and the theory by Stark and Bainbridge exemplify functional theories. This approach tends to be static, with the exception of Marx' theory, and unlike e.g. Weber's approach, which treats of the interaction and dynamic processes between religions and the rest of societies.
Other dichotomies according to which theories or descriptions of religions can be classified include:
Early essentialists, such as Tylor and Frazer, looked for similar beliefs and practices in all societies, especially the more primitive ones, more or less regardless of time and place. They relied heavily on reports made by missionaries, discoverers, and colonial civil servants. These were all investigators who had a religious background themselves, thus they looked at religion from the inside. Typically they did not practice investigative field work, but used the accidental reports of others. This method left them open to criticism for lack of universality, which many freely admitted. The theories could be updated, however, by considering new reports, which Robert Ranulph Marett (1866-1943) did for Tylor's theory of the evolution of religion.
Field workers deliberately sent out by universities and other institutions to collect specific cultural data made available a much greater database than random reports. For example, the anthropologistE. E. Evans-Pritchard (1902-1973) preferred detailed ethnographical study of tribal religion as more reliable. He criticised the work of his predecessors, Müller, Tylor, and Durkheim, as untestable speculation. He called them "armchair anthropologists".
A second methodology, functionalism, seeks explanations of religion that are outside of religion; i.e., the theorists are generally (but not necessarily) atheists or agnostics themselves. As did the essentialists, the functionalists proceeded from reports to investigative studies. Their fundamental assumptions, however, are quite different; notably, they apply what is called[by whom?] "methodological naturalism". When explaining religion they reject divine or supernatural explanations for the status or origins of religions because they are not scientifically testable. In fact, theorists such as Marett (an Anglican) excluded scientific results altogether, defining religion as the domain of the unpredictable and unexplainable; that is, comparative religion is the rational (and scientific) study of the irrational. The dichotomy between the two classifications is not bridgeable, even though they have the same methods, because each excludes the data of the other.
The functionalists and some of the later essentialists (among others E. E. Evans-Pritchard) have criticized the substantive view as neglecting social aspects of religion. Such critics go so far as to brand Tylor's and Frazer's views on the origin of religion as unverifiable speculation. The view of monotheism as more evolved than polytheism represents a mere preconception, they assert. There is evidence that monotheism is more prevalent in hunter societies than in agricultural societies. The view of a uniform progression in folkways is criticized as unverifiable, as the writer Andrew Lang (1844–1912) and E. E. Evans-Pritchard assert. The latter criticism presumes that the evolutionary views of the early cultural anthropologists envisaged a uniform cultural evolution. Another criticism supposes that Tylor and Frazer were individualists (unscientific). However, some support that supposed approach as worthwhile, among others the anthropologist Robin Horton. The dichotomy between the two fundamental presumptions - and the question of what data can be considered valid - continues.
Main articles: Evolutionary origin of religions and Evolutionary psychology of religion
Evolutionary theories view religion as either an adaptation or a byproduct. Adaptationist theories view religion as being of adaptive value to the survival of Pleistocene humans. Byproduct theories view religion as Spandrel (biology).
Edward Burnett Tylor
The anthropologistEdward Burnett Tylor (1832–1917) defined religion as belief in spiritual beings and stated that this belief originated as explanations of natural phenomena. Belief in spirits grew out of attempts to explain life and death. Primitive people used human dreams in which spirits seemed to appear as an indication that the human mind could exist independent of a body. They used this by extension to explain life and death, and belief in the after life. Myths and deities to explain natural phenomena originated by analogy and an extension of these explanations. His theory assumed that the psyches of all peoples of all times are more or less the same and that explanations in cultures and religions tend to grow more sophisticated via monotheist religions, such as Christianity and eventually to science. Tylor saw practices and beliefs in modern societies that were similar to those of primitive societies as survivals, but he did not explain why they survived.
James George Frazer
James George Frazer (1854–1941) followed Tylor's theories to a great extent in his book The Golden Bough, but he distinguished between magic and religion. Magic is used to influence the natural world in the primitive man's struggle for survival. He asserted that magic relied on an uncritical belief of primitive people in contact and imitation. For example, precipitation may be invoked by the primitive man by sprinkling water on the ground. He asserted that according to them magic worked through laws. In contrast religion is faith that the natural world is ruled by one or more deities with personal characteristics with whom can be pleaded, not by laws.
The theologian Rudolf Otto (1869–1937) focused on religious experience, more specifically moments that he called numinous which means "Wholly Other". He described it as mysterium tremendum (terrifying mystery) and mysterium fascinans (awe inspiring, fascinating mystery). He saw religion as emerging from these experiences.
He asserted that these experiences arise from a special, non-rational faculty of the human mind, largely unrelated to other faculties, so religion cannot be reduced to culture or society. Some of his views, among others that the experience of the numinous was caused by a transcendental reality, are untestable and hence unscientific.
His ideas strongly influenced phenomenologists and Mircea Eliade.
See also: Psychology of religion § Rudolf Otto, and Religious experience § The numinous
Main articles: Eternal return (Eliade) and Hierophany
Mircea Eliade's (1907–1986) approach grew out of the phenomenology of religion. Like Otto, he saw religion as something special and autonomous, that cannot be reduced to the social, economical or psychological alone. Like Durkheim, he saw the sacred as central to religion, but differing from Durkheim, he views the sacred as often dealing with the supernatural, not with the clan or society. The daily life of an ordinary person is connected to the sacred by the appearance of the sacred, called hierophany. Theophany (an appearance of a god) is a special case of it. In The Myth of the Eternal Return Eliade wrote that archaic men wish to participate in the sacred, and that they long to return to lost paradise outside the historic time to escape meaninglessness. The primitive man could not endure that his struggle to survive had no meaning. According to Eliade, man had a nostalgia (longing) for an otherworldly perfection. Archaic man wishes to escape the terror of time and saw time as cyclic. Historical religions like Christianity and Judaism revolted against this older concept of cyclic time. They provided meaning and contact with the sacred in history through the god of Israel.
Eliade sought and found patterns in myth in various cultures, e.g. sky gods such as Zeus.
Eliade's methodology was studying comparative religion of various cultures and societies more or less regardless of other aspects of these societies, often relying on second hand reports. He also used some personal knowledge of other societies and cultures for his theories, among others his knowledge of Hindufolk religion.
He has been criticized for vagueness in defining his key concepts. Like Frazer and Tylor he has also been accused of out-of-context comparisons of religious beliefs of very different societies and cultures. He has also been accused of having a pro-religious bias (Christian and Hindu), though this bias does not seem essential for his theory.
See also: Sacred-profane dichotomy
E. E. Evans-Pritchard
The anthropologistEdward Evan Evans-Pritchard (1902–1973) did extensive ethnographic studies among the Azande and Nuer peoples who were considered "primitive" by society and earlier scholars. Evans-Pritchard saw these people as different, but not primitive.
Unlike the previous scholars, Evans-Pritchard did not propose a grand universal theory and he did extensive long-term fieldwork among "primitive" peoples, studying their culture and religion, among other among the Azande. Not just passing contact, like Eliade.
He argued that the religion of the Azande (witchcraft and oracles) can not be understood without the social context and its social function. Witchcraft and oracles played a great role in solving disputes among the Azande. In this respect he agreed with Durkheim, though he acknowledged that Frazer and Tylor were right that their religion also had an intellectual explanatory aspect. The Azande's faith in witchcraft and oracles was quite logical and consistent once some fundamental tenets were accepted. Loss of faith in the fundamental tenets could not be endured because of its social importance and hence they had an elaborate system of explanations (or excuses) against disproving evidence. Besides an alternative system of terms or school of thought did not exist.
He was heavily critical about earlier theorists of primitive religion with the exception of Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, asserting that they made statements about primitive people without having enough inside knowledge to make more than a guess. In spite of his praise of Bruhl's works, Evans-Pritchard disagreed with Bruhl's statement that a member of a "primitive" tribe saying "I am the moon" is prelogical, but that this statement makes perfect sense within their culture if understood metaphorically.
Apart from the Azande, Evans-Pritchard, also studied the neighbouring, but very different Nuer people.The Nuer had had an abstract monotheistic faith, somewhat similar to Christianity and Judaism, though it included lesser spirits. They had also totemism, but this was a minor aspect of their religion and hence a corrective to Durkheim's generalizations should be made. Evans-Pritchard did not propose a theory of religions, but only a theory of the Nuer religion.
The anthropologistClifford Geertz (1926–2006) made several studies in Javanese villages. He avoided the subjective and vague concept of group attitude as used by Ruth Benedict by using the analysis of society as proposed by Talcott Parsons who in turn had adapted it from Max Weber. Parsons' adaptation distinguished all human groups on three levels i.e. 1. an individual level that is controlled by 2. a social system that is in turn controlled by 3. a cultural system. Geertz followed Weber when he wrote that "man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning". Geertz held the view that mere explanations to describe religions and cultures are not sufficient: interpretations are needed too. He advocated what he called thick descriptions to interpret symbols by observing them in use, and for this work, he was known as a founder of symbolic anthropology.
Geertz saw religion as one of the cultural systems of a society. He defined religion as
- (1) a system of symbols
- (2) which acts to establish powerful, pervasive and long-lasting moods and motivations in men
- (3) by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and
- (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that
- (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.
With symbols Geertz meant a carrier that embodies a conception, because he saw religion and culture as systems of communication.
This definition emphasizes the mutual reinforcement between world view and ethos.
Though he used more or less the same methodology as Evans-Pritchard, he did not share Evans-Pritchard's hope that a theory of religion could ever be found. Geertz proposed methodology was not the scientific method of the natural science, but the method of historians studying history.
See also: Thick description
Main article: Marxism and religion
The social philosopher Karl Marx (1818–1883) held a strictly materialist world view and saw economics, including class distinctions, as the determining factor of society. He saw the human mind and human consciousness as part of matter. According to Marx, the dynamics of society were fueled by economics, according to the Hegelian concept of theses, anti-theses, and synthese He saw religion originating from alienation and aiding the persistence of alienation. He saw religion as supportive of the status quo, as in his famous assertion that religion is the opium of the people. Marx saw religion as a source of happiness, though illusory and temporary, or at least a source of comfort. He deemed it an unnecessary part of human culture. These claims were limited, however, to his analysis of the historical relationship between European cultures, political institutions, and their Christian religious traditions.
Marxist views strongly influenced individuals' comprehension and conclusions about society, among others the anthropological school of cultural materialism.
Marx' explanations for all religions, always, in all forms, and everywhere have never been taken seriously by many experts in the field, though a substantial fraction accept that Marx' views possibly explain some aspects of religions.
Some recent work has suggested that, while the standard account of Marx's analysis of religion is true, it is also only one side of a dialectical account, which takes seriously the disruptive, as well as the passifying moments of religion 
See also: Sociology of religion § Karl Marx, Marx's theory of alienation, and Opium of the People
Main articles: Freud and religion, The Future of an Illusion, Totem and Taboo, Moses and Monotheism, and Oedipus complex
Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) saw religion as an illusion, a belief that people very much wanted to be true. Unlike Tylor and Frazer, Freud attempted to explain why religion persists in spite of the lack of evidence for its tenets. Freud asserted that religion is a largely unconsciousneurotic response to repression. By repression Freud meant that civilized society demands that we not fulfill all our desires immediately, but that they have to be repressed. Rational arguments to a person holding a religious conviction will not change the neurotic response of a person. This is in contrast to Tylor and Frazer, who saw religion as a rational and conscious, though primitive and mistaken, attempt to explain the natural world.
In his 1913 book Totem and Taboo he developed a speculative story about how all monotheist religions originated and developed. In the book he asserted that monotheistic religions grew out of a homicide in a clan of a father by his sons. This incident was subconsciously remembered in human societies.
In Moses and Monotheism, Freud proposed that Moses had been a priest of Akhenaten who fled Egypt after the pharaoh's death and perpetuated monotheism through a different religion.
Freud's view on religion was embedded in his larger theory of psychoanalysis, which has been criticized as unscientific. Although Freud's attempt to explain the historical origins of religions have not been accepted, his generalized view that all religions originate from unfulfilled psychological needs is still seen as offering a credible explanation in some cases.
See also: Psychology of religion § Sigmund Freud
Émile Durkheim (1858–1917) saw the concept of the sacred as the defining characteristic of religion, not faith in the supernatural. He saw religion as a reflection of the concern for society. He based his view on recent research regarding totemism among the Australian aboriginals. With totemism he meant that each of the many clans had a different object, plant, or animal that they held sacred and that symbolizes the clan. Durkheim saw totemism as the original and simplest form of religion. According to Durkheim, the analysis of this simple form of religion could provide the building blocks for more complex religions. He asserted that moralism cannot be separated from religion. The sacred i.e. religion reinforces group interest that clash very often with individual interests. Durkheim held the view that the function of religion is group cohesion often performed by collectively attended rituals. He asserted that these group meeting provided a special kind of energy, which he called effervescence, that made group members lose their individuality and to feel united with the gods and thus with the group. Differing from Tylor and Frazer, he saw magic not as religious, but as an individual instrument to achieve something.
Durkheim's proposed method for progress and refinement is first to carefully study religion in its simplest form in one contemporary society and then the same in another society and compare the religions then and only between societies that are the same. The empirical basis for Durkheim's view has been severely criticized when more detailed studies of the Australian aboriginals surfaced. More specifically, the definition of religion as dealing with the sacred only, regardless of the supernatural, is not supported by studies of these aboriginals. The view that religion has a social aspect, at the very least, introduced in a generalized very strong form by Durkheim has become influential and uncontested.
Durkheim's approach gave rise to functionalist school in sociology and anthropology Functionalism is a sociological paradigm that originally attempted to explain social institutions as collective means to fill individual biological needs, focusing on the ways in which social institutions fill social needs, especially social stability. Thus because Durkheim viewed society as an "organismic analogy of the body, wherein all the parts work together to maintain the equilibrium of the whole, religion was understood to be the glue that held society together.".
See also: Sacred-profane dichotomy and Collective effervescence
The anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski (1884–1942) was strongly influenced by the functionalist school and argued that religion originated from coping with death. He saw science as practical knowledge that every society needs abundantly to survive and magic as related to this practical knowledge, but generally dealing with phenomena that humans cannot control.
Main articles: Sociology of Religion (book), Charismatic authority, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, The Religion of China: Confucianism and Taoism, The Religion of India: The Sociology of Hinduism and Buddhism, and Three-component theory of stratification
Max Weber (1864–1920) thought that the truth claims of religious movement were irrelevant for the scientific study of the movements. He portrayed each religion as rational and consistent in their respective societies. Weber acknowledged that religion had a strong social component, but diverged from Durkheim by arguing, for example in his book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism that religion can be a force of change in society. In the book Weber wrote that modern capitalism spread quickly partially due to the Protestant worldly ascetic morale. Weber's main focus was not on developing a theory of religion but on the interaction between society and religion, while introducing concepts that are still widely used in the sociology of religion. These concept include
- Church sect typology, Weber distinguished between sects and churches by stating that membership of a sect is a personal choice and church membership is determined by birth. The typology later developed more extensively by his friend Ernst Troeltsch and others. According to the typology, churches, ecclesia, denomination, and sects form a continuum with decreasing influence on society. Sects are protest break away groups and tend to be in tension with society.
- Ideal type, a hypothetical "pure" or "clear" form, used in typologies
- Charismatic authority Weber saw charisma as a volatile form or authority that depends on the acceptance of unique quality of a person by this person's followers. Charisma can be a revolutionary force and the authority can either be routinized (change into other forms of authority) or disappear upon the death of the charismatic person.
Somewhat differing from Marx, Weber dealt with status groups, not with class. In status groups the primary motivation is prestige and social cohesion. Status groups have differing levels of access to power and prestige and indirectly to economic resources. In his 1920 treatment of the religion in China he saw Confucianism as helping a certain status group, i.e. the educated elite to maintain access to prestige and power. He asserted that Confucianism opposition against both extravagance and thrift made it unlikely that capitalism could have originated in China.
He used the concept of Verstehen (German for "understanding") to describe his method of interpretation of the intention and context of human action.
See also: Sociological classifications of religious movements § The church-sect typology, and Sociology of religion § Max_Weber
Rational choice theory
Main article: Theory of religious economy
The rational choice theory has been applied to religions, among others by the sociologists Rodney Stark (1934 – ) and William Sims Bainbridge (1940 – ). They see religions as systems of "compensators", and view human beings as "rational actors, making choices that she or he thinks best, calculating costs and benefits". Compensators are a body of language and practices that compensate for some physical lack or frustrated goal. They can be divided into specific compensators (compensators for the failure to achieve specific goals), and general compensators (compensators for failure to achieve any goal). They define religion as a system of compensation that relies on the supernatural. The main reasoning behind this theory is that the compensation is what controls the choice, or in other words the choices which the "rational actors" make are "rational in the sense that they are centered on the satisfaction of wants".
It has been observed that social or political movements that fail to achieve their goals will often transform into religions. As it becomes clear that the goals of the movement will not be achieved by natural means (at least within their lifetimes), members of the movement will look to the supernatural to achieve what cannot be achieved naturally. The new religious beliefs are compensators for the failure to achieve the original goals. Examples of this include the counterculture movement in America: the early counterculture movement was intent on changing society and removing its injustice and boredom; but as members of the movement proved unable to achieve these goals they turned to Eastern and new religions as compensators.
Most religions start out their lives as cults or sects, i.e. groups in high tension with the surrounding society, containing different views and beliefs contrary to the societal norm. Over time, they tend to either die out, or become more established, mainstream and in less tension with society. Cults are new groups with a new novel theology, while sects are attempts to return mainstream religions to (what the sect views as) their original purity. Mainstream established groups are called denominations. The comments below about cult formation apply equally well to sect formation.
There are four models of cult formation: the Psychopathological Model, the Entrepreneurial Model, the Social Model and the Normal Revelations model.
- Psychopathological model: religions are founded during a period of severe stress in the life of the founder. The founder suffers from psychological problems, which they resolve through the founding of the religion. (The development of the religion is for them a form of self-therapy, or self-medication.)
- Entrepreneurial model: founders of religions act like entrepreneurs, developing new products (religions) to sell to consumers (to convert people to). According to this model, most founders of new religions already have experience in several religious groups before they begin their own. They take ideas from the pre-existing religions, and try to improve on them to make them more popular.
- Social model: religions are founded by means of social implosions. Members of the religious group spend less and less time with people outside the group, and more and more time with each other within it. The level of affection and emotional bonding between members of a group increases, and their emotional bonds to members outside the group diminish. According to the social model, when a social implosion occurs, the group will naturally develop a new theology and rituals to accompany it.
- Normal revelations: religions are founded when the founder interprets ordinary natural phenomena as supernatural; for instance, ascribing his or her own creativity in inventing the religion to that of the deity.
Some religions are better described by one model than another, though all apply to differing degrees to all religions.
Once a cult or sect has been founded, the next problem for the founder is to convert new members to it. Prime candidates for religious conversion are those with an openness to religion, but who do not belong or fit well in any existing religious group. Those with no religion or no interest in religion are difficult to convert, especially since the cult and sect beliefs are so extreme by the standards of the surrounding society. But those already happy members of a religious group are difficult to convert as well, since they have strong social links to their preexisting religion and are unlikely to want to sever them in order to join a new one. The best candidates for religious conversion are those who are members of or have been associated with religious groups (thereby showing an interest or openness to religion), yet exist on the fringe of these groups, without strong social ties to prevent them from joining a new group.
Potential converts vary in their level of social connection. New religions best spread through pre-existing friendship networks. Converts who are marginal with few friends are easy to convert, but having few friends to convert they cannot add much to the further growth of the organization. Converts with a large social network are harder to convert, since they tend to have more invested in mainstream society; but once converted they yield many new followers through their friendship network.
Cults initially can have quite high growth rates; but as the social networks that initially feed them are exhausted, their growth rate falls quickly. On the other hand, the rate of growth is exponential (ignoring the limited supply of potential converts): the more converts you have, the more missionaries you can have out looking for new converts. But nonetheless it can take a very long time for religions to grow to a large size by natural growth. This often leads to cult leaders giving up after several decades, and withdrawing the cult from the world.
It is difficult for cults and sects to maintain their initial enthusiasm for more than about a generation. As children are born into the cult or sect, members begin to demand a more stable life. When this happens, cults tend to lose or de-emphasise many of their more radical beliefs, and become more open to the surrounding society; they then become denominations.
The theory of religious economy sees different religious organizations competing for followers in a religious economy, much like the way businesses compete for consumers in a commercial economy. Theorists assert that a true religious economy is the result of religious pluralism, giving the population a wider variety of choices in religion. According to the theory, the more religions there are, the more likely the population is to be religious and hereby contradicting the secularization thesis.
- ^Segal 2005, p. 49
- ^ abSegal 2005, p. 49
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- ^Pals 1996, p. 9
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- ^ abcdeNielsen 1998, Theory
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