Religion, renewal and choice

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  • Created on: 02-06-19 16:13

New forms of religion

Believing without belonging:

Grace Davie argues that religion is not declining but simply taking a different, more privatised form.

  • People no longer go to church because they feel they have to, so although churchgoing has declined, this is because attendance is now a matter of personal choice rather than an obligation.
  • We now have believing without belonging - people hold religious beliefs but don't go to church. Thus, the decline of traditional religion is matched by the growth of a new form of religion.
  • There is a trend towards 'vicarious religion', where a small minority practise religion on behalf of a much larger number of people. 
  • In societies like Britain, despite low attendance, many still use the churches for rites of passage - baptisms, weddings and funerals, They are a 'Spiritual Health service', available for everyone to use when they need it. 
  • Davie rejects secularisation theory's assumption that modernisation affects every society in the same way. Instead there are multiple modernities; e.g. Britain and America are both modern societies, but with very different patterns of religion - high church attendance in America, low in Britain, but accompanied by believing without belonging.
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New forms of religion

Spiritual shopping:

Danielle Hervieu-Leger supports the theme of personal choice and believing without belonging.

  • There has been cultural amnesia - a loss of collective memory. People have lost the religion that used to be handed down from generation to generation through family and church.
  • Greater equality has undermined the traditional Church's power to impose religion from above, so young people no longer inherit a fixed religious identity.
  • However, while traditional institutional religion has declined, religion continues through individual consumerism. People have become spiritual shoppers. Religion is now individualised - we now develop our own 'do-it-yourself' beliefs.

Herview-Leger argues that two new religious types are emerging:

  • Pilgrims follow an individual path in a search for self-discovery, e.g. New Age or through individual 'therapy'.
  • Converts join religious groups that offer a strong sense of belonging. This re-creates a sense of community, e.g. evangelical movements and ethnic minority churches. 
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New forms of religion

Postmodern religion:

Lyon argues that postmodern society has several features that are changing the nature of religion - globalisation, the increased importance of the media and consumerism. As a result, traditional religion is giving way to new religious forms and these demonstrate its continuing strength.

The relocation of religion As a result of globalisation, there is increased movement of religious ideas across national boundaries, often via online religion.

  • The media now saturate us with images and messages from around the globe, giving us instant access to the ideas and beliefs of previously remote religions. 
  • These ideas are 'disembedded' as the media lift them out of their local contexts and move them to a different place and time; e.g. televangelism relocates religion to the internet and TV, allowing believers to express their faith without attending church.
  • So religion becomes de-institutionalised - it signs and images become detached from their place in religious institutions, floating and multiplying on TV and in cyber-space, a cultural resource that individuals can adapt for their own purposes. 
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New forms of religion

Religious consumerism Postmodern society involves the idea that we now construct our identities through what we consume.

  • This is also true of religion: we are 'spiritual shoppers', choosing religious beliefs and practices to meet our individual needs, from the vast range on offer in the religious marketplace.
  • We can pick and mix elements of different faiths to suit our tastes and make them part of our identity.
  • In Lyon's view, religion has relocated to the sphere of consumption. People may have ceased to belong to religious organisations, but have not abandoned religion. They have become 'religious consumers', making conscious choices about which elements of religion they find useful.
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New forms of religion

One effect of having access to a great variety of different beliefs is loss of faith in 'meta-narratives' (worldviews that claim to have the absolute, authoritative truth, such as the traditional religions) because people become sceptical that any one of them is really true.

Previously dominant organisations and traditions thus lose their authority and decline. In their place, many new movements spring up that consumers can 'sample'.

Religion and spirituality are not disappearing; they are simply evolving into new forms that fit the consumerist nature of postmodern society.

Re-enchantment of the world Lyon sees recent decades as a period of re-enchantment, with the growth of unconventional beliefs and practices. 

  • Although traditional religion has declined in Europe, Lyon points to growth of non-traditional religion in the West and elsewhere. 
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New forms of religion

Self-religions and the New Age:

  • Many new forms of religion are New Age beliefs and practices. The New Age rejects obligation and obedience to external authority found in traditional religions. Instead it emphasises personal development, autonomy and one's 'inner self'.
  • Its key idea is individualism: everyone is free to decide for themselves what is true. This is why New Age beliefs have been called 'self-spirituality' or 'self-religions'.
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New forms of religion

A spiritual revolution?:

Some sociologists argue that a spiritual revolution is taking place, with traditional Christianity giving way to a New Age spirituality that emphasises personal development and experience.

  • The spiritual market is growing, e.g. the huge number of books about self-help and spirituality and the many 'therapies', from meditation to crystal healing.

Heelas and Woodhead studied Kendal investigate whether traditional religion has declined and how far the growth of spirituality is compensating for this. They distinguish between:

1. The congregational domain of traditional and evangelical Christian churches.

2. The holistic mileu of spirituality and the New Age.

They found that in a typical week in 2000, 7.9% of the population attended church (the congregational domain), and 1.6% took part in spiritual activities (the holistic mileu).

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New forms of religion

  • Within the congregational domain, the traditional churches were losing support, while evangelical churches were holding their own. Although fewer people were involved in the holistic mileu, it was growing. 

Heelas and Woodhead explain these trends as follows:

1. New Age spirituality has grown because of a massive 'subjective turn' in today's culture - a shift towards exploring your inner self by following a spiritual path. As a result, traditional religions, which demand duty and obedience, are declining.

2. Evangelical churches are more successful than the traditional churches because they emphasise the subject aspects: spiritual healing and growth through the personal experience of being 'born again'. 

3. In the spiritual marketplace, therefore, the winners are those who appeal to personal experience as the only genuine source of meaning and fulfilment, rather than the received teachings and commandments of traditional religion. 

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New forms of religion

The weakness of the New Age:

Bruce argues that the New Age is too weak to fill the gap left by the decline of traditional religion:

Scale The growth of New Age religions would have to be on a much larger scale to fill the gap left by the decline of traditional religions. 

Socialisation A belief system can only survive if it is passed down to the next generation. Yet in the Kendal study, only a minority of New Agers' children shared their parents' beliefs. 

Weak commitment Serious commitment to New Age beliefs is rare.

Structural weakness New Age spirituality is a cause of secularisation because of its individualism. It lacks cohesion because everyone is free to believe whatever they wish. 

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Religious market theory

Stark and Bainbridge advocate religious market theory (also called rational choice theory). They criticise secularisation theory for its 'distorted view' of the past and future: there was no past 'golden age' of religion, nor is it likely that everyone will be an atheist in the future.

Stark and Bainbridge base religious market theory on two assumptions:

1. People are naturally religious and religion meets human needs.

2. People make rational choices based on the costs and benefits of the available religious options. 

  • Religion is attractive because it provides us with supernatural compensators when real rewards are unobtainable; e.g. immortality is unobtainable, but religion compensates by promising life after death.
  • Only religion can provide such compensators, because only it can promise supernatural rewards.
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Religious market theory

Historical cycle Stark and Bainbridge suggest there is a historical cycle of religious decline, revival and renewal: as established churches decline, they leave a gap in the market for new sects and cults. 

Competition Religious market theorists argue that competition leads to improvements in the quality of the religious 'goods' on offer. Churches that make their product attractive will succeed in attracting more 'customers'. 

America versus Europe:

Demand for religion increases where there is a choice, because consumers can find one that meets their needs. In the USA, religion is strong because a healthy market exists where religions grow or decline according to consumer demand. But where there is a religious monopoly, as in most European countries (e.g. the Church of England), lack of choice has led to decline. 

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Existential security theory

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

They argue that the reason for such variations is not different degrees of religious choice, but different degrees of existential security - 'the feeling that survival is secure enough that it can be taken for granted'. 

  • Religion meets a need for security, and so groups and societies where people feel insecure have a high level of demand for religion. These tend to be low-income groups and societies.
  • This explains why poor third-world countries - and poor people in rich countries - remain religious, while people in prosperous Western countries are more secure and have become more secular. 

Europe vs. America 

  • Western Europe is becoming more secular because these societies are relatively equal and secure, with well developed welfare states which reduce insecurity among the poor, whereas the USA remains religious.
  • Similarly, Gill and Lundegaarde argue that the more a country spends on welfare, the lower it level of religious participation.
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