Beliefs in society



Like Malinowski, Parsons sees religion helping individuals to cope with unforeseen events and uncontrollable outcomes. He also identifies two other functions religion performs:

  • It creates and legitimates society's central values (religion makes society's norms and values sacred, which promotes value consensus and social stability)
  • It is the primary source of meaning (it answers 'ultimate questions about the human condition)
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Criticises feminist explanations that equate religion with patrairchy and the oppression of all women

  • Uses the example of the hijab worn by many Muslim women (some wear it to escape the confines of the home and enter education and employment - liberation)
  • Women also use religion to gain status and respect for their roles within the private sphere of home and family
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Hinduism and Confucianism

Weber notes that there have been other societies that have had a higher level of ecnomic development than Northern Europe, such as Ancient China and India - however Capitalism didn't take off there, he argues that this was due to the lack of a religious belief such as Calvinism

  • In India, Hinduism was similar to Calvinism, but it directed its followers' concerns away from the material world and towards the spiritual world
  • In Ancient China, Confucianism directed its followers towards the material world, but unlike Calvinism, it was not ascetic (self disciplined)
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Liberation theology

Movement within the Catholic Church in Latin America at the end of the 1960's, with a strong commitment to the poor and opposition to military dictatorships. For centuries, the Catholic Church had been a conservative institution that accepted poverty and supported military dictatorships. Factors that led to liberation theology include:

  • Deepening rural poverty throughout Latin America
  • Human rights abuses followingmilitary take-overs
  • The growing commitment among Catholic priests to an ideology that supported the poor and opposed violations of human rights

Liberation theology set out to change society through helping workers to fight oppression under the protection of the church, however the Pope stopped this from happening as it ressembled 'Marxism'

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Millenarian movements

Religion raises the hope of a better world in the afterlife, it also creates a desire to change things here and now. Milenarian movements (in Christian theology) refer to the idea that Christ would come into the world for a second time and rule before the end of the World

  • Millenarian movements expect the total and imminent transformation of this world by supernatural means, creating heaven on earth, a life free from pain, death, sin, corruption and imperfection
  • These appeal largely to the poor
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Structural Differeniation

Parsons defines this as a process of specialisation that occurs with the developent of industrail society - specialised institutions develop to carry out functions that were previously performed to a single institution (such as the Church)

  • Parsons and Bruce agree that religion has become privatised and separated from society
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Social and cultural diversity

There has been a decline of community and this is linked to the decline of religion. Wilson argues that in pre-industrial communities, shared values were shared through religious rituals that integrated individuals, however with the decline of community, there has been the decline of religion

  • Bruce states that social and geographical mobility not only breaks up communities, but brings people together from many different backgrounds, creating greater diversity within society
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A spiritual revolution?

A spiritual revolution is described as where traditional Christianity is giving way to 'holistic spirituality' aka New Age beliefs and practices which emphasise personal development and subjective experience. There has been a growth in a spiritual market with books about self help and spirituality. 

  • Heelas and Woodhead's study of Kendal in Cumbria, investigating whether traditional religion has declined and, if so, how far the growth of spirituality is compensating for, they distinguish between two groups:
    • The congregational domain of traditional and evangelical Christianity
    • The holistic milieu of spirituality and New Age
  • They found that traditional churches were losing support and that the holistic milieu was growing due to: changes in today's culture and individualism
  • However, Heelas and Woodhead argue that this revolution has not taken place as of yet
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Spiritual Shopping

Hervieu-Leger agrees that there has been a dramatic decline in institutional religion in Europe as fewer people are attending church. This is because we have lost how religion used to be handed down through generations, as parents now let their children decide what to believe themselves

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Supply-led religion

Demand for religion is greatly influenced by the quality and variety of religions on offer and the extent to which it responds to people's needs

  • Hadden and Shupe argue that the growht of 'televangelism' in America shows that the level of religious participation is supply-led 
  • Finke argues that the lifting of restrictions on Asian immigration into America allowed Asian religions to set up permenantly in the USA expanding the religious marketplace
  • Stark argues that Japan is another society where a free market in religion has stimulated participation
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Existential security theory

Norris and Inglehart reject religious market theory as it only applies to America. 

  • Poor societies have a high level of demand for religion as they face risks and insecurity
  • Risk societies have a lower level of demand for religion as they have a higher standard of living and are at less risk
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God and globalisation in India

Globalisation has brought rapid economic growth and has seen India become a more important player on the world political stage. It has also brought rising prosperity to some (India's new middle class). Nanda's book examines the role of Hinuism:

  • Globalisation has created a huge and prosperous, scientifically educated, urban middle class in India
  • Nanda observes that a large amount of this class continue to believe in the supernatural, only 5% are less religious, whereas 30% are more religious
  • Nanda argues that the urabn middle class are motivated by miracles and supernatural beings, thus rejects poverty and existential insecurity as an explanation as they are not poor
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Capitalism in East Asia

Some East Asian economies have industrialised and become a significant player in the global economy. Some sociologists argue that religion has played a similar role to the one Calvinism played.

  • Redding describes the spirit of capitalism among Chinese entrepreneurs as he sees their 'post-Confucian' values encouraging hard work, self discipline, frugality and a commitment to education and self-improvement
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Pentecostalism in Latin America

Berger argues that Pentecostalism is similar to Calvinism. Latin American Pentecostalists embrace a work ethic and lifestyule similar to Calvinists, demanding an ascetic way of life that emphasises personal discipline and hard work

  • He agrees with Weber that this can drive economic development
  • However argues that religious ideas are not enough to solely produce economic development
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Fundamentalism and cosmpolitanism

Giddens states that fundamentalists are traditionalists who seek to return to the basics or fundamentals of their faith, they believe that theirs is the only true view of the world. Fundamentalists tend to avoid contact with outhers who think differently. Fundamentalism is relatively new and it is a product of globalisation.

Giddens also argues that cosmpolitanism is the opposite and that this is a way of thinking that embraces modernity and is tolerant of others' views and ideas about society.

Castells distinguishes between two reponses to post modernity

  • Resistant identity (a defensive reaction to those who feel threatened and retreat into fundamentalist communities)
  • Project identity (the response of those who are forward-looking and engage with social movements)
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Monotheism and fundamentalism

Bruce seeks the main cause of fundamentalism as the perception of religious traditionalists that today's globalising world threatens their beliefs and lifestyle. Bruce regards fundamentalism as being confined to monotheistic religions.

  • Bruce sees that in the West, fundamentalism is often a reaction to change taking place within a society, e.g. diversity, late modernity and postmodernity, e.g. the New Christian Right 
  • Bruce sees that in the Third World, fundamentalism is usually a reaction to changes being thrust upon society
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Cultural Defence

Religion has special significance for its followers because it symbolises the group or society's collective identity. 

  • Poland - when under Communist rule, many Poles used the Catholic Church as a popular rallying point for opposition to the Soviet Union and the Polish Communist party
  • Iran - Wester powers had influence over Iran, Islam became the focus for resistance for the revolution
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Religion and the 'clash of civilisations'

Religion has been at the centre of many global conflicts, Huntington argues that such conflicts have intensified since the collapse of communism and are symptoms of the 'clash of civilisations'

  • He identifies seven civilisations: Western, Latin American, Confucian, Japanese, Islamic, Hindu and Slavic-Orthodox - each is closely identified with one of the world's great religions
  • With the fall of Communism, political differences between nations have become less important as a source of identity
  • Globalisation has made nation-states less significant as a source of identity, creating a gap that religion has filled
  • Globalisation makes contact between civilisations easier and more frequent, increasing the likelihood of old conflicts re-emerging

He sees the West as under threat from Islam, and predicts growing conflict due to the fear of emergence of new anti-Western military alliances

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Church and Sect

Troeltsch distinguished between the two main types of religious organisation: church and sect

  • Churches are large organisations with millions of members, run by a bureaucratic hierarchy of professional priests and they claim a monopoly of the truth, they are universalistic, e.g. the Catholic Church
  • Sects are small, exclusive groups, they are hostile to wider society, and expect high levels of commitment, they draw their members form the poor and oppressed, they are led by a characteristic leader and also believe they have a monopoly of religious truth
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Denomination and Cult

  • Niebuhr describes denominations as lying midway between churches and sects, membership is less exclusive than a sect, but they don't apeal to the whole of society like a church, they impose minor restrictions on members, but are not as demanding as sects - they are tolerant of other religious organisations and do not claim a monopoloy of the truth
  • A cult is described as a highly individualistic, small grouping, without an exclusive belief system, they are usually led by practitioners who claim special knowledge, they are tolerant of other organisations and their beliefs and do not demand strong commitment
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New Religious Movements

Since the 1960s there has been an explosion in the number of new religions and organisations, Wallis categorises these new religious movements into three categories:

  • World-rejectiving NRMs - similar to sects - they vary greatly in size, they have a clear notion of God, they're highly critical of the outside world and seek radical change
  • World-accomodating NRMs - often breakaways from existing mainstream churches or denominations - they neither accept nor reject the world and focus on religious rather than worldly matters
  • Workld-affirming NRMs - they offer their followers access to spiritual or supernatural powers - they accept the world as it is, they are non-exclusive and tolerant of other religions, and most are cults
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Sects and Cults

Stark and Bainbridge identify two kinds of organisation that are in conflict with wider society: sects and cults. They subdivide cults according to how organised they are:

  • Audience cults - least organised, don't involve formal membership, participation may be through the media (e.g. astrology, UFO cults)
  • Client cults - provide service to their followers, offer therapies promising personal fulfilment and self-discovery (e.g. spiritualism)
  • Cultic movements - most organised, participants are rarely allowed to belong to other groups at the same time
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The dynamics of sects and NRMs

Sects are often short-lived

  • Niebuhr argues that sects are world-rejecting organisations that come into existence because of (schism) splitting from an established church, this happens because: the second generation lack commitment of the sect, sect members may leave the sect and there may be the death of the leader
  • Stark and Bainbridge see religious organisations moving through a cycle, firstly schism, then initial favour (tension between the sect's beliefs and those of wider society), next denominationalism (where the second generation lack comitment), next the establishment (the sect becomes more world-accepting and tension with society reduces) and in the final stage - further schism results
  • Wilson argues that not all sects follow these patterns - some sects who aim to convert large numbers of people are likely to grow and become more formal denominations (conversionist) and some sects await the Second Coming of Christ which prevents them from becoming a denomination (Adventist)
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The growth of the New Age

The New Age covers a range of beliefs and activities that have been widespread since the 1980's. Heelas believes many of them are cults (the beliefs include: UFOs and aliens, astrology, tarot, crystals, various forms of alternative medicine, yoga, magic etc. 

  • Heelas states that there are two comon themes that characterise the New Age: Self spirituality (looking inside themselves to find spirituality) and detraditionalisation (rejecting tradition and values personal experience
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Postmodernity and the New Age

Drane argues that the popularity of the New Age is part of the appeal for a shift towards postmodern society. Postmodern society includes a loss of claims to have 'the truth' (people losing faith in scientists and doctors, etc.)

The New Age and modernity:

  • Bruce argues that the growth of the New Age is a feature of the latest phase of modern society, not modernity - as it values individualism - the New Age is described by Bruce as 'pick and mix spiritual shopping
  • Heelas sees the New Age and modernity as linked in four ways: A source of identity (in modern society, the individual has many different roles, New Age beliefs offer a single identity),  consumer culture (New Age offers an alternative way to achieve perfection), rapid social change and the decline of organised religion
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Reasons for gender differences

  • Socialisation and gender role - Miller and Hoffman state that women are more religious due to the way they are socialised (to be caring and obedient), they also note that women are more likely to work part-time, so they have more spare time. Furthermore, Davie argues that women's closer proximity to birth and death brigs them closer to religion
  • Women and the New Age - women tend to be associated with a healing role
  • Compensation for deprivation - Glock and Stark and Stark and Bainbridge argue that forms of organismic (physcial and mental health problems), ethical (morally conservative) and social (economically) deprivation are more likely to be experienced by women than men
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Reasons for ethnic differences

  • Cultural defence - Bruce argues that religion offers support and a sense of cultural identity, Bird also notes that religion can be a basis for community solidarity
  • Cultural transition - Can be a means of easing the transition into a new culture by providing support and a sense of community for minority groups in their new environment
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Reasons for age differences

  • Voas and Crockett argue that there are two main sorts of explanation for age differences in religious participation: the ageing effect (that people turn to religion as they get older - as we approach death) and the generational effect (that each new generation is less religious than the one before)
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Open Belief Systems

Karl Popper argues that science is an 'open' belief system where every scientist is open to scrutiny, criticism and testing by others. He argues that sceintific knowledge builds on the achievements of previous scientists to develop a greater understanding of the world around us. 

However, no theory is ever to be taken as definitely true as there is always a possibility that someone will produce evidence to disprove it

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The CUDOS norms

Merton argues that science can only thrive as a major social institution if it recieves support from other institutions and values. He argues that science as an institution needs a set of norms that makes scientists act in ways that serve the goal of increasing scientific knowledge:

  • Communism - Scientific knowledge is shared amongst a community
  • Universalism - The truth of scientific knowledge is judged by testing and not by the race, sec, etc. of the science who produces it
  • Disinterestedness - The committment of discovering knowledge makes it harder for scientifists to practice fraud as others check their claims
  • Organised Scepticism - Every idea is open to questioning, criticism and objective investigation
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Closed belief systems

Religion claims to have special, perfect knowledge of the absolute truth, meaning that it cannot be challenged, and those who challenge it may be punished, furthermore religious knowledge may not change as it is not open to criticism and others' interpretations

  • Horton sees science as an open belief system, and sees religion, magic and many other belief systems as closed 
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Witchcraft among the Azande

The Azande believe that natural events have natural causes, however they do not believe in coincidence or chance. When misfortune occurs, they explain it in terms of witchcraft

  • For example, the injured party may make an accusation against the suspected witch and the matter may be resolved by consulting the prince's magic poison oracle
  • The Azande regard witchcraft as a psychic power
  • Evan-Pritchard argues that this belief system is highly resistant to challenges, thus is a closed system
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Science as a closed belief system

Polanyi argues that all belief systems reject fundamental challenges to their knowledge-claims. 

  • E.g. the case of Dr Velikovsky - he put forward a theory that challenged some fundamental assumptions and the response from the scientific community was closed and rejected it quickly
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The sociology of scientific knowledge

Interpretivists argue that all knowledge (including scientific knowledge) is socially constructed.

  • Little green man - Woolgar argues that scientists are engaged in the same process of making sense of the world as everybody else - they have to identify what the outcome of their experiments mean, which leads to them having to persuade others to accept their interpretation
  • Marxism and feminism - These see scientific knowledge as far from pure truth, as they argue that it serves the interests of dominant groups (ruling class and men)
  • Postmodernism - Reject science as 'the truth' - Lyotard argues that science is one of many stories that claim the truth, he argues that science is just one way of thinking 
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Karl Mannheim: ideology and utopia

Mannheim sees all belief systems as a partial/one-sided worldview, this leads to him believing that there are two types of belief system:

  • Ideological thought - Reflects the position and interests of privileged groups
  • Utopian thought - Reflects the position and interests of the underprivileged and offers a vision of how society could be organised differently, e.g. Marxism
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