Organisations, Movements and Members

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  • Types of Religious Organisation
  • Explaining the growth of Religious Movements
  • Religiosity and Social Groups
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Troeltsch (1912) distinguished between two main types of organisation- Church and Sect.


  • Large, Millions of members (such as Catholic Church)
  • Place few demands on members
  • Have a bureaucratic hierarchy of professional priests
  • Claim a monopoly of truth
  • Universalistic- claiming to include whole of society
  • Ideologically conservative
  • Linked to the state


  • Small, Exclusive and hostile to society
  • Expect a high level of commitment from members
  • Recruit from the poor and the oppressed
  • Led by a charasmatic leader
  • Claim a monopoly of truth (like churches)
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Denomination and Cult

Niebuhr describes denominations as lying midway between Churches and Sects.

Denomination: Membership is less exclusive

  • Broadly accept society's values
  • Not linked to the state
  • Impose some minor restrictions on members (forbidding alcohol) not as demanding as sects
  • Tolerant of other religions and do not claim monopoly of truth

Cult: Least organised of all religious organisations

  • Highly individualistic
  • Small, loose-knit groups
  • Without a sharply defined belief system
  • Led by 'practitioners' or 'therapists' who claim special knowledge
  • Tolerant of other organisations and beliefs
  • Don't demand strong commitment
  • World-affirming
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Similarities and Differences

Wallis highlights two characteristics:

  • How they see themselves- Churches and Sects claim that their interpretation of faith is the only legitimate or correct one. Denominations and Cults accept that there can be many valid interpretations.
  • How they are seen by wider society- Churches and Denominations are seen as respectable and legitimate, whereas Sects and Cults are seen as deviant.

However, Bruce argues that Troeltch's idea of the church as having a religious monopoly of truth only applies to the Catholic Church before the 16th century Protestant Reformation where it had religious monopoly over society, symbolised by its massive and imposing cathedrals.

Also, another criticism is that since then, sects and cults have flourished and religious diversity has become the norm. In today's society, Churches are no longer truly churches in Troeltchs sense, because they have lost their monopoly and have been reduced to the status of denominations competing with all of the rest.

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New Religious Movements (NRMs)

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:

  • World-rejecting NRMs (e.g. Moonies, Branch Davidian, 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.
  • 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 need to live conventional lives.
  • 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. They are sometimes known as psychologising religions. Followers are often customers rather than members.

It has been noted that world-affirming NRMs have been the most successful. For example, Scientology had about 165,000 members in the UK in 2005 compared with only 1,200 members.

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Evaluation of NRMs

  • Wallis's typology ignores the diversity of beliefs that may exist within a NRM.
  • Wallis recognises that real NRMs will rarely fit neatly into his typology and may have features of all three types. Nevertheless, many sociologists find such typologies as useful as a way of analysing and comparing the significant features of NRMs.
  • However, Stark and Bainbridge reject the idea of constructing such typologies altogether. Instead, they argue that we should distinguish between religious organisations using just one criterion- the degree of conflict or tension between the religious group and wider society.
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Sects and Cults

Stark and Bainbridge identify two kinds of organisations that are in conflict with wider society:

  • 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 organised they are.

  • Audience Cults- the least organised, with no formal membership and little interaction between members. Participation may be through the media.
  • Client Cults- a consultant/client relationship, with 'therapies' promising personal fulfilment. E.g. contact the dead or medical miracles.
  • Cultic movements- more organised, exclusivist, requiring high levels of commitment, claiming to meet all their member's religious needs. e.g. The Moonies.

However, some of the claims that Stark and Bainbridge use do not fit neatly into any one of their categories.

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Sects and Cults membership has rapidly grown since the 1960s. There is estimated to be over 800 NRMs and over half a million individuals belonging to these in the UK.


Weber argues 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.

Historically, many sects and millenarian movements have recruited from the marginalised poor. For example, in the 20th century the Nation of Islam recruited successfully among disadvantaged blacks in the USA.

However, since the 1960's, the sect-like world rejecting NRMs such as the Moonies have recruited mainly from more affluent groups and often well educated middle class whites.

However, Wallis argues that this does not contradict Weber's view, because many of these individuals had become marginal to society.

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2. Relative Deprivation

This refers to the subjective sense of being deprived. This means that it is possible for someone who is in reality, quite privileged, but they feel they are deprived or disadvanatged in some way compared to others. E.g. some middle-class people may feel spiritually deprived.

As a result, Wallis argues that people may 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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3. Social Change

Wilson argues that periods of rapid change disrupt and undermine established norms and values, producing anomie (normlessness). The most affected may turn to sects, e.g. Methodism during the industrial revolution. Bruce sees the growth of sects and cults today as a response to the social changes in modernisation and secularisation. In Bruce's view, society is now secularised and therefore people are less attracted to the traditional churches and strict sects, because these demand too much commitment. They now prefer cults because they are less demanding and require fewer sacrifices.

Social change may also stimulate the growth of NRMs today:

  • World-rejecting NRMs - Wallis points to social changes from the 1960s that 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 - Bruce argues that they 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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The Dynamics of Sects and NRMs

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. There are several reasons for this; second generation members lack commitment, asceticism (hard work and saving) sects become properous and compromise with the world, or the leader's death may cause the sect to collapse.

The Sectarian Cycle

 Stark and Bainbridge see religious organisations moving through a cycle: 1- schism (splitting from a church), 2- initial fevour and charismatic leadership, 3- denominationalism and cooling of fevour, 4- establishment as the sect becomes world-accepting, 5- further schism.

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The Dynamics of Sects and NRMs Continued...

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. e.g. Evangelicals
  • Adventist sects- keep themselves seperate from the corrupt world, which prevents them from compromising and becoming a denomination. e.g. Jehovah's Witnesses
  • Establish sects- Some sects survive for many generations. e.g. Amish and Mormons
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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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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.

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 electicism ('pick and mix spiritual shopping') is typical of late modern society, reflecting consumerism.

Heelas sees the New Age and modernity as linked in 4 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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As we have seen, different social classes tend to be attracted to different beliefs and organisations- e.g. lower classes and world-rejecting sects. However, ethnicity, gender and age are also important.


  • Class
  • Age
  • Gender
  • Ethnicity
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Gender and Religiosity

More women than 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 woman as men are involved in sects. Heelas and Woodhead found 80% of the holistic mileu in Kendal were female. These differences may also be connected to differences in the way men and women see God- as the God of power and control, or as the God of forgiveness and love.

However, this gender pattern seems at odds with the feminist claims about the patriarchal attitudes of most religions.

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Reasons for Gender Differences

Socialisation and Gender Role

Miller and Hoffman argue women are more religious because they are socialised to be more passive, obedient and caring - qualities valued by most religions. Women are more likely than men to work part-time so they have more scope for organising their time to participate in religious activities. Davie also argues that women's closer proximity to birth and death brings them closer to 'ultimate' questions about life that religion is concerned with.

Examples: Judaism- mother introduces the children to the rituals of the Sabbath. Hinduism- females are responsible for looking after the family shrine.

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 that 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.

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Reasons for Gender Differences Continued...

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.


There is evidence that women are now leaving the church at a faster rate than men. Brierly notes the 'drastic' decline in churchgoing among women aged 30-45 with a 16.4% fall in Sunday church attendance between 1990 and 2005. He suggests that this may be because of pressures of home, family and work are very intense for these women.

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Ethnicity and Religiosity

There are higher than average rates for most minority groups. Muslims, Hindus and black Christians are more likely to see religion as important. It has been noted that ethnicity has a strong link with participation and belief in the UK. This is supported by Policy Studies Institute who found that 74% of Muslims said religion was 'very important' compared to 45% of Hindus and only 11% of White people described themselves as belonging to the Church of England. Therefore showing that ethnicity effects participation and belief.

Reasons for Ethnic Differences

Country of Origin

Most minorities originate from poorer countries with traditional cultures, both of which produce higher levels of religious belief and practise and they maintain this pattern in the UK.

Example: Al Madinah School, in the all muslim school, teachers who were not Muslim were forced to wear head scarfs (hijabs) and boys and girls were also segregated.

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Reasons for Ethnic Differences Continued...

Cultural Defense

Bruce argues that religion in such situations offers support and a sense of cultural identity in an uncertain or hostile environment. Bird notes that religion among minorities can be a basis for community solidarity, a means of coping with oppression in a racist society. In the case of African and Carribean Christians, many found that white churches in the UK did not actively welcome them and some turned to founding or joining black-led churches, especially Pentecostal churches. Example: Murder of Mohammed Saleem shows the hostility he faced in the UK and highlights islamophobia.

Cultural Transition

Religion can also 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. Herberg says that cultural transition can explain higher levels of religious participation among first-generation migrants. Bruce sees a similar pattern in the history of immigration into the UK where religion has provided a focal point for Irish, Mulism, Hindu and other communities. However, once a group has made the transition into wider society, religion may lose its role and decline in importance.

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Ethnic Differences

Religion and The Second Generation

They think that religion is less important to them and don't observe the rules and requirements. They may practise because of their parents and most did not attend a place of worship regularly.

Modood believes that Second Generation Muslims are not as religious as their parents as they have been socialised into wider society.

Modood also says that Asians spoke of having to go to the temple for certain family or community functions, or of marrying within their faith in order to avoid criticism from parents and their families.

Butler also describes that there is a trend towards cultural hybridity where religion is seperated from many aspects of culture therefore leading to a decline of participation and belief.

Knott argues that young Asian women experience difficulties with their parents demands over how they dress. E.g. over wearing the hijab. Younger muslim women are able to differentiate between religious and cultural influences in dress. They can dress in Western clothes and still follow Islam.

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Age and Religious Participation

The general pattern of participation is that the older a person is, the more likely they are to attend religious services. However there are 2 exceptions to this pattern- the under 15s and the over 65s:

  • The Under 15s- are more likely to go to Church than other age groups because they may be made to do so by their parents.
  • The Over 65s- are more likely to be sick or disabled and thus unable to attend. Higher death rates also make this a smaller group, which also reduces the total number 'available' to attend.

Reasons for Age Differences

According to Voas and Crockett there are 2 explanations:

  • The Ageing Effect- People turn to religion as they get older. As we approach death, we 'naturally' become more concerned about spiritual matters and the afterlife, therefore are more likely to go to Church.
  • The Generational Effect- Religion becomes less popular with each new generation. There are more older people at Church because they were brought up at a time where religion was more popular. Each generation is half as religious as their parents.
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