Assess the sociological explanations for the increasing number of religions and spiritual organisations and movements in society today

Since the 1960s there has been massive growth in the number of sects and cults and the number of people belonging to them. For example there is an estimated to be over 800 new religious movements and half a million individuals belonging to these and other non mainstream Christian churches in the UK. Sociologists have offered three key explanations for this trend; marginality, relative deprivation and social change.

Troeltsch had noted sects tended to draw members from the poor and the oppressed. Similarly Max Weber (1922) argues sects arise in groups who are marginal in society. Such groups feel they’re disprivileged. They don’t believing they’re receiving their economic rewards or social status. Weber argues that sects offer a solution to this problem by offering members a theodicy of disprivilege – a religious explanation and justification for their suffering and disadvantage. This can explain their misfortune as a test of faith, for example while holding out the promise of rewards in the future for keeping the faith.

Historically many sects as well as millenarian movements have recruited from the marginalised poor. For example in the 20th century the Nation of Islam (the Black Muslims) recruited among disadvantaged oppressed blacks in the USA. However since the 1960s the sect world rejecting new religious movement the Moonies have recruited from more affluent groups of young, well educated middle class whites. However Wallis argues this doesn’t contradict Weber’s view as many of the individuals were already marginal in society. Despite their middle class background most were hippies, drug users and drop outs.

Relative deprivation refers to the subjective sense of being deprived.  This is where someone who in reality is privileged feels deprived or disadvantaged compared to others. Thus although middle class people are economically well off and they feel spiritually deprived , especially in today’s materialistic, consumerist world which they perceive as impersonal and lacking in moral, emotional and authentic values. Thus Wallis argues they turn to sects for a sense of community.

Stark and Bainbridge agree it’s the relatively deprived who break away from churches to form sects. When middle class members of a church seek to compromise its beliefs in order to fit into society, deprived members are like to break away to form sects that safeguard the message of the original organisation. For example the deprived may stress Christ’s claim that it’s harder for a rich man to enter heaven then for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. This is a message the affluent will want to play down whereas the poor want to emphasise this. Stark and Bainbridge argue world rejecting sects offer to the deprived compensators they need for the rewards deprived of in this world. Contrastingly the affluent don’t need compensators or world rejecting religions. Thus they’re attracted to world accepting religions that express their status and bring them further success.

A third explanation for the increasing number of religions and spiritual organisations in today’s society is social change. Wilson (1970) argues periods of rapid change disrupt and undermine traditional norms and values; this produces normlessness. Insecurity and uncertainty is created; in response those most affected by disruption turn to sects as a solution. For example the industrial revolution caused dislocation in Britain. This led to the birth of Methodism, which offered sense of community clear norms and values and promise of salvation. Methodism was successful in recruiting large numbers of people from the new industrial working class. Bruce also sees the growth of sects and cults as a result of modernisation and secularisation. Bruce argues society is now secularised thus people are less attracted to traditional churches and strict sects as they demand too much commitment. People now prefer cults as they demand less commitment and sacrifice.

Sociologists have put forward arguments as to explain the growth of both world rejecting and world affirming new religious movements. For the growth of world rejecting new religious movements, Wallis looks at the social changes in the 1960s and their impact on young people. Increased time in education gave them freedom for adult responsibilities; this enabled counter culture to develop. The growth of radical political movements offered alternative ideas about the future. By offering a more idealistic way of life world rejecting new religious movements attracted young people. Bruce (1995) argues it was the failure of counter culture to change the world that caused disillusionment among young people; thus they turned to religion instead.

Bruce argues the growth of world affirming new religious movements were a response to modernity, especially to the rationalisation of work. Work no longer provides meaning or a source of identity. However at the same time were expected to achieve, even though we may lack opportunities to succeed. World affirming new religious movements provide a sense of identity and techniques that promise success in the world. Wallis has also indentified middle ground movements, for example the growth of the Jesus freaks since the 1970s. They attracted disillusioned former members of world rejecting new religious movements as they provide a half way house back to a more conventional lifestyle.

Unlike churches such as the Church of England with a history spanning over centauries, sects are short lived, often lasting a single generation. Sociologists thus look at the dynamics of sect development to understand its growth.

Niebuhr (1929) argues sects are world rejecting organisations that are the result of schism, where there is a split from an established church because of disagreement over doctrine. Niebuhr argues sects are short lived and within a generation they die out, compromise with the world or abandon their extreme ideas and become a denomination. Niebuhr identifies several reasons for this; the second generation lack the fervour of their parents who consciously rejected the world and joined voluntarily. The “protestant ethic” effect meant that sects that practiced ascetism tended to become prosperous. Members will tend to want to compromise with the world with their new found wealth and thus abandon world rejecting beliefs. Sects with a charismatic leader either collapse on a leader’s death or a more formal bureaucratic leadership will take over; thus transforming the organisation into a denomination.

Stark and Bainbridge (1985) see religious organisations moving through a cycle. The first stage is schism, where there’s tension between the needs of the deprived and privileged members of the church. Deprived members break away to form a world rejecting sect. The second phase is one of initial fervour with a charismatic leadership and tension between the sect’s beliefs and those of wider society. The third phase is denominationalism, where the fervour disappears because of the coolness of the second generation and protestant ethic effect. The fourth stage is establishment, where the sect becomes more accepting and the tension with wider society reduces. In the final stage a further schism results where more zealous or less privileged members break away to found a new sect true to the original message.

However Wilson (1966) argues not all sects follow the sectarian cycle. He argues whether they follow the cycle depends on how they answer the question “How shall I be saved?” Conversionist sects such as evangelicals, whose aim is to convert large numbers of people, are likely to grow rapidly into larger, more formal denominations. Adventist sects such as Jehovah’s witnesses await the second coming of Christ. To be saved they believe they must hold themselves separate from the ungodly world around them. This separatism prevents them compromising to become a denomination. Wilson argues sects such as the Amish and Pentecostalism have survived many generations. Instead of becoming denominations he argues they become established sects. Contrary to Niebuhr’s argument many succeed in socialising children into high commitment, largely by keeping them apart from the world. However Wilson argues globalisation will make it harder for sects to keep themselves separate from the outside world.

On the other hand globalisation will make it easier to recruit in the third world where large numbers of deprived people will be attracted to the message of sects. Success of Pentecostalism is evidence of this. This further shows the growth of religious organisations today.

Since the 1980s there has also been growth of the new age. Heelas (2008) estimates there are 2000 such activities and 150,000 participants in the UK. Many are loosely organised audience or client cults. They are very diverse and put new unconnected ideas together in new combinations. . They include belief in crystals, aliens, yoga and alternative medicine. Heelas (1996) argues there are two common characteristics of the new age. One is self spirituality where new agers seeking the spiritual have turned away from the traditional external religions such as churches and look into themselves to find it. The second characteristic is detraditionalisation where the new age rejects the spiritual authority of external traditional sources such as priests or sacred texts. They instead value personal experience and believe we can discover the truth for ourselves and within ourselves. New age beliefs vary beyond these common features. They can include world affirming qualities that help people succeed in the outer world and world rejecting qualities that allow individuals to achieve enlightenment in their inner world. However, Heelas argues most new age organisations offer both.

The popularity if the new age has been examined by sociologists. John Drane (1999) argues the appeal is a part of the shift to post modern society. A feature of post modern society is a loss of faith in meta-narratives or claims of the monopoly of truth. Science promised a better world but instead gave war and pollution. Thus people lose faith in experts such as scientists and are disillusioned with the churches failure to meet spiritual needs. Resultantly they turn to new age ideas that each of us can find the truth by looking within ourselves.

Contrastingly Bruce (1995) argues the growth of the new age is a feature of the latest phase if modern society, and not post modernity. Modern society values individualism which is a key value to new age beliefs. It’s also an important value among the expressive professions that are concerned with human potential such as social workers. The new age appeals to these groups the most. Bruce notes new age movements are often softer versions of more demanding religions such as Buddhism. It explains why new age movements are often audience or client cults as they make few demands on followers. Bruce sees this new age eclectism or pick and mix spiritual shopping as typical of religion in late modern society. It reflects the consumerist ethos of capitalist society.

Heelas (1996) sees the new age and modernity linked in four ways. They’re a source of identity; in modern society the individual has many different roles, such as work, the family friends ECT. There is little overlap between these roles which results in a fragmented identity. New age beliefs can offer an authentic source of identity. Consumerist culture creates dissatisfaction as it never delivers the promises it offers; the new age offers alternative ways to achieve perfection. Rapid social change in modern society disrupts established norms and values which results in anomie. The new age provides a sense of certainty and truth in the same way as sects. The decline of organised religion in modernity leads to secularisation which removes traditional alternatives to the new age. For example the new age is strongest where church going is the weakest, in California.

In conclusion, sociologists widely argue that the growth of spiritual organisation is down to change. Since the change of the protestant reformation where alternative religions grew in competition with the Catholic Church to modern day social change where consumerism leads to the growth of new ageism. The growth and demise of new religious organisations also depends on people’s needs, when old organisations no longer meet the needs of society, new religions grow as people turn to them seeking fulfilment for their needs.


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