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transmigration of souls, immortality, and everlasting

torment or nothingness. These beliefs

entail religious practices as diverse as worship,

prayer, meditation, purification, preaching,

study, sacrifice, pilgrimage, charity, healing, and

exorcism. A sense of obligation usually attaches to

these beliefs and practices, and they confer a

sense of collective identity on believers – unlike

magic, which tends to involve the manipulation

of hidden forces for the benefit of individual

clients or practitioners.

This is a generic definition of religion that is

adequate for many purposes but it gives no clue to

the seemingly endless disputes about the term’s

meaning. For, although religion is often claimed

to be universal in human societies, agreement

about its defining characteristics is far from universal.

Some definitions insist that religion must

involve belief in supernatural beings or divinities;

others are content to define religion in terms of

the type of functions that it allegedly fulfils for

individuals or societies. Another possibility is to

focus on how the meaning of religion is constructed

and challenged in different times and

social contexts. Indeed, the very notion that the

disparate phenomena associated with world religions

such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism,

and Christianity all belonged to the single

category of religion gained currency only in the

eighteenth century. The question of how well the

primal beliefs and practices of indigenous peoples

in the more remote parts of the world conform to

the generic model of religion remains open.

In short, the meaning of religion cannot be

taken for granted and must be understood in

relation to the contexts in which it is used. The

boundary between religion and non-religion,

para-religion, and quasi-religion therefore affords

a particularly interesting insight into shifts of

meaning. Furthermore, religions are not monolithic

entities but are complex amalgams of

components that are official, in the sense of being

warranted by formal authoritative institutions,

and, on the other hand, a host of unofficial beliefs

and activities that lack formal authorization. The

latter include folk religion with its deep roots in

premodern cultures; customary or common religion

with its selection of highly attenuated extracts

from official religion; invisible religion

with its belief that the human condition is inherently

religious; and implicit religion with its informal

expression of the sacredness sensed in

everyday life. Each world religion displays huge

variations in the extent to which its forms of

expression are formal, official, and visible. Moreover,

individuals can express their religious commitments

in dimensions as varied as knowledge,

ideology, ethics, experience, and ritual. Their personal

orientation to religion can be extrinsic and

instrumental or intrinsic and an end in itself; and

their types of religious experience can be confirmatory,

responsive, ecstatic, or revelational.

Finally, their attitude towards the truth of their

reliability religion


religion’s sacred scriptures can be literalist or


In spite of these problems of definition and

variation, all the major contributors towards the

foundational works of modern sociology saw

reason to attribute significance to the category

of religion, or to particular religions, in their

widely differing depictions of the social formations

emerging in western Europe and North

America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth

centuries. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels

conceded that religion had inspired some rebellions

against injustice but claimed that, as an

obstacle to the elimination of the exploitative

social relations of capitalism, religion was bound

to wither away in the face of socialism. By contrast,

Max Weber argued that religion could serve

both conservative and progressive interests, although

he expected that its societal significance

would be gradually sapped by rationalization,

bureaucratization, and modernization, despite

the occasional eruption of charismatic religious

leaders.E´mile Durkheim was more sanguine about

the fate of religion, believing that it would

continue to fulfill the function of sacralizing

and symbolizing industrial societies, albeit in

individualistic rather than collective terms. And

Georg Simmel, in Essays on Religion (1898–1918

[trans. 1997]), regarded religion as one of the

abiding forms of social relations encapsulating

interpersonal trust and faith.

The influence of these classical contributions to

a sociological understanding of religion remains

strong on subsequent work in the sociology of

religion. For example, there is strong continuity

between early thinking about the dynamics of

modernity and the vitality of conservative evangelical

and fundamentalist forms of religion in the

early twenty-first century. Similarly, Weber’s

thesis about the affinity between The Protestant

Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905 [trans. 2002])

underlies sociological analysis of the political, economic,

civil and personal consequences that flow

from the global diffusion of charismatic and

Pentecostal forms of Christianity. In addition, the

predominantly individualistic character of religious

commitment at the dawn of the new millennium

elicits many of the theoretical concerns

raised 100 years previously about the social

solidarity of the industrial society that was

emerging in the West. For example, Durkheim’s

highly influential books on The Division of Labor in

Society (1893 [trans. 1960]) and The Elementary Forms

of Religious Life (1912 [trans. 2001]) offer a framework

for interpreting phenomena as varied as new

religious movements and New Age practices in

terms of their capacity to reconcile individualism

with collective identity. The long-term legacy

of historical materialism in the interpretation of

religion in conditions of capitalism is less clear,

however, especially in view of the apparent revivals

of religion after 1989 in Russia and the formerly

communist states of eastern Europe. Nevertheless,

the concern with the social conditions that might

overcome alienation and exploitation, as argued

in Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts (1844

[trans. 1959]) and the “Introduction to a Critique

of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right” (1843 [trans. 1978]),

finds an echo not only in Liberation Theology and

other theologies of struggle but also in analyses of

the religious component of present-day social

movements against globalization and against the

abuse of human rights.

Nevertheless, religion has continued to stimulate

sociological imaginations for reasons that

are far from exclusively concerned with theorizing

about capitalist, industrial, or modern forms

of society. The results will be discussed in various

sections, although the interactions between

them should not be overlooked. First, religions

are human and social phenomena regardless of

whether the ultimate reality to which they are

supposedly oriented has a basis in truth. Consequently,

if “the gods have feet of clay,” the social

forms assumed by religions are interesting in

themselves. Second, social factors such as demographic

change, gender, and social class help to

shape the social forms that religions take. It does

not follow that religion can necessarily be reduced

to a matter of the social factors that shape its

expression. It is simply a fact that religions are

practiced in social contexts. Third, religions are

not simply a product of their contexts: they also

have active implications for the cultures and societies

in which they operate. In fact, an interchange

of mutual influence is evident between

the social factors that shape religions and the

implications that religions have for their social

contexts. The leading debates about the interplay

between the social shaping of religions and the

religious shaping of the social world in the early

twenty-first century are the topic of the fourth

heading. Religion lies at the heart of some heated

debates and theoretical disputes about social life

in the future.

The social forms of religion include organization

and ideology. Religious organizations are

structures of social relations, power, and other

resources that control the practice of religion.

They not only give practical expression to

religion religion


religious ideas but they also aim to defend and

promote them. Forms of religious organization

and ideology are strongly interrelated, as Max

Weber and Ernst Troeltsch showed in their respective

studies of the development of Christianity.

They explained the distinctions between

the church-type and the sect-type of Christian organizations

in terms of contrasting theological

ideas about social ethics and access to salvation.

Whereas the church-type offers objective means to

salvation to all its members, the sect-type regards

salvation as something to which only religiously

qualified volunteers can aspire. These differences

are associated with many other aspects of religious

organization, although it is debatable to

what extent the social forms of religions other

than Christianity make sense in church–sect

terms (see church–sect typology). Further elaboration

of this fundamental dichotomy, and of

Troeltsch’s third ideal type of mysticism, has

introduced refinements such as established

churches, denominations, established sects, and

sub-categories of sect. Deployment of the concept

of the cult was a response to the perception that

some of the new religious movements that

became controversial in the late twentieth century

differed from the church-type and the secttype

to the extent that they cultivated individualistic

and, in some cases, magical notions of salvation.

Some of the most controversial movements

also showed that it was possible, but difficult, to

resist or delay the institutionalization of their

leaders’ charisma. Distinctions between audience

cults, client cults, and cult movements have refined

the concept of cult even further, along

with the notion of the cultic milieu. Nevertheless,

many scholars still find the term inappropriate

because journalists and the opponents of controversial

religious movements tend to use cult in a

derogatory fashion.

Organizational forms of religion extend well

beyond church, denomination, sect, and cult.

They include temples, monastic orders, shrines,

brotherhoods, mosques, Sikh gurdwaras, parishes,

congregations, chaplaincies, and missions. In keeping

with the increasing pace of communication,

however, social networks are proving to be the

key to the successful mobilization of people

and resources in religious organizations as well

as in religious movements. Relatively loose, segmented

networks are crucial for the spread of

New Age spirituality, new religious movements,

and transnational Pentecostal churches such as

the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God

which originated in Brazil and is active in many

other regions of the world. Effective use of the

internet, satellite broadcasting, and video technology

has also enabled relatively small religious

organizations to flourish worldwide. These developments

have important implications for the

distribution of authority in religious organizations.

The growing importance of managers and

communications specialists presents challenges

to traditional hierarchies and to the authority of

religious professionals such as priests, pastors,

rabbis, gurus, and imams, or religious specialists

such as healers, preachers, exorcists, diviners, and

prophets. Nevertheless, the distinction that Weber

drew between “mass” and “virtuoso” styles of religion

remains valid. This means that most participants

in religious activities practice their religion

in ways that do not require rigorous training or

extensive separation from the rest of the world. In

contrast, religious virtuosi aspire to higher forms

of religious knowledge, experience, and devotion

that tend to isolate them in, for example, monastic

orders, brotherhoods, or esoteric cabals. It is

not yet clear whether the worldwide spread of

electronic means of communication has made it

easier or more difficult to maintain virtuoso styles

of religion.

The immense variety of ways in which religions

can be defined and put into operation in social

forms is not arbitrary but is subject to the influence

of social forces or factors. Leaving aside the

claims about the super-empirical realities to

which religions are supposedly oriented, there is

extensive evidence that social factors help to

shape religious belief, experience, practice, and

organization. This does not mean that religions

are merely the dupes of their circumstances;

it simply asserts that individual and collective

expressions of religion develop in a complex

interrelationship with societies and cultures.

The probability that religion will be salient in

the lives of individuals will vary with many social

factors and with particular configurations of

them. For example, women tend to consider themselves

to be more religious than men; adults

under the age of eighteen and over the age of sixty

are the most likely age groups to be involved in

religious activities; people with relatively low

levels of wealth, income, educational attainment,

and social status display lower levels of engagement

in religion than do their better-off counterparts;

levels of reported religious belief tend to

decline with each passing generation despite the

fact that adolescents tend to be more religious

than young adults; with the principal exception

of the United States, national levels of religious

religion religion


practice tend to be negatively correlated with

national levels of prosperity; and postcommunist

countries of eastern Europe display wide

differences in their levels of religious belonging

and practice that reflect their religious history

before 1945. Taking into account the inherent

difficulties of defining, operationalizing, and

measuring religion in the questionnaire surveys

on which many of these findings are based – and

the subtle qualifications that scholars have made

to them – the data provide ample support for the

view that religion is socially patterned.

The religion of migrant groups shows particularly

interesting patterns. The processes of international

migration from the relatively poor

countries of the global South to the relatively

prosperous countries of the North, which began

to accelerate sharply in the 1960s in western

Europe and North America gave rise to cross-generational

change in the religious practices of migrants,

settlers, and their descendants. Many of

the first-generation migrants from South Asia to

Europe were men who came from rural areas and

retained their traditional beliefs, but second- and

third-generation Muslim, Hindu, and Sikh settlers

in Europe – especially young women – are developing

new understandings of their identity and their

faith. Moreover, many migrants from South to

North America had previously had contact with

Protestantism and were not therefore averse to

breaking their family ties to Catholicism. “Ethnic

congregations” are flourishing among Christian

settlers who retain strong attachments to their

ethnic and national origins as well as to their religion.

The descendants of migrants lead religious

lives that reflect their social contexts in the West as

well as the cultural traditions of their ancestors.

The social contexts in which religions operate

are legal, political, economic, and cultural. Religions

have long been subject to regulation by

various agencies of the modern state, but the

growing religious diversity of many countries has

created fresh challenges. Gender relations, marriage

customs, methods of slaughtering animals

for food, separate spaces for burial, and the display

of ostentatious symbols of religious identity in

public institutions have become some of the most

contentious issues in the legal regulation of religions.

Similar issues arise in relation to prisoners’

access to opportunities to practice their religion

during incarceration. International legal instruments

such as the European Code of Human Rights

protect individuals’ freedom of religion, but

high-profile legal cases concerning such religious

minorities as Jehovah’s Witnesses, Scientologists,

Muslims, and Falun Gong still occur in, respectively,

Greece, Germany, France, and China.

Relations between the realms of religion and

politics are virtually inevitable given that strong

convictions about ultimate values and power are

common to both of them. Strong correlations

therefore exist between certain kinds of religious

belief and support for political ideas about, for

example, pacifism, just wars, abortion, birth control,

the death penalty, and environmentalism. For

the second half of the twentieth century, Christian

Democracy in various European countries represented

a clear combination of non-traditional Catholicism

and centrist politics. Elsewhere internecine

conflicts have racked countries where the major

divisions or fault lines in society coincided with

religious differences. Israel/Palestine, the former

Yugoslavia, Sri Lanka, Cyprus, Sudan, and Northern

Ireland are only a few such places. International

tensions between Greece and Turkey, India and

Pakistan, or Iran and the United States are also

aggravated, if not actually caused, by religious


The economic context of religion is often overlooked,

but religious organizations clearly need to

compete for resources within the terms of their

own highly variable teachings about the relative

merits of wealth and poverty. Some of Japan’s New

Religions, for example, regard their displays of

wealth as indicators of their spiritual power,

whereas Protestantism has spawned numerous denominations

that prize plain living. Nevertheless,

Weber’s essay on The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of

Capitalism (1905 [trans. 2002]) is only the bestknown

of various commentaries on the irony

that some early modern Protestant movements,

in inspiring their followers to look for signs that

their destiny was to go to heaven, incidentally

inculcated such habits of sobriety, abstemiousness,

and diligence in them that they became

successful capitalists – and scientists – in spite of

themselves. Similarly, Islam’s prohibition on lending

money at interest used to be considered an

obstacle to capitalistic enterprise among Muslims,

but alternative ways of financing businesses are

proving successful. Meanwhile, the individualistic

“prosperity gospel” is popular among conservative

Evangelicals and some Pentecostals in Africa,

South Korea, parts of Latin America, and the

United States.

Although all religions operate in cultural contexts,

the responses of particular religious organizations

to the influences emanating from elite

and mass cultures range along a spectrum from

enthusiastic embrace to outraged rejection. For

religion religion


example, the individualism and subjectivism that

pervade culture in most western societies are reproduced

and enhanced in various new religious

movements and New Age spiritualities. At the

other end of the spectrum, pietistic and mystical

movements in Islam, Christianity, and Hinduism

reject individualism, consumer society, and materialism,

preferring to live in strong tension with

popular values. Religious attempts to defy the influence

of dominant culture are often hampered

by the power of the mass media to shape public

opinion. Popular television programs, newspapers,

magazines, and films tend to reinforce conservative

stereotypes of normal and deviant religions.

This is partly why well-resourced religious

organizations invest heavily in their own media

productions and websites.

Social and cultural factors help to explain how

religions operate in human societies. But they are

only one side of the coin: religions also contribute

towards shaping their social and cultural contexts.

The implications that religions have for

society and culture require separate discussion.

History provides many dramatic instances of

the capacity of religions, often in alliance with

political forces, to shape society and culture in

certain circumstances. For example, millenarianism,

or beliefs about the imminence of the end of

ordinary time and the arrival of 1,000 years of

peace and prosperity, was at the base of many

rebellions and revolutions in medieval Europe.

The Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the contribution

of Christian groups towards the collapse of

communist regimes in eastern Europe after 1989

showed that religion retains the power to influence

the transformation of societies. Admittedly,

it is rare in late modernity for religions to be

decisive in such major transformations, but

there is plentiful evidence of the everyday involvement

of religious organizations, personnel, and

ideas in attempts to steer social life in certain


To begin with the political sphere, the Japanese

state Shinto tradition and Roman Catholicism

both served as symbolic resources for and vehicles

of fascist ideology in the 1930s and 1940s; Hinduism

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