The Organisation of Religions

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Churches and Sects

In the early 20th century Troeltsch distinguished between a church and a sect. Both types of religion have a monopoly view of the truth i.e. believe their view is the absolute truth. However, apart from that they are quite different

Churches are large scale, inclusive and universal, meaning membership is open to all and they are often the main religion in a society. They are closely linked to the state – the Queen is the head of both the state and the Church of England - and accept the norms and values of wider society. A church has a complex, formal hierarchy of paid professional clergy, and worship and ritual tends to be formal, structured and restrained. Churches encourage active involvement but generally have a low level of commitment from followers.

On the other hand, sects are highly exclusive with membership often based on merit. They distance themselves from wider society, which they are critical of, and sometimes hostile towards. Sects have no formal hierarchy, but often rely on the God-given talents of a charismatic leader. Worship is much more informal and expressive. Sects demand high levels of commitment from followers, who may be expected to spend much of their spare time involved in sect activities. 

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Niebuhr identified a third type of religious organisation: a denomination. These are part-way between a church and a sect. They are inclusive, but not universal – they do not aim to become the dominant religion in a society. They accept the values of society, but are not linked to the state. They do have some restrictions on members – such as forbidding alcohol or gambling – but, beyond this, have a fairly low level of commitment.

Worship and ritual is formal, but has less ritual than a church. They have a formal professional clergy but this is less complex than a church and lay-preachers – non-professional clergy – may lead services.

Unlike both a church and a sect a denomination has no claim to a monopoly of the truth. Examples: Baptists, Methodists, Quakers.

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A fourth type of organisation is a cult. These do not have a monopoly view of the truth, have very little organisation and are often little more than a collection of individuals with a similar interest.

They are more focused on the individual rather than the group, so have very little worship and ritual. They have very low levels of commitment from their followers, and members may leave once they feel they have benefitted from the ‘services’ the sect can offer.

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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.

 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.  

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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; 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.

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New Religious Movements

The 1960s and 1970s saw a significant increase of non-traditional religious organisations, and the categories of sect and cult became increasingly inadequate to categorise and understand them. For example, Scientology has many features of a cult, but also has an organisational structure and level of commitment more akin to a sect. The term New Religious Movement was introduced to make sense of these new religions. Wallis identified three types of NRM based on their relationship with the wider world:

World rejecting: similar to sects and often founded by a charismatic leader. These are intensely critical of, and often hostile towards, wider society, maintain a clear divide between themselves and society and demand very high levels of commitment from their followers.

World accommodating: generally accept wider society and members lead conventional lives as part of society. However, these NRMs are critical of the lack of religiosity within society. They criticise more conventional religious organisations for failing to help people with their spiritual experiences. Examples include: Neo-Pentecostalism and Subud.

World affirming: these lack traditional features of a religion, such as collective ritual and worship. They are run more like businesses, offering members a variety of techniques to live more fulfilling and successful lives. Members accept wider society and activities are more focuses on improving the individual, rather than society. 

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Evaluation of NRMs

Once again, it can be difficult for a religion to fit neatly into one type of NRM. The 3HO, for example, has features of each. In many respects, the term NRM does not really take our understanding of religious organisations much further from sects and cults. Stark and Bainbridge argued the only point really worth considering is the level of conflict between the group and wider society.

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The growth of religious movements

Sociologists are interested in why sects appear and the types of social groups they attract. There are three explanations: social marginalisation, relative deprivation and social dislocation and change.

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Social Marginalisation

WEBER argued sects appeal to those on the ‘margins’ of society – the poor, homeless, minority groups etc. These groups are often discriminated against and are unable to play a full and active role in society.

A sect offers help by providing a THEODICY OF DISPRIVILEGE: and explanation for suffering and of the promise life will improve.

Sect members are the ‘chosen few, which gives them a sense of status and respect denied by wider society.

The Black Muslims provide an example of this. The sect explained their suffering was caused by the evils of White people. It promised that, eventually, White people and their religions would be destroyed and Black people would rule for eternity under the guidance of Allah. 

However, Beckford notes that sects such as Jehovah’s Witnesses attract many young people from upper working class and lower middle class: i.e. social groups not likely to be marginalised. Many had simply become disillusioned with conventional religion; sect membership offered a new spiritual direction.

Nonetheless, Wallis argues that the term marginalisation is relevant because many middle class converts had often become marginal to society through drug use or membership of counter-cultures such as hippies.

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Relative deprivation

Relative deprivation means a sense of lacking something in relation to what other people have. An individual may be financially well-off, but feel they are deprived of status, respect or spirituality. Such people may turn to sects in response to this. A sect demands a strict code of conduct, self-discipline and commitment from members. If members follow this they will begin to gain respect and status from the rest of the sect, leading them to feel they are part of a wider community. These people may have become disillusioned with mainstream religion; sects offer an attractive alternative.

The Black Muslims also provide an example of this. The sect demands a strict code of behaviour, and alcohol, tobacco and sex outside of marriage are all forbidden. Following this code helps give members responsibility, discipline, status and respect. 

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Social Dislocation and Change

If social change occurs very rapidly it may lead to a feeling of dislocation, a sense of being ‘out of place’. This can lead to anomie, because the social change breaks down social norms.

Sects can help with this because they offer clear guidelines of behaviour to give members certainty and norms during an uncertain, normless time. They also offer hope that life will improve in the future.

Methodism developed in the late 18th century/early 19th century in response to the rapid social change and dislocation caused by industrialisation. Methodism offered a sense of community and stability and the promise of salvation during this difficult time.

However, Stark and Bainbridge noted that, in the USA, more sects appeared during the 1950s, a period of economic and social stability compared with the 1960s and 1970s, both decades of social and political unrest. This challenges the view that sects appear during times of rapid social change.

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The Growth of New Religious Movements

WALLIS uses WEBER’S concept of RATIONALISATION to explain the origins of new religious movements. Rationalisation refers to the dominance of rational thought, reason, planning and calculation.

For some, this has replaced the magic and mystery of religion, leading to a sense of DESACRILISATION – the loss of sacred and religious explanations. Wallis believes NRMs may emerge in response to this.

World Rejecting NRMs: In the USA during the late 1960s, and early 70s, many people protested against political regimes. These people formed subcultures and took part in political protests in an attempt to change the world. However, their effort to change society through these efforts largely failed. They realised human effort alone could not change society, so they turned to religious organisations to get help from God.

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. 

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The development of sects

Religious organisations can develop over time. Niebuhr argues a sect may develop into a denomination or die out. Other sociologists suggest sects also may stay as a sect and become an established sect. 

1. Sect to denomination: over time the sect may become less critical of society. For example, the new generation born into the sect may be less critical of society than their parents. Alternatively, society may change some of the things the sect was critical of.

2. Death of sect: often the sect dies out on the death of the charismatic leader

3. Become an established sect: the sect maintains its isolation from wider society.

Methodism illustrates the development of a sect to a denomination because they no longer are critical of wider society because society has changed the things they were critical of e.g. child labour and long working hours.

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Wilson suggests the reason why some sects become denominations but others remain as sects is their answer to the question: ‘what shall we do to be saved?’ In this view, conversionist sects are more likely to become denominations whereas Adventist sects remain as sects.

Conversionist sects are sects whose primary aim is to convert people.

Adventist sects are sects whose primary aim is to prepare themselves for the Day of Judgement, for the transformation of the world.

A conversionist sect may become a denomination because it doesn’t affect their primary aim – they can still save souls.

An Adventist sect is likely to remain a sect because their primary aim is to separate themselves from today’s sinful and corrupt society and await the second coming of Christ. Becoming a denomination would compromise their position which demands separation from society.

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The development of NRMs

WALLIS suggests world rejecting NRMs can develop in one of two ways:

• Can become more world accommodating as the group becomes less critical of, and hostile towards, wider society. They relax their strict demands on their followers, and develop a more conventional organisation.

• Can become more world rejecting if their criticism of and hostility towards wider society intensifies. The group increases its isolation from society and, in some cases, this may lead to the destruction of the group.

World affirming NRMs like businesses and therefore must adapt the services they offer to meet the changing needs and demands of their clients, otherwise they will not survive.

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