Postmodernity and Religion

Revision notes on Postmodernity and Religion (Unit 3: Beliefs in Society)

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Believing without belonging

Grace Davie argues against the secularisation theory

In her view, religion is not declining but taking a more privatised form

E.g. people no longer go to church because they feel they have to or because it is ‘respectable’ to do so

Thus, although churchgoing has declined, this is simply because attendance is now a matter of personal choice rather than the obligation it used to be. As a result we now have believing without belonging – where people hold religious beliefs but don’t go to church

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Vicarious religion

Davie notes a trend towards ‘vicarious religion’ where a small number of professional clergy practise religion on behalf of a much larger number of people who experience it at second hand

E.g. Bibby’s survey (1993) found that only 25% of Canadians attended church regularly. However, 80% said they had religious beliefs

According to Davie, secularisation theory assumes that modernisation affects every society in the same way, causing the decline of religion and its replacement by science. Instead of a single version of modern society, she argues there are multiple modernities

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Criticisms of Davie

Voas and Crockett (2005) do not accept Davie’s claim that there is more believing than belonging

Evidence from British Social Attitudes surveys from 1983 to 2000 show that both church attendance and belief in God are declining. If Davie were right, we would expect to see higher levels of belief

Bruce adds that if people are not willing to invest time in going to church, this reflects the declining strength of their beliefs

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Spiritual shopping

Hervieu-Léger continues the theme of personal choice and believing without belonging

She agrees that there has been a dramatic decline in institutional religion in Europe, with fewer people attending church in most countries

This is partly because of cultural amnesia. For centuries, children used to be taught religion in the extended family and parish church. Nowadays, we have lost the religion that used to be handed from generation to generation

Individual consumerism has replaced collective tradition – people have now become spiritual shoppers

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Lyon: ‘Jesus in Disneyland’

Lyon agrees with Davie that believing without belonging is increasingly popular. He argues that traditional religion is giving way to a variety of new religious forms that demonstrate its continuing viguor

As a postmodernist, he opposes secularisation theory on the grounds that it is a meta-narrative that claims religion will inevitably decline in all societies

In his view, religion has relocated to the sphere of consumption – while people may have ceased to belong to religious organisations, they have not abandoned religion. They have become ‘religious consumers’

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Religious market theory

Stark and Bainbridge (1985) are critical of the secularisation theory and see it to be Eurocentric – focusing on the decline of religion and Europe and fails to explain its continuing vitality in America and elsewhere

Argue that there was no ‘golden age’ of religion in the past, as secularisation theory implies, nor is it realistic to predict a future end-point for religion where everyone will be an atheist

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Religious market theory

Propose religious market theory. This theory is based on two assumptions:

  • People are naturally religious and religion meets human needs. Therefore the overall demand for religion remains constant, even though the demand for particular types of religion may vary
  • It is human nature to seek rewards and avoid costs. When people make choices, they weigh up the costs and benefits of the different options available

Religion is attractive because it provides us with compensators

An alternative to secularisation theory is the concept of a cycle of religious decline, revival and renewal

Competition leads to improvements in the quality of the religious ‘goods’ on offer

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Religious market theory

Stark and Bainbridge believe religion thrives in the USA because there has never been a religious monopoly there

The constitution guarantees freedom of religion and the separation of church and state. This has encouraged the growth of a healthy religious market

Situation in Europe is entirely different since most European countries have been dominated by an official state church

Conclude that the main factor influencing the level of religious participation is the supply. Participation increases when there is an ample supply of religious groups to choose from, but declines when supply is restricted

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Religious market theory

A range of studies support Stark and Bainbridge’s view that demand for religion is greatly influenced by the quality and variety of religion on offer and the extent to which it responds to people’s needs

E.g. Hadden and Sharpe (1998) argue that the growth of ‘televangelism’ in America shows that the level of religious participation is supply-led

Finke (1997) argues that the lifting of restrictions on Asian immigrants into America in the 1960s allowed Asian religions e.g. Hare Krishna and Transcendental Meditation to set up in the USA

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Criticisms of Religious Market Theory

Religious market theory is the approach adopted by most American sociologists of religion. It highlights the supply side of religion and consumer choice, and can be useful for understanding the growth of new religions

Bruce rejects the view that diversity and competition increase the demand for religion. Statistics show that diversity has been accompanied by religious decline in Europe and America

Bruce argues that Stark and Bainbridge misrepresent secularisation theory. The theory does not claim there was a past ‘golden age’ of religion. It simply claims that religion is in long-term decline

Beckford criticises religious market theory as unsociological, because it assumes people are naturally religious and fails to explain why people make the choices they do

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Existential security theory

Norris and Inglehart (2004) reject religious market theory on the grounds that it only applies to America and fails to explain the variations in religiosity between different societies

Argue that the reason for variations in religiosity between societies is not different degrees of religious choice, but different degrees of existential security

Religion meets a need for security, and therefore societies where people feel secure have a low level of demand for religion

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