Organisations, movements and members

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  • Created on: 03-06-19 10:19

Types of religious organisation

Sociologists are interested in the different types of religious organisations, their development and membership.

Church and Sect:

Troeltsch distinguished between two main types of organisation - church and sect.

1. Churches are large, with millions of members, place few demands on members, have a bureaucratic hierarchy, claim a monopoly of truth and are universalistic, ideologically conservative and linked to the state.

2. Sects are small, exclusive groups demanding real commitment from members, are hostile to wider society, recruit from the poor and oppressed, often have charismatic leadership and believe they have a monopoly of religious truth. 

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Types of religious organisation

Denomination and cult:

  • Niebuhr identifies denominations (e.g. Methodism) as midway between churches and sects. Membership is less exclusive, they broadly accept society's values, are not linked to the state and impose minor restrictions, but are not as demanding as sects and are tolerant of other religions.
  • Cults are the least organised of all religious organisations. They are highly individualistic, small, loose-knit groupings without a sharply defined belief system. Many are world affirming.
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Types of religious organisation

New religious movements:

Since the 1960s, there has been a big increase in NRMs, e.g. the Moonies; Scientology. Wallis categorises NRMs into three groups based on their relationship to the outside world:

1. World-rejecting NRMs (e.g. Moonies; Branch Davidian; the People's Temple) have a clear notion of God, are highly critical of the outside world and expect radical change. Members must break with their former life, live communally and have restricted contact with the outside world. The movement controls all aspects of their lives. 

2. World-accommodating NRMs (e.g. neo-Pentecostalists; Subud) are often breakaways from existing churches. They neither accept nor reject the world, focusing on religious rather than worldly matters. Members tend to lead conventional lives. 

3. World-affirming NRMs (e.g. Scientology; TM; Human potential) often lack some of the conventional features of religion. They offer followers access to spiritual or supernatural powers and accept the world as it is, promising followers success in their goals. Followers are often customers rather than members. 

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Types of religious organisation

Sects and cults:

Stark and Bainbridge argue that just one criterion is needed to distinguish between religous organisations - the degree of tension between the group and wider society. Two kinds of organisation are in conflict with wider society - sects and cults:

  • Sects result from splits in existing organisations breaking away and offering other-worldly benefits to those suffering economic or ethical deprivation.
  • Cults are new religions (e.g. Scientology) or ones that have been imported (e.g. TM). They offer this-worldly benefits to individuals suffering psychic or health deprivation.

Stark and Bainbridge subdivide cults according to how they organised they are.

  • Audience cults - the least organised, with no formal membership and little interaction between members.
  • Client cults - a consultant/client relationship, with 'therapies' promising personal fulfilment.
  • Cultic movements - more organised, exclusivist, requiring high levels of commitment, claiming to meet all their members' religious needs. 
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Explaining the growth of religious movements

1. Marginality

Weber argued that sects appeal to disprivileged groups who are marginal to society.

  • Sects offer a solution to their lack of status by offering their members a theodicy of disprivilege - a religious explanation of their disadvantage. 
  • Many sects and millenarian movements have recruited from the marginalised poor. 

2. Relative deprivation

It is possible for someone who is quite privileged nevertheless to feel deprived compared with others; e.g. some middle class people may feel spiritually deprived. 

  • People may then turn to sects for a sense of community
  • Stark and Bainbridge argue that it is the relatively deprived who break away from churches to form sects.  
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Explaining the growth of religious movements

3. Social change and NRMs

Wilson argues that periods of rapid change undermine established norms, producing anomie (normlessness). Those most affected may turn to sects, e.g. Methodism during the industrial revolution. Social change may also stimulate the growth of NRMs today:

  • World-rejecting NRMs Social changes from the 1960s gave young people freedom, enabling an idealistic counter-culture to develop, while the growth of radical political movements offered alternative ideas about the future. WRNRMs were attractive because they offered a more idealistic way of life.
  • World-affirming NRMs have grown in response to modernity. Modernity brings the rationalisation of work, which ceases to be a source of identity, and the need to achieve. WANRMs provide both a sense of identity and techniques promising worldly success. 
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Explaining the growth of religious movements

The dynamics of sects and NRMs: How do sects and NRMs change over their 'lifetime'?

Denomination or death Niebuhr argues that sects are world-rejecting organisations that come into existence by splitting from an established church. Within a generation, they either die out or compromise with the world, abandoning their extreme ideas to become a denomination. 

The sectarian cycle Stark and Bainbridge see religious organisations moving through a cycle: schism (splitting from a church); initial fervour and charismatic leadership; denominationalism and cooling of fervour; establishment, as the sect becomes world-accepting; further schism.

Established sects Wilson argues that not all sects follow this pattern - it depends on how the sect answers the question, 'What shall we do to be saved?'

  • Conversionist sects, whose aim is to convert large numbers of people, are likely to grow rapidly into larger denominations.
  • Adventist sects keep themselves separate from the corrupt world, which prevents them from compromising and becoming a denomination.
  • Established sects Some sects survive for many generations, e.g. Amish and Mormons. 
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Explaining the growth of religious movements

The growth of the New Age:

Heelas estimates that audience or client cults in the UK cover about 2,000 activities and 146,000 practitioners. They are extremely diverse, including belief in UFOs, astrology, crystals, alternative medicine, yoga, meditation etc. Heelas suggests two common themes among the New Age:

  • Self-spirituality New Agers seeking the spiritual have turned away from traditional 'external' churches and instead look inside themselves to find it. 
  • De-traditionalisation The New Age rejects the spiritual authority of external traditional sources such as priests and instead values personal experience. 
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Explaining the growth of religious movements

Postmodernity and the New Age:

Drane argues that New Age appeal is part of a shift towards postmodern society. People have lost faith in experts (e.g. scientists) and are disillusioned with the churches' failure to meet their spiritual needs. 

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 postmodernity.

  • Modern society values individualism (a key principle of New Age beliefs), which is also an important value among those in the 'expressive professions' concerned with human potential, e.g. social workers, artists.
  • New Age eclecticism ('pick and mix spiritual shopping') is typical of late modern society, relfecting consumerism.
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Explaining the growth of religious movements

Heelas sees the New Age and modernity as linked in four ways:

  • A source of identity In modern society, the individual has a fragmented identity. New Age beliefs offer a source of 'authentic' identity. 
  • Consumer culture creates dissatisfaction. The New Age offers an alternative way to achieve perfection.
  • Rapid social change in modern society creates anomie. The New Age provides a sense of certainty and truth.
  • Decline of organised religion leaves the way open to the New Age as an alternative. 
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Religiosity and social groups

Gender and religiosity:

  • More women then men believe in God, sin etc and participate in religious activities. In 2005, 1.8 million women were churchgoers as against 1.36 million men. 
  • Bruce estimates twice as many women as men are involved in sects. Heelas and Woodhead found that 80% of the holistic mileu in Kendal were female. 

Socialisation and gender role Miller and Hoffman argue women are more religious because they are socialised to be passive, obedient and caring - qualities valued by most religions. 

  • Davie argues that women's closer proximity to birth and death brings them closer to 'ultimate' questions about life that religion is concerned with.

Paid work Bruce argues that women's greater religiosity is a result of their lesser involvement in paid work, which is a secularised sphere. 

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Religiosity and social groups

Women and the New Age As women are more often associated with a healing role, they may be more attracted than men to New Age movements.

  • Bruce argues child-rearing makes women less aggressive and more cooperative and caring - fitting the expressive emphasis of the New Age. 
  • Brown argues that New Age religions appeal to women's wish for autonomy. They may be attractive because they emphasise being 'authentic'. Woodhead suggests they appeal to the 'individual sphere' of women's inner self rather than acting out restrictive social roles. However, others may be attracted to fundamentalism because of the certainties of a traditional gender role that it prescribes. 
  • Bruce points out that there are class differences in the New Age beliefs that appeal to women. Those emphasising personal autonomy appeal to some middle-class women; working-class women are more attracted to fatalistic ideas such as horoscopes. 
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Religiosity and social groups

Compensation for deprivation Glock and Stark argue that deprivation is more common among women. This explains their higher level of sect membership:

  • Organismic deprivation Women are more likely to suffer ill health and seek healing. 
  • Ethical deprivation Women are more morally conservative and thus attracted to the conservatism of some sects. 
  • Social deprivation Women are more likely to be poor and therefore join sects. 

Recent UK trends Although women generally remain more likely than men to be religious, there has been a decline in women's participation in religion. Possible reasons include their movement into paid work and their rejection of traditional subordinate gender roles. 

The Pentecostal gender paradox:

  • Since the 1970s, Pentecostalism has grown rapidly, particularly among the poor in Latin America. Despite being generally regarded as patriarchal, it has proved attractive to women. 
  • Brusco argues that this is because Pentecostalism demands that its followers adopt an ascetic lifestyle and a traditional gender division of labour. Pentecostal women can use these ideas to combat the culture of machismo. Men are pressured by their church to change their ways, act responsibly and support their families. 
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Religiosity and social groups

Ethnicity and religiosity:

There are higher than average rates for mos minority groups. Muslims, Hindus and black Christians are more likely to see religion as important. There are several possible reasons:

  • Country of origin Most minorities originate from countries with higher levels of religious practice and they maintain this pattern in the UK.
  • Cultural defence Religion offers cultural identity in a hostile environment, a means of preserving one's culture and coping with oppression in a racist society.
  • Cultural transition Religion is a means of easing the transition into a new culture by providing support and community for minority groups in their new environment. But once a group has made the transition into the wider society, religion may lose its role. 
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Religiosity and social groups

Age and religious participation:

The older a person is, the more likely they are to attend religious services.

There are three possible explanations for age differences in religiosity:

  • The ageing effect As we approach death, we may become more concerned about the afterlife and so more likely to go to church.
  • The period effect People born in an earlier period may be more likely to be religious because of the events they lived through, such as war or rapid social changes. 
  • Secularisation As religion declines in importance in society, each generation becomes less religious than the one before it. Voas and Crockett found this to be the main reason why younger people are less religious than older people. 
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