Religion Topics - Sociologists

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Functionalist Perspective of Religion

Malinowski (1951) Psychological Functions

Malinowski aggress with Durkheim that religon does provide a sense of soliderity however, argues that this is achieved through psychological functions such as helping individuals to cope with stress, which would otherwise be directed at society and undermine this sense of soliarity, Malinowski identifies two types of societies where religion performs this role:

1. Where the outcome is important but uncontrollable e.g. sea fishing Trobaind Islands

2.  In times of life cirsis such as birth and death.

Parsons sees religion as helping individuals cope with unforeseen events, but also sees relgion as performing two other fucntions:

1. Creaters and legitimates society's central values Sacralising them e.g. Protestantism sacrificed the core American value of individualism.

2. Primary source of meaning - Answers life's questions about the human condition

  • Rejects the negative effects of religon such as oppression
  • Ignores religon as a social divder in conflict when there is one or more religons.
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Marxist Perspective on Religion

Marx regarded religion as the 'opium of the people' He saw religion acting as an pain reliving drug creats illusons among the oppressed which help them accept their position and therby maintain power by the dominant class. Religion eased the pain caused by poverty, exploitation and oppression in unequal class societies and so helped come over the effect of alienation. 

Marxist perspective suggests that religion helps to dull the pain of opression and exploitation in three main ways:

1. Promises an eventual escape from suffering in which promises an ecastic future in life after death.

2. Sometimes offers hope of supernatual invention to solve problems on earth.

3. Provides a relgioious explanation and justification for inequality

Traditional Marxists see religion as an instrument for social control and oppression used by the ruling class to legitimate their power and material wealth. Inequalitites such as wealth, income and power as presented as God Given and therefore legetimized and inevitable. The inequalities between rich and poor cannot be challanged ir changed without questioning the authority of religon or God itself. The Hindu castes system is an example of this and it protects the positions of those in th ehihest castes.

Religion can only act as an opium if people take it. Religion can only perform the roles that the Marxist perspective suggests if people beleive and if religion has some institutional power

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Marxist Perspective on Religion

  • Neo Marxists disagree with Marxists that religion is simply a part of the dominant ideology and always serves the interests of capitalism. They suggest that religion has some relative autonomy - independence from the interests of the ruling class.
  • Gramci saw religion could sometimes be used for counter-hegemony - a set of ideas providing a basis for challanges by poor to the power of the ruling class and ruling class ideology.
  • Maduro (1982) showed that Catholic priests in America played a major role in fighting against the military dictatorships in the 1960s/70s. Liberation theology sought to present an image of Christ portrayed more as reforming revolutionary than the passive pacemaker presented in mainstram Catholicism.
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Feminist Perspectives on Religion

Feminists see relgion as a patriarchal instutution maintaining male dominance over woemn by making them believe it is God's will. Feminists are controlled by relgion in several ways for example: dress code, arranged marraiges and lifestyle choices.

Feminists see religon as maintaining patriarchy in several ways. Religious organsiations are mainly male dominated so acts as a patriarchal ideology since women are restricted in their inputs into religious organisations. Judaism and Catholics also restrict women on being priests which again restircts their involvement in religious proccedings. Sacred texts are usually written and interpreted by men and religious laws and customs give women fewer rights than men.

Armstrong (1993) argues that this has not always been the case and early religions used to place woemn at the centre, until the rise of the monotheistic chuch, hwere it was seen as men were the most powerful in religon, and God was percieved to be male.

Saddwi (1980) argues that the patriarchy found in religon is not the direct cause of the subordination of women, rather the patriarchal forms of society coming into existnce.

Woddend (2002) argues taht there are forms of religious organsiations wehere women can gain greater respect and freedom. She uses the example of a hijab in Western cultures which is sometimes seen as oppressing women, however Muslim women reject this and regard the wearing of the hijab as allowing them to break free from the cofines of the home into work and education

Chruch of England has also permited women to be priests since 1992.

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Interpretivist Perspective to Religion

Interpretivist approaches study the meanings and interpretations of pople in order to understand their behaviour. They therefore look at the way relgion is used by followers to create meaning and interpretations of the worldm and ti understand the meaning sacred symobls have for idividuals.

Berger (1990) argues that religion provides what he refers to as a universe of meaning. This is a set of beleifs and values that help people make sense of the workd and enables them ot give some focus, order and meaning, The universe of meaning provides individuals a sense of meaning and explanation in the face of a chaotic world. Religion provdies a theodicy a religious framework in which allows indiviudals to make sense of seeminigly inexplicable and fundamental questions about human existence, such as the meaning of life ans why such things as poverty exists. 

Berger sees religon as a sacred canopy stretching over society providing a shield that protects people from the uncertainties, meaninglessness and pointelesslessness of life by helping them make sense of the world and the people in it.

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Globalisation and Religion

Secularisation theory argues that modernism undermines relgion, importance of science and technology are destroying beleif in the supernatural. However, relgion may contribute to teh development as suggestted by Weber with the protestant ethic.

Nanda (2007) God and globalisation in India

Globalisation has brought rapid growith and has seen India playing an important part in the political spectrum, also brought rising prosperity to the middle class. Nanda sees the role of Hinduism in religion as legitimising both the rise of Hindu 'ultra-nationalism' and the prosperity of the Indian Middle Class.

Globalisation has created a scientifically educated urban middle class which is expected to be the first to abandon religon. This is rejected by the Centre of studying sciences in 2007 which the survey foudn after 5 years only 5% they had experienced a decline in religion. Nanda's examination into what motivates the sophisticated urban middle class to continue to believe in miracles was the resuly of many emotions and their newfound wealth creating tension between the traditonal Hindu belief in reincarnation of materalism and worldly desires  and new prosperity of the middle class. India;s success in the global market is increasing because of the superiorit of the Hindu values. Ultra-nationalism the worshipping of Hindu Gods has become the worshipping of the Indian culture creating a civil religon. Now influenced wider society and government.

Protestant ethuc un East Asia and Latin America

Recent years tiger economies such as Tawian and South Korea have successfully industrialised and become significant players in the global economy. This sucess has led sociologists to argue that reigion has played a similar role to the one performed by Calvinism. Redding (1970) describes a spirit of capitalism among Chinese entrepreneurs with 'Post confuncian' values encoruaging hard workm self discipline and a commitment to education similar to that of the protestant ethic.

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Postmodernity and Religion

Lyon "Jesus in Disneyland"

Globalisation has led to greatly increased movements, ideas and beleifs acriss batuibak boundaries. This has led to ideas being dismessed and as a result religion has become institutionalised. Religious consumerism - we can pick and mix elements of different faiths to suit our tastes and make them part of our own identity. In Lyons view religion has relocated to the sphere of consumption. While people have ceased to beleong to religoious organisations they have not abanndoned religion. One product of haivng many faiths to choose from is a loss in faith. Reinchantment of the world - Lyon sees the lst three of four years of re-enchchant as dicovering unconverntional beleifs.

Lyon criticises the evidence for secularisation as it has little extensive evidence such as the electronic church.

Bruce argues that communist religion that Lyon descirbes is weak religion because it has little effects on adherents.

Norris and Inglehart (2004) Existential Security Theory

Different variations of religiousity between socieites is down to the different degrees of existential security - the feeling that survival is secure enough and should not be taken for granted. Poor societies face life threatenting risks and have high levels of religiousity compared to rich societies that have high standards of living and are less at risk.

Vasquez (2002) makes two criticisms of Norris and Inglehart: only qualittative data is analysed, ignores positivie reasons for participation.

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Globalisation and religion

Berger argues that Pentercostalism in Latin America is a 'fucntional equivalent' to Weber's protestant ethic, encourages develioment if capitalism in the same way that Calvinism did, Like Calvinism, Pentecostalism demands ascetuc (self denying) way of life and hard work.

Success of Pentecostalism through its ability to 'plug in' and incorporate local beleifs preaches a similar message worldwide using imagery, symbolisation drawn form local cultures and exisitng religous beleifs. Pentecostalism creaters new local relgious forms rather than just replacing existing local beliefs.

Fundamentalism and Cosmopilitanism 

Giddens (1990) defines fundamentalists as those who seek to basic fundaments of their fiaht. They believe in the literal and infalliable truth of scripture provides answers for all if lifes questions. Fundamentalists beleive that there is only one true view of the world and are introlerant and refuse to engage in dialogue with others. Attraction to fundamentalism contrasts with that of cospolitanism a way of thinking that embraces mdernity and is in keepignwith today's globalising world. Bauman (1992) sees fundamentalism as  a resoinse to living in postmodernity whihc brings freedom of choice, uncertaintym and a heightend awareness of risks.

Distinguishese too sharply between fundamentalism and cosmpolitanism, ignoring hybrid movements.                       Fixated on fundamentalism ignoring other important developments.                                                                                    Ignores importnat differences between types of fundamentalism


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Church attendance in England and Wales ahs fallen shown form the 1851 consensus 40% of the adult population attend church in 1960 compared ot only 6.3% of the poulation today. 

Gill (1998) reviewed 100 national surveys on religious beleifs and found that between 1939 and 1996 there was a signinfcant decrease in the beleif of personal Gods and religious teachings. 'Would you describe yourself as religous?' 23% responded 'no' in 1950 this has now risen to 46% by 1996.

Evidence for Secularisation:

  • Weber (1905) Disenchantment - Process by which magical ways of thinking and relgigious ways of thought are replaced by a more rational mode of thought. E.G Martin Luther King.
  • Parsons (1951) Structual Differentiation - Process of specialisation that occurs with the development of the industrial scoiety. Structural differentiation leads to disengagement in religion, functions are transfrered to other institutions such as the state.

Bruce (2002) Cultrual Defence and Cultural Transition

  • Bruce identifies counter trends going against the secularisation theory. Cultural defence - religion produces a sense of identity and this is used to mantain ethnic pride through religon. Cultural transiton where relgion is used to help others cope with the upheaval of migration, religion only survives iwth the focus on group identity.
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Heelas and Woodend (2000) A spiritual revolution

Heelas and Woodend distingusihed between two groups congregated domain - traditional Chrisitianinty and the hostilitc mileu of spirituality and the new age. In (2000) while 7.9% of the population attended church, 1.6% took part in the holistic mileu. Traditional churches are losing support as the holistic mileu is growing working towards a spiritual revolution.

Wilson Secularisation in America

Wilson found that 45% of Americans attended church in America emphaising an "American way of life' more than a deeply hold religous beleif. 

Haldway et al studided churhc attendacne in Ohio (1993) and estimated churhc attendance through carrying out head counts in sevices and conducting a series of interviews. Level of attendance suggestted was 83% higher than that estimated through the head count.

  • Religion is not decining but simply changing its form
  • Secularisation is a one sided view, foccusess of the decline and not the revivals
  • Ignores believing but not belonging 
  • Religious diversity does not constitute decline.
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Globalisation and religion

Clash of civilisations - Huntington (1993)

Religion has been the centre of a number of global conflicts such as the 9/11 Isis attacks on the United States. Huntington sees conflict as intensifying as teh collapse of communism.

Huntington identitifes 7 civilisations: Western and Latin America, Chinease, Japanesem Islamic, Hindu, Russia and Europe.

Religious differnece s have now become a major surce of identity for three reasons:

  • Fall of communism has made political differences between nations less important as a source of identity.
  • Globalsiation has made nation states less important source of identity.
  • Globalisations has made contact between nation states alot easier so conflict is more likely to occur

Jackson (2006) sees Huntington's work as orientalism an Western ideology that seterotypes Eastern nations and people as untrustworthy, inferior or fanatical.

Casanova (2005) argues that Huntington ignores religious divisions indise the civilisations that he notices.

Horrie and Chipindale (2003) see 'the clash of civilisations' as grossly misleading neo-conservative ideology that portrays the whole of Islam as the enemy, in reality only a tiny minority of muslims are interested in 'holy war' against the West.

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Functionalism Perspective of religion

Structual theory that sees religion as something that inhibits social change and helps keeps society the way that it is. See this as a postive thing, and belive it helps the development of a value consensus.

Durkheim (1917) the sacred and the profane

According to Durkheim the key feature of religion is the fundamental distinction between the sacred and the profane. Sacred things are those which are set apart and forbidden whilst profane are things that have no special significance. Durkheim saw that sacred things were representing things of great power which could only be religion.

Saw the essence of all religon could be found through studying the simplist form in the simplist type of society. An example of this is the arunta clan that consisted of bans of kin who all came togeteher to worship a totem, retrospectively the same as worshipping wider society

Sacred symbols create a collecitve consciousness - shared norms and values that make social life and cooperation between individuals possible, sacred religous rituals reinforces collective consciousness.

Worsley argued that there was no sharp distinction between the sacred and the profane. Different clans have different totems and Durkheim's ideas would be better applied to smaller scale societies where there is not more than two or more religions in conflict.

Mestrovic argues that Durkheims ideas cannot be applied to comtemporary society because of increasing diversity that has led to a fragmented society.

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Social Change

Weber argued that relgion is the cause of social change and focusses on Calvinsits beliefs to demonstrate thism Religion can also lead to social protest as shown through the civil right movements. However, Marxists, Functionalists and Feminists beleive that religon is a onservative force which exits to maintain the status quo, other sociologists see a number of situational factors determining whether or not a religon promotes soical chagne.

Weber religion as a force for social change

Weber's (1905) study of the protestant ethic and the spirirt of capitalism argues that the religious beleif in calvinism has helped to bring about major social change - specifically the emergance of modern capitalism in Northern Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries. 

Calvinism was made up of 4 beleifs:

  • The beleif in Predestination - their fate was already chosen for them in heaven
  • Divine transcendent - God was far above and beyond this world and greter than any mortal
  • Asceticism - Abstinence self discipline and self denial
  • The idea of vocation and calling - constant methodological worj in an occupation not in a monestry.

Weber notes that Calvinisnt beleifs were not the only cause of capitalism it was simply just one of the causes, a number of economic factors were necessary.

Weber argues that in economically advanced countries such as China capitalism has not evelped because of a failure of religious beleif.

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Social Change

Katusky (1927) sees Weber in a political debate wiht Marx who saw capitalism coming before the development of calvinism 

Tawney (1926) argues that technological chagne not religous ideas caused the birth of capitalism, wasnt unitl after capitalism was establsihed that bourgeoise adopted Calvinist beleifs to legitimise their pursuit of economic gain.

Capitalism has not developed in every country where there is Calvinsit beleifs, an example of this is Scotland where there was a large calvinsim population but capitalism stills struggled to develop.

Bruce Charismatic Leaders

Charismatic leaders such as Martin Luther King has been responsible for bringing about social change through religon often causng social conflict. Bruce uses the example of the American civil rights movements as an example of an organisation motivated by religious change, Bruce beleives that the balck clergy were responsible for  civil rights movements led the whites to change the law on segration, provides beliefs and practises that can motivate prosecuters.

Marxism and social change

Functionalist views on social change

Feminst views on social change

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Sects and Cults





Jehovah Witnesses


Organisational Structure

Often under rule by a single charismatic leader. Tight knit community.

Loosely structured, non-exclusive and tolerant.

Attitude towards wider society and state

World rejecting – in opposition or in tension to the world. Many involve radical rejection of the wider society and its institutions.

World affirming – Accept the world the way that it is offering individuals special knowledge or spiritual powers within themselves.

Commitment required

Strict entry criteria with is members required to demonstrate involvement and commitment to change lifestyles.

Often “followers” rather than formal members who carry out normal lives with little control.


Recruited through self-selection or family tradition. Small elicit exclusive, close knit membership.

Non-exclusive and open to all. Many are highly individualistic.

Social base

Often a small exclusive dispossessed or alienated minority who experience relative deprivation

Followers often have above average incomes, who feel that something is lacking in their otherwise successful lives.

Attitude to other beliefs/ religions

Claim a monopoly of the truth for which only members have.

Tolerant existing religions and coexist alongside them

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Explaining the growth of New Religious Movements


Weber (1922) sects tend to arise in groups who are marginal to society, such groups may feel that they are disorivaleged and not recieveing their economic rewards or status. Weber's view states that religon offers a solution to this probelm by offering a theorodicy of disprivalege where a religious explanation and justification is made for their suffering and disadvantage. This may explain their misfortune as a test of faith.

Since teh 1960s sect like world rejecting organsiations have recrutired mainly from more affulent groups often well educated young, middle class whites. However Wallis argues that this does not contradict the view of marginality since many of them have become marginal to society in Weber's view.

Relative deprivation

Relative deprivation refers to the subjecitve sense of being deprived. An example of this is even though a middle class person are materially well off they may feel spriritually deprived.

Stark and Bainbridge argue that it is the spiritually deprived who break away form churches when middle class members of a churhc to seek to compromise their beliefs in order to fit into wider society. Stark and Bainbridge argue that the sects offer a compensator for the rewards that they are denied in this world. Middle class are attracting to world accomodating organsations who express their status and brings them closer to achieving earthly rewards.

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Explaining the growth of New Religious Movements

Social change

Wilson (1970) argues that periods of rapid change disrupt and undermine established normes and values producing a sense of anomie or normelessness, in respoonse to this disruption people may turn to sects as a solution. An example of this is the birth of Methodism at the end of the industrial revolution that produced a sense of community warmth and fellowship.

Bruce (1995) see the growth of sects and cults today as a response to social changes invovled oin modernisation and secularisation. In Bruce's view society is now secularised therefore people are less attracted to sects and traditional chruches because these demand too much commitment so instead opt for cults

World rejecting NRMs grew form the 1960s changes impacting on young people suchas full time education which gave them freedom from adult responsibilities and offered young people an idealistic way of life.

World affirming NRMs - Response to modernity and the reationalisation of work. Work no longer provides a source of identity and NRMs provide both a sense of identity and techniques for sucess in this world

Dynamics of sects 

Niebuhr argues that sects are world rejecitng NRMs and come into existence becuase of schism - splitting from establsihed church because of a disagreement over religous doctraine. Neibuhr argues that sects are short lived becuase they either comprimise with the world, or abandon extreme ideas and he sees several reaons for this:

  • Second generation - Those born into the sect lack commitment and fervour
  • Protestant ethic effect - Sects that practise ascestism tend to become more prosporous and more upwardly mobile
  • Death of a charismatic leader - Sects either die out or bureaucratic leader takes over making it into a denomination.
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Marxism and Ideology

Basic defintion of an ideology is a set of ideas or values, however the word had taken a variety of meanings in sociology such as disotrted, false or mistaken ideas about the world and ideas that conceal the interests of a particular group.


See a ruling class ideology where the ideology are put into place to ensure ruling class rule. It is in the workers interests to overthrow capitalism due to their exploitation of labout, however this revolution cannot occur unless the working class become aware of their position as 'wage slaves' and develop a class conciounsess.

Gramsci expanded on this idea and argued that there is hegemony - ruling class ideologial dominance in society. He argues that the working class can develop ideas that challange ruling class hegemony, this is because of the dual conciousness a mixture of riling class ideology and ideas they develop from own direct experiences of exploitation. It is therefore possible for the working class to develop a class conciousness to overthrow capitalism. In Gramsci's view this requires a political party of 'organic intellectuals' workers who through theri anti-capitalist sturglles have developed a class conciousness and spread this around thw working class. 

Abecrombie et al argue that economic factors such as fear of unemployment can prevent the working class from rebelling.

Manniheim's view sees all beleif systems as partial or one sided worldview. Their one-sidedness results from being the viewpoint of one particiular group or class and its interest. This leads them to distinguish between two broad types of belief systems or world view:

  • Ideological thought - Justifies leaving things that way that they are.
  • Utopian thought - Justifies social change.

In Mannheims view in order to resolve this the intellectuals need to 'detach' themselves from the social groups that they represent and create a non-alligned stadning above conflict. However many of the elements that are of different political ideologies are diametrically opposed and it is hard to imagine how these can be synthesised.

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Feminism and ideology

Feminists see that there is a patriarchal ideology that legitmates gender inequality. Marks descirbes how ideas from science have been used to justify excluding women from education.

She quotes ideas from 19th century (male) doctors, scientists and educationalists expressing the view that educating females would lead to the creation of 'a new race of puny and unfemine' females and 'disqualify women from thier true vocation namely the nuturing of the next generation.

Religious beleifs and practises have also ben used to define women as inferior. There are examples that see women as ritually impure or unclean, particualrly becuase of childbirth and mesturation . This has given the rise to purification rituals such as 'churching' after a woman has given birth.

However, not all elements of religous beleif systems subordinate women, For example there is evidence that in the early history of Middle East, Europe and Asia before the emergance of monotheistic relgions matriarchal religons were widespread with female priests and the celebration of feritlity.

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Scienticism is the beleif that suggests the scientific method is the only means of gathering true knowledge about the world with a strict commitment to emperical evidencem Rejects alleged truths taht cannot be explained through the scientific method such as that of religon.

Popper suggests a scientific method:

1. Hypothesis formation - formulating ideas or educated guesses about possible explanations for some phenomenon.

2. Falsification - Aim of hypothesis testing is to try and prove new evidence worng.

3. Predictioin - Establishing cause and effect relationships, precise predictions of what will happen in the same circumstances in the future can be established.

4. Hypotheis testsed again and still not disproved, evidence that the theory is true,

5. Scrutinity 0 Scientific theory will be scrutinised by other scientists and will stand only if new evidence comes to prove the theory false.

Kuhn argues that scientists work with paradigms a set of ideas, values and beleifs and are not called into question unless evidence against them is overwhelming.

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Has science replaced religion.

Has science replaced ideology

The growth of scientific understanding of the world in modernity might be expected to relegate religon to the postion of pre-modern non-rational age however this is not happening. Millions of people identify themselves with the great relgions of the world such as Hindusim, Sijh and Buddhism these religions still have supernatural beleifs which have power over our human behaviour.

Many individuals hold beleifs in some absract, unseen, mysterious exra human sources with the capacity to intervene in lfe for individual or social benefit, including those who may not see themselves as religious in a communal sense.

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Postmodernity and Religion

Postmodernists argue that religion is not declining but simiply changing its form.

Davie (2007) Believeing without belonging

Davie suggests that relgion is not declining but simply taking a different form, this involves still having the beleif but worshipping in a different way which involves not attenidng the church services. Davie also notes the trend towards a 'vicarious religion' where a small number of proffesional clergy men practise religion on behalf of a much larger group of people. An example of this is in Britain and Northern Europe where despite low church attendance, it is still used for social gain.

Voas and Crockett reject Davie's claim due to a social attitude survey which showed both beleif and attendance were declining

Bruce argues that those not willing to take part in religous practises reflects declining belief.

Religious market theory Stark and Bainbridge (1985)

The religious market theory is based on two assumtions: people are naturally religious, it is human nature to seek rewards and avoid costs. 

According to Stark and Bainbridge religons operate like companies selling goods to a market. According to the secularisation theory competition between different religious organisation undermines religion. However, market theories see this as leading to improvements. Demand for religions increases where there is more than one to choose from in contrast to religious monopoly, wtihout competition there is no incentive. Stark and Bainbridge see religion thriving in America because they guarantee freedom of choice of religions and there has never been a religious monopoly. However in Europe most countries have been dominated by an official state which has brought a religious monoploly.

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New Religious Movements

Troelstch (1912 distinguished between two main types of religous organisations such as Chueches which are large organisations often run by a bureachratic hierarchcy, whereas sects are small exclusive groups who are hostile to wider society.

Niebuhr (1979) identified another type of relgious organisation as denominations such as Methodism as lying between churches and sects.

Since 1960s there has been an expansion in the number of new religions and organisations such as the moonies. Wallis (1984) attempts to classify these new religious movements in terms of their relationship to the outside world.

  • World rejecting NRMs - Clear notion of God, highly critical of the outside world, ahieve salvation members must take a sharp break from their former life, members live communly with restricted contact with outside world.
  • World affirming NRMs - Accpet the world as it is, non exclusive and tolerant of other religions

Not clear whether Wallis is categorising the groups in terms of movements teachings or individual members.

Although Wallis recognises that not all NRMs will fit into his categorisation, nevertheless sociologists find it useful when comparing significant features.

Stark and Bainbridge (1985) argue that we should distinguish between religious organisations using just one criterion the level of conflict.

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