Sociology: Religion, Renewal and Choice


New forms or religion

Some sociologists reject secularisation theory and argue that religion is simply changing, rather than declining- as a result or trends in late modern society, such as greater individualism, choice and consumerism.

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Believing without belonging

Grace Davie argues that religion is not declining but simple taking a different, more privatised from

  • 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 practice religion on behalf of a much larger number of people 

  • In societies like Britain, despite low attendance, many people 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 pattern or religion- high church attendance in America, low in Britain, but accompanied by believing without belonging

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The 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

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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

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Hervieu-Leger: Two emerging religions

  • 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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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

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Postmodern religion: 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- its signs and images become detached from their place in religious institutions, floating and multiplying on TV and in cyberspace, a cultural resource that individuals can adapt for their own purposes

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Postmodern 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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Postmodern religion: Religious consumerism 2

One effect of having access to a great variety of different beliefs is loss of faith in ‘meta-narratives’ (worldnews 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 

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Bruce argues that this consumerist religion is weak religion- it has little effect on the lives of its adherents. As such, he sees its rise as evidence of secularisation, not of the continuing vitality of religion

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Postmodern religion: 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 the growth of non-traditional religion in the West and elsewhere

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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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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 to 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 milieu of spirituality and the New Age

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A spiritual revolution: Trends

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 subjective 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 fulfillment, rather than the received teachings and commandments of traditional religion

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This doesn’t mean a spiritual revolution has taken place- the smaller growth of the holistic milieu has not compensated for the larger decline of traditional religion

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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 the 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 (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 cost and benefits of the available religious options

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Religious market theory is a critique of secularisation theory, which they see as eurocentric and failing to explain religion’s continuing vitality in America and elsewhere

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Religious market theory: 2

  • Religion is attractive because it provides us with supernatural compensators when real rewards are unattainable; e.g. immortality is unattainable, but religion compensates by promising life after death 

  • Only religion can provide such compensators, because only it can promise supernatural rewards:

  • Historical cycle: stark et al 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’

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America Verses Europe

Demand for religion increases when 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 continues (e.g. the Church of England), lack of choice led to decline

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Norris et al show that high levels of religious participation exist in Catholic countries where the Church has a near monopoly, e.g. Venezuela. This contradicts Stark and Bainbridge’s theory

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Existential security theory

Norris et al reject religious market theory on the grounds that it only applies to America and fails to explain the variations in religiously between societies 

They argue that the reason for such variations is not different degrees or religions 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

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Norris et al only see religion as a negative response to deprivation. They ignore the positive reasons people have for religious participation 

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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 its level of religious participation

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