Beliefs in Society

  • Created by: Laura P
  • Created on: 30-03-15 14:12

What is religion?

Robertson: "Religion refers to the existence of supernatural beings which have a governing effect upon life".

(This definition is based upon Western religion as some religions do not believe in a God, e.g Buddhists).

Giddens:  "Religion involves a set of symbols, invoking feelings of awe, and are linked to rituals or ceremonies practised by a community of believers". 

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Belief systems

A belief system is an integrated set of ideas which influence the way people see the world. 

There are differnet types of belief system but the most important are: religious, political and scientific.

Relgious belief systems:

Monotheistic: The belief in a single God.
                       (e.g. Christianity, Islam, Judaism)

Polytheistic: The belief in serveral God's. 
                     (e.g. Hinduism)

Spiritual religion without the belief in God: Buddhists do not believe in a God but it has a set of values by which people are expected to live their lives. 

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Belief systems

There are two different approaches to defining religion:

Substantive definitions: these are concerned with the content of religion.
e.g. Yinger defined religion as 'a system of beliefs and practices by means of which groups of people struggle with the ultimate problems of life'.

Functional defintions: these define religion in terms of the functions it performs for society and individuals.
e.g. Durkhiem defined religion in terms of distinction between two domains in the world - sacred and profane. Things in the sacred domain produce a sense of awe where profane does not. 

Religious belief systems remain dominant in some parts of the world but in some Western socieities other belief systems have become more influential:

Political belief systems: based upon views about how society should be organised and have no supernatural elements. (e.g. marxism, capitalism, communism.)

Scientific belief systems: the belief that is possible to understand the natural world and produce truthful knowledge about it. 

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Religious organisation

Most religious believers are members of relgious organisations, which tend to shape their practices and beliefs. 

Four fold classficiation system:

  • Sects
  • Denomination
  • Cult
  • Church 

(Classification is primarily based on a religous organisations response to the world. However, some sociologits take into account theological teachings which has made their classifications less useful outside of Christianity)

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Troelsch believes sects are smaller organisations than churches. 

Wilson believes they have the following characteristics:

  • In opposition to the state
  • Reject wider society and have different norms and values - movments of social protest due to raical nature. 
  • Total commitment (members withdraw themselves from the world and decidate their lives to the sect)
  • Merit system (cannot join unless you meet the requirements)
  • Authority rests with charasmatic leader
  • Believe they are socially elite - do not tolerate alternative religious views, claim to have monopoly of the relgious truth. 
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Example of sects

David Koresh and the Branch Davidians:

  • 1990's David Koresh took over a Sect in Texas.
  • He told his followers he was David the Lamb from the bible and that the end of the Earth was imminent. 
  • He demanded abolute loyalty (for example, requiring men to allow him to have sex with their wife and daughters).
  • The FBI eventually raided the compound in attempt to end the siege due to their radical views.
  • This led to a fire and 80 Branch Davidians were killed along with 4 agents.

Society of friends - Quakers (George Fox)

  • 20,000 in the UK.
  • They are spiritual truth seekers. 
  • Meet in meeting rooms not churches. 
  • Anyone can 'minister' (speak up) in a meeting but tend not to. 
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Martin believes that dominations have the following characterisitcs:

  • Seperate from the state but they are conservative and do not reject the norms and values of wider society despite having different views. 
  • Formal organisations with hierarchy of officials.
  • Not hard to become a member. 
  • Members are drawn from all sectors of society. 
  • Balanced view of the 'second coming' in that there is no specific time it is set to happen.
  • Do not claim monopoly of the religious truth as they have to coexist with other relgious organisations. 
  • View the sacraments as largely subjective
    (Holy communion is viewed as a symbolic act, emphaisisng a religious experience rather than involving the taking of the flesh and blood of christ. 
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Examples of denominations

Methodist church:

  • Protestant Christianity. 
  • Methodists are convinced that building loving relationships with others through social service is a means of working towards the inclusiveness of God's love (e.g. helping the poor).
  • Believe Christ died for all of humanity and not just for a small group so therefore all are entitled to God's protection.
  • Less formal worship style.
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Bruce defines cults as being a loosely knit relgious group which is organised around common themes and interests, lacking any sharply defined or exclusive belief system.

Stark and bainbridge: any organisation that has beliefs that are novel for a particular society.

Stark and Bainbridge believe that they can be divided into 3 types:

Audience cult: Require llittle commitment and often act as a form of entertainment (e.g. astrology)

Client cult: Offer a way of enhancing life rather than seeing alternative lifestyles (e.g. scientology)

Cult movements: Give up aspects of their life (e.g. communal living)

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Example of a cult


  • The study and handling of the spriit in relationship to itself, universes and other life. 
  • Formed to free the human mind and spirit from the restriction of negative thought and to improve people's understanding of their true spiritual nature. 
  • Respects other religions.
  • Auditing is the central practice in scientology through which a person is cleared of negatve influences in order to heighten spirtiual awareness and access currently untapped potential. 
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The Church

Troeltsch believes that the church is a large organisation where members do not usually have to demonstrate their faith; they are born into it and are recruited before they can understand it's teachings. 

Martin believes the church has the following characteristics:

  • Attempts to cater for all in society (therefore birthright membership is practised).
  • Identifies with the state. (e.g. Church of England is headed by the queen).
  • Largerly accepts the secular world.
  • A socail hierarchy (clergy) controls an objetive and essential system of sacraments and emphasis is placed on religion. 
  • Often carry out social functions (e.g. running schools).
  • Claim religious monopoly - believe they are the only genuine religion within a society. 

Steve Bruce critises Troelsch's definition of churches by saying that there is now competeting Christian organisations which have led to religious pluralism. Churches are not always ideologically conservatuve and claims there are growing numbers of radical bishops in the Church of England. He also states that most churches do not claim a monopoly of religious truth but tolerate the existene of other religions. 

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The growth of sects and cults


Weber argued that sects tended to develop amongst marginal groups in society (people outside of mainstream social life who fet they were not recieivng the status or economic rewards they deserve). These sects give religious explanation of their disavantage and promise them things such as salvation in the aftelife. 

Wilson argues that situations such as natural disaster, economic collapse and defeat in war could lead to groups becoming marginalised and turning into new religions. 

Relative deprivation

Young people often feel they are lacking something in their life (not always economically) and Wallis believes that sects and cults give young people the chance to regain a sense of spiritual wholeness. 

Social change

Bruce argues that the development of sects and cults is a reaction to secularisation, conventional religion loses influence so people have turned to alternatives. 

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Are sects and cults short lived/have little influe


  • Branch dividians were short lived due to their radical beliefs coming into conflict with wider society. 
  • Sects are short lived due to believing they are socially elite and therefore end up in conflict with wider society. 
  • Sects recieve bad press so therefore have little influence (however, people still join and are committed so do still have some influence).
  • Sects expect total commitment which puts people off due to not having time. (e.g. branch dividians expected to live in communal livng.)
  • Niebuhr believes sects and cults are short lived due to the commitment expected. When people have children, the children will not have same commitment as the first generation so the sect fades out and turns into denomination. 
  • Niebuhr says that sects depend on charasmatic leader and when that leader dies the sect will develop a bureaucratic structure whereby it is not held together by a single leader but a team of leaders, turning into a denomination. However it could be argued that when the leader dies, someone will simply replace them. 
  • Secularisation is occuring meaning all religions having little influence. 
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Are sects and cults short lived/have little influe


  • Practice of scientology (cult) increased by 43,200 in 10 years. However scientologists class anybody that has completed in a course in scientology as a member so therefore number of actual memebers not as many as claimed. 
  • Bruce believes cults are world affirming religious movements which aim to enhance people's lives and gives them a sense of fulfillment without needing to attend strict meetings and meet requirements. 
  • In post modern world, cults allow people choice and freedom to be part of an organisation but without needing to totally commit. e.g. some cults can be accessed over the internet. 
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New religious movements

1970's there was rapid growth of smaller religious organisations. Wallis called them new relgious movments.

3 types of NRM:

  • World rejecting 
  • World affirming
  • World accommodating 

World rejecting new religious movements:

Lots in common with sects. Their beliefs are very critical of the outside world and therefore they often seek radical change. 

Total institutions which control every aspect of the lives of memebrs. 

Members expected to be disciplined and live an ascetic lifestyle (devote themselves to the religion) often living in commune

Members often brainwashed.                              Examples: Branch Davidians. 

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New religious movements

World affirming new religious movements:

Lack the typical charactertistics of a religion (e.g some do not bellieve in a God).

They are positive about the world but argue individuals lack something spiritually which prevents them from achieving fulfilment and success.

Offer their followers access to supernatural or spiritual powers. 

Unlikely to give up aspects of their lives, they just practice some life-affirming activity to make themselves more successful. 

Examples: Transcendental meditation and Scientology. 

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New religious movements

World-accomodating new relgious movements:

Offshoots of an exsisting major church or denomination. 

Neither accept or reject the world as it is, they just live with it. 

Concerned with more relgious rather than wordly questions. 

Seek to restore sprititual purity to a religion that they believe has lost its commitment to its core values. 

Example: Neo-pentecostalism:

A Christian group which argues that the orignial teachings of the bible have been watered down. In particular the Holy Spirit has been neglected and they believe that the Holy Spirit can speak directly through the bodies of humans. 

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Origins of religion

There are different explanations as to what the origins of religion are:

Empricial = a positivist/scientific approach. Religion is used to explain things that science cannot.

Phsychological = linked to emotional experiences/needs.

Theological = God inspired. Religion has come about due to the existence of God. 

Sociological = linked to social experiences/needs

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Empirical explanation

Positivist ideas that are based on the idea that religious experiences stem from the misinterpretation of sensory experiences. Empirical views are a 'God of the gaps' explanation which refers to the perception that all arguments for the existence of God are the result of gaps in our scientific knowledge. 

Tylor - 'primitive culture'

Believes the earliest form of religion was 'Animism'
Animism centres on the belief in good and bad spirits or ghosts which live in the same world as human beings and have influence over us. 

Religion formed as an attempt by primitive people to make sense of dreams, vision and death. This led to the idea of the soul which leaves the body temporarily during dreams and permanently at death. 

Religion started as being polytheistic (belief in many Gods) but has become monotheistic (belief in one supreme God). 

Christianity has taken on animistic beliefs  - attempt tp communicate with 'our father'' through prayer.

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Empirical examples

Tylor thought that Animism was the earliest stage of religion.

An example of an Animist population:

The Nuer:

  • An animist group located in Sudan. 
  • They have no word corresponding soley to God. 
  • They consider spirits of ancestors to be aspects of God.
  • God's actions are not to be judged, but God judges all human behaviour. 
  • God is the spirit of the sky.
  • Neur believe that when someone dies, the flesh is comitted to the earth, the life goes back to God and tehe soul remains alive as a shadow or reflection.
  • God is particularly associated with the winds, the sky and birds - but these are not worshipped. 
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Empirical examples

Another example of an Animist population:


  • A polytheistic nature worshipping religion.
  • The spirit of place is recognised iin Pagan religion - either as a persfonified natural feature (mountain, lake etc) or as a guardian divinity such as God of Athens. 
  • The cycle of the natural year, with different seasons is seen as a model of spiritual renewal and growth. 
  • Seasons are marked by festivals which offer access to different divinities.
  • Divinities are Gods and Godesses. 
  • Everything has spiritual energy. 

Wicca is a pagan witchcraft tradition which involves communicating with the spiritual world. 

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Psychological explantion

Freud suggests that beliefs in God could originate not in an attempt to explain the world, but in a deep unconsious wish that human beings have - the wish for consolation and reassurance.

In the face of uncontrollable forces of nature, humans feel vulnerable and afraid - this results in people feeling safer in the idea that there is a God to protect us. 

Religion meets people's emotional needs as it provides emotional stability of believing there is life after death (fear of the unknown). 

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Theological explanation

Paley - watch argument

Paley compared the universe with a watch. 

A watch is intricate and complex, just like the universe so therefore there must be a superior person who creates things. 

Everything is God inspired. 

e.g. snowflakes are all unique so therefore someone must have made them. 

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Sociological explanation - Durkheim

Durkheim explained the origins of religion not in terms of meeting human needs but in terms of the SOCIAL needs of society

Durkheim studied the Australian Aborigines as he thought they were the most primitive religion and therefore the most simple to understand at the time he carried out the study. 

Durkheim attempted to clearly define what the meant by religion

Religion makes people divide the world into two categories - the sacred and the non sacred. 

Sacred world: treated with reverence and awe, and those who believe in it form a church.

Non-sacred world: not religious/profane/secular.

The divisions between the sacred and the non-sacred world are maintained through:

Negative rituals: which are taboos, things you must not do. (e.g. Muslims not allowed pork).

Positive rituals: involve communication with the divine (e.g. prayers) (e.g. Austrailian Aboriginies practice the ritual of sacrificing sacred things).

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Sociological explanation - Durkheim

Durkheim found that the Aborigines regarded natural objects such as plants and animals as sacred:

  • Treated in aw and forbidden to hunt them 
  • There is nothing innately special about them
  • They shared their sacredness
  • They are at the centre of rituals

He discovered that each clan (social group) was represented by a totem and therefore the clan in itself must be sacred. In worshipping the totem they were therefore actually worshipping the clan.

Durkheim questioned why these objects are sacred if there's nothing special about them? But they worship them as they represent their clan/society so therefore they are worshipping themselves. 

(Durkhiem believes religion stemmed from society as the society chose what to worship. We are in awe of society as it is so much greater than us as individuals - we are dependent on it for survival (e.g. because of the knowledge it possesses).)

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Sociological explanation - Durkheim

Durkheim believes that religion played two important roles in society:

1) Maintains social solidarity - it acts as a vehicle to bring people together through rituals (e.g. sunday church)

Maybe we are becoming less religious due to having more means of coming together socially?

2) Meets social needs -  religon meets societies needs through providing a conscience collective of shared beliefs, norm and values - meaning people intregrate through sharing the same morals.

Overall Durkheim believes that religion stemmed from society as society chose what to worship. 

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Criticisms of Durkheim

  • Evans - Pritchard found that when primitive tribal society 'Azande' were not using their sacred shrine they had mundane uses such as propping up spears - challenging Durkheims definition of religion (not totally sacred world and non sacred world).
  • Thompson believes that Durkheim's ideas are less applicable to modern society as it's members don't share a common beliefs and values system (conscience collective). Western societies do not have a common culture - multi cultural societies/regious pluralism.
  • Durkheim 'smuggled' in evidence to support his ideas from other religions - particularly north american indians, therefore undermining his theory as he couldn't find all of his info from one place so therefore how can he generalise?
  • Durkheim defined religion before studying it - therefore bias/made the assumption that it unites people and creates shared ideals. 
  • Durkheim fails to recognise the dysfunctional aspects of religion. (e.g. can cause conflict not integration). He is a functionalist so only looked at the way religion helps society. 
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Muslim Extremism - dysfunction of religion

  • 2.4 Muslims in Britain
  • Originaate from many different parts of the wolrd. 
  • Majority regard themselves as British. 
  • Majority are tolerant of lifestyles of other groups in society but a minority are not.

Fundamentalist- muslim extremism stems from them have fundamentalist beliefs which means that they take regious beliefs straight from the basic texts of their religion - e.g Koran. 

Separatist - they want to create their own society - seperating Muslims from non-Muslims (Sharia Law). Want an Islamist socweity, not a coruppt Western society. 

This is a critique of Durkheims view that religion creates social solidarity and a conscience collective

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Muslim Extremism - dysfunction of religion

Why is Muslim extremism a problem?

  • It leads to prejudice and discrimination of muslims and other groups who are percieved to support this religious faith (i.e. Asians).
  • Causes civil unrest. 
  • Results in terrorism - since the year 2000 there has been typically one serious act a year in the UK. 

Why has Muslim extremism grown?

  • UK foreign policy can be viewed as aggressive. 
  • Youthful population profile (e.g. rising youth unemployment).
  • Multi-culturalism - we're too accomodating and accepting - some groups exploit and take advantage of that. 
  • Racial discrimination (both direct and indirect) fuels anger.
  • Secularisation - people don't want their beliefs to be threatened by secularisation so growth in fundamentalism and the practice of original texts. 

(e.g. Islamic State, radical Islamist group who seized large areas of territory in Syria, seek to destroy unbelievers of Islam and Sharia Law). 

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Functionalist views of religion

The functionalist anaylsis is concerned with the contribution an institution makes to meeting society's needs.

From a functionalist perspective, religion contrubutes to meeting society's needs  through providing a shared culture, morals and therefore creates harmony and integration


Durkheim notes that all societies distinguish between sacred objects rituals and people which are regardeed as having special significance and are treated with awe. And profrane objects, activities and peple which are ordinary, everyday and not treated as special.

Main roles of religion = reinforce shared values (which are classed as sacred values, giving them more power) creating a conscience collective + creating social solidarity through moral bonds which unite people. 

Durkhiem claimed that every society will always need a religion or something similar as it provides these two important functions. 

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Functionalist views of religion


Bellah developed Durkheim's ideas through the idea of civil religion. 

Civil religion refers to a situation were sacred qualitites are attached to society itself.

E.g. nationalism, the belief your country is God given, the best and the underlying belief that your views are superior to other countries.
In the process there are rights and rituals to emphasise this. 

Civil religion in the USA plays the role of creating social solidarity through:

  • Singing the national anthem
  • Singing at school everyday
  • National holidays (independence day 4th July)
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Functionalist views of religion

Malinowski - magic science and religion

Malinowski agrees with Durkheim that religion reinforces social norms and values and creates social solidarity but he does not regard religious activities as involving the worshipping of society.

He felt that religion served to reduce situations of emotional distress which could threaten social solidarity. He identified two main situations:

Crises of life:

  • Religion helps us deal with the death as people believe in life after death - if there wasn't this belief peoople would not know what to do and it would break social solidarity.
  • Funerals are held in churches - bringing people together, supporting the bereaved and helping them reintegrate into society. 

Events which cannot be fully controlled and predicted by practical means:

  • People pray to supernatural beings to have some sort of control over their situation. 
  • Religious rituals which reduce anxiety. 
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Functionalist views of religion


Parsons argues that religious beliefs provide guidelines for human action and standards against which people's conduct can be evaluated. 

1) Acts as a general guidline to human behaviour. 

2) Religion provides a range of answers to questions about suffering, evil, pruporse of existence. 

This then leads to consensus and therefore social order and prevents conflict because people are controlled by the norms provided by the religion/ society. 

However the social order and harmony can easily be disrupted by unforseen events (e.g. premature death). However, could be argued that religion answers people's questions as to why.

E.g. Christian societies have the '10 commandments' which essentially are a set of rules to follow. Such as "thou shall not kill" which could determine the way someone drives a car. 

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Evaluation of functionalism

Functionalists identify an important aspect of religion in the way that it can unite and integrate people however it can be argued that:

  • They ignore the possibility that religion can have other effects, such as causing conflict
  • Marxists claim it benefits the ruling class over others.
  • Feminists believe it maintains patriarchy. 
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Marxist views of religion

In all non-communist societies, a ruling class (bourgeoisie) own the means of production and their wealth allows them to exploit the working class (proletariats) and also allows them to control the superstructure of society. 

Superstructure = the non economic parts of society: education, the state, media, beliefs, attitudes, values and religion.

Infrastructure = the economic base of society (mode of production). 

Marx is an economic determinist as he finds an answer to things through looking at the economy and how that affects the rest of society. 

Therefore, religion is determined by the economic base of a society. 

From a marxist view point, religion is used to promote the interests of the ruling class by being used to support ruling class ideology - keeping the ruling class in power. 

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Marxist views of religion


Marx said that religion originated from a classless society whereby it developed in primitive societies to explain things they did not understand (god of the gaps).

However, with the development of societies inequalities income and wealth, it lead to class based societies:

Marx argued that religion now has two major functions in a class based society:

1) An "opium of the masses". 

2) Used by the privelaged to legitimise their position. 

Marx believes that the levels of religiosity in class based societies are high. 

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Marxist views of religion

An opium of the masses

Marx believes that religion acts as a drug.

It is needed because the poor need something to get them through their life - it distorts the reality of them being exploited. 

  • Religion gives poor people hope that they have someone looking over them and that they can get to heaven. (encourages them to work hard to achieve place in heaven). 
  • Justifies poverty - being poor means your spirit is uncorrupted and an afterlife is promised. 
  • Injustices are rectified in the afterlife so there is no need to overcome injustices now - allowing ruling class to continue to exploit the poor. 
  • Serves to justify social order.
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Marxist views of religion

Legitimises the position of the ruling class:

  • Mechanism of social control.
  • It creates a false consciousness - mistaken beliefs about the true nature of social life, which justify the position of the ruling class. 
  • Preventing the working class from developing class consciousness, in which they become aware that they are exploited, and unite to overthrow the capitalist system that exploits them. 
  • Without classes, there would be no need for religion as its sole purpose is to legitimate ruling class power. (E.g. in a communist society, religion would disappear because no individuals would own wealth and power as everyone would own the means of production and therefore there would be no social classes.)
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Marxist views of religion


Pentecostalism in the UK:
The majority of it's members are African Carribbean who are typically part of the underclass in society (supporting marx's idea of the opiate).

Church of England:
The majority of people attending congregation are from the middle and upper classes (challenging marx's idea of the opiate).

Hindu beliefs created a system which prevented inviduals achieving social mobility. (supporting marx's idea of the legitimate theory).

Martin Luther King headed the black civil rights campaign (challenging marx's idea of the legitimate theory).

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Evaluation of Marxism

  • Attempts to destroy religion in communist countries were not successful. Religion survived in Poland. 
  • Weber believed that the economic base of a society does not always determine other aspects of society (e.g. protestant ethic). 
  • Femists arrgue that religion acts to preserve male power, not ruling class power. 
  • Post modernists believe that it is no longer appropriate to suggest we live in a class-based society. 
  • Religion does not always support the ruling class. Some religions such as liberation theology challenge ruling-class power. 
  • Religion has declined in many Western societies, suggesting it is not needed to maintain ruling-class power. 
  • Functionalists believe that marxism ignores the benefits of religion to everyone in society (e.g. it creates shared values and social order). 
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Neo-marxists are new marxists that are strongly influenced by the writings of Karl Marx but do not agree with all aspects of them. Neo-marxists therefore developed new theories they do not agree that parts of the superstructure are completely controlled by the ruling class. 

Otto Maduro - 

Believes that religion has some independence or relative autonomy from ruling class control and the economic system. Religion can therefore play a revoluntionary force in society.

Maduro uses the example of liberation theology in Latin America, whereby some priests developed religious teachings which sided with the poor. This set of beliefs has developed an ideology whereby it encourages revolution rather than acts as the opium of the masses.

An example of liberation theology could be that of Martin Luther King. He was an American pastor (priest) and leader of the African-American civil rights movement. He is best known for his role in thr advancement of civil rights using nonviolent ciivil disobedience based on his Christian beliefs. 

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Feminist views of religion

Feminist sociologists believe that religion supports a patriarchal society:

  • Karen Armstrong believes that religion hasn't always been patriarchal due to the fact that religion used to be monotheistic which meant that the belief in many Gods included the worshipping of Godess's. However now we have moved towards polytheistic religions which mainly involve a male God. 
  • Women play a secondary role in most organisations. 
  • Fundamentalist religions stress stereotypical roles of women - e.g home makers. 
  • Beauvoir believes that religion portrays women as being closer to God but only if they are passive and do not question male authority. Religion gives women the false belief that their suffering will be rewarded in heaven, giving them a false consciousness which keeps them in their place. It gives men the power to say that their authority is given by God. 
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Evaluation of feminism

  • The Chruch of England now allows the ordination of female priests and women can now become bishops. 
  • Watson believes that some religions can be misinterpreted as being patriarchal. For example she argues that the veiling of women in Islam is not a sign of oppression but a way of protecting women against the male gaze in patriarchal societies in which women could be victim to sexual harrassment. 
  • More women than men believe in God and feel closer to God through being involved the the life cycle as the caring role.
  • More women than men oin new religous movements - but marxist feminists would argue this is because they are more likely to experience social and economic deprivation.
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Religion and social change - Max Weber

Max Weber - the Protestant Ethic and the spirit of capitalism:

Weber claimed that religion could lead to social change - disagreeing with the marxist view that religion is shaped by the economic base of society. Weber argued that religion can sometimes cause economic change. 

Weber believed that indivdual religious beliefs and the resulting actions by believers gave development to a new form of society, moving from feudal to capitalist. Showing that religion can lead to social change. 

Weber studied protestant reformation to see its direct and indirect effects on society. He argued that capitalism didn't develop in other parts of the world because the protestant ethic didn't exsist. 

Capitalism is an economic system based on:
Money instead of bartering.
Mechanisation - the use of machinery for mass production
Industrialisation - a factory based sustem of mass production 

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Religion and social change - Max Weber

Weber linked the growth of capitalism to the rise of a particular type of Protestantism -


Calvinism was a protestant sect which emerged in the 1960's and ideas came from John Calvin:

  • Believed that God chose a group called the 'elect' who were chosen by God, before birth that they would go to heaven - this is called 'Predestination'.
    People therefore looked for signs tht they were among the elect - success in business became a sign that you were selected by God to go to heaven. 
  • Calvinists that were uncertain about their faith had to believe virtuously to convince themselves they were one of the elect. Therefore they would take up ascetic lifestyles to make themselves more spiritual.
    E.g. do not drink, devoted to work and do not waste money on luxuries - make money not spend.
  • God decides your career path so the spiritual duty is to fulfull your chosen occupation to the best of your ability making work a moral duty - the calling
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Religion and social change - Max Weber

In order for rational capitalism to develop, there must be appropriate structural conditions and a tight set of beliefs. 

Summary of protestant ethic:

It means that people work harder due to the moral obligation of the calling. Meaning that the spirit of labour was encouraged as people worked hard for their employer as evidence of salvation. 

People seeking salvation led an astectic lifestyle, looking for signs of proof of being one of the elect through carrying out good works - often involving gainful economic activity. People worked but did not spend it on luxuries so therefore ploughed back profit as they were not allowed to spend.

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Religion and social change - Max Weber Evaluation

Evaluation of Max Weber:

  • Marxists argue that Protestant beliefs simply served to legitimate capitalism - not create it. 
  • Samuelson indicates that there were a number of places in Europe which had strong calvinist beliefs and right structural conditions but capitalism failed to develop there. 
  • Weber moves between a strong thesis claiming that the protestant ethic caused capitalism and a weak thesis claiming it was a contributory factor. 
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Religion and social change - Radical Force

It can be argued that once, religion was a conservative influence on society (religion inhibits social change, maintaining status quo) however it is now widely accepted that religion can act as a radical force for social change.

  • Nelson argues there are many cases where religion has promoted change. E.g. 9/11 attacks on the USA by Islamic organisation Al Qaeda which resulted in changes to the USA's foreign policy.
  • Weber argues that even hisorically religion was a force for social change. He believed that a society with the appropriate conditions and a tight set of beliefs could cause social change. E.g. the protestant ethic lead to people working hard causing the growth of capitalism and changing from feudal. However Weber could be criticised in the fact that at the time he was studying, Scotland had the appropriate conditions for capitalism to develop but it did not.
  • New religious movements such as the pagen practice of Wicca are trying to get soceity to reconnect with and worship nature.
  • Jehovah Witnesses are in conflict with the medical proffesion as they are trying to change society's views on things such as blood transfusions - acting as a force for social change. However, just because they are campaigning for society to change their views, there are few supporters. 
  • Liberation theology - Martin Luther King. 
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Religion and social change - Conservative Influenc

  • Functionalism - religion inhibits radical social change as shared values and creates harmony. 
  • Durkheim believes religion functioned to conserve traditional values in the time he studied and no one wanted social change as there was harmony and consesnus in society (he was wiritng in Victorian times). However there was dysfunctional aspects of religion in the past. For example the Crusades concerning Christians and Muslimss whereby the Christian faith atttempted to reclaim land in the Middle East that had been conquered by Muslims - causing change as people were forced to change their beliefs to Christian or they would have been killed. 
  • Marxists believe that religion inhibits social change as it is the opiate of the poor and legitimates the ruling class as it states that wealth is God given, giving them the right to rule.
  • Marx believes that religion serves as a conservative influence on society. Religion was the opium of the people, giving them hope. And legtimised the position of the bourgeoisie. Therefore religion encouraged capitalism and not social change. However Marx is an economic determinist and his theory relies on the existance of a class based society. 
  • Feminism - religion supports patriarchy therefore acts as a conservative force. Most religions support male dominance (many religious symbols are male). However there is evidence that change is taking place, for example the ordination of female priests in the Church of England. 
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Religion and social change - Fundamentalism

It can be argued that in today's society, conflict based upon religion is inevitable due to us living in a multi-cultural society. 

According to Almond et al, fundamentalist religions believe that a set of religions is under threat so there oppose to the decline of these beliefs and return to the orginal, fundamental beliefs of their religion. 

Fundamentalism causes conflict with other religious groups.

Fundamentalism causes conflict with believers of that religious group but to not follow the interpretation of fundamentalists. 

Fundamentalism seeks to reverse changes that have already taken place in society - it can therefore be seen as a conservative force in terms of preserving traditional values but a radical force in terms of seeking social change. 

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Religion and social change - Fundamentalism

Examples of Fundamentalism:

  • Al Qaeda, Muslium extremeist group led by Osama Bin Laden and originated in Afghanistan. Responsible for 9/11 bombings in USA and for the 7/7 bombings in the UK. Karen Armstrong disagrees with the idea that Islam contains groups with very fundamentalist beliefs and that in fact most Islamic leaders are in favour of westernisation and modernisation and it is only a select few that have extremeist beliefs. Also, extremeism may not be a product of the religion but a product of society, negative stereotypes of Muslims could lead to a self fulfilling prophesy. 
  • Islamic State, radical Islamist group that believe the rest of the world is made up of non-believers who seek to destroy Islam - justifying attacks against other muslims and non muslims.
  • The New Christian Right, a protestant fundamentalist group in the USA, supporting the literal interpretation of the Bible. 
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Religion and social change - Secularisation

Steve Bruce believes that fundamentalism is caused by secularisation - he argues that the:

Decline in religion and modernisation in which science and rationality are favoured, tend to undermine traditional religious faith - causing fundamentalism.

In addition to this, fundamentalism is more likely to develop when:

  • religion has a single sacred text
  • religion lakcs cenralised control, making it easier for alternative interpretations to develop
  • followers have a common enemy 
  • there is a supply of potential recruits
  • there is little opportunity to express grievances through legitimate politics

Almond et al believe that in addition to secularisation and modernisation the following factors also cause fundamentalism:

  • low levels of education and high levels of inequality. 
  • economic problems
  • displacement of people by war
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Religion and social change - McGuire (conclusion)

There appears to be no definite relationship between religion and social change. McGuire argues that sociologists should try to identify the factors that influence whether or not a religious organisation acts as a conservative or non-conservative force. 

McGuire identifies 4 factors:


Religions that have radical views are more likely to encourage its members to be critical of society and try to change it. 

(e.g. cults and sects such as Jehova's witnesses, Branch Dividians, Quakers)


Where religious beliefs are important within society, religion is often used as a vehicle for social change. 

(e.g. South America)

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Religion and social change - McGuire (conclusion)


The religious group which has the highest standing in society has the greatest impact. 

(e.g Church of England has the highest status/standing in our society)


Religions that have a strong centralised source of authority have more chance of carrying out social change. 

(e.g Roman Catholic Church)

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Religious participation - social class


Marx believes that religion started in the subject classes as a way of coping with oppression but later was adopted by the ruling classes as a way of justifying their advantaged postition in society. 

Neo marxist Otto Maduro argues that when religious movements become a radical force for social change they can become dominated by the subject class.  For example the liberation theology amongst Catholics in USA was supported by the poor who wanted to improve their position. 

Churches: aspire to include members from all classes. But in contemporary Britain, the upper class is overrepresented due to conservative ideology of the church.

Denominations: Wallis notes they are respectable organisations and therefore attract the upper working class

Sects: recruit the working class as not a lot to lose by devoting their life to the sect. 

Cults: appeal to the already successful and affluent who want to become more successful.

New age: appeals to middle class (mainly women) because they believe in self-improvement. 

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Religious participation - age


Older people are more likely to be religious than younger people according to Voas and Crockett:

As people get older they become detached from the integrating means of society (e.g. no longer work). Leading to social isolation as friends die and religion provides support for them. 

Religious socialisation:
Older people are more likely to have had a greater emphasis put on religion throughout the socialisation process. Attending sunday school for example. Each generation is becoming more and more secularised. 

Ill health and death:
The ageing process often brings the elderly to religion as a means of coping and support during declining health. 

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Religious participation - age

Younger people are less likely to be religous:

Young people found religion boring.
Due to secularisation, religion has lost it's power to influence how people think. 

Sunday school is in decline so children do not experience religious education like older people did.

Religion is a private matter, so even if young people do believe, they may not admit to it. Davie calls this 'believing without belonging'. 

Young people have more demands - leisure has become a bigger part of life (e.g. gym and shops are open on sundays) meaning sunday is no longer a 'holy day'.

Also, young people may not have the time for religion if they want a part time job as many are expecred to work on sundays. 

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Religious participation - age


Suggests that young people are interested in spiritual manners so although not being traditionally religous, they are still participating in some form of religion. 

Young people are attracted to New Religious Movements which fit more withiin modern society and focus on self improvement - e.g. scientology. 

People are empowered to change what they are not personally happy about by spending money on themselves - New Religious Movements support personal growth and well-being. 

Archer - Muslim Identity:
Re-emphasis on Islamic identity meaning there are many young Muslims.

Muslim identity provides alternative to gang cultures and gives Muslims a way of resisting stereotypes - an alternative identity that young Muslims can have pride in. 

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Religious participation - age


Suggests that young people are interested in spiritual manners so although not being traditionally religous, they are still participating in some form of religion. 

Young people are attracted to New Religious Movements which fit more withiin modern society and focus on self improvement - e.g. scientology. 

People are empowered to change what they are not personally happy about by spending money on themselves - New Religious Movements support personal growth and well-being. 

Archer - Muslim Identity:
Re-emphasis on Islamic identity meaning there are many young Muslims.

Muslim identity provides alternative to gang cultures and gives Muslims a way of resisting stereotypes - an alternative identity that young Muslims can have pride in. 

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Religious participation - gender


Women are more likely to participate in religion than men:

  • They give birth so they have the joy of giving life but also dealing with the complications and death - women are closely connected to the lifecycleHowever birth has become less traumatic.
  • They are temporary carers - gets women thinking about suffering. However gender roles are changing. 
  • Girls are socialised to be caring and religion emphasises lovce and compassion (e.g. "love thy neighbour). However parents are now keen not to stereotype or encourage traditional gender roles. 
  • Males are socialised to be more radical thinkers so therefore adopt more critical view of religious ideas. However more women are now taking up science subjects. 

Modood: found that Muslim women are more likely to say religion was important to them than men, but men are more likely to attend mosques. However this could be because some mosques do not welcome women. 

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Religious participation - gender

Miller and Hoffman:

Identify two main theories explaining women's greater religiosity:

Differential socialisation:

Women are taught to be more submissive and passive than men and these characteristics are associated with religion. Religion expects followers to act in such ways. However socialisation is changing. 

Structural location:

Women are more likely to take part in religion due to their socail roles. Women often look after children and do housework so have more time for church activities. Women that don't have jobs may use religion to give them a sense of personal identity. However gender roles are changing. 

However Miller and Hoffmans research states that religion is seen as risk taking behaviour as it can possibly lead to failure and of not going to heaven - both men and women have high levels of religiosity if they are willing to take the risk. 

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Religious participation - gender


Religion attracts women. 

Public sphere (paid work and politics) - men.
Private sphere (domestic, family and personal life) - women. 

Secularisation means that religion is declining but also retreating from the public sphere to the private sphere. Women are more related to the private sphere so therefore are more likely to remian involved in religion. They have interest of the socialisation of the next generation so are particularly interested in traditional churches. 


Women use religion to compensate their lower status in society - has special appeal to the disadvantaged in society. e.g increaisng lone parent families however lone mothers may not have time to be religious. 

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Religious participation - ethnicity


Modood: most ethnic minority groups express higher levels of religiosity than the white majority.

Why are most ethnic minority groups religious?

Cultural transition (Bruce) : Religion used as a way of helping to cope with the upheval of immigration. 

Cultural defence (Bruce): used as a way of maintaing a sense of identity and protection (due to racism) against the host society. 

Opium of the oppressed: often lower class. 

Soceity of origin: many of these groups originate from societies with high levels of religiosity - so they continue valuing religion.

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Religious participation - ethnicity

African Carribeans in Britain:

Society of origin:
Came from religious societies whereby they were exposed to slavery so religion helped them cope.

Disproportionately occupy the lower socio-economic classes due to discrimination.
However Race Relations Act 1976 made discrimination illegal, becoming less racist. 

Cultural defence:
Faced discrimination when initially came to Britain in 1950's. Now outdated as RR act made discrum illegal, however evidence racism still occurs (16 yr old Stephen Lawrence).
As a result the pentecostal church grew (formal 'black church', trying to create black theology) - giving them feelings of worth that they didn't get from wider society. 
Rastafarianism (emphasises African roots), some attempt to develop a black religion because many of the churches were instituionally racist - serving for white people.

Cultural transition (only applicable to first generation immigrants):
Baptist church set up that Instilled self discipline into people  and ascetic lifestyles helping them to succeed in society. 

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Religious participation - ethnicity

Muslims in Britain:

Cultural Defence:

  • Most muslims in Britan feel their religion creates a sense of identity. 
  • The veil worn by Muslim women acts as a method of cultural defence as it gives them a sense of identity due to everyone being aware they are Muslim. Worn as political defence for some.
  • 90% of Muslims said they hold strong religious beleifs that are important to the way they live their lives as religion guides them and gives them purpose. However 70% supported the adoption of lifestyles of other groups in Britain (cultural hybridity).
  • Due to secularisation, as a form of CD, Islamic fundamentalism has grown. Secularisation downngrades their beliefs so go back to basic texts to defend their religion. Also due to aggressive foreign policy. However this is changing due to the Race Relations Act. 


  • More likely to be disadvantaged through unemployment, lower classes and poor health. 
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Religious participation - ethnicity (conclusion)

Cultural hybridity = religion adapted to suit the needs of the society it's  in. 

Brasian = British and Asian. Fusion between Asian and White British culture (mainly 2nd generations).

Evidence to suggest that the idea of cultural defence is outdated:

Butler: in postmodern western society there is cultural hybridity whereby cultures are mixing to form new ethnic idenities. 2nd generations do not want to abandon parent culture but at the same time they want to fit in with the host society therefore suggesting that cultrual defence/identity isn't so significant amongst second generation ethnic minorities. 

Johal: British Asian (Brasian) suggests 2nd generation Asians living in Britain have a dual identity - evidence of cultural hybridity. 

However it could be argued that 1st generation ethnic minorities do use religion mainly as a form of cultural defence because they went through the effects of cultural transition and experienced things such as racism before legislation such as the Race Relations Act was implemented. 

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Wilson defined secularisation:

"The process whereby religious thining, practice and institutions lose social significance"

Indicators used in secularisation:

1) Practice
2) Religious thinking (belief)
3) Relationship with wider society (institutional)

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Secularisation - Practice

Evidence for a secular society:

  • Church attendance figures in the UK have dropped since the first census of religion in 1851 according to Brierley.
  • Attendance at special Christian ceremonies has declined. (e.g. baptisms and church marriages).
  • Wallis: new religious movements attract relatively small numbers and membership is shortlived. 

Evidence for a religious soceity:

  • Bellah: people nowadays may prefer private worship not collective so don't attend church.
  • Wilson: people try new religious movements when mainstream religious beliefs are in decline.
  • Membership of non-Christin religions has increased.
  • There has been a growth in fundamentalist movements. 
  • Martin suggests that people who attend church do it because they want to not because it is respectable to do so (in victorian days people went regardless of their beliefs) suggesting that religion is in fact more valued now.
  • Increase in number of sects.
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Secularisation - Practice


  • Wilson is not bothered about the increase of sects as they are not very influential. "Sects are the last religious outposts in a secular society". 
  • Problems with looking at church membership statistics as membership criteria may change (if it tightens this is going to lead to a decline).
  • Hard to compare - some religions you cannot join until you are 14 whereas to be a member of the Church of England you simply have to be baptised. 
  • UK statistics on church attendance are based upon an annual survey conducted on one day in November, which may not be typical of attendance at other times of the year. 
  • Not all Western societies are becoming secular - America show much higher participant rates than the rest of Eurpoe. 
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Secularisation - Belief

Evidence for a secular society:

  • Opinion poll evidence suggests religious belief has declined. In 1980's 76% of people in Britain believed in God but in 2008 58% believed in God. 
  • Religious belief has declined, choice of religion in society causes uncertainty over which is the true one. 
  • Weber believes that in a world in which science explains virtually everything, people no longer have a need for spiritual explanations - disenchantment. 

Evidence for a religious society:

  • Religious pluralism - large numbers of religions in Britain offers somethinig for everyone.
  • People may have religious beliefs without registering formally as church members. 
  • Religion is important for group coping with cultural transition. 
  • There are far more religious sects today. Greeley describes this as re-sacrilisation, revived interest in the sacred. 
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Secularisation - Belief


  • People may be unwilling to tell the truth about their personal beliefs and religious practices when interviewed. 
  • Validity of census data may be questioned - 400,000 people stated they were Jedis. 
  • Bruce believes that people who answer the opinion poll with "there is something there" are not expressing strong beliefs so therefore the poll shows a wearking of religious beliefs. 
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Secularisation - institutional relationship with s

Evidence for a secular society:

  • Most schools now cater for a diverse population so therefore do not strongly promote any particular religion. 
  • Bruce believes that the disengagement of religion involves the withdrawl of the church from wider soceity. Decline in the political influence of the church. Relgious views are marginalised and become part of a seperate and less important aspect of society. Churches are no longer the focal point for diverse communities a whole, but rather centres for particular minority groups. 
  • Wilson: ecumenism (the aim to promote unity amongst Christian churches) shows declining Christianity. Only weak organisations seek to unite as merging brings unwelcome compromising of principles. 

Evidence for a religious society:

  • Under the national curriculum the teaching of Religious Studies is compulsory.
  • The ecumenical movement, bringing together Christian churches is likely to produce a more united church.
  • Martin believes tht Christian beliefs form the basis of British social values (e.g. the duty to care for the sick)
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New age movements (challenges secularisation thesi

Steve Bruce does not see the growth of New Age movements as posing a threat to the theory of secularisation as he believes they are weak and have little influence on wider society. However others argue that a significant revival of religious and spiritual belief is taking place through the New Age:

New Age began in the 1980's and refers to sets of beliefs and activities which contain a spiritual element but are not organised in the same way as traditional religion. 

Paul Heelas et al

Heelas describes the environment in which the new age exists as the holistic milieu.

The holistic milieu involves more one to one activities (e.g. a healer and a client) or small group activities (e.g. yoga class).

Examples of New Age beliefs:

  • Paganism
  • Scientology
  • Spirit guids
  • Alternative medicine (selfhealing, herbal remedies)
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New age movements (challenges secularisation thesi

Paul Heelas identifies two main themes that run throughout all varietie of the new age:

1: Self spirituality

People look inside themselves for a sense of spirituality rather than worshipping traditional Gods. People attemp to perfect themselves and discover their own hidden spiritual depths. 

2: Detraditionalisation

A rejection of traditional sources of authority such as churches/ conventional morals/ ethical values.

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New age movements (challenges secularisation thesi

Paul Heelas states that despite common themes, there are different types of new age belief:

1: World  affirming:

This belief places emphasis on the outer world, focussing on the practical usefullness of the New Age for achieving objectives.
(For example, practising transcendental meditation to help you succeed in your career).

2: World rejecting:

This belief places emphasis on the inner world of the individual, focussing on turning away from the world and worldly success and more towards inner reflection.
(For example Buddhist Meditation).

3: Best of both worlds:

Focuses on both an inner and outer world. Combines a desire for spiritual satisfaction aswell as worldly successs. Most aspects of the new age combine the two. 
(For example, spiritual healing).

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New age movements (challenges secularisation thesi

Reasons for the growth of the New Age:

John Drane (postmodernist):

Drane believes that the growth of the new age is a response to the failure of the emphasis of science and material success in modernity. 

New Age believers are turning away from science to an era of postmodernity whereby they look for an inner spiritual satisfaction due to science and rationality failing to solve the worlds problems
(such as global warming).

Steve Bruce:

Bruce does not believe that we have moved to an era of postmodernity but he see's the New Age as a product of modernity. Modernity emphasises individualism and Bruce see's New Age as an extreme version of individualism. 

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New age movements (challenges secularisation thesi

Paul Heelas argues that 4 aspects of modernity gave rise to the New Age:

1) People have a multiplicity of roles so they lose a sense of their true self. The New Age helps to restore this. 

2) Consumer culture encourages people to attain perfection through what they buy. The attempt to achieve spiritual perfection is an extension of this. 

3) In a rapidly changing society, when traditional norms and values are being disrupted, people use spiritual beliefs to avoid insecurity. 

4) The decline of tradtional religions such as Christianity leaves a spiritual gap, which is partly filled by the New Age. 

Heelas claims that New Age is part of a spiritual revolution, involving a shift towards subjective life and away from traditional religions. 

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Religion and postmodernism

Lyons: Globalisation has led to the uptake of religions whose origins lie outside of western society.

Lyons: Consumerism leads to a 'spiritual market place' of competing religions.

Bauman: Individualism emphasises personal choice which leads to a growth in New Age religions which address 'the self' and a decline in mainstream church membership whiich emphasises communal practice. 

Bauman: growth in relativism leads to a resurgence of religions which emphasise certainty such as fundamentalism.

Lyotard: undermining of absolute knowledge leads to a break down in traditional mainstream religions.

Overall secularisation is still taking place as more people are leaving traditional religions than are joining New Age Movements. Postmodernists suggest that it is far too simplistic to talk of a 'decline in religion' as it is evident there has been areas of growth (sacralisation) and decline (secularisation) as a result of greater choice and diversity in society.

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Ideology = most often use to refer to a belief system (a set of integrated ideas influencing the way people view the world) which supports the interests of a particular group in society at the expense of others. 

Religion and science have both been seen as ideological by some sociologists. 

How is religion ideological?

Marx believed religion served to legitimate the upper class, therefore a religon ideology exists.
However the ruling class do not have a complete hold on ideas as the working class do rise up and strike. In some cases religion is used to challenge ruling class ideology (e.g. Martin Luther King).

Neo-marxist - Gramsci: The working class are partly able to see through the capitalist system due to their direct experience of exploitation and so develop a 'dual consciousness' and thereforer such as theory is less deterministic. 

Feminists believe that religion supports patriarchy. For example Patriarchal ideology includes beliefs such as the superiority of men over women (God is male). 

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Views challenging religion being ideological?

Functionalists do not view religion as ideological but rather as meeting the needs of society as a whole and therefore supports the interests of everyone, not one particular group. 

Religious believers: do not view religion as ideological because it is not the product of man. 

Post-modernists: believe that ideologies in society are declining as traditional influences such as class and gender are declining. 

How is science ideological?

Positivist sociologists see science as developing objective knowledge, not ideological.

Interpretivists view science as value laden and therefore socially constructed and ideological.

Deductive approach: theory based approach. Have an idea then experiement to test (interpretivist).

Inductive approach: gather data, then develop theories based on the info found (positivist).

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Is science ideological?


  • Postmodernist Lyotard thinks religion claims to know the truth about the world but no one theory can explain the world - same as marxist ideologies for example. 
  • Kuhn points out that scientists often ignore evidence that does not fit with their theories. 


  • Popper see's science as distinct from ideologies because it is an open beliefs system. Open to quesitonning and testing by others. 
  • Popper contrasts this to other belief systems (e.g. religion) which are closed belief systems because they rely on faith or belief rather than facts. 

To what extent does science challenge religion?

Weber is a strong advocate of science replacing religion leading to the disenchantment of the world, that is to say the world is increasingly viewed in a scientific, rational way.

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