Religious organizations, including cults, sects, denominations, churches and New Age movements, and their relationship to religious or spiritual organizations and movements, beliefs and practices

  1. The church - Ernst Troeltsch (1931) – refers to a large religious organization. Individuals are born into it. A church might try to be universal but in reality substantial minorities don’t belong. It usually ‘stabilises and determines the political order’. Churches are often closely related to the state. Likely to be religiously conservative and support the status quo. 

Roy Wallis (1976) - divided organizations into respectable (uniquely legitimate or pluralistically legitimate) or deviant


Uniquely legitimate ChurchSect

Pluralistically legitimateDenominationCult

Steve Bruce (1996) – Wallis’ definition is useful for describing pre-modern Christian societies but after the reformation, sects have developed which have undermined the church form. It is more difficult for the state to lend support to one group. Bruce sees the Church of England as a denomination rather than a church.

  • 2005 – 870,000 attended Anglican churches and 893,100 attended Roman Catholic churches
  • Churches today tolerate other religions
  • Not all; churches are ideologically conservative – Davie (1989) lay members of Church of England tend to be conservative but some senior bishops are more radical

Steve Bruce (1986) – in places like Spain, Portugal etc where the Catholic church is dominant and acts as a universal church, the power and influence seems to be declining. EG Same sex marriages are allowed in Spain

  1. Denominations

Stark and Bainbridge (1985) – an organization that shares several but not all the supposed features of a church – a watered down church.

H.R Niebuhr (1929) – a denomination does not have universal appeal – 2005 – 289,000 attending Methodists, 287,600 attending Pentecostal and 254,800 Baptist.

 - Denominations are not so closely linked with the upper classes.

- Denominations don’t identify with the state (?)

- they do not claim a monopoly on religious truth (Steve Bruce – most important distinction)

- usually conservative

Bruce – the last 200 years has seen churches evolve into denominations because of cultural pluralism and the unwillingness of the state to force the unwilling into supporting the church.

Alan Aldridge (2000) – the context determines the definition of a religious group. For example, the Mormons are seen as a denomination in the US and a sect in the UK.


# Sects are groups that are formed as an offshoot of an existing religion. 

Cults are NEW religions #

Troeltsch (1981)

Diametrically opposed to the church

  • Smaller and more integrated
  • Connected with the lower classes or at least from those opposed to the state
  • They reject the values of the world
  • Members might be expected to withdraw from the world outside the group
  • They are expected to be deeply committed to their beliefs
  • Members join as adults voluntarily and adopt the lifestyle of the sect – they exercise a stronger control over individuals
  • Monopoly of the truth
  • No hierarchy of paid officials – usually there is one single charismatic leader

Wilson (1970)


- identification



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