The organisation of religion


Difference between church+sect- Troeltsh


Membership: open to all +easily obtained. Universal + all inclusive.

Organisation: Formal hierachy- professional clergy.

Worship and ritual: Restrained, based on trad. ritual- fixed, prayers +hymns.

Sense of legitimacy: monopoly of the truth- only their finding offer the truth.

Relationship to wider society: accept norms+values. Closely linked with societies major institutions.

Involvement and commitment: no compulsion to play an active role- low levels of involvement +commitment are still regarded as members.

1 of 11

Difference between church+sect- Troeltsh


Membership: highly exclusive, boundaries between them+wider society. Membership has to be earned . Clear distinction between members+non members.

Organisation: have a charismatic leader- depend on leadership by the special, God-given talents.

Worship and ritual: little use of ritual, worship typically emotional, expressive and spontaneous.

Sense of legitimacy: churches+sects-rivals. Sects have monopoly of the truth. Members encouraged to think that they are elite with salvation reserved for only them.

relationship to wider society: critical. expect members to stand apart from it, contact with non members is discouraged

Involvement and commitment of members: demand high levels of commitment and good behaviour. Much of a members spare time is spent in religious study.

2 of 11

Difference between denomination+cult- Niebuhr


Membership: open to all, but not universalistic.

Organisation: formal hierachy, less complex than a church. May use lay-preachers to take services.

Worship and ritual: formal, but less so than a church. Less spontaneous rituals than a sect.

Sense of legitimacy:no monopoly view of the truth.

Relationship to wider society: accept society + don't challenge it; seperate from state and may offer some criticism of society.

Involvement and commitment of members: low, but may have some expectations such as alcohol in moderation.

3 of 11

Difference between denomination+cult- Niebuhr


Membership: open to all.

Organisation: very loose structure. May have charismatic leader.

Worship and ritual: Little worship + ritual. May involve programmes of self-improvement.

Sense of legitimacy: no monopoly view of the truth.

relationship to wider society: accept wider society.

Involvement and commitment: very low

4 of 11

New Religious Movements

1960s +70s saw a sig. increase on non-trad. religious organisations, + the categories sects and cults became inadequate to to categorise+understand them. New religious movement was introduced to make sense of these new religions. Waalis identified 3 NRMs:
similar to sects and often founded by a charismatic leader. V. criticial and hostile towards wider society, maintain a clear divide between themselves+ society and demand high levels of commitment. E.g. People's temple
world-accomodating: Generally accept wider society and members lead conventional lives as part of society. Critical of the lack of religiousity within society. Criticise more conventional religious organisations for failing to help people with their spiritual experiences.
world-affirming: lack trad. features of a religion- collective ritual+worship. More like businesses, offering members techniques to live more fulfilling+successful lives. Accept wider society + activities are more focused on improving the individual, rather than society.


5 of 11

New Religious Movements evaluation+ CSDC eval.

:( Difficult for a religion to fit neatly into one type of NRM.

Stark and Bainbridge- level of conflict between the group and wider society.


Stark and Bainbridge suggest that sects and cults are in conflict with wider society. The difference is that sects tend to develop from schisms: a breakaway from a church due to disagreements about ideas. Cults, on the other hand, develop as new religions, not out of existing ones. Sects tend to offer other-worldly benefits such as salvation in heaven, whereas cults offer this-worldly benefits such as an improved lifestyle and happiness.

Stark and Bainbridge also identify different types of cult. Audience cults are the least organised, with little interaction between members and very low levels of participation. Client cults are like a business with a relationship between a ‘consultant’ and ‘client’ to offer techniques for self-improvement and discovery (see also New Age Movements below). Cultic cults require fairly high commitment with followers not expected to be part of other religious organisation. Unlike other cults these often are highly organised. They may develop out of client cults: Scientology, for example, developed out of a client cult called Dianetics. 

As with all attempts in sociology to categorise concepts, a problem is that one organisation could fit into more than one type e.g. it may have some features that make it a sect, in other respects it may appear like a denomination. Furthermore, Troeltsh’s categories are based primarily on sect developing from Christianity, and may be less applicable to religions such as Hinduism or Buddhism.

Bruce argues that the concept of a church with a monopoly of truth over society only applies to the Catholic Church before the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. The rapid growth of denominations, sects and cults since then has encouraged religious diversity and reduced the significance of the established church (see topic6); consequently, churches are no longer universal and struggle to maintain the credibility of their monopoly of the truth. In Bruce’s view, churches such as the Church of England have, therefore, today been reduced to the status of a denomination.

6 of 11

The growth of religious movements

Social marginalisation- Weber argued sects appeal to those marginalised in society. On the edge of society+unable to fully be part of society, e.g. poverty, homeless, ethinic minority groups etc. People's temple attracted poor+ethnic minorities who had been marginalised due to racism+economic inequality. May feel they lack status, opportunities or rewars they feel they deserve. Sects offer a theodicy of disprivilege: an explanation for their suffering and the promise life will get better in the future. Sects make members the 'chosen few'- status and self-respect.

Relative deprivation- lacking something in relation to what other people have. May feel deprived of status, respect or spirituality. Turn to sects- demands strict code of conduct, self-discipline +commitment. Will then gain respect+status from rest of sect, feeling part of a wider community.

Social dislocation+social change: If social change occurs v. quickly it can lead to a sense of social dislocation: a sense of being uprooted from the norms+values. Sects offer help as they provide clear guidelines and standards of behaviour + the promise that the situation will improve. Could also lead to anomie- a sense of normlessness.



7 of 11

The growth of new religious movements

Wallis developed Weber's concept of rationalisation to explain why NRMs have grown. Rationalisation- dominance of rational thought, action +reasoning. Led to a sense of desacralisation- sacred lost from society. NRMs may develop in response to this loss of the sacred.

world rejecting NRMs: During 60s+70s MC young people led protests against political actions+policies. Young people wanted to change the world for the better, but they failed. Sought help from God. As these individuals were critical of society they turned to religious groups also critical of society.

World affirming NRMs:  Capitalist societies place a high value on status, achievement, self-confidence, attractiveness and happiness. Not everyone can achieve these, so some may turn to world affirming NRMs to help achieve these characteristics. Attract more MC, middle aged career-minded people.




Wallis developed Weber’s concept of rationalisation to explain why NRMs have grown. Rationalisation refers to the dominance of rational thought, action and reasoning. For some, this has replaced the magic and mystery provided by religion, leading to a sense of desacralisation, where the sacred has been lost from society. New Religious Movements may develop in response to this loss of the sacred.

World rejecting NRMs: Wallis suggests that world-rejecting NRMs developed in the 1960s because young people were dissatisfied with society and sought to change it for the better. Many had been in education longer than previous generations, and joined counter-cultures, political protests and other alternative lifestyles. Their attempts to change society were unsuccessful, so many disillusioned young people turned to religious movements to change society with supernatural help; they were attracted to world-rejecting NRMS because they too were critical of wider society. 

World affirming NRMS: Wallis argued these movements developed in response to the values of a modern capitalist society. These values include an emphasis on status, happiness, achievement, personal attractiveness and fulfilment. These can be difficult to achieve, so some people may turn to world-affirming NRMs to help them and provide a clear sense of identity in a modern society.

8 of 11

The development of sects

Niebuhr  suggests sects don't always stay as a sect. They could either become denominations or die out. Other sociologists suggest sects may also remain as sects+become established sects.
sects to denominations:  Attract those from the margins of society. Help them overcome feelings of marginalisation so they're less critical of society. Society may change some of the things sects are critical of- sects have less to be critical of. People born into the sect may be less critical of society than those whp chose to join. The sect moderates its views + becomes a denomination.
Death of sect:  Often after death of charismatic leader. No one can adequately replace them.
Established sect: Maintain isolation from wider society and remain a sect. Children are socialised into the same high levels of commitment as their parents.
Converstionist sect: primary aim- convert people. May turn into a denomination as they wouldn't be compromising their main goal of saving people.
Adventist sects:
primary aim- prepare themselves for day of judgement- transformation of the world. Remain a sect as they have to separate themselves from wider society to accomplish their goal.


9 of 11

The development of NRMs

world rejecting NRMs  may develop one of two ways- moderate their views+become less critical and more world accomodating. Or their criticisms of society may intensify and become even mroe world rejecting.- People's temple.

World affirming NRMs operate like businessed- must adapt to the changin demands of their clients to survive.



10 of 11

Development of new age movements

NAMs developed rapidly since 1980's. Share many features of cults + offer a range of services to help the individual . Activities: crystal healing, guided visualisation etc. Focus on individual for spirituality + personal experiences to doscover their own truths.

 NAMs and postmodernism: may develop in response to change in a postmodern society. Decline of metanarratives such as science. Science created many harmful things- people have lost faith. Also become disillusioned with trad. religion +its failure to meet their spiritual needs. People turn to NAMs which offer non-scientific idead to heal and medicine or for spirituality. The emphasis in a pomo society in on individual choice and consumption- choose to suit them.

NAMs and modernism: Bruce- NAMs are a feature of modernism, not a change to a pomo society. Modern societies value individualism- emphasised by NAMs. Provide a source of identity in a diverse and fragmented modern society- provide truth and certainty in an uncertain modern world, and offer alternatives to a trad. religion which tends to decline in a modern society.



11 of 11


No comments have yet been made

Similar Sociology resources:

See all Sociology resources »See all Religion and beliefs resources »