Main Body

Chapter 15. Religion

Figure 15.1. The elephant-headed Ganesh, remover of obstacles, finds a home in Vancouver. Late modern society is characterized by strange and unexpected blendings of the sacred and profane. (Photo courtesy of Rob Brownie)

Learning Objectives

15.1. The Sociological Approach to Religion

  • Explain the difference between substantial, functional, and family resemblance definitions of religion.
  • Describe the four dimensions of religion: Belief, ritual, experience, and community.
  • Understand classifications of religion, like animism, polytheism, monotheism, and atheism.
  • Differentiate between the five world religions.
  • Explain the differences between various types of religious organizations: Churches, ecclesia, sects, and cults.

15.2. Sociological Explanations of Religion

  • Examine the nature of sociological explanations of religion.
  • Compare and contrast theories on religion — Marx, Durkheim, Weber, Berger, Stark, Daly, and Woodhead.

15.3. Religion and Social Change

  • Describe current global and Canadian trends of secularization and religious belief.
  • Describe the current religious diversity of Canada and its implications for social policy.
  • Explain the development and the sources of new religious movements.

15.4. Contemporary Fundamentalist Movements

  • Outline the social and political issues associated with fundamentalist movements.
  • Define the family resemblance between fundamentalisms in different religious traditions.
  • Describe the process of fundamentalist radicalization from a sociological perspective.
  • Explain the basis of contemporary issues of science and faith.

List of Contributors to Chapter 15: Religion

Introduction to Religion

A man in a long cloak sits on the floor looking up at surrounding angels.
15.2. Religion is defined by its unique ability to provide individuals with answers to the ultimate questions of life, death, existence. and purpose. (photo courtesy of Ras67/Wikimedia)

It is commonly said that there are only two guarantees in life — death and taxes — but what can be more taxing than the prospect of one’s own death? Ceasing to exist is an overwhelmingly terrifying thought and it is one which has plagued individuals for centuries. This ancient stressor has been addressed over time by a number of different religious explanations and affirmations. Arguably, this capacity to provide answers for fundamental questions is what defines religion. For instance, under Hindu belief one’s soul lives on after biological death and is reborn in a new body. Under Christian belief one can expect to live in a heavenly paradise once one’s time runs out on earth. These are just two examples, but the extension of the self beyond its physical expiration date is a common thread in religious texts.

These promises of new life and mystifying promise lands are not simply handed out to everyone, however. They require an individual to faithfully practice and participate in accordance to the demands of specific commandments, doctrines, rituals, or tenants. Furthermore, despite one’s own faith in the words of an ancient text, or the messages of a religious figure, an individual will remain exposed to the trials, tribulations, and discomforts that exist in the world. During these instances a theodicy — a religious explanation for such sufferings — can help keep one’s faith by providing justification as to why bad things happen to good, faithful people. Theodicy is an attempt to explain or justify the existence of bad things or instances that occur in the world, such as death, disaster, sickness, and suffering. Theodicies are especially relied on to provide reason as to why a religion’s God (or God-like equivalent) allows terrible things to happen to good people.

Is there truly such a thing as heaven or hell? Can we expect to embody a new life after death? Are we really the creation of an omnipotent and transcendent Godly figure? These are all fascinating ontological questions — i.e., questions that are concerned with the nature of reality, our being and existence — and ones for which different religious traditions have different answers. For example, Buddhists and Taoists believe that there is a life force that can be reborn after death, but do not believe that there is a transcendent creator God, whereas Christian Baptists believe that one can be reborn once, or even many times, within a single lifetime. However, these questions are not the central focus of sociologists. Instead sociologists ask about the different social forms, experiences, and functions that religious organizations evoke and promote within society. What is religion as a social phenomenon? Why does it exist? In other words, the “truth” factor of religious beliefs is not the primary concern of sociologists. Instead, religion’s significance lies in its practical tendency to bring people together and, in notable cases, to violently divide them. For sociologists, it is key that religion guides people to act and behave in particular ways. How does it do so?

Regardless if one personally believes in the fundamental values, beliefs, and doctrines that certain religions present, one does not have to look very far to recognize the significance that religion has in a variety of different social aspects around the world. Religion can influence everything from how one spends their Sunday afternoon – -singing hymnals, listening to religious sermons, or refraining from participating in any type of work — to providing the justification for sacrificing one’s own life, as in the case in the Solar Temple mass suicide (Dawson & Thiessen, 2014). Religious activities and ideals are found in political platforms, business models, and constitutional laws, and have historically produced rationales for countless wars. Some people adhere to the messages of a religious text to a tee, while others pick and choose aspects of a religion that best fit their personal needs. In other words, religion is present in a number of socially significant domains and can be expressed in a variety of different levels of commitment and fervour.

In this chapter, classical social theorists Karl Marx, Émile Durkheim, and Max Weber provide the early insights that have come to be associated with the critical, functionalist, and interpretive perspectives on religion in society. Interestingly, each of them predicted that the processes of modern secularization would gradually erode the significance of religion in everyday life. More recent theorists like Peter Berger, Rodney Stark (feminist), and John Caputo take account of contemporary experiences of religion, including what appears to be a period of religious revivalism. Each of these theorists contribute uniquely important perspectives that describe the roles and functions that religion has served society over time. When taken altogether, sociologists recognize that religion is an entity that does not remain stagnant. It evolves and develops alongside new intellectual discoveries and expressions of societal, as well as individual, needs and desires.

Pope Francis smiles at a surrounding crowd.
15.3. Pope Francis was named Time magazine’s “Person of the Year” in 2013, where he was identified as “poised to transform a place [i.e., the Vatican] that measures change by the century” (Chua-Eoan & Dias 2013). What types of impact can the words of a religious leader have on society today? (Photo courtesy of Edgar Jiménez/Flickr).

A case in point would be the evolution of belief in the Catholic Church. At the beginning of the 20th century, the Roman Catholic Church responded to the challenges brought forth by secularization, scientific reasoning, and rationalist methodologies with Pope Pius X’s encyclical Pascendi dominici gregis (1907). This letter was circulated among all of the Catholic churches and identified the new “enemy of the cross” as the trend towards modernization. A secretive “Council of Vigilance” was established in each diocese to purge church teachings of the elements of modernism. The true faith “concerns itself with the divine reality which is entirely unknown to science.”

However, in the 21st century, the Catholic Church appears to be adapting its attitudes towards modernization. The 266th Roman Catholic Pope, Pope Francis, has made public statements such as, “If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?” (Reuters, 2013) and “We cannot limit the role of women in the Church to altar girls or the president of a charity, there must be more” (BBC News, 2013). These statements seem to align the Church’s position with contemporary attitudes towards homosexuality and gender. Pope Francis has also addressed contemporary issues of climate change. At the 2015 U.N. climate conference in Paris, France, he stated that “[e]very year the problems are getting worse. We are at the limits. If I may use a strong word I would say that we are at the limits of suicide” (Pullella, 2015).

15.1. The Sociological Approach to Religion

From the Latin religio (respect for what is sacred) and religare (to bind, in the sense of an obligation), the term religion describes various systems of belief and practice concerning what people determine to be sacred or spiritual (Durkheim, 1915/1964; Fasching and deChant, 2001). Throughout history, and in societies across the world, leaders have used religious narratives, symbols, and traditions in an attempt to give more meaning to life and to understand the universe. Some form of religion is found in every known culture, and it is usually practiced in a public way by a group. The practice of religion can include feasts and festivals, God or gods, marriage and funeral services, music and art, meditation or initiation, sacrifice or service, and other aspects of culture.

Defining Religion

Figure 15.4. Santo Daime is a syncretic religion founded in Brazil in the 1930s that draws on elements of Catholicism, spiritualism, and Indigenous animism. The entheogenic brew Ayahuasca (or “Daime”), shown here in bottles, is used in religious rituals that often last many hours. (Photo courtesy of Aiatee/Wikimedia Commons)

There are three different ways of defining religion in sociology — substantial definitions, functional definitions, and family resemblance definitions — each of which has consequences for what counts as a religion, and each of which has limitations and strengths in its explanatory power (Dawson and Thiessen, 2014). The problem of defining religion is not without real consequences, not least for questions of whether specific groups can obtain legal recognition as religions. In Canada there are clear benefits to being officially defined as a religion in terms of taxes, liberties, and protections from persecution. Guarantees of religious freedom under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms stem from whether practices or groups are regarded as legitimately religious or not. What definitions of religion do we use to decide these questions?

For example, the Céu do Montréal was established in 2000 as a chapter of the Brasilian Santo Daime church (Tupper, 2011). One of the sacraments specified in church doctrine and used in ceremonial rituals is ayahuasca, a psychedelic or entheogenic “tea” that induces visions when ingested. It has to be imported from the Amazon where its ingredients are found. But because it contains N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT)  and harmala alkaloids, it is a controlled substance under Canadian law.  Importing and distributing it constitute trafficking and are subject to criminal charges. Nevertheless because of ayahuasca’s role as a sacrament in the church’s religious practice, Céu do Montréal was able to apply to the Office of Controlled Substances of Health Canada for a legal, Section 56 exemption to permit its lawful ceremonial use. Other neo-Vegetalismo groups who use ayahuasca in traditional Amazonian healing ceremonies in Canada, but do not have affiliations with a formal church-like organization, are not recognized as official religions and, therefore, their use of ayahuasca remains criminalized and underground.

The problem of any definition of religion is to provide a statement that is at once narrow enough in scope to distinguish religion from other types  of social activity, while taking into account the wide variety of practices that are recognizably religious in any common sense notion of the term. Substantial definitions attempt to delineate the crucial characteristics that define what a religion is and is not. For example, Sir Edward Tylor argued that “a minimum definition of Religion [is] the belief in spiritual beings” (Tylor, 1871, cited in Stark, 1999), or as Sir James Frazer elaborated, “religion consists of two elements… a belief in powers higher than man and an attempt to propitiate or appease them” (Frazer, 1922, cited in Stark, ibid.). These definitions are strong in that they identify the key characteristic — belief in the supernatural — that distinguishes religion from other types of potentially similar social practice like politics or art. They are also easily and simply applied across societies, no matter how exotic or different the societies are. However, the problem with substantial definitions is that they tend to be too narrow. In the case of Tylor’s and Frazer’s definitions, emphasis on belief in the supernatural excludes some forms of religion like Theravadan Buddhism, Confucianism, or neo-paganism that do not recognize higher, spiritual beings, while also suggesting that religions are primarily about systems of beliefs, (i.e., a cognitive dimension of religion that ignores the emotive, ritual, or habitual dimensions that are often more significant for understanding actual religious practice).

On the other hand, functional definitions define religion by what it does or how it functions in society. For example, Milton Yinger’s definition is: “Religion is a system of beliefs and practices by means of which a group struggles with the ultimate problems of human life” (Yinger, 1970, cited in Dawson and Thiessen, 2014). A more elaborate functional definition is that of Mark Taylor (2007): religion is “an emergent, complex, adaptive network of symbols, myths, and rituals that, on the one hand, figure schemata of feeling, thinking, and acting in ways that lend life meaning and purpose and, on the other, disrupt, dislocate, and disfigure every stabilizing structure.” These definitions are strong in that they can capture the many forms that these religious problematics or dynamics can take — encompassing both Christianity and Theravadan Buddhism for example — but they also tend to be too inclusive, making it difficult to distinguish religion from non-religion. Is religion for example the only means by which social groups struggle with the ultimate problems of human life?

The third type of definition is the family resemblance model in which religion is defined on the basis of a series of commonly shared attributes (Dawson and Thiessen, 2014). The family resemblance definition is based on the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s ordinary language definition of games (Wittgenstein, 1958). Games, like religions, resemble one another — we recognize them as belonging to a common category — and yet it is very difficult to decide precisely and logically what the rule is that subsumes tiddly winks, solitaire, Dungeons and Dragons, and ice hockey under the category “games.” Therefore the family resemblance model defines a complex “thing” like religion by listing a cluster of related attributes that are distinctive and shared in common by different versions of that thing, while noting that not every version of the thing will have all of the attributes. The idea is that a family – even a real family – will hold a number of, say, physiological traits in common, which can be used to distinguish them from other families, even though each family member is unique and any particular family member might not have all them. You can still tell that the member belongs to the family and not to another because of the traits they share.

It is also possible to define religion in terms of a cluster of attributes based on family resemblance. This cluster includes four attributes: particular types of belief, ritual, experience, and social form. This type of definition has the capacity to capture aspects of both the substantive and functional definitions. It can be based on common sense notions of what religion is and is not, without the drawback of being overly exclusive. While the thing, “religion,” itself becomes somewhat hazy in this definition, it does permit the sociologist to examine and compare religion based on these four dimensions while remaining confident that they are dealing with the same phenomenon.

The Four Dimensions of Religion

The incredible amount of variation between different religions makes it challenging to decide upon a concrete definition of religion that applies to all of them. In order to facilitate the sociological study of religion it is helpful to turn our attention to four dimensions that seem to be present, in varying forms and intensities, in all types of religion: belief, ritual, spiritual experience, and unique social forms of community (Dawson & Thiessen, 2014).

The first dimension is one that comes to mind for most Canadians when they think of religion, some systematic form of beliefs. Religious beliefs are a generalized system of ideas and values that shape how members of a religious group come to understand the world around them (see Table 15.1 and 15.2 below). They define the cognitive aspect of religion. These beliefs are taught to followers by religious authorities, such as priests, imams, or shamen, through formal creeds and doctrines as well as more informal lessons learned through stories, songs, and myths. A creed outlines the basic principles and beliefs of a religion, such The Nicene creed in Christianity (“I believe in the father, the son and the holy ghost…”), which is used in ceremonies as a formal statement of belief (Knowles, 2005).

Table 15.1. One way scholars have categorized religions is by classifying what or who they hold to be divine.
Religious Classification What/Who Is Divine Example
Polytheism Multiple gods Hinduism, Ancient Greeks and Romans
Monotheism Single god Judaism, Islam, Christianity
Atheism No deities Atheism, Buddhism, Taoism
Animism Nonhuman beings (animals, plants, natural world) Indigenous nature worship, Shinto

Belief systems provide people with certain ways of thinking and knowing that help them cope with ultimate questions that cannot be explained in any other way. One example is Weber’s (1915) concept of theodicy — an explanation of why, if a higher power does exist, good and innocent people experience misfortune and suffering. Weber argues that the problem of theodicy explains the prevalence of religion in our society. In the absence of other plausible explanations of the contradictory nature of existence, religious theodicies construct the world as meaningful. He gives several examples of theodicies — including karma, where the present actions and thoughts of a person have a direct influence on their future lives, and predestination, the idea that all events are an outcome God’s predetermined will.

Pictured from above, lines of Muslim men kneel in prayer.
Figure 15.5. Prayer is a ritualistic practice or invocation common to many religions in which a person seeks to attune themselves with a higher order. One of the five pillars of Islam requires Salat, or five daily prayers recited while facing the Kaaba in Mecca. (Photo courtesy of Shaeekh Shuvro/Flickr)

The second dimension, ritual, functions to anchor religious beliefs. Rituals are the repeated physical gestures or activities, such as prayers and mantras, used to reinforce religious teachings, elicit spiritual feelings, and connect worshippers with a higher power. They reinforce the division between the sacred and the profane by defining the intricate set of processes and attitudes with which the sacred dimension of life can be approached.

A common type of ritual is a rite of passage, which marks a person’s transition from one stage of life to another. Examples of rites of passage common in contemporary Canadian culture include baptisms, Bar Mitzvahs, and weddings. They sacralize the process of identity transformation. When these rites are religious in nature, they often also mark the spiritual dangers of transformation. The Sun Dance rituals of many Native American tribes are rites of renewal which can also act as initiation-into-manhood rites for young men. They confer great prestige onto the pledgers who go through the ordeal, but there is also the possibility of failure. The sun dances last for several days, during which young men fast and dance around a pole to which they are connected by rawhide strips passed through the skin of the chest (Hoebel, 1978). During their weakened state, the pledgers are neither the person they were, nor yet the person they are becoming. Friends and family members gather in the camp to offer prayers of support and protection during this period of vulnerable “liminality.” Overall, rituals like these function to bring a group of people (although not necessarily just religious groups) together to create a common, elevated experience that increases social cohesion and solidarity.

From a psychological perspective, rituals play an important role in providing practitioners with access to spiritual “powers” of various sorts. In particular, they can access powers that both relieve or induce anxieties within a group depending on the circumstances. In relieving anxieties, religious rituals are often present at times when people face uncertainty or chance. In this sense they provide a basis of psychological stability. A famous example of this is Malinowski’s study of the Trobriand Islanders of New Guinea (1948). When fishing in the sheltered coves of the islands very little ritual was involved. It was not until fishermen decided to venture into the much more dangerous open ocean in search of bigger and riskier catches that a rigorous set of religious rituals were invoked, which worked to subdue the fears of not only the fisherman but the rest of the villagers.

In contrast, rituals can also be used to create anxieties that keep people in line with established norms. In the case of taboos, the designation of certain objects or acts as prohibited or sacred creates an aura of fear or anxiety around them. The observance of rituals is used to either prevent the transgression of taboos or to return society to normal after taboos have been transgressed. For example, early hunting societies observed a variety of rituals in their hunting practices in order to return the soul of the animal to its supernatural “owner.” Failure to observe these rituals was a transgression that threatened to unbalance the cosmological order and impact the success of future hunts. This failure could only be resolved through further specific rituals (Smith, 1982). In this example, sociologists would note that the taboo acts as a form of ritualized social control that encourages people to act in ways that benefit the wider society, such as the prevention of overhunting.

A third common dimension of various religions is the promise of access to some form of unique spiritual experience or feeling of immediate connection with a higher power. The pursuit of these indescribable experiences explains one set of motives behind the continued prevalence of religion in Canada and around the world. From this point of view, religion is not so much about thinking a certain way (i.e., a formal belief system) as about feeling a certain way. These experiences can come in several forms: the incredible visions or revelations of the religious founders or prophets (e.g., the experiences of the Buddha, Jesus, or Muhammed), the act of communicating with spirits through the altered states of consciousness used by tribal shamen, or the unique experiences of expanded consciousness accessed by individuals through prayer or meditation.

A painting. Long description available.
Figure 15.6. Michelangelo’s “Conversion of Saul” (1542) depicts the overpowering nature of the transformative experience, or mysterium tremendum, that lies at the core of religion. [Long Description] (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

While being exposed to a higher power can be awe inspiring, it can also be intensely overwhelming for those experiencing it. These experiences reveal a form of knowledge that is instantly transformative. The historical example of Saul of Tarsus (later renamed St. Paul the Apostle) in the Christian New Testament is an example. Saul was a Pharisee heavily involved in the persecution of Christians. While on the road to Damascus Jesus appeared to him in a life-changing vision.

And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus: and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven:
And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?
And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.
And he trembling and astonished said, Lord, what wilt thou have me to do? And the Lord said unto him, Arise, and go into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do.
And the men which journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice, but seeing no man.
And Saul arose from the earth; and when his eyes were opened, he saw no man: but they led him by the hand, and brought him into Damascus.
And he was three days without sight, and neither did eat nor drink (Acts 9:1-22).

The experience of divine revelation overwhelmed Saul, blinded him for three days, and prompted his immediate conversion to Christianity. As a result he lived out his life spreading Christianity through the Roman Empire.

While specific religious experiences of transformation like Saul’s are often the source or goal of religious practice, established religions vary in how they relate to them. Are these types of experiences open to all members or just those spiritual elites like prophets, shamen, saints, monks, or nuns who hold a certain status? Are practitioners encouraged to seek these experiences or are the experiences suppressed? Is it a specific cultivated experience that is sought through disciplined practice, as in Zen Buddhism, or a more spontaneous experience of divine inspiration, like the experience of speaking in tongues in Evangelical congregations? Do they occur quite often or are they more rare/singular? Each religion has their own answers to these questions.

Finally, the forth common dimension of religion is the formation of specific forms of social organization or community. Durkheim (1915/1964) emphasized that religious beliefs and practices “unite in one single community called a Church, all those who adhere to them,” arguing that one of the key social functions of religion is to bring people together in a unified moral community. Dawson and Thiessen (2014) elaborate on this social dimension shared by all religions. First, the beliefs of a religion gain their credibility through being shared and agreed upon by a group. It is easier to believe if others around you (who you respect) believe as well. Second, religion provides an authority that deals specifically with social or moral issues such as determining the best way to live life. It provides a basis for ethics and proper behaviours, which establish the normative basis of the community. Even as many Canadians move away from traditional forms of religion, many still draw their values and ideals from some form of shared beliefs that are religious in origin (e.g., “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”). Third, religion also helps to shape different aspects of social life, by acting as a form of social control, and supporting the formation of self-control, that is vital to many aspects of a functional society. Fourth, although it may be on the decline in Canada, places of religious worship function as social hubs within communities, providing a source of entertainment, socialization, and support.

By looking at religions in terms of these four dimensions — belief, ritual, experience, and community — sociologists can identify the important characteristics they share while taking into consideration and allowing for the great diversity of the world religions.

Table 15.2. The Religions of the World.
World Religion Origins Beliefs Rituals and Practices
Symbol: The star of David
 Judaism began in ancient Israel about 4,000 years ago. The prophet Abraham was the first to declare that there was to be only one true God. Moses, centuries later, then led the Jewish people away from slavery in Egypt, which was a defining moment for Judaism. Moses is credited with writing the Torah, the sacred Jewish texts, which consists of the five books of Moses. Followers of Judaism are monotheistic, believing that there is only one true God. Israel is the sacred land of the Jewish people, and it is seen as gift to them — the children of Israel — from God. According to the Torah, Jewish believers must live a life of obedience to God because life itself is a gift granted by God to his disciples (Sanders, 2009). Followers of Judaism live in accordance to the ten commandments revealed to Moses by God on Mount Sinai. These commandments outline the instructions for how to live life according to God. Judaism has many rituals and practices that followers of the faith carry out. Jewish people have strict dietary laws that originate in the Torah, called Kosher laws. The goal of these laws is not a concern for health, but for holiness. Examples of foods that are prohibited include, pig, hare, camel, and ostrich meat, and crustacean and molluscan seafood. Additionally, certain food groups are banned from being consumed when combined, for example, meat and dairy together (Tieman & Hassan, 2015).
Other examples of Jewish rituals are the practices of circumcision and Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. These rites of passage for young boys (bar) and young girls (bat) mark the transition into manhood and womanhood. During these celebrations, the coming of age process is celebrated.
Jewish followers also carry out multiple prayers each day, reaffirming and demonstrating their reciprocal love with God.
Symbol: The Cross
 Christianity began in approximately 35 CE — i.e., the date of the crucifixion — in the area of the Middle East that is now known as Israel. Christianity began with recognition of the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth (Dunn, 2003). A poor Jewish man, Jesus was unsatisfied with Judaism and took it upon himself to seek a stronger connection to the word of God defined by the prophets. Thus, Christianity initially developed as a sect of Judaism. It developed into a distinct religion as Jesus developed a stronger following of those who believed that he was the son of God. The crucifixion of Jesus was the first of many tests of faith of Christians (Guy, 2004).
A division emerged within Christianity between Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism with the division of the Roman Empire into East and West. A second division occurred during the Protestant Reformation when Protestant sects emerged to challenge the authority of the Catholic church and Papacy to be intermediaries between God and Christian believers.
At the core, to be Christian is to believe in the trinity of father, son, and holy spirit as one God: the God of love. Out of love for humanity, God allowed his only son to be sacrificed in the crucifixion to expiate their sins. Christians are admonished to love God, and to love their neighbours and enemies “as themselves.” They believe in God’s love for all things, have faith that God is watching over them at all times and that Jesus, the son of God, will return when the world is ready. Jesus is the exemplar of the religion, demonstrating the way in which to be a proper Christian. In the Christian faith, the theodicy, or the way that Christianity explains why God allows bad things happen to good people, is shown through faith in Jesus. If believers follow in Jesus’ footsteps, they will have access to heaven. Unfortunate occurrences are acts of God that test the faith of his followers. Therefore, by maintaining faith in God’s love, Christians are able to carry on with their lives when confronted with tragedy, injustice and suffering There are many rituals and practices that are central to Christianity, known as the sacraments. For example, the sacrament of baptism involves the literal washing of the person with water to represent the cleansing of their sins. Today, the ritual of baptism has become less common, however, historically the process of baptism was considered an integral rite in order to christen the individual and to wipe away their ancestral or original sin (Hanegraaff, 2009). Other sacraments include the Eucharist (or communion), confirmation, penance, anointing the sick, marriage, and Holy Orders (or ordination). However, not all sects of Christianity follow these.
One of the core qualities and practices of Christianity is caring for the poor and disadvantaged. Jesus, a poor man himself, fed and nurtured the poor, demonstrating care for all, and is thus seen to be the exemplar of morality (Dunn, 2003). Christian churches are often institutions that demonstrate how to follow Jesus, running charities and food banks, and housing the homeless and the sick.
Symbol: Crescent and the Star
Originating in Saudi Arabia, Islam is a monotheistic religion that developed in approximately 600 CE. During this time, the society of Mecca was in turmoil. Muhammad, God’s messenger, received the verses of the Quran directly from the Angel Gabriel during a period of isolated prayer on Mt. Hira. He developed a following of people who eventually united Arabia into a single state and faith through military struggle against polytheistic pagans. Followers of the Islamic faith are referred to as Muslims.
Today, a division exists with Islam originating from disagreement regarding Muhammad’s legitimate successor. These two groups are known as Sunni’s and Shia’s, the former making up the majority of Muslims.
Central to Islam is the belief that the God, Allah, is the only true God and that Muhammad is God’s Messenger, otherwise known as the Prophet. God also demands that Muslims be fearful and subservient to him as He is the master, and the maker of law (Ushama, 2014).
In Islamic faith, the Quran is the sacred text that Muslims believe is the direct word of God, dictated by the Angel Gabriel to Muhammad (Ushama, 2014).
Islam outlines five pillars that must be upheld by Islamic followers if they are to be true Muslims.
1) Daily recitation of the creed (Shahadah) which states that there is only one God and Muhammad is God’s messenger;
2) Prayer five times daily;
3) Providing financial aid to support poor Muslims and to promote the practice of Islam;
4) Participation in the month long fast during the 9th month of the Islamic calendar;
5) Completion of a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in their life (“Pillars of Islam,” 2008).
Symbol: Om or Aum
Hinduism originated in India and Nepal, however the exact origin of this widespread religion is highly contested. There is no known founder, differing strongly from the other religions discussed here, which have strong origin stories of the individuals that first posited the specific way of religious life (Flood, 1996). The beliefs characteristic of Hinduism are a belief in reincarnation, and a belief that all actions have direct effects, referred to as Karma (Flood, 1996). In contrast with other world religions, Hinduism is not as strongly defined by what followers believe in but instead by what they do. The Dharma is what outlines a Hindu’s duty in life, identifying individuals with a place within the dharmic social stratification system, or the caste system. This classification greatly dictates what a Hindu can and cannot do. Hindu followers believe in one God that is represented by a multitude of sacred forms known as deities (Flood, 1996). In Hindu religion, in death, only the body dies while the soul lives on. Individuals are reincarnated, surviving death to be reborn in a new form. This new form is believed to be dependent on the way in which the individual lived their life, with the proper way being identified as their acting in accordance to the duties of their caste position (Flood, 1996). In the religion of Hinduism, practice is more important than belief. One ritualistic practice that is carried out by Hindu followers is the act of making offerings of incense to the deities. This act of offering is seen as a “mediation” to open to the lines of communication between the sacred and the profane, or the deity and the individual. This correspondence is of great significance to Hindu followers (Flood, 1996).
Another widespread ritual practice is yoga, which is a practice of holding postures while focusing on one’s breath. Yoga is used to silence the mind, allowing it to reflect the divine world. This practice brings the believer closer to unification with the divine.
Symbol: The Dharma Wheel (the eight spokes of this wheel represent the eightfold path).
Buddhism refers to the teachings of Guatama Buddha. It originated in India in approximately 600 BCE. Buddha, originally a follower of the Hindu faith, experienced enlightenment, or Bohdi, while sitting under a tree. It was in this moment that Buddha was awakened to the truth of the world, known as the Dharma. Buddha, an ordinary man, taught his followers how to follow the path to Enlightenment. Thus Buddhism does not believe in a divine realm or God as a supernatural being, but instead follows the wisdom of the founder (Rinpoche, 2001). Buddhists are guided through life by the Dharma or four noble truths.
1) The truth that life is impermanent and therefore generates suffering such as sickness or misfortune;
2) The truth that the origin of suffering is due to the existence of desire or craving;
3) The truth that there is a way to bring this suffering to a halt and achieve release from the cycle of suffering and rebirth;
4) The truth of following the eight-fold path as a way to end this suffering (Tsering, 2005).
This path consists of the ‘right’ view to carry out one’s life. Buddhists believe in reincarnation, and that one will continue to be reborn, requiring them to continue the study of and dedication to the four noble truths and the eightfold path until Enlightenment is achieved. Only then will the cycle stop. Therefore, the end to suffering is only reached through the cessation of the craving or desire that drives the cycle of rebirth (Tsering, 2005).
The noble eight-fold path includes eight prescriptions: right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. These outline the “middle path” between the extremes of sensualism and acseticism, which gives rise to true knowledge, peace, and Enlightenment (Tsersing, 2005).
A key ritual practice of Buddhism is meditation. This practice is used by followers to learn detachment from desire and gain insight into the inner workings of their mind in order to come to greater understandings of the truth of the world. In the Buddha’s example, meditation on breath or on chanted mantras, which are often key passages of the Buddha’s sutras (teachings), is a key practice to reach the place of Enlightenment or awakening.

Making Connection: Social Policy and Debate

Residential Schools and the Church

Figure 15.7. Students from Fort Albany Residential School, Ontario, reading in class overseen by a nun, circa 1945. (Image courtesy of Edmund Metatawabin collection at the University of Algoma/Wikipedia)

Residential schools were a key institution  responsible for the undermining of Aboriginal culture in Canada. Residential schools were run by the Canadian government alongside the Anglican, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, and United Churches (Blackburn, 2012). These schools were created with the purpose of assimilating Aboriginal children into North American culture (Woods, 2013).

In 1920 the government legally mandated that all Aboriginal children between the ages of seven and fifteen attend these schools (Blackburn, 2012). They took the children away from their families and communities to remove them from all influence of their Aboriginal identities that could inhibit their assimilation. Many families did not want their children to be taken away and would hide them, until it became illegal (Neeganagwedgin, 2014). Under the Indian Act, they were also not allowed lawyers to fight government action, which added greatly to the systemic marginalization of these people. The churches were responsible for daily religious teachings and daily activities, and the government was in charge of the curriculum, funding, and monitoring the schools (Blackburn, 2012).

There were as many as 80 residential schools in Canada by 1931 (Woods, 2013). It was known early on in this system that there were flaws, but they still persisted until the last residential school was abolished in 1996. As we now know, the experience of residential schools for Aboriginal children was traumatic and dreadful. Within the walls of these schools, children were exposed to sexual and physical abuse, malnourishment, and disease. They were not provided with adequate clothing or medical care, and the buildings themselves were unsanitary and poorly built.

The Roman Catholic Church created the most residential schools, with the Anglican Church second (Woods, 2013). There has been much debate surrounding the Church’s involvement in these atrocious organizations. Former Primate and Archbishop Michael Peers apologized in 1993 for the Anglican Church’s part in the residential schools. Canada’s first Aboriginal Anglican Bishop Gordon Beardy forgave the Anglican Church in 2001.

By 2001, there were more than 8,500 lawsuits against the Churches and Canadian government for their role in the residential schools (Woods, 2013). Because of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, former students of the residential schools are now eligible for $10,000, on top of $3,000 for each year they attended the schools. A lawsuit filed by former students of the Alberni Indian Residential School was one of the first to get to the Supreme Court of Canada, and the first to deem both the government and church equally responsible.

Apologies are still being made on behalf of the churches involved in the residential schools, but the effects it has had on the Indigenous peoples and their culture are perpetuating today. The Christian churches and mission groups have done good things for societies, but their role in these residential schools was immoral and unjust to the Aboriginal people.

Types of Religious Organization

In every society there are different organizational forms that develop for the practice of religion. Sociologists are interested in understanding how these different types of organization affect spiritual beliefs and practices. They can be categorized according to their size and influence into churches (ecclesia or denomination), sects, and cults. This allows sociologists to examine the different types of relationships religious organization has with the dominant religions in their societies and with society itself.

A church is a large, bureaucratically organized religious organization that is closely integrated into the larger society. Two types of church organizations exist. The first is the ecclesia, a church that has formal ties with the state. Like the Anglican Church of England, an ecclesia has most or all of a state’s citizens as its members. As such, the ecclesia forms the national or state religion. People ordinarily do not join an ecclesia, instead they automatically become members when they are born. Several ecclesiae exist in the world today, including Salifi Islam in Saudi Arabia, the Catholic Church in Spain, the Lutheran Church in Sweden, and, as noted above, the Anglican Church in England.

In an ecclesiastic society there may be little separation of church and state, because the ecclesia and the state are so intertwined. Many modern states deduct tithes automatically from citizen’s salaries on behalf of the state church. In some ecclesiastic societies, such as those in the Middle East, religious leaders rule the state as theocracies — systems of government in which ecclesiastical authorities rule on behalf of a divine authority — while in others, such as Sweden and England, they have little or no direct influence. In general, the close ties that ecclesiae have to the state help ensure they will support state policies and practices. For this reason, ecclesiae often help the state solidify its control over the populace.

The second type of church organization is the denomination, a religious organization that is closely integrated into the larger society but is not a formal part of the state. In modern religiously pluralistic nations, several denominations coexist. In Canada, for example, the United Church, Catholic Church, Anglican Church, Presbyterian Church, Christian and Missionary Alliance, and the Seventh-day Adventists are all Christian denominations. None of these denominations claim to be Canada’s national or official church, but exist instead under the formal and informal historical conditions of separation between church and state.

So historically, in Canada, denominationalism developed formally (as a result of the Treaty of Paris in 1763, which granted Roman Catholics the freedom to practice their religion) and informally (as a result of the immigration of people with different faiths during the expansion of settlement of Canada in the 19th and early 20th centuries). Under the model of denominationalism, many different religious organizations compete for people’s allegiances, creating a kind of marketplace for religion. In the United States, this is a formal outcome of the Constitutional 1st Amendment protections (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”). In Canada, “freedom of religion” was not constitutionally protected until the introduction of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982.

A 19 meter tall statue of Jesus from the chest up with his face and arms reaching towards the sky.
Figure 15.8. A 62-foot-tall Jesus sculpture — “King Of Kings” — at the Solid Rock megachurch north of Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo courtesy of Joe Shlabotnik/Wikimedia Commons)

A relatively recent development in religious denominationalism is the rise of the so-called megachurch in the United States, a church at which more than 2,000 people worship every weekend on the average (Priest, Wilson, & Johnson, 2010; Warf & Winsberg, 2010). These are both denominational and non-denominational, (meaning not officially aligned with any specific established religious denomination). About one-third are nondenominational, and one-fifth are Southern Baptist, with the remainder primarily of other Protestant denominations. Several dozen have at least 10,000 worshippers and the largest U.S. mega church, in Houston, has more than 35,000 worshippers, nicknamed a “gigachurch.” There are more than 1,300 mega churches in the United States —  a steep increase from the 50 that existed in 1970 — and their total membership exceeds 4 million.

Compared to traditional, smaller churches, mega churches are more concerned with meeting their members’ non-spiritual, practical needs in addition to helping them achieve religious fulfillment. They provide a “one-stop shopping” model of religion. Some even conduct market surveys to determine these needs and how best to address them. As might be expected, their buildings are huge by any standard, and they often feature bookstores, food courts, and sports and recreation facilities. They also provide day care, psychological counseling, and youth outreach programs. Their services often feature electronic music and light shows. Despite their popularity, they have been criticized for being so big that members are unable to develop close bonds with each other and with members of the clergy that are characteristic of smaller houses of worship. On the other hand, supporters say that mega churches bring many people into religious worship who would otherwise not be involved.

A sect is a small religious body that forms after a group breaks away from a larger religious group, like a church or denomination. Dissidents believe that the parent organization does not practice or believe in the true religion as it was originally conceived (Stark & Bainbridge, 1985). Sects are relatively small religious organizations that are not closely integrated into the larger society. They often conflict with at least some of its norms and values. The Hutterites are perhaps the most well-known example of a contemporary sect in Canada; an Anabaptist group — literally “one who baptizes again” — that broke away from mainstream Christianity in the 16th century. Their migration from Tyrol, Austria, due to persecution eventually lead to their immigration to the Dakotas in the 19th century and then to the Canadian prairies, as conscientious objectors following WWI.

Figure 15.9. A Hutterite girl holding her baby sister in Southern Alberta, 1950s. (Image courtesy of Galt Museum & Archives/Wikimedia Commons)

Typically, a sect breaks away from a larger denomination in an effort to restore what members of the sect regard as the original views of the religion. Because sects are relatively small, they usually lack the bureaucracy of denominations and ecclesiae, and often also lack clergy who have received official training. Their worship services can be intensely emotional experiences, often more so than those typical of many denominations, where worship tends to be more formal and restrained. Members of many sects typically proselytize and try to recruit new members into the sect. If a sect succeeds in attracting many new members, it gradually grows, becomes more bureaucratic, and, ironically, eventually evolves into a denomination. Many of today’s Protestant denominations began as sects, as did the Hutterites, Mennonites, Quakers, Doukhobors, Mormons, and other groups.

A cult or New Religious Movement is a small religious organization that is at great odds with the norms and values of the larger society. Cults are similar to sects but differ in at least three respects. First, they generally have not broken away from a larger denomination and instead originate outside the mainstream religious tradition. Second, they are often secretive and do not proselytize as much. Third, they are at least somewhat more likely than sects to rely on charismatic leadership based on the extraordinary personal qualities of the cult’s leader.

Although the term “cult” raises negative images of crazy, violent, small groups of people, it is important to keep in mind that major world religions, including Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, and denominations such as the Mormons all began as cults. Cults, more than other religious organizations, have been subject to contemporary moral panics about brainwashing, sexual deviance, and strange esoteric beliefs. However, research challenges several popular beliefs about cults, including the ideas that they brainwash people into joining them and that their members are mentally ill. In a study of the Unification Church (Moonies), Eileen Barker (1984) found no more signs of mental illness among people who joined the Moonies than in those who did not. She also found no evidence that people who joined the Moonies had been brainwashed into doing so.

Another source of moral panic about cults is that they are violent. In fact, most are not violent. Nevertheless, some cults have committed violence in the recent past. In 1995 the Aim Shinrikyo (Supreme Truth) cult in Japan killed 10 people and injured thousands more when it released bombs of deadly nerve gas in several Tokyo subway lines (Strasser & Post, 1995). Two years earlier, the Branch Davidian cult engaged in an armed standoff with federal agents in Waco, Texas. When the agents attacked its compound, a fire broke out and killed 80 members of the cult, including 19 children; the origin of the fire remains unknown (Tabor & Gallagher, 1995).

Reverend Jim Jones
Figure 15.10. The Reverend Jim Jones of the People’s Temple: “We didn’t commit suicide; we committed an act of revolutionary suicide protesting the conditions of an inhumane world.” (Image courtesy of Nancy Wong/Wikimedia Commons)

A few cults have also committed mass suicide. More than three dozen members of the Heaven’s Gate cult killed themselves in California, in March 1997, in an effort to communicate with aliens from outer space (Hoffman & Burke, 1997). Some two decades earlier, in 1978, more than 900 members of the People’s Temple cult killed themselves in Guyana under orders from the cult’s leader, the Reverend Jim Jones (Stoen, 1997). Similarly, in Canada, on the morning of October 4th, 1994, a blaze engulfed a complex of luxury condominiums in the resort town of Morin-Heights, Quebec. Firefighters found the bodies of a Swiss couple, Gerry and Collette Genoud, in its ruins. At first it was thought that the fire was accidental, but then news arrived from Switzerland of another odd set of fires at homes owed by the same men who owned the Quebec condominiums. All the fires had been set with improvised incendiary devices, which made the police realize they were dealing with a rare incidence of mass murder suicide involving members of an esoteric religious group known as the Solar Temple. From the recorded and written messages left behind by the group, it is clear that the leaders felt it was time to effect what they called a transit to another reality associated with Sirius.

It is important to note that cults or new religious movements are very diverse. They offer spiritual options for people seeking purpose in the modern context of state secularism and religious pluralism. Being intense about one’s religious views often breaks the social norms of largely secular societies, leading to misunderstandings and suspicions. Members of new religions run the risk of being stigmatized and even prosecuted (Dawson, 2007). Modern societies highly value freedom and individual choice, but not when exercised in a manner that defies expectations of what is normal.

Making Connections: Case Study

Brother XII and the Aquarian Foundation

The Wide World magazine featuring Brother Twelve.
Figure 15.11. Brother Twelve, the “devil from De Courcy Island.” (Image in the public domain)

Born as Edward Arthur Wilson, the man known as Brother XII travelled the world as a sailor studying various religions. Even at a young age he claimed to be in touch with supernatural beings (Gorman, 2012). In 1927, having taken the name of Brother XII, Wilson established the Aquarian Foundation at Cedar-by-the-Sea, just south of Nanaimo on Vancouver Island, which expanded to include colonies on nearby De Courcy and Valdez Islands. At its height it had over 2000 followers around the world, many of whom sent over large sums of money.

The Aquarian Foundation was based on the teachings on the Theosophical Society, which was an organization formed in New York City in 1875. Theosophy had much in common with the beliefs of Buddhism and Hinduism, such as the belief in reincarnation. It was radically different than the dominant Christian belief of the time. Instead of a separation of the spiritual world and the natural world, spirit and nature were considered to be intertwined in people’s daily lives as one universal life force. Theosophy also promoted the idea that there was a spiritual world beyond death inhabited by evolved spiritual beings, whose wisdom could be accessed through the occult reading of esoteric signs and the intervention of spiritual mediums (Scott, 1997).

Figure 15.12. Brother Twelve (with hat) at the center of a group of followers. “I am not a person filled with power, but a power using a personality,” he stated in a circular letter (cited in McKelvie, 1966). (Image from McKelvie, 1966)

At the time Brother XII ‘s ambitions seemed reasonable enough and many felt the foundation itself represented the promise of great spiritual renewal for an increasingly materialistic society. Brother XII had his followers build homes and cabins at the foundation’s headquarters at Cedar-by-the-Sea and on De Courcy Island. These isolated areas provided a place to get away from the social pressures of the outside world. However, an insurrection took place when Brother XII announced to his followers that he was the reincarnation of the Egyptian God Osiris. Between 1928 and 1933, a series of trials involving Brother XII occurred, which included allegations of misusing foundation funds and having extramarital affairs. News reports claimed that he used black magic to cause witnesses and several members of the audience to faint (Rutten, 2009).

In 1929, as rumours about Wilson’s behaviour spread, the B.C. provincial cabinet dissolved the foundation. Those who remained were subjected to Wilson’s paranoia and became increasingly isolated from the outside world. Wilson himself became increasingly authoritarian and used social pressure to convince members into performing gruelling physical labour that was virtually on the same level as slavery. He did this by telling them these activities were tests of fitness to advance their spirituality. In 1931, the group was finally dissolved and Wilson disappeared from the Nanaimo area along with hundreds of thousands of dollars of Foundation money and Mabel Skottowe (one of the women with whom he was accused of having an extramarital affair). They reportedly left by tugboat and eventually made their way to Switzerland. The majority of reports say that he died in Switzerland in 1934, though some that say he was seen in San Francisco with his lawyer after his alleged death.

The story of Brother XII illustrates many themes from the sociology of New Religious Movements and cults. According to Cowan (2015), because most people have little direct knowledge of cults and mainly get their information through sensationalist media reports, cults are easily presented as targets of moral panic for being immoral, extreme or dangerous. The three main accusations that cults face are that they engage in brainwashing, acts of sexual deviance and social isolationism. Each of these accusations applied to the media reports on the Aquarian Foundation although their dominant theme centered on the claim that Brother XII was a fraud.

15.2. Sociological Explanations of Religion

While some people think of religion as something individual (because religious beliefs can be highly personal), for sociologists religion is also a social institution. Social scientists recognize that religion exists as an organized and integrated set of beliefs, behaviours, and norms centred on basic social needs and values. Moreover, religion is a cultural universal found in all social groups. For instance, in every culture, funeral rites are practiced in some way, although these customs vary between cultures and within religious affiliations. Despite differences, there are common elements in a ceremony marking a person’s death, such as announcement of the death, care of the deceased, disposition, and ceremony or ritual. These universals, and the differences in how societies and individuals experience religion, provide rich material for sociological study. But why does religion exist in the first place?

Evolutionary Psychology

“Blind Pharisee, cleanse first that [which is] within the cup and platter, that the outside of them may be clean also” (Matthew 23:26, King James Bible);

“Let the (husband) employ his (wife)…in keeping clean, in religious duties, in the preparation of his food, and in looking after the household utensils” (9:11, Hindu Laws Of Manu).

Despite the conflict that has accompanied religion over the centuries, it still continues to exist, and in some cases thrive. How do we explain the origins and continued existence of religion? We will examine sociological theories below, but first we turn to evolutionary and psychological explanations.

Many psychologists explain the rise and persistence of religion in terms of Darwinian evolutionary theory. For this argument, they provide a psychological definition of the core religious experience or state of being common to all religion’s diverse social forms and settings. Psychologist Roger Cloninger (1993) defines this core religious experience as the disposition towards self-transcendence. It has three measurable components: self-forgetfulness (absorption in tasks and the ability to lose oneself in concentration), transpersonal identification (perception of spiritual union with the cosmos and the ability to reduce boundaries of self vs. other), and mysticism (perception or acceptance of things that cannot be rationally explained ). The argument is that because this is a universal phenomenon, it must have a common physiological or genetic basis that is passed on between generations that enhances human survival.

A drawing showing the meeting of heaven and earth.
Figure 15.13. “The place where heaven and earth meet.” Psychologists approach religion as a product of the individual capacity for experiences of self-transcendence. Is this capacity wired into our genes? (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

According to Charles Darwin all species are involved in a constant battle for survival, using adaptions as their primary weapon against an ever-changing, and hostile environment. Adaptions are genetic, or behavioral traits that are shaped by environmental pressures, and genetic variation. By dissecting religion to a core set of purposes, it can be categorized as an adaption that increases the chances of human survival. All adaptions successfully passed on to future generations aided at one point either in reproduction or survival because the genes that selected for them were passed on. This is the rule of natural selection (Darwin, 1859).

Much of evolutionary psychology aims at explaining the possible environments in which certain adaptions were selected. Although religion has the potential to cause unwanted side effects, such as wars, it still provides much greater benefits, by responding to numerous survival problems through collective religious processes. A very specific benefit, for example, is disease prevention. Many historic religions placed an emphasis on cleanliness, comparing it to spiritual purity. Consequently there is also an evolutionary benefit to this religious virtue. During a time period where disease was a constant threat to survival, idealizing cleanliness helped minimize communicable diseases from food, animals, and even humans.

Although disease prevention has been an important byproduct of religious practices around the world, evolutionary psychologists argue that the main benefit religion has provided to human survival is the mutual support provided by fellow members. More specifically, religion creates a framework for social cohesion and solidarity, even during times of loss, and grief, which has been a crucial competitive strategy of the human species. Rather than each individual being exclusively concerned with their own survival — in a kind of “survival of the fittest” logic — the religious disposition to self-transcendence provides a mechanism that explains the altruistic core of religious practice and the capacity of individuals to sacrifice themselves for the group or for abstract beliefs.

Dean Hamer (2005) for example describes a specific gene that correlates with the capacity for self-transcendence. After his research team isolated an association between the VMAT2 gene sequence and populations who scored high on psychological scales for self-transcendence, Hamer noted these genes were connected to the production of neurotransmitters known as monoamines. The effects of monoamines on the meso-limbic systems in the human body were similar to many stimulant drugs: feelings of euphoria and positive well-being. Moreover, his findings suggested that 40-50% of self-transcendence was heritable. What is striking about this evidence is the implication that evolution has favoured genes that are often displayed in religious populations. Hamer extends the evolutionary argument to suggest that religion, grounded genetically in a neuro-chemical capacity for self-transcendence, provides competitive advantages for the human species in the forms of community well-being (higher rates of reciprocity and social welfare) and longevity (reduction of maladaptive behaviours and increased cleanliness).

Many similar effects can be observed in the present environment. Strawbridge, Sherna, Cohen, and Kaplan, (2001) conducted a 30-year longitudinal study on religious attendance and survival. Although they found that weekly religious attendance more often assisted in targeting and reducing maladaptive behaviors such as smoking, it also aided in maintaining social relations, and marriage (Strawbridge et al., 2001). Similar studies show correlations between religious affiliation to Christianity, and the self-perceived happiness of German students (Francis, Robbins, & White, 2003). Evolutionary psychology argues that these modern tendencies to feel happiness during a church congregation to reduce maladaptive behaviours are innate, sculpted by centuries of exposure to religion.

Evolutionist Richard Dawkins hypothesized a similar reason why religion has created such a lasting impact on society. His theory is explained by the creation of ‘memes’. Comparable to genes, memes are bits of information that can be imitated and transferred across cultures and generations (Dawkins, 2006). Unlike genes, which are physically contained within the human genome, memes are the units or “genetic material” of culture. As a vocal proponent of atheism, Dawkins believes the idea of God is a meme, working in the human mind the same way as a placebo effect. The God meme contains tangible benefits to human society such as answers to questions about human transcendence and superficial comfort for daily difficulties, but the idea of God itself is a product of the human imagination (Dawkins, 2006). Although a human creation, the God meme is incredibly appealing, and as a result, has continually been passed on through cultural transfusion.

The logic of evolutionary psychology suggests that it is possible for religion to be replaced by another mechanism that is more beneficial to human survival. Just as Dawkins hypothesized that religious memes colonized societies around the world, this process could also be applied to secular memes. Modern secular countries provide public institutions that create the same social functions as religion, without the disadvantages of “irrational” religious restrictions based on unverifiable beliefs. The secularization thesis predicts that as societies become modern, religious authority will be replaced with public institutions. As Canada, and other countries develop, perhaps evolution will continue to favour secularization, demoting religion from its central place in social life, and religious conflicts to history textbooks and motel night tables.

Karl Marx

A man laying on a couch of furs beside an opium pipe.
Figure 15.14. “When bachelor dens cast over waking hours a loneliness so deep.” Marx would have drawn from popular images of opium dens in formulating his famous phrase: “Religion is the opium of the people.” (Image courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Where psychological theories of religion focus on the aspects of religion that can be described as products of individual subjective experience — the disposition towards self-transcendence, for example — sociological theories focus on the underlying social mechanisms religion sustains or serves. They tend to suspend questions about whether religious world views are true or not — e.g., does God exist? Is enlightenment achievable through meditation? etc. — and adopt some version of WI Thomas’s (1928) Thomas Theorem: “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.”

From the point of view of the classical theorists in sociology, Thomas’s theorem was already implicit in the premise that the relationship to religion was a key variable needed to understand the transition from traditional society to modern society.  Marx, Durkheim, Weber and other early sociologists lived in a time when the validity of religion had been put into question. Traditional societies had been thoroughly religious societies, whereas modern society corresponded to the declining presence and influence of religious symbols and institutions.  Nationalism and class replaced religion as a source of identity. Religion became increasingly a private, personal matter with the separation of church and state. In traditional societies the religious attitude towards the world had been “real in its consequences” for the conduct of life, for institutional organization, for power relations, and all other aspects of life. However, modern societies seemed inevitably to be on the path towards secularization in which people would no longer define religion as real. The question these sociologist grappled with was whether societies could work without the presence of a common religion.

Karl Marx explained religion as a product of human creation:  “man makes religion, religion does not make man” (Marx, 1844/1977).  In his theory, there was no “supernatural” reality or God. Instead religion was the product of a projection. Humans projected an image of themselves onto a supernatural reality, which they then turned around and submitted to in the form of a superhuman God.  It is in this context that Marx argued that religion was “the opium of the people” (Marx, 1844/1977). Religious belief was a kind of narcotic fantasy or illusion that prevented people from perceiving their true conditions of existence, firstly as the creators of God, and secondly as beings whose lives were defined by historical, economic and class relations.  The suffering and hardship of people, central to religious mythology, were products of people’s location within the class system, not of their relationship to God, nor of the state of their souls. Their suffering was real, but their explanation of it was false. Therefore “religious suffering is at the same time an expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering.”

However, Marx was not under the illusion that the mystifications of religion belief would simply disappear, vanquished by the superior knowledge of science and political-economic analysis. The problem of religion was in fact the central problem facing all critical analysis: the attachment to explanations that compensate for real social problems but do not allow them to be addressed. As he said, “the criticism of religion is the supposition [or beginning of] of all criticism” (Marx, 1844/1977). Until humans were able to recognize their power to change their circumstances in “the here and now” rather than “the beyond,” they would be prone to religious belief. They would continue to live under conditions of social inequality and grasp at the illusions of religion in order to cope. The critical sociological approach he proposed would be to thoroughly disillusion people about the rewards of the afterlife and bring them back to earth where real rewards could be obtained through collective action.

The demand to give up the illusions about their condition is a demand to give up a condition that requires illusion…. Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers from the chains not so that man may bear chains without any imagination or comfort, but so that he may throw away the chains and pluck living flowers . The criticism of religion disillusions man so that he may think, act, and fashion his own reality as a disillusioned man come to his senses; so that he may revolve around himself as his real sun. Religion is only the illusory sun which revolves around man as long as he does not revolve around himself (Marx, 1844/1977).

Nevertheless, if Marx’s analysis is correct, it is a testament both to the persistence of the social conditions of suffering and to the comforts of holding to illusions, that religion not only continues to exist 170 years after Marx’s critique, but in many parts of the world appears to be undergoing a revival and expansion.

Emile Durkheim

Figure 15.15. “Divine love always has met and always will meet every human need.” Mary Baker Eddy, founder of the Christian Science Church in 1879, describes divine love in terms similar to Durkheim’s functionalist theory of religion (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

Emile Durkheim (1859-1917) explained the existence of religion in terms of the functions it performs in society. Like Marx, therefore, he argued that it was necessary to examine religion as a product of society, rather than as a product of a transcendent or supernatural presence (Durkheim, 1915/1964). Unlike Marx, however, he argued that religion fulfills real needs in each society, namely to reinforce certain mental states, sustain social solidarity, establish basic rules or norms, and concentrate collective energies. These can be seen as the universal social functions of religion that underlie the unique natures of different religious systems all around the world, past and present (Sachs, 2011). He was particularly concerned about the capacity of religion to continue to perform these functions as societies entered the modern era in the 19th and 20th centuries. Durkheim hoped to uncover religion’s future in a new world that was breaking away from the traditional social norms that religion had sustained and supported (Durkheim, 1915/1964).

The key defining feature of religion for Durkheim was its ability to distinguish sacred things from profane things. In his last published work, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, he defined religion as: “a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden – beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them” (Durkheim, 1915/1964). Sacred objects are things said to have been touched by divine presence. They are set apart through ritual practices and viewed as forbidden to ordinary, everyday contact and use. Profane objects on the other hand are items integrated into ordinary everyday living. They have no religious significance. From Durkheim’s social scientific point of view, it is the act of setting sacred and profane apart which contributes to their spiritual significance and reverence, rather than anything that actually inheres in them.

This basic dichotomy creates two distinct aspects of life, that of the ordinary and that of the sacred, that exist in mutual exclusion and in opposition to each other. This is the basis of numerous codes of behavior and spiritual practices. Durkheim argues that all religions, in any form and of any culture, share this trait. Therefore, a belief system, whether or not it encourages faith in a supernatural power, is identified as a religion of it outlines this divide and creates ritual actions and a code of conduct of how to interact with and around these sacred objects.

Durkheim examined the social functions of the division of the world into sacrd and profane by studying a group of Australian Aboriginals that practiced totemism. He described totemism as the most basic and ancient forms of religion, and therefore the core of religious practice itself (Durkheim, 1915/1964). A totem, such as an animal or plant, is a sacred “symbol, a material expression of something else” such as a spirit or a god. Totemic societies are divided into clans based on the different totemic creatures each clan revered. In line with his argument that religious practice needs to be understood in sociological terms rather than supernatural terms, he noted that totemism existed to serve some very specific social functions. For example, the sanctity of the objects venerated as totems infuse the clan with a sense of social solidarity because they bring people together and focus their attention on the shared practice of ritual worship. They function to divide the sacred from the profane thereby establishing a ritually reinforced structure of social rules and norms, they enforce the social cohesion of the clans through the shared belief in a transcendent power, and they protect members of the society from each other since they all become sacred as participants in the religion.

In essence, totemism, like any religion, is merely a product of the members of a society projecting themselves and the real forces of society onto ‘sacred’ objects and powers. In Durkheim’s terms, all religious belief and ritual function in the same way. They create a collective consciousness and a focus for collective effervescence in society. Collective consciousness is the shared set of values, thoughts, and ideas that come into existence when the combined knowledge of a society manifests itself through a shared religious framework (Mellor & Shilling, 1996). Collective effervescence, on the other hand, is the elevated feeling experienced by individuals when they come together to express beliefs and perform rituals together as a group: the experience of an intense and positive feeling of excitement (Mellor & Shilling, 2011). In a religious context, this feeling is interpreted as a connection with divine presence, as being filled with the spirit of supernatural forces, but Durkheim argues that in reality it is the material force of society itself, which emerges whenever people come together and focus on a single object. As individuals actively engage in communal activities, their belief system gains plausibility and the cycle intensifies. In worshipping the sacred, people worship society itself, finding themselves together as a group, reinforcing their ties to one another and reasserting solidarity of shared beliefs and practices (Mellor & Shilling, 1998).

The fundamental principles that explain the most basic and ancient religions like totemism, also explain the persistence of religion in society as societies grow in scale and complexity. However, in modern societies where other institutions often provide the basic for social solidarity, social norms, collective representations, and collective effervescence, will religious belief and ritual persist?

In his structural-functional analysis of religion, Durkheim outlined three functions that religion still serves in society, which help to explain its ongoing existence in modern societies. First, religion ensures social cohesion through the creation of a shared consciousness form participation in rituals and belief systems. Second, it formally enforces social norms and expectations of behavior, which serve to ensure predictability and control of human action. Third, religion serves to answer the most universal, ‘meaning of life’ questions that humans have pondered since the dawn of consciousness. As long as the needs remain unsatisfied by other institutions in modern social systems, religion will exist to fill that void.

Making Connections: Classical Sociology

Émile Durkheim on Religion

Émile Durkheim
Figure 15.16. Émile Durkheim (1858–1917) (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Durkheim’s father was the eighth in a line of father-son rabbis. Although Émile was the second son, he was chosen to pursue his father’s vocation and was given a good religious and secular education. He abandoned the idea of a religious or rabbinical career, however, and became very secular in his outlook. His sociological analysis of religion in The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1915/1964) was an example of this. In this work he was not interested in the theological questions of God’s existence or purpose, but in developing a very secular, sociological question: Whether God exists or not, how does religion function socially in a society?

He argued that beneath the irrationalism and the “barbarous and fantastic rites” of both the most primitive and the most modern religions is their ability to satisfy real social and human needs (Durkheim, 1915/1964). “There are no religions which are false,” he said. Religion performs the key function of providing social solidarity in a society. The rituals, the worship of icons, and the belief in supernatural beings “excite, maintain or recreate certain mental states” that bring people together, provide a ritual and symbolic focus, and unify them. This type of analysis became the basis of the functionalist perspective in sociology. He explained the existence and persistence of religion on the basis of the necessary function it performed in unifying society.

Max Weber

The devil is depicted as a man with an animalistic head and spear.
Here the Christian devil is depicted in a detail of The Last Judgement by Jacob de Backer (circa 1580s) as a composite of goat, ram and pig. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

If Marx’s analysis represents the classical sociological formulation of the critical perspective on religion, and Durkheim’s the functionalist formulation, Max Weber’s analysis represents the classical formulation of the interpretive perspective on religion within sociology. His approach was to determine the meaning of religion in the conduct of life for members of society. Three key themes concerning religion emerge from his work: the concept of theodicy, the disenchantment of the world, and the Protestant Ethic.

One of Weber’s explanations for the origin and persistence of religion in society concerns its role in providing a meaningful explanation for the unequal “distribution of fortunes among men” (Weber, 1915 (1958)). As described earlier in the chapter, this is religion’s unique ability and authority to provide a theodicy:  an explanation for why all-powerful Gods allow suffering, misfortune and injustice to occur, even to “good people” who follow the moral and spiritual practices of their religion. Religious theodicies resolve the contradiction between “destiny and merit”(Weber, 1915 (1958)). They give meaning to why good or innocent people experience misfortune and suffering. Religion’s exist therefore because they (successfully) claim the authority to provide such explanations.

Weber describes three dominant forms of theodicy in world religions: dualism, predestination and  karma. In dualistic religions like Zoroastrianism, the power of a god is limited by the powers of evil–“the powers of light and truth, purity and goodness coexist and conflict with the powers of darkness and falsehood” (Weber, 1915 (1958))–and therefore suffering is explained as a consequence of the struggle between the dual powers of good and evil, gods and demons, in which evil occasionally wins out.  The doctrine of predestination, which became very important in Weber’s theory of Calvinism and the Protestant Ethic (see below), explains suffering as the outcome of a destiny that a god has pre-assigned to individuals. God’s reasoning is invisible to believers and therefore inscrutable. Therefore believers must accept that there is a higher divine reason for their suffering and continue to strive to be good. Finally, the belief in karma, central to religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism, explains suffering as a product of  acts one committed in former lives. Individuals must struggle in this life to rectify the evils accumulated from previous lives. Each form of theodicy provides “rationally satisfying answers” to persistent questions about why  gods permit suffering and misfortune without undermining the obligation of believers to pursue the religion’s values.

Weber’s analysis of religion was concerned not only with why religion exists, but with the role it played in social change. In particular, he was interested in the development of the modern worldview which he equated with the widespread processes of rationalization: the general tendency of modern institutions and most areas of life to be transformed by the application of technical reason, precise calculation, and rational organization. Again, central to his interpretivist framework, how people interpreted and saw the world provided the basis for an explanation of the types of social organization they created. In this regard, one of his central questions was to determine why rationalization emerged in the West and not the East. Eastern societies in China, India, and Persia had been in many respects more advanced culturally, scientifically and organizationally than Europe for most of world history, but had not taken the next step towards developing thoroughly modern, rationalized forms of organization and knowledge. The relationship to religion formed a key part of his answer.

One component of rationalization was the process Weber described as the disenchantment of the world, which refers to the elimination of a superstitious or magical relationship to nature and life.  Weber noted that many societies prevented processes of rationalization from occurring because of religious interdictions and restrictions against certain types of development. He describes, for example, the way Chinese geomancy interfered with the construction of railroads in China because because building structures “on certain mountains, forests, rivers, and cemetery hills”  threatened to “disturb the rest of the spirits” (Weber, 1966). A contemporary example might be the beliefs concerning the sacredness of human life, which serve to restrict experimenting with human stem cells or genetic manipulation of the human genome. In modernity, the fundamental orientation to the world becomes increasingly disenchanted in the sense that “mysterious incalculable forces” of a spiritual or sacred nature no longer “come into play” in peoples understanding of it. Rather, “one can, in principle, master all things by calculation.” When the world becomes disenchanted, “one need no have recourse to magical means in order to master or implore the spirits, as did the savage, for whom such mysterious powers existed. Technical means and calculations perform the service” (Weber, 1919 (1958)). For Weber, disenchantment was one source for the rapid development and power of Western society, but also a source of irretrievable loss.

A second component of rationalization, particularly as it applies to the rise of capitalism as a highly rationalized economic system, was the formation of the Protestant Ethic. This will be discussed more fully below. The key point to note here is that Weber makes the argument that a specific ethic or way of life that developed among a few Protestant sects on the basis of religious doctrine or belief, (i.e. a way of interpreting the world and the role of humans within it), became a central material force of social change. The restrictions that religions had imposed on economic activities and that had prevented them from being pursued in a purely rational, calculative manner, were challenged or subverted by the emergence and spread of new, equally religious, forms of belief and practice. However, the irony that Weber noted in the relationship between the Protestant sects and the rise of capitalism, was that while the Protestant’s “duty to work hard in one’s calling” persisted, the particular beliefs in God that produced this “ethic” were replaced by secular belief systems. Capitalist rationality dispensed with religious belief but remained “haunted by the ghosts of dead religious beliefs” (Weber 1904 (1958)). 

Making Connections: Classical Sociology

Max Weber on the Protestant Work Ethic

Max Weber
Figure 15.18. Max Weber (1864-1920) Wikimedia Commons. (Photo courtesy of wikimedia commons)

Weber is known best for his 1904 book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. He noted that in modern industrial societies, business leaders and owners of capital, the higher grades of skilled labour, and the most technically and commercially trained personnel were overwhelmingly Protestant. He also noted the uneven development of capitalism in Europe, and in particular how capitalism developed first in those areas dominated by Protestant sects. He asked, “Why were the districts of highest economic development at the same time particularly favourable to a revolution in the Church?” (i.e., the Protestant Reformation (1517–1648)) (Weber 1904 (1958)). His answer focused on the development of the Protestant Ethic—the duty to “work hard in one’s calling”—in particular Protestant sects such as Calvinism, Pietism, and Baptism.

As opposed to the traditional teachings of the Catholic Church in which poverty was a virtue and labour simply a means for maintaining the individual and community, the Protestant sects began to see hard, continuous labour as a spiritual end in itself. Hard labour was firstly an ascetic technique of worldly renunciation and a defense against temptations and distractions: the unclean life, sexual temptations, and religious doubts. Secondly, the doctrine of predestination among the Protestant sects believed that God’s disposition toward the individual was predetermined and could never be known or influenced by traditional Christian practices like confession, penance, and buying indulgences. However, one’s chosen occupation was a “calling” given by God, and the only sign of God’s favour or recognition in this world was to receive good fortune in one’s calling. Thus material success and the steady accumulation of wealth through personal effort and prudence was seen as a sign of an individual’s state of grace. Weber argued that the ethic, or way of life, that developed around these beliefs was a key factor in creating the conditions for both the accumulation of capital, as the goal of economic activity, and for the creation of an industrious and disciplined labour force.

In this regard, Weber has often been seen as presenting an interpretivist explanation of the development of capital, as opposed to Marx’s historical materialist explanation. It is an element of cultural belief that leads to social change rather than the concrete organization and class struggles of the economic structure. It might be more accurate, however, to see Weber’s work building on Marx’s analysis of capitalism and to see his Protestant Ethic thesis as part of a broader set of themes concerning the process of rationalization: the general tendency of modern institutions and most areas of life to be transformed by the application of instrumental reason—rational bureaucratic organization, calculation, and technical reason—and the overcoming of “magical” thinking (which we earlier referred to as the “disenchantment of the world”). As the impediments toward rationalization were removed, organizations and institutions were restructured on the principle of maximum efficiency and specialization, while older, traditional (i.e. inefficient) types of organization were gradually eliminated because they could not compete.

The irony of the Protestant Ethic as one stage in this process is that the rationalization of capitalist business practices and organization of labour eventually dispensed with the religious goals of the ethic. At the end of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Weber pessimistically describes the fate of modern humanity as an “iron cage.” The iron cage is Weber’s metaphor for the condition of modern humanity in a technical, rationally defined, and “efficiently” organized society. Having forgotten the spiritual (and other) goals of life, humanity succumbs to the goals of pure efficiency: an order “now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production” (Weber 1904 (1958)). The modern subject in the iron cage is “only a single cog in an ever-moving mechanism which prescribes to him [or her] an essentially fixed route of march” (Weber 1922 (1958)).

Peter Berger

Figure 15.19. Peter Berger (1929- ). (Image courtesy of the Pew Research Center).

Peter Berger’s The Sacred Canopy (1967) is a modern sociological attempt to create a comprehensive explanation of religion. Berger’s approach to religion is based on the phenomenological perspective in sociology.  Phenomenology seeks to describe the way in which all phenomena, including religion, arise as perceptions within the immediate sensorial experience and awareness of individual subjects.  Phenomenologists study the ways in which the world, and ourselves within it, first come to presence in experience and only later become separate objects, social structures or selves. The founder of phenomenology, Edmund Husserl argued that only by “returning to things themselves” at this primary level of experience could the ground of scientific knowledge be established (Abram, 1997). For Berger, prior to the division of the world into subjects and objects and prior to any specific “knowledge” we form about it, religion also comes to presence as an awareness which only later takes on the specific qualities and meanings of the sacred. Religion is only secondarily a structure, institution, practice, or set of beliefs. Berger’s question was, how does it come to do so for different individuals in a consistent manner? How do humans go from the flux of immediate perception to a religious worldview?

For Berger, religion is a particular type of culture (Berger 1967). Like culture, it is a human creation that develops in response to the fundamental human condition:  humans lack in-borne biological programming to help them cope with the problems of physical survival. Berger explains that, unlike other animals,  human survival depends on creating cultural knowledges, techniques, and technologies, and passing them down from generation to generation. In order for humans to survive, the world must be culturally prepared as a world in which things and people have stable meanings. Whereas animals might simply be able to smell that certain mushrooms are poisonous, children must learn the difference between what is poisonous and non-poisonous based on their culture’s taxonomy of plants. Culture, Berger argues, exists therefore as an artifice that mediates between humans and nature and provides needed stability and predictability in human life. From the phenomenological point of view, culture enables both the ongoing creation of the world as a stable, objective social reality outside the subject and the simultaneous creation, or interiorization, of social roles and social expectations within the subject. On the basis of the cultural processes objectification and interiorization, a stable, regular, predictable, taken for granted,  reassuring world–or nomos (i.e. normative order)–is created.

Religion develops because the stability of culture is inherently fragile.  Just as the immediate experience of the individual is subject to flux and change, so is the foundation of the ordered, meaningful world of culture. Cultural meanings tend to be fixed and rigid through time, whereas the underlying reality they describe is not. Events occur that are not explainable. They fall outside the categories and threaten to put the whole cultural framework or nomos into question. Berger states that “every nomos is an edifice erected in the face of the potent and alien forces of chaos” (Berger, 1967). Religion comes into existence as a solution to this problem. Religion is able to resolve the threat of instability and terror of anomie by postulating a supernatural agency or cosmological view of the world, which are unaffected by everyday inconstancy and uncertainty.  In a religious cosmology the order described by culture is the natural order, that is, it is the way the gods have decided things must be. Things that occur that cannot be explained in human terms are explained as the products of divine will.

For Berger, religion therefore provides an “ultimate shield” for humanity—a sacred canopy–because it protects the meaningful world of the cultural order and fixes it in place by reference to a divinity that exists outside of the fragile human order. Religion is therefore a source of ultimate legitimation because it provides the social order with an unquestionable foundation of legitimacy: the way things are is the will of the gods. From a phenomenological point of view however, the price of this religious solution is a mode of forgetfulness and alienation. For the legitimation effect of religion to work and be plausible, humans must forget that they themselves have created religion. They must forget that religion is a human accomplishment.

In The Sacred Canopy, Berger argued that the processes of secularization will eventually erode the plausibility of religious belief. For religion to function as a sacred canopy and ultimate legitimation, it must provide the foundation for a shared belief system. In modern societies however, other types of knowledge and expert systems like science assume greater authority to describe the nature of the world and our role within it. Modern societies become more pluralistic as well,  in the sense that a multiplicity of cultural and religious systems compete to provide meaning and orientation in peoples lives. Berger also noted the tendency for religion to become “privatized” in modern society.  With the separation of church and state in the modern state system, religion has been increasingly seen as a matter of private, individual choice or a matter of private, family belief rather than the center of  collective or public life. Therefore, because (a) pluralism undermines the ability of any single religion to offer an ultimate source of stability for society and because (b) the isolated, private beliefs of individuals cannot be the basis of a common shared cosmological order, religion will undergo a crisis in plausibility from which it is unlikely to recover. As we will see below in Section 15.3, however Berger (1999) felt obliged to revise his prediction about the demise of religion in the face of the contemporary religious revivals by Pentacostals, Muslims and others.

Rodney Stark

The storefront of a Walmart supercenter with three large crosses behind it.
Figure 15.20. Walmart in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Rodney Stark argues that people use the same process of rational calculation in choosing their spiritual beliefs as they do in making everyday purchases. (Image courtesy of Mark Trammell/Flickr).

In the 1980’s American sociologist Rodney Stark developed another significant and influential theory of religion. He, along with his colleague William Bainbridge, set out to create a systematic and predictive theory of religion that could be empirically tested based on the principles of rational choice theory (Stark & Bainbridge, 1985, [1987] 1996). Despite the dominant expectation that modern societies were becoming ever more secular, Stark believed that religion was, and would continue to be, an important and influential factor for individuals and society. “[S]o long as humans intensely seek certain rewards of great magnitude that remain unavailable through direct actions, they will be able to obtain credible compensators only from sources predicated on the supernatural” (Stark & Bainbridge, 1985).

For the last two centuries sociologists have been predicting religion’s ultimate demise in the face of modernity, but Stark argues that this has simply not happened (Stark & Bainbridge, 1996). He contends that “the vision of a religionless future is but illusion” (Stark & Bainbridge, 1985). Stark notes that church membership and new religious movements have actually increased in the United States as the country modernized. In Europe, where religious participation is relatively low, levels of individual belief nevertheless remain high and participation has not undergone a long-term decline (Stark, 1999b). What explanation can be provided for the persistence of religion?

Stark begins with the stipulation that the importance of the supernatural must be recognized when studying religion. Belief in a higher force or power is the feature that distinguishes religions from non-religious beliefs and organizations. Any theory of religion must take this into account. Yet the question inevitably arises: why do people in a rational, material world continue to hold these ‘irrational’ beliefs in the supernatural?

Stark attempts to answer this question by proposing a number of basic, general rules about humans and their behavior. The most fundamental of these is from rational choice theory, namely that humans seek rewards and avoid costs (Stark & Bainbridge, 1985). Rational choice theory states that the most basic human motive is individual self-interest, and that all social activities are a product of rational decision making in which individuals continuously weigh the benefits of choices against their costs (Scott, 2014). A person who has a choice between two jobs, for example, would weigh the rewards of each one such as higher pay or better benefits against the possible costs of longer work hours or further commutes. Individuals will on balance choose the course of action that maximizes their rewards and minimizes their costs.

Of course an individual’s attempts to make rational choices are confined by their personal knowledge, understanding, and beliefs about the available options. In this sense, even seemingly irrational decisions or beliefs can be understood as rational choices from the point of view of the individual decision maker (Stark, 1999a). Religious belief in the supernatural may seem irrational from an outside perspective because it involves an orientation to invisible, supernatural powers that affect the everyday material world through unobservable mechanisms. However, for the religious believer whose worldview is shaped by this assumption, it is completely rational that they would choose to worship and make offerings to these supernatural powers in the hopes of gaining rewards and avoiding wrath or misfortune. Moreover, by participating in religious practice, people also surround themselves with other believers who make the rationality of supernatural choices even more plausible.

According to Stark, the rewards people desire most intensely are often scarce or not available at all, such as an end to suffering or eternal life. Consequently, when such rewards cannot be attained through direct means, humans will create and exchange compensators. These are promises or IOUs of a reward at an unspecified future date, along with an explanation of how they can be acquired. The individual accepts the promise of a future reward like eternal life after death in compensation for not being able to have it here and now, but “pays” for it upfront so to speak through the “costs” of a lifetime of religious devotion, ritual observance, self-denial and faith (Stark & Bainbridge, 1985).

Stark argues that rewards such as these are so monumental and scarce that they can only be provided through a supernatural source. “Systems of thought that reject the supernatural lack all means to credibly promise such rewards as eternal life in any fashion” (Stark & Bainbridge, 1985). This is why religious belief persists. In other words, a person must believe that a supernatural power exists which is capable of providing this reward in order to rationally believe that it is attainable. In this sense, religious belief and practice are rational choices humans make to get the most coveted rewards regarding human existence. Religious organizations function to provide compensators for these rewards by claiming to provide access to supernatural powers or deities.

For Stark, this is the root of why religion continues to exist in the modern world, and why it will continue to persist. For as long as people desire solutions to the most essential human questions, and these are not provided by other sources, there will be a rational cost/benefit analysis that favours the choice to exchange religious devotion and practice for future spiritual “pay offs.”

From there Stark develops his theory, aptly referred to as the “rational choice theory of religion,” to generate 344 deductive, testable propositions which offer explanations to nearly every aspect of religion. For example, he proposes that “as societies become older, larger and more cosmopolitan they will worship fewer gods of greater scope” (Stark & Bainbridge, 1996). By using a positivist approach, Stark creates a theory where every proposition, including this one, can in principle be tested. The proposition above could be verified by examining the number of gods and their powers in the religions of small, traditional societies and comparing that to the number of gods worshipped in more established, modern ones.

In reality however, many of the propositions are difficult to test because the concepts he uses are hard to measure or compare between religions. How does one empirically quantify the scope of a certain god and compare it to that of an unrelated god from a different religion? His theory has also been critiqued for having an inherent bias towards monotheistic and particularly Protestant Christian measures of religion (Carroll, 1996). In other words, he places higher value on measures of religiosity that fit the Protestant model, such as belief and adherence to doctrine, over those that better describe other religions, such as the ritual aspects of Hinduism or Catholicism. His work may then implicitly suggest that Protestants are more religious than the others based on these skewed measures of religiousness. Despite these criticisms, Stark’s theory continues to hold merit for its systematic and broad approach to looking at all facets of religion to explain the reasons for the persistence of religious beliefs today.

Feminist Approaches to Religion

A statue of a fertility goddess
Figure 15.21. Fertility Goddess from Cypress (3000 BCE). Merlin Stone’s When God was a Woman (1976) traces the pre-history of European society back to feminine-centred cultures based on fertility and creator goddesses. It was not until the invasions of the Kurgans from the northeast and Semites from the south in the fifth millennium BCE that hierarchical and patriarchal religions became dominant. (Image courtesy of Dave & Margie Hill/Wikimedia Commons)

Feminist theories of religion analyze and critique the ways in which sacred texts and religious practices portray and subordinate—or empower—women, femininity, and female sexuality (Zwissler, 2012). Theorists within this area of study look at religion’s contribution to the oppression or empowerment of women within society, as well as provide analyses of the challenges that women face within different religious practices. The crucial insight into religion that forms the basis for feminist research is the gendered nature of religion (Erikson, 1992). Women’s place and experience within religious traditions differ significantly from men’s. Feminists therefore argue that questions about gender are essential for a meaningful analysis and explanation of religion.

In one line of inquiry, feminist theorists of religion have analyzed the representation of women within sacred religious texts, identifying and critiquing the way women are portrayed. For example, the gender of the deity is an issue for women, particularly in the monotheistic Abrahamic religions such as Christianity, Islam, and Judaism (Zwissler, 2012). God, within these religious beliefs, is usually understood as male. Mary Daly (1973), a feminist theologian, famously stated, “if God is male, then the male is God.” Individuals within these religious practices are socialized to see men and the qualities of masculinity as having greater importance than women and the qualities femininity, thus perpetuating the rationales and gender ideologies that legitimate women’s subordination in society. The question this raises is whether religion is therefore the direct cause of misogyny—the aversion or distaste for people of the female sex, including belittling, sexual objectification, sexual violence, and discrimination against women—or whether male-dominated religious practices are the product of broader gendered inequalities and societal norms outside of religion (Zwissler, 2012)?

South Lawn Arrival Ceremony of Pope Benedict XVI
Figure 15.22. Feminist theorists focus on gender inequality and promote leadership roles for women in religion. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

A second line of inquiry focuses on why power relationships within religious institutions are typically gendered (Erikson, 1992). Feminist theorists note that women are frequently prevented from holding positions of power within religious practice. Ministers, imams, rabbis, buddhas, and Brahmin priests are positions within religious hierarchies which have traditionally excluded women. Despite this, cross-culturally women are proportionately more religious than men. Surveys across North America and Europe demonstrate that more women identify as being religious than men, have deeper levels of religiosity than men, and attend church more regularly tan men by a ratio of 3:2 (Dawson & Thiessen, 2014). This can be seen as a paradox within feminist religious studies. In an ideal meritocracy, spiritual elites would be chosen from those with the most spiritual “experience,” but this is not the case.

Linda Woodhead’s (2007) research seeks to examine the question of why more women than men identify as being religious when religions are typically patriarchal, both in their contents and their institutional hierarchies. Her key insight is that women’s position in patriarchal religion is not monolithic. Women differ in how they “negotiate” their gender status and their religious practice. Placed along two axes (see Figure 15.23) , Woodhead identifies four distinct religious “strategies” women adopt to position themselves within the dominant religious narrative (“mainstream” or “marginal”) and with respect to the religious status quo (“confirmatory” or “challenging”):

  1. The consolidating strategy of women who accept the existing gendered distribution of power within their religion as a means of affirming and consolidating the security and predictability that traditional gender roles provide;
  1. The tactical strategy of women who take part in and use religion in order to have the intimate interaction and support of other women;
  1. The questing strategy of women who seek out different forms of religion like New Age spiritualties, meditation or Wikka in order to find fulfilment through an inner spiritual quest (rather than addressing the social power structures of religion directly);
  1. The counter-cultural strategy of women that reject traditional religion and create religious communities that focus on empowering women (eg. the goddess feminist movement of Starhawk and others).

The challenges faced by women are different within each religion, and therefore the strategies women of faith use to change or work within their respective religion may vary. Woodhead’s model emphasizes however that women are not simply manipulated by religious traditions but exercise agency, albeit with different orientations and goals (Woodhead, 2007).

Woodhead diagram
Figure 15.23. Linda Woodhead’s diagram mapping the different strategic positions of women with regard to patriarchal religion (from Woodhead, 2007).

Being an interdisciplinary perspective, feminism brings a diversity of voices into the discussion, illuminating important issues of inequality, oppression, and power imbalance, all of which are of great importance to the study of sociology. Through analysis of the gender structures within religious practices worldwide, a deeper understanding of how different cultures and traditions function is revealed. The understanding that women frequently do not identify as being oppressed by their religion is an important insight in trying to fully understand the nature of gendered religious practice on a global scale.

15.3. Religion and Social Change

Religion has historically been a major impetus to social change. In early Europe, the translation of sacred texts into everyday, non-scholarly language empowered people to shape their religions. Disagreements between religious groups and instances of religious persecution have led to mass resettlement, war, and even genocide. To some degree, the modern sovereign state system and international law might be seen as products of the conflict between religious beliefs as these were founded in Europe by the Treaty of Westphalia (1648), which ended the Thirty Years War. As outlined below, Canada is no stranger to religion as an agent of social change. Nevertheless debate continues in sociology concerning the nature of religion and social change particularly in three areas: secularization, religious diversity, and new religious movements.


Friedrich Nietzsche
Figure 15.24. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s (1844-1900) parable of the madman in the market is the source of one of the most famous slogans of secularization: “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him… There has never been a greater deed; and whoever is born after us — for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto” (Nietzsche, 1882/1974). (Image courtesy of F. Hartmann/Wikimedia Commons)

Loek Halman and Erik van Ingen argue that “[f]or centuries, religion was regarded as a more or less obvious pillar of people’s moral views,” but since the 19th century it steadily lost significance in society while the sources of people’s opinions and moral values became more diverse. Secularization refers to the decline of religiosity as a result of the modernization of society. More precisely, secularization “refers to the process by which religion and the sacred gradually have less validity, influence, and significance in society and the lives of individuals” through the impact of modern processes like rationalization, pluralism, and individualism (Dawson and Thiessen, 2014). For example, while in 1957 82% of Canadians were official members of church congregations, only 29% were in 1990 (Bibby, 1993). According to Statistics Canada’s 2011 census, 7,850,605 Canadians had no religious affiliation, making them the second largest group after Catholics at 12,810,705. This is a large increase from the 202,025 Canadians who claimed no religious affiliation in the 1971 Statistics Canada census (Statistics Canada, 2015).

Sociologists suggest that it is important to distinguish between three different types of secularization: societal secularization, organizational secularization, and individual secularization. Karel Dobbelaere (2002) defines societal secularization as “the shrinking relevance of the values, institutionalized in church religion, for the integration and legitimation of everyday life in modern society.” In Quebec until the early 1960s for example, the Catholic Church was the dominant institution in the province, providing health care, education, welfare, municipal boundaries (parishes), records of births and deaths as well as religious services, but with the modernization programme of the LaSalle government during the “Quiet Revolution” the state took over most of these tasks. Organizational secularization refers to the “modernization of religion” from within, namely the efforts made by religious organizations themselves to update their beliefs and practices to reflect changes in contemporary life. The move to ordinate female ministers to reflect the growing gender equality in society or the use of commercial marketing techniques to attract congregations are examples. Individual secularization is the decline in involvement in churches and denominations or the decline in belief and practice of individual members.

As we saw earlier in the chapter, the equation of secularization with modernity has been the view of many important sociologists including Marx, Durkheim, and Weber. But in more recent years there has been a growing number of sociologists who question the universality of the process of secularization and propose that contemporary society is going through a period of religious revitalization. Peter Berger (1999) for example reversed the secularization thesis he proposed in The Sacred Canopy (1967), when he noted that most of the world is as “furiously religious as it ever was, and in some places more so than ever.” A religious resurgence is evident in particular in the growth in Islam around the world as well as in the growth and export of Pentecostalism in and from the United States. Similarly, Fink and Stark (2005) have argued that Americans, at least, actually became more religious as American society modernized. Even in Europe, where church attendance is very low, they suggest that religious practice is stable rather than in long term decline and that people still hold religious beliefs like the belief in God or life after death.

However, Canada, like most of Europe, appears to be an exception to the trend of religious resurgence, meaning there has been less of an emergence of new and revived religious groups, as opposed to the U.S. and the rest of the world. Prior to the 1960s Canada was a more religious nation than the United States, now it is much less religious by any standard measure. Nevertheless, Reginald Bibby’s research (2011) on religiosity in Canada describes a situation that is more complicated than the secularization thesis suggests. Rather than a progressive and continuous process of secularization, Bibby argues that there have been three consecutive trends in Canada since the 1960s: secularization, revitalization and polarization. After a period of steady secularization between the 1950s and 1990 (measured by levels of church attendance), Bibby presents evidence of revitalization in the 1990s including small increases in weekly or monthly attendance for different age groups. He also notes the four fold increase of non-Christians (Muslims, Buddhists, Jews) in Canada since the 1950s, the high level of spiritual belief among people who do not attend church, the way that many people retain connections with churches for special occasions, and surveys that report that many would consider attending regularly if organizational or personal factors could be addressed. Since the 1990s, Bibby describes a third trend of polarization, with the public increasingly divided into opposite poles of the highly religious and the non-religious. However, according Dawson and Thiessen, this last trend identified by Bibby does not take into account the almost 50% of the population who are in the middle (i.e., neither highly religious nor completely non-religious), nor the fact that longitudinal measures of religious belief and religiosity show the trend to continued decreases among the highly religious and increases to the non-religious (Dawson and Thiessen, 2014).

Overall it can be said that understanding secularization and desecularization is an essential part of the sociological analysis of religion.  Knowing the relationship between modernity and religion provides insight into the complex dynamics of the late modern world and allows sociologists to predict what is to come for religion in the future. The question is whether secularization necessarily accompanies modernization or whether there is a cyclical process between secularization and religious revivalism. Are secular or non-secular societies the exceptions to the dominant trend of modern society? The revised thesis that Peter Berger offers is perhaps the most promising solution to the conflicting data: “Modernity does not necessarily produce secularity. It necessarily produces pluralism, by which I mean the coexistence in the same society of different worldviews and value systems” (Berger quoted in Thuswaldner, 2014). In other words, in modern societies there is neither a steady one-way process of secularization nor a religious revitalization, but a growing diversity of belief systems and practices.

Religious Diversity

The practice of religion in Canada is ever changing and has recently become increasingly diverse. Religious diversity can be defined as a condition in which a multiplicity of religions and faiths co-exist in a given society (Robinson, 2003). Because of religious diversity, many speculate that Canada is turning into a Post-Christian society, in the sense that Christianity has increasingly become just one among many religious beliefs, including the beliefs of a large number of people who claim no religion. For those who report having a Christian heritage, only a minority can articulate the basic elements of Christian doctrine or read the bible on a regular basis. To an ever greater extent, Christianity no longer provides the basic moral foundation for Canadian values and practices. Canada appears to moving towards a much more religiously plural society. This is not without its problems however.

Religious diversity in Canada has accelerated in the last twenty years due to globalization and immigration. Until 1951, Canada was overwhelmingly a Christian nation with about 96 percent of the population a member of either a Protestant denomination (50%) or Catholic (46%) (Statistics Canada, 2001). There were only a handful of members from the other main world religions. Other religions during this time such as Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and Hindus only made up a negligible percentage of the population. With the opening up of immigration to non-Europeans in the 1960s, this began to change.

In the 21st century, religion in Canada has become increasingly diverse. Including the various Protestant denominations Statistics Canada surveyed 80 different religious groups in Canada in 2011 (Statistics Canada, 2011). Those who identified as Christian had gone down by nearly 22 percent since the 1970’s from 88% to 66% or two-thirds of the population. The percentage of other religions like Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, Judaism and Eastern Orthodox Christianity increased from 4% to 11% of the population (Pew Research Center, 2013).

Religious diversity does not only include the increased number of people who participate in non-Christian religions. Instead, the group that identifies themselves as religious “nones” has become increasingly significant in society. A religious none refers to a person who chooses the category “none” on surveys about religious affiliation. They consist of  atheists, agnostics, and people who simply say they subscribe to no religion in particular  (Statistics Canada, 2011). It was not until the 1980’s that the group of religious nones became prevalent. During its first appearance, approximately four percent of the population in Canada identified as religiously unaffiliated. By 2011, that number had increased nearly a quarter, rising to about 24 percent (Pew Research Center, 2013).

Canadians have had varying responses to religious diversity. On an individual level, while many accept religious beliefs other than their own, others do not. Individuals are either open to embracing these differences or intolerant of the varying viewpoints surrounding them. Wuthnow (2005) describes three types of individual response to religious diversity. Firstly there are those who fully embrace the religious practices of others, to the point of creating hybrid beliefs and practices. Christians might practice yoga or Eastern meditation techniques, for example. Secondly, there are those who tolerate other religions or accept the value of other religious beliefs while maintaining religious distinctions intact. Finally, there are those who reject the value of other religious beliefs or feel that other religions are a threat to the integrity of “Christian” society. This can manifest in the range of negative individual responses to Muslim women who wear a hijab or headscarf for example.

On a societal level, there are three main types of social response to religious diversity: exclusion, assimilation and pluralism. Exclusion occurs when the majority population does not accept varying or non-traditional beliefs, and therefore believe that other religions should be denied entry into their society. The exclusionary response tends to happen when a society that identifies with a previously homogeneous faith community is confronted with the spread of religious diversity. Some of the early religious diversity in Canada was a product of faith groups like the Hutterites and Doukhobor’s immigrating to Canada after being excluded and persecuted in Russia, Europe and the United States on the basis of their beliefs. On the other hand, the Canadian policy towards Jews was exclusionary until relatively recently. Universities like McGill and the University of Toronto had quota systems that restricted the number of Jewish students until the 1960s. Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany in the 1930s were brutally turned away by Canadian officials. Today issues of Islamophobia, “fear, hatred or prejudice against Islam and Muslims,” have been prevalent since the threat of jihadi terrorism became a widespread concern in Canada (International Civil Liberties Alliance, 2013).

A step beyond exclusion is assimilation. Assimilation occurs when people of all faiths are welcomed into the majority culture, but on the condition that they leave their beliefs behind and adopt the majority’s faith as their own. An example of assimilation in Canada is the history of Aboriginal spiritual practices like the sun dance, spirit dance and sweat lodge ceremonies. Between 1880 and mid-20th century these practices were outlawed and suppressed by both the Canadian state and Church organizations. They were seen as counter to the project of assimilating First Nations people into Christian European society and a settled, agricultural way of life (Waldram, Herring and Young, 2006). In 1885 and 1906, first a pass system and then an outright ban on leaving reserves were imposed on Plains Indian people to prevent them from congregating for Sun Dances, where they sought to honour the Great Spirit and renew their communities. The man who was eventually the deputy superintendent of Indian Affairs in Ottawa, Duncan Campbell Scott, wrote that the sun dances “cause waste of time, interfere with the occupations of the Indians, unsettle them for serious work, injure their health [and] encourage them in sloth and idleness… they should not be allowed to dissipate their energies and abandon themselves to demoralizing amusements” (Scott quoted in Waldram et al., 2006).

The most accommodating response to religious diversity is pluralism. Pluralism is the idea that every religious practice is welcome in a society regardless of how divergent its beliefs or social norms are. This response leads to a society in which religious diversity is fully accepted (Berry, 1974). Today pluralism is the official response to religious diversity in Canada and has been institutionalized through the establishment of Multicultural policy and the constitutional protections of religious freedoms. However, some thorny issues remain when the values of different religious groups clash with each other or with the secular laws of the criminal code. The right to follow Sharia law for Muslims, the right to have several wives for Mormons, the right to carry ceremonial daggers to school for Sikhs, the right to refuse to marry homosexual couples for Christian Fundamentalists, are all issues that pit fundamental religious freedoms against a unified sovereign law that applies to all equally. The acceptance of religious diversity in the pluralistic model is not without its problems.

For example, one pluralistic strategy for managing the diversity of beliefs has been to regard religious practice as a purely private matter. In order to avoid privileging one religious belief system over another in the public sphere, (e.g., in government agencies or public schools), governments have attempted to equally ban all religious expressions in public spaces. From the relatively trivial use of the term “holiday season” to replace “Christmas” in public schools to the more ambitious attempt to implement the Quebec Charter of Values, which would have banned the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols or face coverings for all public personnel in the Province of Quebec, the idea is to solve the problem of religious diversity by “privatizing” religious belief and practice. All religious faiths and practices are equal, included and accommodated as long as they remain private. However, people’s religious identities and commitments are often part of their public persona as well as their private and inform their political and social engagement in the public sphere. In the guise of implementing pluralism, the attempt to secularize the public sphere artificially restricts it (Connelly, 1999).

Religious freedom and diversity keeps the religious life of Canadians interesting. The full acceptance of religious differences may take some time, however studies show that Canadians are moving in this direction. The evidence is that as people become more exposed to religious diversity and interact with people of other religions more frequently, they become more accepting of beliefs and practices that diverge from their own (Dawson and Thiessen, 2014).

Making Connections: Sociology in the Real World

Muslim Women – The Niqab, Hijab and Burka

Table 15.3. What style of dress is appropriate for women? The results of the Middle Eastern Values Study, University of Michigan Population Studies Center, 2013. (Image courtesy of Pew Research Center)

[Skip Table]

Countries Burka Niqab Chador al-Amira Hijab None
Tunisia 1% 2% 3% 57% 23% 15%
Egypt 1% 9% 20% 52% 13% 4%
Turkey 0% 2% 2% 46% 17% 32%
Iraq 4% 8% 32% 44% 10% 3%
Lebanon 2% 1% 3% 32% 12% 49%
Pakistan 3% 32% 31% 24% 8% 2%
Saudi Arabia 11% 63% 8% 10% 5% 3%
Median 2% 8% 8% 44% 12% 4%

While veiling continues to be practiced by Muslim women, and is more often associated with Islam than with other religious traditions, the practice of veiling has been integral to all three monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam). Christian and Jewish women wear headscarves as a cultural practice or commitment to modesty or piety, particularly in religious sects and cultural traditions like the Amish or Hutterites for example.

The word hijab is the Arabic word for a “screen” or “cover”. Today, we know the hijab to be worn as a headscarf covering the whole head and neck, while leaving the face uncovered. The niqab is a veil for the face that leaves the area around the eyes clear and is worn accompanying the hijab. The burka is a one-piece loose fitting garment that covers the head, the face and entire body, leaving a mesh screen to see through.

There is a popular belief among Muslims and non-Muslims alike that Islam dictates veiling upon Muslim women. Furthermore, there is a parallel belief among both Muslims and non-Muslims that the prescription of veiling is stated clearly in the Koran, the Holy Book of Islam. As to the question of whether or not it is obligatory for women to wear hijab, the Koran states that women should cover their bosoms and wear long clothing, but does not specifically say that they need to cover their faces or hair (Koran, 24:31). The best dress according to the Koran is the garment of righteousness, which is not a garment in a literal sense, but a commitment to live in a manner that pleases God: “O children of Adam, we have provided you with garments to cover your bodies, as well as for luxury. But the best garment is the garment of righteousness. These are some of God’s signs, that they may take heed” (Koran, 7:26). The hijab as we know it today, is not mentioned specifically in the Koran. The prophet Mohammed was once asked by a woman if it was okay for women to go to prayers without their veils. His reply to her was, “She should cover herself with the veil of her companion and should participate in the good deeds and in the religious gathering of the Muslims.”

Critics of the veiling tradition argue that women do not wear the veil by choice, but are forced to cover their heads and bodies. The veil represents a larger, patriarchal gendered division of privileges and freedoms that severely restrict women’s choices and movements while liberating men’s. The tradition of “purdah” in the Pushtun areas of Afghanistan for example requires women to be either secluded within the home or veiled when in public in order to protect the family’s honour (Moghadam, 1992). Purdah is part of the Pushtunwali or customary law in which women are regarded as the property of men. Similar arguments can be made for the wearing of the veil in Saudi Arabia and Iran, where Islamist governments impose a dress code and restrictions on women’s movements by law. It is significant that following the Iranian revolution in 1979 and the seizing of power in Afghanistan by the Taliban in 1996, the new Islamist governments forced unveiled women to wear the hijab (in Iran) and the burqa (in Afghanistan) as one of the first policies enacted to signal the Islamization of cultural practices. Raheel Raza (2015), president of the Council for Muslims Facing Tomorrow, argues that as such “the niqab and burka have nothing to do with Islam. They’re the political flags of the Muslim Brotherhood, ISIS, the Taliban, al-Qaida and Saudi Arabia. “The salience of this criticism may be due to the significant influence the media has on the western world in particular.

Muslim women who choose to wear coverings are seen as oppressed and without a voice. However, Muslim women choose to wear the hijab or other coverings for a variety of reasons. Many daughters of Muslim immigrants in the West contend that they choose to wear the veil as a symbol of devotion, piety, religious identity and self-expression. (Zayzafoon, 2005). Through their interpretation of the Koran, they believe that God has instructed them to do so as a means of fulfilling His commandment for modesty, while others wear it as a fashion statement. Furthermore, studies have shown that for some women, the hijab raises self-esteem and is used as form of autonomy. Some Muslim women do not perceive the hijab to be obligatory to their faith, while others wear the hijab as a means of visibly expressing their Muslim identity.

Particularly since 9/11, the hijab is perceived to be synonymous with Islam. Unfortunately this association has also occasionally resulted in the violent assaults of Muslim women wearing hijab. By making assumptions about the reasons women have for veiling, the freedom of these women to wear what they feel is appropriate and comfortable is taken away.

Most people view the hijab as cultural or religious, but for some, it carries political overtones. Muslim women who wear the hijab to communicate their political and social alliance with their birth country do so by challenging the prejudices of the Western world. (Zayzafoon, 2005). Wearing hijab is also used as a tool to protest Western feminist movements which present hijab-wearing women as oppressed or silenced. Although the principles of modesty are distinctly outlined in the Koran, some Muslim women perceive the wearing of the headscarf as a cultural interpretation of these scriptures, and choose to shift their focus internally to build a deeper spiritual relationship with God. While wearing hijab granted women in the past to engage outside the home without bringing attention to them, the headscarf in modern Western society has an adverse effect by attracting more attention to them which ultimately contradicts the hijabs original purpose. Overall, most Muslim women agree that it is a woman’s choice whether or not she wears the hijab.

New Religious Movements and Trends

A woman standing on a mystical beach in front of a fire.
Figure 15.25. New Age spirituality is an example of the new forms of spiritual orientation in Late Modernity. (Image courtesy of Temari 09/Flickr)

Despite the assumptions of secularization theory and some of the early classical sociologists that religion is a static phenomenon associated with fixed or traditional beliefs and lifestyles, it is clear that the relationship of believers to their religions does change through time. We discussed the emergence of the New Religious Movements or cults above for example. Especially in the 1960s and 1970s, cults represented particularly intense forms of religious experimentation that spoke to widespread feelings of dissatisfaction with materialism, militarism and conventional religiosity. They were essentially new religious social forms. Below we will examine the rise of fundamentalism as another new religious social form that responds to issues of globalization and social diversity. Here we will broaden the concept of “new religious movements” beyond the cult phenomenon to discuss what exactly has been “in movement” in the relationship of believers to their religions in contemporary society.

Sociologists note that the decline in conventional religious observance in Canada, Europe and elsewhere has not necessarily entailed a loss of religious or spiritual practices and beliefs per se (Dawson and Thiessen, 2014). One aspect of this phenomenon has been the development of a new religious sensibility, which Grace Davie (1994) referred to as “believing without belonging.” People, especially young people, often say that they are ‘not religious, but they are spiritual.’ What does this mean for contemporary religious belief and practice? Firstly, surveys show that people retain fairly high levels of belief in God or supernatural forces, or belief in the efficacy of prayer or other ritual practices, even though they might never attend conventional  churches or services. Secondly, the orientation to these beliefs and practices has also changed. People are seeking more holistic, flexible, ‘spiritual growth’ oriented types of religious experience (Beckford, 1992). New Age spirituality — the various forms and practices of spiritual inner-exploration that draw on non-Western traditions (e.g., Buddhism, Hinduism, Indigenous spirituality) or esoteric Western traditions (e.g., witchcraft, Gnosticism) — is emblematic of this new religious sensibility but it also increasingly characterizes people with otherwise conventional religious affiliations.

Dawson (1998) has characterized this new religious sensibility in terms of six key characteristics:

  • Individualistic: unlike conventional religious beliefs and moral codes which focus on transcendent or external spiritual beings, in the new religious sensibility the locus of the sacred is found within. The goal of religious practice is therefore not to conform to externally imposed codes of behaviour but to express the inner authenticity of personal identity.
  • Experiential: rather than focusing on formal religious beliefs,  doctrines and ritual practices, the emphasis is on attaining direct spiritual experiences through practices of spiritual transformation such as meditation or yoga.
  • Pragmatic:  the approach to religious authority is not one of submission but of pragmatic evaluation of the authority’s ability to facilitate spiritual transformation
  • Relativistic: rather than exclusive adherence to a particular doctrine or tradition, the attitude is one of tolerance and acceptance towards other religious perspectives, even to the point of syncretistically borrowing and blending the appealing elements of a variety of different traditions.
  • Holistic: unlike the dualisms of conventional religious belief (God/human, spirit/body, good/evil, human/nature, etc.),  the emphasis is on the holistic interconnectness of all things.
  • Organizationally open  and flexible: instead of the traditional commitments to a religious organization or faith, there is a tendency to model the interaction in the form of clients seeking and receiving services in order to maximize individual choice in how the spirtitual practice is pursued.

What this appears to suggest is that a significant number of people in contemporary society retain an interest in or “need” for what religions provide, but seek it through individualistic, non-dogmatic, non-institutional frameworks of spiritual practice. This has lead to increasingly individual, subjective, and private forms of religiosity, which conform to the dominant emphasis on the autonomy of the individual in late modern society (Hervieu-Léger, 2006). Religious practices are not only subject to a kind of “do-it-yourself” bricolage,  assembled from a multiplicity of  religious “symbolic stocks” that are now accessible through globalized media and interaction,  but if they do not bring tangible, immediate benefits to individuals they are quickly abandoned. At the same time, the basic questions of fate, suffering, illness, transformation and meaning have not been satisfactorily answered by science or other secular institutions, which creates a continued demand for religious or spiritual solutions.

Making Connections: Case Study

Is Rastafarianism a Religion?

Bob Marley on stage speaking into a microphone
Figure 15.26. “Until the philosophy which holds one race superior and another inferior is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned, everywhere is war, me say war” (Bob Marley “War,” citing Haile Selassie’s speech to the United Nations in 1963). (Image courtesy of monosnaps/Flickr)

Most Canadians, if asked what a Rastafarian (“Rasta”) is, will answer that it is a person who lives in the Caribbean, wears clothing in green, red and gold, has dreadlocks in their hair, listens to reggae music and smokes a lot of cannabis. With the above stereotypes, it is easy to overlook the beliefs, rituals, and origins of Rastafarianism as a religion. Through the popularization of reggae music and artists like Bob Marley, the style of Rastafarianism has globalized though many do not know there is more to the movement than the outward appearance of its members. Today, most followers of Rastafarianism are in Jamaica, although smaller populations can be found in several countries including Canada, Great Britain, South Africa, Ethiopia and Israel.

Rastafarianism developed during the 1920’s when the political founder of the movement, Marcus Garvey, urged Jamaicans to look to Africa for the return of a Black King and new spiritual leader. He said that a King would soon be crowned to liberate black people from the oppression caused by slavery. On November 2nd 1930, soon after Garvey’s prophecy, ‘Ras Tafari Makonnen’ — the Emperor Haile Selassie I–was crowned as the emperor of Ethiopia (Stanton, Ramsamy, Seybolt, and Elliot; 2012).

This was an event with more than just political significance. Many black Jamaicans regarded the coronation of Ras Tafari Makonnen as the inauguration of a new era of spiritual redemption for dispossessed Africans after centuries of colonization, cruelty, oppression and slavery. The followers of Garvey, known as Rastas, believed the redemption of the black race would involve the fulfillment of biblical and secular prophesies concerning the imminent downfall of ‘Babylon,’ which was equated with the corrupt, colonial, slavery based world created by the “white man”(Hedbige, 1997). With the fall of Babylon, Rastas believed there would be a reversal in slavery-based social hierarchy. Black people would then take their place as spiritual and political leaders the way God (Jah) intended them too.

One of the central religious beliefs of Rastafarians is that the Christian Bible describes the history of the African race (Waters, 1985). To Rastas, Ethiopia is the biblical promised land, the “City of David” referred to as Zion (2 Samuel, 5:7). In the prophecy of Zion, Rastas strive to return to Zion to leave the oppressive, exploitative, materialistic western world (of Babylon) where they will attain a life of heaven on earth, a place of unity, peace, and freedom.

However, like many of the spiritual movements of late modernity, Rastafarianism does not emphasize doctrine, church attendance, or being a member of a congregation. It focuses on the individual’s direct experience of God (Jah) as a “positive vibration” enabling them to live in harmony with nature (Bone, 2014). There are several key sacraments or religious rituals that Rasta practice to achieve this direct experience. Groundation Day is celebrated on April 21st to remember the day that Haile Selassie 1 (sacred Ethiopian emperor) visited Jamaica. On this day Rastafarians chant, pray, feast, and create music as celebration. The music (or Nyabingi) Rasta’s create that day combines traditional chanting and drumming to attain a higher spiritual consciousness. This is a similar to the music and meditation practices used to achieve higher states of consciousness and clarity during regular “reasoning sessions” in which Rastas gather for sessions of intense dialogue to discuss communal issues. Achieving higher consciousness through ritual means enables participants in reasoning sessions to re-evaluate their positions, overcome the confines of their false sense of self (or ego), and reach higher truths through consensus.

Smoking Cannabis (Ganja) also plays an important role in many Rastafarian rituals, although it is not mandatory. It is described as a “holy herb”. Rastafarians cite biblical passages like Psalms 104:14 (“He causeth the grass for the cattle, and the herb for the services of man”) as reference for its sacramental value. Cannabis use is considered sacred and is usually accompanied with biblical study and meditation. The purpose of this sacrament is to cleanse the body and mind, heal the soul, bring a heightened consciousness, promote peacefulness and calm, and bring Rasta’s closer to Jah (Murrell et al, 1998).

The custom of wearing dreadlocks — long, uncombed locks of hair — also has religious significance to Rastafarians (Stanton, Ramsamy, Seybolt, and Elliot, 2012). Dreadlocks (dreads) have political significance as a protest against Babylon because they symbolize the natural, non-industrial lifestyle of the Rastas (Fisher, 1994). Dreadlocks also have several spiritual meanings. They conform to the style worn by traditional Ethiopian warriors and priests and thus represent the power of their African ancestors. They resemble a lion’s mane, again symbolizing Africa but also the biblical lion of the tribe of Judah and the messianic end of days when the lion will lie down with lambs (Stanton, Ramsamy, Seybolt, and Elliot, 2012). Rastafarians also point to the holy vows of consecration of the Nazarites of the Hebrew bible: “During the entire time of his dedication, he is not to allow a razor to pass over his head until the days of his holy consecration to The LORD have been fulfilled. He is to let the locks on his head grow long” (Numbers 6:5, International Standard Version).

From a sociological point of view, Rastafarianism has to be understood as a New Religious Movement (broadly defined) in the context of the social and racial conditions of Jamaica in the 20th century. It is significant that it blends spiritual motifs of dread and redemption from the Christian bible with the anti-colonial, anti-racist politics of Third World activists like Marcus Garvey. Contemporary Rastafarians typically come from disadvantaged backgrounds and until the rise of reggae music as a worldwide phenomenon the term “Rasta” was used as a term of contempt or insult (Hedbige, 1997). The belief system therefore provides a religious inflection to the material circumstances black Jamaicans face due to the history of colonial oppression. It is a claim to status as much as a path to spiritual transformation. Rastafarianism mobilizes black people to “free their minds from mental slavery,” resist the restrictions of social hierarchies, and step into their role as leaders like Haile Selassie I, the way God (Jah) intended them to.

15.4 Contemporary Fundamentalist Movements

A man carries a large yellow sign that reads, "Obey Jesus or Perish."
Figure 15.27. Here we see a young man sharing his religious affiliation through biblical signage at a widely attended sporting event. Adopting the methods of the 1960’s protest movements, displays such as this are a common method in which fundamentalists make their core beliefs known to the public. Themes of being “doomed” or “damned” are projected towards those who are not aligned with the projected faith. (Photo courtesy of Saraware/wikimedia)

During her walk to school, an eight year old girl, Naama Margolese, became the subject of the ignominious side of religious fundamentalism when she was spat on and called a “whore” by a group of Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Men in Beith Shemesh, Israel. This group of men wished to enforce their “strict interpretation of modesty rules” (Kershner, 2011) even though Margolese was wearing long sleeves and a skirt. Another extreme fundamentalist group, the Westboro Baptist Church, picket the funerals of fallen military personnel (Hurdle, 2007), of the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings (Linkins, 2013), and even of the brutal greyhound bus stabbing in Winnipeg, Canada (CBC News, 2008). They interpret these tragic events as demonstrations of God’s discontent and of society’s rejection of fundamentalist interpretations of gay marriage, divorce and abortion. The public demonstrations of the Ultra-Orthodox men and the Westboro Baptist Church provide a platform for these groups to disseminate their beliefs, mobilize supporters and recruit new followers. However, the controversial protests also attack routine norms of civility — the right of 8 year old girls to walk to school unmolested by adult men; the solemnity of funeral rites and the mourning processes of the bereaved — and lead to communal disruption and resentment, as well as the alienation of these groups from broader society.

One of the key emblems of the contemporary rise of religious fundamentalism is that conflicts, whether they are playground disagreements or extensive political confrontations, tend to become irreconcilable when fundamental beliefs are at the core of said disputes. These types of issue are one of the defining features of the contemporary era. Unlike discussions relating to secular business or political interests, fundamentalist beliefs associated with religious ideology seem non-negotiable and therefore prone to violent conflict. In an increasingly globalized and diverse world, where people are obliged to live in close proximity with “Others” who hold different truths, the militant insistence on ultimate religious truths seems problematic.

The rise of fundamentalism also poses problems for the sociology of religion. For many decades theorists such as Berger (1967), Wilson (1982; 1985) and Bruce (1999) argued that the modernization of societies, the privatization of religion, and the global spread of religious and cultural pluralism meant that societies would continue to secularize and levels of religiosity would steadily decline. However, other theorists such as Hadden (1987; 1989), Stark (1994; 1999) and Casanova (1994; 1999) have recently begun to reconsider the secularization thesis. They argue that religious diversity and pluralism have sparked new interpretations of religion and new revivals of religiosity. Dawson (2006) observes that the inability of late modern societies to produce concrete answers to basic questions about the existential experiences of human life or provide meaningful responses to miraculous or tragic events “has implicitly kept the door open to religious worldviews” (pp. 113-14). In other words, these new sociological interpretations of religion propose that rather than withering away, fundamentalist groups will continue to thrive because they offer individuals answers to ultimate questions and give meaning to a complicated world.

Interestingly enough, in his later works, Berger (1999) abandoned his original theory of secularization. Even though contemporary society is increasingly modern — globally linked, diverse, technologically sophisticated, capitalist — it is as “furiously religious as it ever was, and in some places more than ever” (1999). Berger gives the example of the “Islamic upsurge” as an “impressive revival of emphatically religious commitments” (1999 ) and presents the worldwide adoption of evangelicalism as “breathtaking in scope” (1999). The growth of evangelical Protestantism is noted to have gained a substantial numbers of converts all around the world, but most prominently in Latin America, which Berger identifies as having “between forty and fifty million Evangelical Protestants south of the U.S. border” (1999, p.8), many of which are assumed to be of first-generation.

The Pew Research Center has recently presented some interesting findings that can also provide a general sense of what the future for religious fundamentalism may hold. First, Pew (2015a) identifies that in the United States, one of the most modern societies in the world, “[s]ix-in-ten adults — and three-quarters of Christians — believe the Bible or other holy scripture is the word of God.” In addition to this “[r]oughly three-in-ten adults (31%) and four-in-ten Christians (39%) go a step further and say the Bible should be interpreted literally, word for word”. Second, Pew (2015b) identified Islam as the fastest growing religion in the world, and suggested that by 2050 “the number of Muslims will nearly equal the number of Christians around the world”. While it is not clear from this research how many Muslims hold fundamentalist beliefs per se (eg. Wahhabi, Salifi, etc.), this is of interest because the more or less equal distribution of the two most popular world religions could result in an intensification of fundamentalist support. In other words, the anxieties around the encounter with the beliefs of the “Other” that leads people to seek out the “certainties” of fundamentalist belief systems, are likely to intensify once Christianity’s spot as the world’s most popular religion is threatened.

Defining and Explaining Fundamentalism

A fundamentalist Christian cartoon. Long description available.
Figure 15.28. A 1924 Christian Fundamentalist cartoon illustrates the progressive abandonment of fundamental Christian beliefs associated with modernist thinking. Can the origins of fundamentalism be explained as a response to the social changes of the 19th and 20th centuries? [Long Description] (Photo courtesy of E.J. Pace/Luinfana/Wikimedia).

How does the sociology of religion explain the rise of fundamentalist belief in an increasingly modern, global society then? The answer that sociologists have proposed is that fundamentalism and religious revivalism are modern. Rather than seeing it as a return to traditionalism, Ruthven (2005) defines fundamentalism as a modern religious movement that could only emerge under modern conditions: “a shrinking ‘globalized’ world where people of differing and competing faiths are having to live in close proximity with each other.” The encounter between faiths initiated by a globalized world provokes the fundamentalist reaction because, in the face of a bewildering diversity of ways to live, fundamentalism provides individuals with an opportunity to consolidate their identity around a core of “ultimate” beliefs which relieve anxiety and provide comfort and reassurance. In this way, Ruthven (2005) defines the common core of fundamentalism in different faith traditions as “a religious way of being that manifests itself in a strategy by which beleaguered believers attempt to preserve their distinctive identity as a people or a group in the face of modernity and secularization.”

The use of the term “fundamentalism” has its origin in the early 20th century Christian Evangelical and Pentecostal movements in Southern California. Oil tycoons, Milton and Lyman Stewart, sponsored a series of widely distributed pamphlets titled  The Fundamentals: A Testimony of Truth, which presented a core set of beliefs said to be fundamental to Christianity:

  • Biblical inerrancy: The inerrancy and infallibility of the Bible
  • Creationism: God’s direct creation of the world
  • Divine intervention: The existence of miracles
  • Divinity of Christ: The virgin birth of Jesus as the son of God
  • Redemption: The redemption of the sins of humanity through Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection
  • Pre-millenarian dispensationalism: The Second Coming of Jesus, the end times, and the rapture

These pamphlets were not a return to pre-modern traditionalism however. They were an explicit response to modern forms of rationality, including the trend towards historical and scientific explanations of religious certainties. They also addressed the desire for clarity and simplification of religion in a complex “market” of diverse, competing religious doctrines and theologies. The Stewart’s pamphlets can be therefore be interpreted as both a response to, and the product of modernity. A response, because of their defensively orientated motivation to challenge the modernist movement; and a product, because of their use of modern techniques of mass communication and commercial promotion to transmit a particular set of beliefs in a clear and concise manner to a mass audience.

To expand the concept of fundamentalism beyond this specific usage in the context of 20th century Christian Protestantism poses some analytical problems.  In a strict definition its use would be limited to this specific, early 20th century religious movement in the United States: “those who were prepared to do battle for The Fundamentals” (Ruthven, 2005). However its use in popular culture today has expanded far beyond this narrow reference. Fundamentalism not only refers to similar movements in other faiths like Islam, Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism, but it is also common to hear the term applied to “market fundamentalism,”  “secular fundamentalism,” or “musical fundamentalism,” etc. in non-religious contexts. It is even possible to describe New Age fundamentalisms, like est or the Landmark Forum, which promise to strip participants of their old and useless, counter-productive psychological defenses (or “rackets”) and return them to their core moral purpose: to “take responsibility” for themselves.

In this expanded usage, fundamentalism loosely refers to the return to a core set of indisputable and literal principles derived from ancient holy, or at least unchallengeable, texts. However, even if we restrict the use of the term fundamentalism to a religious context, there are a number of problems of application. For example, the emphasis on the literalism of holy texts would not be able to distinguish between fundamentalist Islamic movements and mainstream Islam, because both regard the Koran to be the literal, and therefore indisputable word of God communicated to the prophet Mohamed by the Arch Angel Gabriel. On the other hand, the fundamentalist movements of Hinduism do not have a single, authoritative, holy text like the Bible or Koran to take as the literal word of God or Brahman.

In response to these problems, Ruthven (2005) proposes a family resemblance definition (see Section 15.1 above) composed of a number of characteristics shared by most, but not all religious fundamentalisms:

  • A return to the roots or core of scripture: a common style of reading holy texts
  • The use of religious texts as blueprints for practical action rather than simply spiritual or moral inspiration
  • A search for secure foundations of personal identity and cultural authenticity in a modern pluralistic world
  • A rejection of cultural pluralism and diversity in favour of religious monoculture
  • The projection of period of ignorance prior to the revelation of belief and the myth of a Golden Age when norms of religious tradition held sway
  • A theocratic ideal of  a political order ruled by God
  • A belief in Messianism or end times when the divine will return to Earth
  • A reaffirmation of traditional, patriarchal principles including the subordination of women and strict, separate gender roles

In this respect, the common sociological feature that unites various religious fundamentalisms, is their very modern reinvention of traditions in response to the complexity of social change brought about by globalization and the diversification of human populations. Globalization and late modernity introduce an anxiety-laden, plurality of life choices (including religious choices) where none existed before. As Ruthven (2005) puts it, “fundamentalism is one response to the crisis of faith brought on by awareness of differences.” It seeks to secure the certainty of individual or collective selfhoods by defining their roots in an all-encompassing, unquestioned, supernatural source of “ultimate referentiality” as Peter Berger described (see Section 15.2 above).

Fundamentalism and Women

If religious fundamentalist movements primarily serve and protect the interests and rights of men, why do women continue to support and practice these religions in larger numbers than men? This is a difficult question that has not been satisfactorily answered. In the feminist view, women’s subordinate role with respect to the leadership roles of men in religion is a manifestation of patriarchy. Women’s place in these movements subjects them to oppressive religious social norms and prevents them from achieving social mobility or personal success. On the other hand, the traditional gender roles promoted by fundamentalist movements are seen by some women to provide a welcome clarity about men’s and women’s roles and responsibilities in the family and elsewhere in a period of late modernity when gender roles appear increasingly diverse and uncertain (Woodhead, 2007). From another angle, Mahmood (2005) has argued on the basis of her ethnographic research into the Da’wa or “Mosque Movement” among Egyptian Muslim women, that from the women’s point of view, leading chaste, pious, disciplined lives of ritual practice apart from men and secular life is a form of spiritual exercise that actually empowers them and gives them strength. Strict observance of the rules of ritual observance is choice women make to bring themselves closer to God.

Control over female sexuality is a primary focus of all fundamentalist movements. Through fundamentalist religious beliefs, men are “reclaiming the family as a site of male power and dominance” in the face of modern challenges to male privilege and confining gender roles (Butler, 1998). For example, in Islamic fundamentalism, it is seen as shameful and dishonourable for women to expose their bodies. Under the Pushtunwali (customary law), Afghan women are regarded as the property of men and the practice of Purdah (seclusion within the home and veiling when in public) is required to protect the honour of the male lineage (Moghadam, 1992). In both Islamic and Hindu fundamentalism, women’s equality rights are stripped from them through laws and regulation. For example, in 1986, the Indian parliament passed a bill that would disallow women to file for divorce . There have also been many significant instances of violence against women (physical and sexual) perpetrated by men in order to maintain their social dominance and control (Chhachhi, 1989). In Saudi Arabia, rape can only be proven in court if the perpetrator confesses or four witnesses provide testimony (Doumato, 2010).  Christian fundamentalists  in the United States have pressed for decades for the reversal of the 1973 Wade-vs.-Roe decision that guaranteed women’s reproductive rights  and were partially successful in achieving their goal with George Bush’s  signing of the “partial-birth abortion” law in 2003 (Kaplan, 2005).

One purpose of fundamentalist movements therefore is to advantage men and reinforce ideals of patriarchal power in a modern context in which women have successfully struggled to gain political, economic and legal powers historically denied them. The movements’ efforts to shape gender relations through enacting new social and political limitations on women leads Riesebrodt (1993) to define fundamentalism as a “patriarchal protest movement.” What is necessary to keep in mind however, especially with respect to the controversies of fundamentalist Islamic or Hindu religions, is that it can also become an oppressive act for Westerners to attempt to speak on behalf of non-Western women. The role of women in Muslim or Hindu traditions is so different from that in Western religions and culture that characterizing it as inferior or subservient in Western terms risks distorting the actual experience or the nature of the role within the actual fabric of life in these traditions (Moaddel, 1998). In order to properly study women in Fundamentalist movements, it is imperative to gather the perspectives and ideas of the women in the movements themselves in order to eradicate the Orientalist stigma and bias towards non-Western religions and cultures.

The Veil and the Iranian Revolution

Women in hijabs protesting.
Figure 15.29. Women protesting during Iranian Revolution in 1979. (Image courtesy of Khabar/Wikimedia Commons)

After the 1979 Revolution in Iran, the law making veiling mandatory for all women emerged as one of the most important symbols of the new, collective Iranian national and religious identity. It was a means of demonstrating resistance against Western values and served symbolically to mark a difference from the pre-revolutionary program of modernization that had been instituted by the deposed Shah. Many women demonstrated against this law and against other legal discrimination against women in the new post-revolutionary juridical system. However, this dissent did not last long. As Patricia Higgins (1985) stresses, these demonstrations were not supported by the majority of Iranian women. The number of supporters of the demonstrations also decreased when Ayatollah Khomeini–the religious leader of Islamic revolution — mentioned his support of compulsory veiling for women. So it appears that the majority of Iranian women accepted the new rules or at least did not oppose them.

In order to explain the main reasons why the majority of Iranian women accepted compulsory veiling after the revolution, it is important to distinguish between women’s “rights and duties” and their actual behaviour patterns (Higgins, 1985). In the prerevolutionary regime of the Shah, there had been a state-lead attempt to change the juridical system and the public sphere to promote the rights of Iranian women in a manner similar to their western peers. Nevertheless, the majority of Iranian women, especially in the rural areas and margins of the cities, still wore their traditional and religious clothing. Veiling was part of the traditional or customary dress of Iranian women. It was only when the veil was used as a political symbol that it was transformed from a traditional element of women’s fashion into a political sign of resistance against western values, emblematic of the ideology of the main Islamic parties.

However, an equally important fact, which is always less stressed in the dominant narrative about the Iranian revolution is that this transformation of veiling from traditional custom to political symbol first occurred in 1930s, when King Reza Pahlavi banned veiling for all women in the public sphere. To be clear, veiling was a custom or fashion in clothing for women, but not mandatory in law. Nevertheless, 40 years before the 1979 revolution, King Reza Pahlavi made unveiling mandatory in law for all women in Iran. What were the main reasons beneath this radical change which was imposed on Iranian society by the King Reza government?

Reza Pahlavi can be recognized as the founder of new modern state in Iran. Just as his peer in Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, he wished to rapidly transform Iranian society from a traditional, religious society into a modern, coherent nation state. To a certain extent he was successful, especially in building the main transportation and new economic and bureaucratic structure. In this vein, the veiling of women was recognized as one of the most important symbols of Iranian traditional culture which needed to be removed, even violently, if modernization was to succeed. But did the significance of veiling arise from its place in religious texts and the strict customs of traditional ways of life or did it arise only as the outcome of the modern reading of these religious and traditional rules?

It has been argued that fundamentalist movements represent a claim for recognition by beleaguered religious communities. They are a means by which traditional ways of life become aware of themselves as “different” and therefore threatened (Ruthven, 2005). However, in the case of the Hijab or veiling in contemporary Iran, the irony is that from the beginning it was not the religious scholars, traditional leaders or Olama who emphasized veiling as central to the distinction between traditional, religious Iranian culture and western culture. Rather, the equation of traditional Iranian religious society and veiling originated with secular intellectuals and politicians. As Chehabi (1993) states, “When upper-class Iranian men began traveling to Europe in larger numbers in the nineteenth century, they felt self-conscious about their looks and gradually adopted European clothing. Upon their return to Iran, many maintained their European habits, which had come to symbolize progress” (italics added). Reza Shah, the modern leader who identified these symbolic qualities of religious identity, could never be regarded as a religious fundamentalist. However, he was the first head of state to recognize and highlight veiling as an important symbol of the traditional religious way of life, albeit in a negative way. It was Reza Shah who initiated the project to rid Iranian society of fanaticism and ‘backward’ cultural traditions by banning veiling for women.

The second irony is that, apart from upper middle class urban women who embraced the active role of unveiled women in the public sphere, this process of cultural modernization and unveiling was not noticeably successful. The majority of Iranian women were subject to traditional and religious restrictions whose authority rested with the family and religious leaders, not state laws (Higgins, 1985: 490). However, during the Iranian revolution, the political process of Islamization was not monolithically conservative or fundamentalist. At the moment of revolution the dominant Islamic discourse included accepting and internalizing some parts of modern and western identity, while criticizing other parts. It was argued that veiled woman should participate in society equally, even if motherhood should be their priority. At this point in time, veiling was not seen so much as a return to traditional conservative gender roles, but as a means of neutralizing sexual differences in the public sphere. If they complied with wearing the veil, (as noted above, most Iranian women already did wear veils voluntarily), women could leave their confinement within the patriarchal family and participate in public social activities, even without permission of their father or husband. Veiling was ironically a means of women’s liberation.

In this context, during and after the revolution, the leader Ayatollah Khomeini frequently asked women to participate in demonstrations against the Shah’s monarchy even without the permission of their family. At this specific historical moment, the religious authorities treated women as free, independent individuals, whereas previously they had been under the strict authority of their families. Veiling, within the political narrative of the revolution, was seen as the feminine expression of the resurgence of pure Islam, a flag of the critique of western values by Iranian society. After the revolution consolidated into the Iranian Islamic state, this modern, leftist version of Islam was displaced by a more fundamentalist conservative narrative. Even so, at its inception the meaning of compulsory veiling, as a symbol of traditional religious values, was not the product of the traditional values of religious society itself but a product of the way religious society was represented by secular scholars and politicians. Modern secularization was the process that established the symbolic significance of the veil for fundamentalism in Iran.

Making Connections: Social Policy and Debate

The Case of Sati

A painting of a man and woman burning on a funeral pyre surrounded by a crowd of people.
Figure 15.30. The Sati of Ramabai, Wife of Madhavrao Peshwa. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

One of the most internationally publicized and controversial instances of sati was that of Roop Kanwar on September 4, 1987. It occurred in the small town of Deorala in the state of Rajasthan. Roop Kanwar was a well-educated eighteen year old Rajput woman who had married twenty-four year old Mal Singh just eight months before. Her husband died unexpectedly of gastroenteritis, although some speculate it was actually a suicide by poisoning (Hawley, 1994a). The next day, Roop Kanwar stepped onto the funeral pyre with her deceased husband, put his head in her hands as is the custom, and burned alive with his body. This illegal event was witnessed by a few hundred people but there were conflicting reports as to what had actually happened. Pro-sati supporters said that Roop Kanwar had voluntarily decided to become sati and underwent the process with purpose and calm. Those who opposed sati argued that she had not acted of her own free will and was instead drugged into submission by her in-laws who had economic motives for her death. Some reported that she had tried to jump off the pyre, but was pushed back onto it (Hawley, 1994b).

The practice of Sati offers another look at the complicated relationship between fundamentalism and women. Sati is a Hindu ritual in which a widow sacrifices herself by being burned alive on the funeral pyre of her deceased husband. It is a religious funeral rite practiced or endorsed primarily by Hindu groups rooted in the aristocratic Rajput caste in the Rajasthan state of India. Sati is therefore not central to Hinduism, but is practiced by a portion of the population, both men and women, who can be seen as Hindu fundamentalists.
While the Western and English understanding of the word sati is as the practice of widow burning, in the Hindi language it refers to the woman herself. A woman who is sati is a good, virtuous woman who is devoted to her husband (Hawley, 1994a). The Rajput belief is that a woman who freely chooses to become sati is protecting her husband in his journey after death. The power of her self-sacrifice cancels out any bad karma that he may have accrued during his lifetime. She also provides blessings to all those who witness the event (Hawley, 1994b).

The term “sati” comes from the Hindu myth of the goddess Sati who was the wife of the deity Shiva. After her father humiliates Shiva by excluding him from a sacrifice, Sati kills herself in front of him as an act loyalty to her husband. Supporters see the modern version of sati as a manifestation of this same sacrificial power used by the goddess Sati (Hawley, 1994a). However, while sati is seen as a traditional practice, most of the early Hindu religious texts do not recognize sati at all, and it is only mentioned occasionally in later texts. In a manner consistent with other forms of fundamentalism, certain verses have been cited as scriptural justification of the practice by supporters, but their interpretation and translation have been contested by scholars and there is no definitive, unambiguous endorsement of sati (Yang, 1989).

Although this Hindu practice has never been widespread, it happened with enough frequency to catch the attention and revulsion of the British in the nineteenth century while India was under British rule. In 1829 British officials made the practice illegal and a punishable offence for anyone involved (Yang, 1989). The practice has continued to occur very infrequently since then, but the worship and glorification of sati is still a major aspect of the religious belief system of some Rajput Hindus (Harlan, 1994). The criminalization of sati has also become a rallying point for Hindu fundamentalists in their larger battle against the secular state. Its persecution is seen as an infringement by the state into the domain of religion causing the fight for sati to become a fight for religious freedom (Hawley, 1994a).

While previous instances of sati went relatively unnoticed outside the local area, the rise of women’s rights activism by feminists and other liberals caused the story of Roop Kanwar to gain major attention. Twelve days after her death by immolation, a chunari celebration was held at the funeral site to honor and praise her sacrifice. Although the Rajasthan High Court legally prohibited this gathering and any other “glorification of sati” after pressure from women’s rights groups, between 200,000 to 300,000 people from throughout the province attended (Hawley, 1994a). Further gatherings and sati endorsement by both religious and political organizations continued in the months that followed and eclipsed smaller protests held by opponents of sati.

The sati of Roop Kanwar triggered a number of larger social debates regarding the intertwining threads of religion, gender, and the state. Some Indian feminists saw sati as a “ritualized instance of violence against women” and paralleled it with female infanticides and dowry deaths also practiced in India (Hawley, 1994b). For them, the religious significance given to sati is nothing more than a guise to aid the oppression of women. Meanwhile supporters said that sati is a deeply spiritual event where the power of a women’s self-sacrifice and devotion to her husband causes the woman to become “a manifestation of divinity” (Hawley, 1994b). Roop Kanwar’s case questioned whether sati is truly a voluntary undertaking, or if it is decided by family members for religious or economic motives. Sati also became a battleground in the struggle between the religious freedom of Hindus and the secular Indian State. Conservative Hindu organizations said that the state had “no business interfering in matters of religion” (Hawley, 1994b) and that by criminalizing sati their religion was being unfairly targeted.

The pro-sati movement that followed Roop Kanwar’s sati has a number of features which are characteristic of fundamentalism and it is this event that first led to wide usage of the term “Hindu fundamentalism” (Hawley, 1994b). First is the reactionary nature of this Hindu movement against the perceived threat to traditional religious beliefs and values. Demonstrations by sati supporters signified a resistance to the modernization, secularization, and liberalization of India, particularly in regards to the place of women. The sati debate manifested into a war between traditional, patriarchal beliefs and liberal feminist ideas about women’s rights. The denouncement of sati was seen by fundamentalists as a “condemnation of chastity and virtue” and feminists were portrayed as modern, westernized women condoning loose morality (Narasimhan, 1992). Sati also reinforces another commonality among fundamentalist religions: the notion that a woman’s principle place and religious duty is to serve her husband and her family. By becoming sati, a woman is performing the ultimate act of devotion to her husband and is sacrificing herself for the betterment of her family and the wider community. In other words, a woman’s power is gained through her service to others, and more specifically to men. (Hawley, 1994b). While sati has become a very rare occurrence in modern times, the debate it has caused between conservative Hindu beliefs and liberal or secular thoughts on women’s rights is representative of the larger picture of religion in India, and arguably of the relationship between fundamentalism and women in all societies.

Science and Faith

For most of history every aspect of life in society revolved around some form of religious practice. In many cultures, prior to contact with the Western world, religion was so ingrained into every part of life that there was no specific word for it. Religion in ancient times can be thought of as having a similar role to that of contemporary laws (Müller, 1873). It was the means by which life was regulated and made purposeful. The modern shift towards secularization and the scientific worldview is a recent phenomenon.

As we saw earlier in the chapter, Weber (1919/1958) characterized the transition to a secular, rationalized, scientific worldview as the disenchantment of the world. Explanations for events of everyday life were no longer based on the notion of mysterious or supernatural powers. Everything, in principle, could be reduced to calculation. However, the transition from a world based on religion to one that gives the ultimate authority to scientific discovery has not been without its issues. Contemporary creationists reject Darwinian evolutionary theory because they believe everything came into being as a result of divine creation, as described by religious texts such as the Bible. Similarly, many Christian fundamentalists continue to deny that climate change is a real threat to our planet, because recognizing climate change as a problem, and taking preventative action, would be to question God’s plan and ultimate authority.

Figure 15.31. Portrait of Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) by Ottavio Leoni. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

One historic example of such a conflict is that between the astronomer Copernicus and the Catholic Church (Russel, 1989). When Copernicus proposed a heliocentric model of the solar system based on his empirical astronomic observations, (i.e. in which the sun is the immobile center), he opposed the Earth-centric model of Ptolemy endorsed by the Church. This claim, originally made in 1543, did not immediately attract the attention of the Church. However, almost a century later, in 1610, when Galileo confirmed its validity based on evidence he had collected using a telescope, he was tried for heresy. Because his model was in direct contradiction with Holy Scripture he was forced to denounce his support of heliocentric theory. He lived out the rest of his life under house arrest, although the ideas he championed were later proven to be scientifically correct.

What is the underlying source of the conflict between science and religion and what are the implications? Berman (1981) argues that the Scientific Revolution created a division between the worlds of fact and the worlds of value. This was the basis for a profound shift in worldview. Humans went from being part of a rich and meaningful natural order to being the alienated observers of a mechanistic and empty object-world. Questions concerning the value of things or why things were, which had been addressed by religion, were replaced with questions about what things are and how things work. Modes of knowledge that had been relied on to produce a sense of purpose and meaning for people for centuries were incapable of producing the new knowledge needed to effectively manipulate nature to satisfy human material needs (for food, shelter, health, profit, etc.) (Holtzman, 2003).

This shift to an empirical, objective, evidence based knowledge was democratic or “communalistic”, in the sense that science is freely available, shared knowledge, open to public discussion and debate (recall the principles of CUDOS from Chapter 2). It was a threat to the hierarchical power of religion whose authority was based on its claim to have unique access to sacred truths. However, at the same time, Weber (1919(1958)) also argued that “science is meaningless because it gives no answer to our question, the only question important for us: ‘What shall we do and how shall we live?’” In fact, Weber predicted that the outcome of the disenchantment of the world and the dominance of the scientific worldview would be a condition of “ethical anarchy.” Science could answer practical questions of how to do things effectively or efficiently, but could not answer the “ultimate” human questions of value, purpose, and goals. These questions would be answered by other sources, but without any authoritative means of distinguishing which was correct. In particular, it is unlikely that those who practice different religions will come to answer the ultimate questions in the same way. To the question, “which of the warring gods should we serve?” Weber argued there could be no definitive or unifying answer. The different sets of values of modern society cannot be reconciled into a singular, cohesive system to guide society.

Nevertheless, while science and religion may differ at the most fundamental level, disagreement between the two is not as common as many may think. A recent study found that there was no difference in the likelihood of religious or non-religious people to seek out scientific knowledge, even though many Protestants and conservative Catholics will side with religious explanations when there is a conflict. The debates over evolution and the history of the universe are a case in point (Evans, 2011). What this suggests firstly is that conflicts do not arise because religion completely rejects everything scientific (or vice versa), but that conflict arises only if competing claims are made, (as seen in the case of Galileo above). It was not that the Church completely rejected everything scientific, but that Galileo’s claims were in direct contradiction of what was stated in the Holy Scripture. Secondly, conflicts arise when the morality of science is being questioned by religion. For example embryonic stem cell research is rejected by some religious leaders for moral reasons. For the most part, science is broadly accepted, as many religions adapt to the challenges of modernity. It is only in a few cases that there are major disputes between religion and science.

Creationism and Darwinian Evolutionary Theory

A large sign hangs reading, "Anti-Evolution League, The Conflict - Hell and the High School"
Figure 15.32. The Scopes Trial or “Monkey Trial” in Dayton Tennessee, 1925, tested an obscure Tennessee state law that banned the teaching of evolutionary theory in schools. It became a major media event that dramatized the conflict between the beliefs of Fundamentalists and the science of modern biology. (Image from Literary Digest, July 25, 1925, courtesy of Mike Licht/Wikimedia Commons).

Creationism versus Darwin’s Evolutionary Theory remains one of the most hotly contested debates in the field of academia and religious studies. This debate pits American Protestant fundamentalists against the field of natural science (McCalla, 2007, p. 547). Specifically, this debate has caused extensive issues when it comes to education in the middle school and high school years, as creationists lobby for an education that does not acknowledge evolutionary theory (Bleifeld, 1983). After many decades of education taught from the perspective of the field of objective natural sciences, the recent rise of Protestant fundamentalism has lead to conflict over the lack of emphasis in schools on creationist theory. The debate however involves people from both sides arguing at cross-purposes over very different things. It is therefore necessary to clarify the beliefs and arguments stemming from both creationists and evolutionary theorists.

The debate between creationism and Darwin’s evolutionary theory can be explained simply. Charles Darwin proposed that the complex nature of life on earth could be explained by genetic mutations and small changes that over time, that, due to their effect on the capacities of species survive and compete for limited resources, resulted in a process of “natural selection.” On this basis, Darwin proposed that humans were also essentially biological animals who had formed through an evolutionary process over millennia from primitive primate ancestors to contemporary Homo sapiens. This is Darwinian evolutionary theory. Scientists and advocates of Darwin’s evolutionary theory posit, based on evidence of fossil morphology, carbon dating and genetics, that the world as we know it today and the inhabitants of earth have come to be as they are through a long history of evolution, forming from primitive beings, into more complex organisms through a mechanism of survival of the fittest (Wilson, 2002).

This presented a cosmology that certain Christian sects found to be fundamentally at odds with the notion of human divinity found in the bible. The idea that humans were “apes” seemed to directly contradict the idea that they were created “in the image of God” (Genesis 1:27). As a result creationism began to gain momentum in the 19th century as a struggle against new science-based evidence of evolutionary theories. It found its support in the turn to literal or inerrant readings of the bible. The Protestant fundamentalists argued that to be Christian, everything in the Bible had to be held as completely true in a factual sense. Evolutionary theory therefore caused problems for many Christians because in the Bible the narratives in Genesis highlighted that God created the universe in 6 days and that later the Great Flood destroyed all life except for the occupants of the Ark (McCalla, 2007, p.548). Evolution contradicted the creation story, “the notion that the world was created by God ex nihilo, from nothing” (Ayala, 2006, p. 71). The earth and everything in it was created by God as is, not through a process of evolution, and to dispute this goes against everything the Bible stands for (Ayala, 2006). This fundamental difference in cosmology has pitted creationists and evolutionists against one another.

The context of the turn to biblical inerrancy was not evolutionary theory however, but the challenge of the “higher criticism” of the Bible developed by German theologians and scholars in the early 19th century. Biblical criticism recognized that the Bible was not a suprahuman text that transcends history. Using contemporary techniques of textual analysis, they demonstrated that the bible was a historical document composed by multiple human beings at different times and various places (McCalla, 2007, p. 548). Liberal-minded Christians and Biblical theologians were able to except the higher criticism while continuing to hold the Bible as a source of moral and spiritual guidance. Therefore, both naturalists and educated Christians largely were able to accept the evidence for biological evolution in the years following the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859). Liberal Christians were able to assimilate the findings of natural science into their religious practice because they had already accepted that Genesis was a mythic story with symbolic truth, not literal truth. Fundamentalist Protestants had a harder time agreeing to any of this (McCalla, 2007, p. 549).

The first fundamentalist leader to link biological evolution with the higher criticism was the Baptist William Bell Riley who denounced “theories of organic evolution as unsubstantiated speculations that assert hypothetical historical reconstructions of the Bible and of life in place of God’s plain word” (McCalla, 2007, p. 549). Ultimately this led into the field of creation science. Creation science is defined by the attempt to discredit the evolution model and to support the creation model by asserting “that the evolution model is riddled with guesses, errors, and inconsistencies” (McCalla, 2007. p. 550). Creationists base this argument on four basic claims: “the radiometric and other dating techniques that give an immense age to the universe, the Earth, and life are mere guesses as nobody was around to confirm that the assumptions on which they are built held true in the prehistoric past; the basic laws of physics, and particularly the first and second laws of thermodynamics, flatly contradict the evolution model; the principles of mathematical probability demonstrate its extreme unlikeliness; and evolutionists frequently disagree among themselves, thereby proving that what they have to offer is not science but opinion” (McCalla, 2007. p. 551).

The creation-evolution controversy has led to many disagreements on what should and should not be allowed in required educational curriculum (Allgaier, 2010). Specifically, where this debate and controversy takes place heavily is in the more southern regions of the United States. In the 1980s states such as Arkansas and Louisiana passed legislation mandating that the biblical account of creation be taught in science classes in conjunction with the teaching of evolution (Bleifeld, 1983, p. 111). Christian fundamentalists continue to lobby to reintroduce creationism into the education system and where they fail they often set up parallel private school systems or home schooling networks. Opponents argue that a common educational basis is an essential component to democratic society because it lays the foundation for evidence based decision making and rational debate. From a scientific point of view, Creationism has no scientific validity (Allgaier, 2010). That being said the creationist/evolutionary theory debate is an issue that must be handled delicately in order to respect peoples’ deeply held beliefs.

Key Terms

animism: The religion that believes in the divinity of nonhuman beings, like animals, plants, and objects of the natural world.

assimilation: A response to religious diversity that welcomes people of different faiths into the majority culture on the condition that they leave their beliefs behind and adopt the majority’s faith as their own.

atheism: Belief in no deities.

church:  A large, bureaucratically organized religious organization that is closely integrated into the larger society.

collective consciousness: The combined mental contents of a society that manifests itself through a religious framework.

collective effervescence: A feeling experienced by individuals when they come together to express beliefs and perform rituals together as a group.

compensator: A promise of a reward at a later, unspecified date.

creationism: The religious belief that the Universe and life originated “from specific acts of divine creation.” For young Earth creationists, this includes a biblical literalist interpretation of the Genesis creation narrative and the rejection of the scientific theory of evolution.

cult or New Religious Movement: A small religious organization that is at great odds with the norms and values of the larger society.

Darwinian evolutionary theory: A theory stating that all species of organisms arise and develop through the natural selection of small, inherited variations that increase individual organism’s ability to compete, survive, and reproduce.

deity: A god or a goddess.

denomination: A religious organization that is closely integrated into the larger society but is not a formal part of the state.

disenchantment of the world: The process by which magical and superstitious understandings of the world are replaced by scientific calculation and technical control.

dualist theodicy: Suffering is explained as a consequence of the struggle between the dual powers of good and evil, gods and demons, in which evil occasionally wins out.

ecclesia: A church that has formal ties with the state.

exclusion:  A response to religious diversity which denies new religions entry into society.

family resemblance definition:  A type of definition that defines a phenomenon on the basis of a series commonly shared attributes or family resemblances — not all family members equally share these attributes or resemblances.

functional definition:  A type of definition that defines a phenomenon by what it does or how it functions in society.

individual secularization: The decline in religious belief and practice of individuals.

karma: The accumulated effects of acts committed in former lives and their influence on fortunes and suffering in this life.

Mecca: The birthplace of Muhammad; a city located in Hejaz in the area of what is now known as South Arabia; the holiest city of the Islamic religion, and is the center of Islamic faith.

monotheism: A religion based on belief in a single deity.

misogyny: A hatred of women.

new religious movement (NRM): See “cult.”

nomos: (In sociology) a stable, predictable, and normative order.

organizational secularization: The efforts made by religious organizations to update their beliefs and practices, to reflect changes in contemporary life.

phenomenology:  A sociological perspective that argues that all phenomena appear spontaneously and immediately within the experience and awareness of individual subjects before they become the basis for subjective and objective reality.

pluralism: A response to religious diversity that welcomes every religious practice regardless of how divergent its beliefs or social norms.

polytheism: A religion based on belief in multiple deities.

post-Christian society: A previously Christian society in which Christianity becomes just one among many religious beliefs.

predestination: The belief that the gods predetermine the fate of individuals.

profane: Everyday objects, states of being or practices that do not hold any spiritual or religious significance.

Protestant ethic: The duty to “work hard in one’s calling.”

rational choice theory: A theory which states that human action is motivated by individual self-interest and that all social activities are a product of rational decision making that weighs costs against benefits.

religion: A system of beliefs, values, and practices concerning what a person holds to be sacred or spiritually significant.

religious beliefs: Specific ideas that members of a particular faith hold to be true.

religious diversity:  A condition in which a multiplicity of religions and faiths co-exist in a given society.

religious experience: The conviction or sensation that one is connected to “the divine.”

religious nones: Persons who choose the category “none” on surveys about religious affiliation.

religious rituals:  Behaviours or practices that are either required for or expected of the members of a particular group.

sacred:  Objects, states of being, or practices that are set apart and considered forbidden because of their connection to divine presence.

sacred canopy:  A devinely grounded cultural system.

sati:  The Hindu ritual in which a widow sacrifices herself by burning alive on the funeral pyre of her deceased husband.

sect: A small religious body that forms after a group breaks away from a larger religious group like a church or denomination.

secularization: The process by which religion and the sacred gradually have less validity, influence, and significance in society and the lives of individuals.

societal secularization: The shrinking relevance of institutionalized religionfor the integration and legitimation of everyday life in modern society.

substantial definition: A type of definition that delineates the substantial or crucial characteristics that define what a phenomenon is and is not.

theocracy: A system of government in which ecclesiastical authorities rule on behalf of a divine authority.

theodicy: An explanation for why the Gods allow suffering, misfortune and injustice to occur.

totem: A plant, animal or object that serves as a symbolic, material expression of the sacred.

totemism: The most basic, ancient form of religion based on reverence for totemic animals or plants.

ultimate legitimation: An unquestionable foundation that establishes the legitimacy of a social order.


Section Summary

15.1. The Sociological Approach to Religion
Religion describes the beliefs, values, and practices related to sacred or spiritual concerns. Religion is a social institution because it includes beliefs and practices that serve the needs of society. Religion is also an example of a cultural universal because it is found in all societies in one form or another. Sociological terms for different kinds of religious organizations are, in order of decreasing influence in society, ecclesia, denomination, sect, and cult. Religions can be categorized according to what or whom its followers worship. Some of the major types of religion include polytheism, monotheism, atheism, animism, and totemism.

15.2. Sociological Explanations of Religion
Whereas psychology defines and explains religion in terms of the nature of individual religious experience, sociology explains it in terms of the underlying social relationships it sustains of serves. Social theorist Émile Durkheim defined religion as a “unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things” (1964 [1915]). Max Weber believed religion could be a force for social change. Karl Marx viewed religion as a tool used by capitalist societies to perpetuate inequality.

15.3. Religion and Social Change
Many of the classical sociological theories predicted that levels of religiosity in Western societies would decline due to the process of secularization. However, while society has certainly become more secular, a large majority of people in Canada still claim religious affiliation. Religion has become more pluralistic in nature in Canada, both in the number of religions that Canadians practice and in the style of religious or spiritual practice they engage in.

15.4. Contemporary Fundamentalist Movements

The clash of secular and religious values in modern society produces issues that are difficult to resolve. The fundamentalist form that many different religions have adopted today makes these issues even more intransigent.

Section Quiz

15.1. The Sociological Approach to Religion
1. What are theodicies?

  1. The study of religious truths.
  2. The justifications provided as to why God allows bad things happen to good people.
  3. The “rules” that a Catholic must follow in order to get into heaven.
  4. Types of questions that are concerned with the nature of reality, being and existence.

2. Which of the four dimensions of religion explains how religion is experienced as a social phenomenon?

  1. community
  2. belief
  3. unique spiritual experience
  4. ritual

3. Which of the following options is NOT one of the 5 pillars of Islam?

  1. Daily prayer five times a day.
  2. Month long fast on the 9th month of the Islamic calendar.
  3. Making offerings to the deities.
  4. Pilgrimage to Mecca.

4. A sect:

  1. Has generally grown so large that it needs new buildings and multiple leaders
  2. Often believes it must split from the larger group to return to important fundamentals
  3. Is another term for a cult
  4. All of the above

5. The main difference between an ecclesia and a denomination is:

  1. The number of followers or believers is much larger for denominations
  2. The geographical location varies for ecclesia versus denominations
  3. Ecclesia are state-sponsored and considered an official religion
  4. There are no important differences; the terms are interchangeable

6. Some controversial groups that may be mislabelled as cults include:

  1. Scientology and the Hare Krishna
  2. The Peoples Temple and Heaven’s Gate
  3. The Branch Davidians and the Manson Family
  4. Quakers and Pentecostals

15.2. Sociological Explanations of Religion

7. What is the reason for the origins of religion according to evolutionary psychology?

  1. Religion enhances human survival
  2. Religion is a meme
  3. The origins of religion are unique to each culture
  4. Religion is a product of tacit social agreements.

8. The Protestant work ethic was viewed in terms of its relationship to:

  1. Evolution and natural selection
  2. Capitalism
  3. Determinism
  4. Prejudice and discrimination

9. Which of the following social functions does religion NOT serve in society?

  1. Determines the magnitude of your sinfulness and judges you accordingly
  2. Ensures social cohesion
  3. Enforces norms and expected behaviors
  4. Answers universal questions that other institutions cannot answer

10. Which of the following statements is incorrect according to Rodney Stark’s theory of religion?

  1. Religions can be distinguished from non-religious organizations by their belief in a supernatural power or force
  2. Religion is on a slow but steady decline and will eventually become extinct
  3. A religious compensator is an IOU written by God
  4. Religious belief is a rational choice made by humans seeking scarce rewards

11. Mary Daly’s proposition that “if God is male, then the male is God,” suggests that:

  1. All sacred texts were written by males.
  2. All Gods, irrespective of religion, are male.
  3. All individuals are socialized within their respective religions to see gender in specific ways.
  4. All men are liars

15.3. Religion and Social Change
12. Secularization refers to a number of interrelated trends including:

  1. The Protestant work ethic
  2. Television ministries
  3. Separation of church and state
  4. Liberation theology

13. The percentage of people in Canada claiming a religious affiliation is:

  1. 50 percent
  2. 12 percent
  3. 95 percent
  4. 80 percent

15.4. Contemporary Fundamentalist Movements

14. What are “The: Fundamentals: A Testimony of Truth”?

  1. A religious film which highlighted the core values of Christian Fundamentalism in the early 20th century.
  2. A famous legal case that took place in Tennessee in 1925 which made it illegal to teach evolution in the
  3. American public education system.
  4. A widely distributed pamphlet that listed the basic values of Protestantism in the 20th century.
  5. The title of Pope Pius’s’s encyclical condemning the modernization of the Catholic church.

15. Scientific knowledge replaced religion because it was able to fulfill society’s _________ needs:

  1. ultimate
  2. social
  3. material
  4. spiritual

16. Which group of Christians believe and accept evolutionary theory, while still maintaining their faith and religious followings of the Bible?

  1. Protestant Fundamentalists
  2. Naturalists
  3. Liberal Christians
  4. Evangelicals

17. Which of the following statements is INCORRECT regarding the practice of sati?

  1. Sati was outlawed in India by British officials in 1829
  2. The word sati refers both to the act of a widow burning on her husband’s funeral pyre and the widow (i.e. a “sati”) herself
  3. All Hindu sacred texts make mention of sati and condone the practice
  4. Roop Kanwar’s sati in 1987 was used to both mobilize and condemn a fundamentalist version of Hinduism

[Quiz answers at end of chapter]

Short Answer

15.1. The Sociological Approach to Religion

  1. What aspects of religion are sociologists primarily interested in?
  2. What are the strengths and weaknesses of substantial and functional definitions of religion? Do family resemblance definitions resolve these weaknesses?
  3. What are some sacred items that you’re familiar with? Are there some objects, such as cups, candles, or clothing, that would be considered profane in normal settings but are considered sacred in special circumstances or when used in specific ways?
  4. What are the four dimensions of religion?
  5. What are the four noble truths of Buddhism?
  6. What is your understanding of monotheism, polytheism, and animism? What are examples of these belief systems in Canada? How do these different belief systems affect relationships to the environment, sexuality, and gender?

15.2. Sociological Explanations of Religion

  1. From an evolutionary psychology point of view, how does religion aid in human survival?
  2. How does the collective practice of ritual contribute to social solidarity?
  3. According to Rodney Stark’s theory, how is religious belief in the supernatural based on rational choices made by humans?
  4. Why is a feminist perspective important to the study of religion?

15.3. Religion and Social Change

  1. Do you believe Canada is becoming more secularized or more fundamentalist?
  2. Comparing your generation to that of your parents or grandparents, what differences do you see in the relationship between religion and society?
  3. Why do you think Canada differs from the United States in the role that religion plays in public and political life?

15.4. Contemporary Fundamentalist Movements

  1. How can we explain the rise of religious fundamentalism in contemporary societies?
  2. The example of Galileo is one well known historical example of a clash between religion and science. Can you think of  other, more recent, examples? What, for example, is the main debate or controversy between creationists and evolutionists?
  3. What characteristics of fundamentalism can be seen in the pro-sati movement that followed Roop Kanwar’s immolation?

Further Research

15.1. The Sociological Approach to Religion
For more discussion on the study of sociology and religion, check out The Immanent Frame, a forum for the exchange of ideas about religion, secularism, and society by leading thinkers in the social sciences and humanities:

Read more about functionalist views on religion:, symbolic interactionist view on religion:, and women in the clergy:

Some would argue that the Protestant work ethic is still alive and well in North America. Read British historian Niall Ferguson’s view at

15.2. Types of Religious Organizations
PBS’s Frontline explores “The life of Jesus and the rise of Christianity” in this in-depth documentary:

This website can help clarify the different Christian denominations:

Ayahuasca (“the vine of the soul”) is a ceremonial tea used traditionally in animistic healing practices in the Amazonian basin. It is an entheogen that induces visions. For more on how ayahuasca ceremonies have come to the attention of North Americans and Europeans as a promising healing modality, see the CBC Nature of Things episode “Jungle Prescription”:

15.3. Religion and Social Change
What are megachurchs and how are they changing the face of religion? Read “Exploring the Megachurch Phenomena: Their Characteristics and Cultural Context”:

Secularization is an ambiguous trend, not least because the concept of secularization suggests that being secular or being religious is an either/or proposition. For an exploration of contemporary relationship between secularism and religion see the CBC Ideas series “After Atheism: New Perspectives on God and Religion”:


15. Introduction to Religion

BBC News. (2013, July 29). Pope Francis: Who am I to judge gay people? Retrieved November 22, 2015, from

Chua-Eoan, H., & Dias, E. (2013, December 11). Person of the year: Pope Francis. Time. Retrieved November 23, 2015, from

Dawson, L., & Thiessen, J. (2014). The sociology of religion: A Canadian perspective. Don Mills, Ontario: Oxford University Press.

Pope Pius X. (1907). Pascendi dominici gregis; Encyclical of Pope Pius X on the doctrines of the Modernists. Encyclical. The Catholic Church. Retrieved from:

Pullella, P. (2015, November 30). World headed toward suicide if no climate agreement – pope. Reuters. Retrieved December 2, 2015, from

Reuters. (2013, December 17). Pope Francis lauded by gay-rights magazine on 77th birthday. Reuters. Retrieved November 23, 2015, from

15.1. The Sociological Approach to Religion

Blackburn, C. (2012). Culture loss and crumbling skulls: the problematic of injury in residential school litigation. Political and Legal Anthropology Review, 35(2): 289-307

Bruce, S., & Voas, D. (2007). Religion toleration and organizational typologies. Journal of Contemporary Religion, 22 (1): 1-17.

Dawson, Lorne. (2007). The meaning and significance of new religious movements. In David G. Bromley (Ed.). Teaching new religious movements. New York: Oxford University Press.

Dawson, L., & Theissen, J. (2014). The sociology of religion: A Canadian perspective. Don Mills: Oxford University Press.

Dunn, J. (2003). Christianity in the making, volume 1: Jesus remembered. Cambridge, UK: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

Durkheim, Émile. (1964). The elementary forms of religious life. Translated by J. Swain. Glencoe, IL: Free Press. Retrieved Dec. 20, 2015, from (original work published 1915)

Eisenstaedt, E.N. (Ed). (1968). Max Weber: On charisma and institution building. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Flood, G. (1996). An introduction to Hinduism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Glock, Charles and Rodney Stark. (1965). Religion and society in tension. New York: Rand McNally.

Guy, L. (2004). Introducing early Christianity: A topical survey of its life, beliefs, and practices. Downers Grove: Illinois: InterVarsity Press.

Hanegraaff, H. (2009). The importance of baptism. Christian Research Institute.  Retrieved Nov 15, 2015, from

Healy, J.P. (2011). Involvement in a new religious movement: From discovery to disenchantment. Journal of Spirituality in Mental Health, 13 (1): 2-21.

Hoebel, E. A. (1978). The Cheyennes: Indians of the Great Plains (2nd ed.). Dumfries, NC: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

John, L. (Ed.). (2008). Pillars of Islam. In The Oxford Dictionary of Islam. Cambridge University Press. Retrieved Nov 15, 2015, from

Johnson, A. (2000). The Blackwell dictionary of sociology. (2nd Ed.). London: UK: Blackwell.

Knowles, E. (2005). Nicene creed. In The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Malinowski, Bronislaw. (1948). Magic, science, and religion, and other essays. New York: Doubleday.

McKelvie, B. A. (1966). Magic, murder and mystery. Duncan BC: Cowichan Leader Ltd.

Neeganagwedgin, E. (2014). They can’t take our ancestors out of us: a brief historical account of Canada’s residential school system, incarcerations, institutionalized policies and legislations against indigenous peoples. Canadian Issues, (Spring): 31-36.

Rinpoche, M. T. (2001). Buddhism; Wisdom of SAARC: Origin, development and modernization. South Asian Survey, 8(2): 195-201.

Ruttan, Stephen. (2009). Brother XII. Local history: Tales from the vault. Greater Victoria Public Library. Retrieved Dec. 28, 2015, from

Sanders, J. A. (2009). The Book of Job and the origins of Judaism. Biblical Theology Bulletin, 39(2): 60-70.
Smith, Johnathan Z. (1982). Imagining religion: From Babylonia to Jonestown. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Stark, R. (1996). The rise of Christianity: How the obscure, marginal Jesus movement became the dominant religious force in the western world in a few centuries. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Stark, R. (1999). Micro foundations of religion: A revised theory. Sociological Theory,  17(3): 264-289.

Stark, R. & Bainbridge, W.S. (1985). The future of religion: Secularization, revival and cult formation. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Taimann, M., and Hassan, F. H. (2015). Convergence of food systems: Kosher, Christian and Halal. British Food Journal, 117(9): 2313-2327.

Taylor, Mark. (2007). After God. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Tsering, G.T. (2005). The foundation of Buddhist thought. Boston, MA: Wisdom Publications.

Tupper, Kenneth. (2011). Ayahuasca in Canada: Cultural phenomenon and policy issue.  In B.C. Labate and H. Jungaberle (Eds.), The Internationalization of Ayahuasca (pp. 319-325) .  Zurich: Lit Verlag.

Ushama, T. (2014). Is Islam a religion moderation or extremism? A study of key Islamic teachings. Asian Social Science, 10(8): 184-197.

Weber, Max. (1958). The social psychology of the world religions. In Hans Gerth and C. Wright Mills (Eds.), From Max Weber: Essays in sociology. New York: Oxford University Press. (original work published 1915)

Weber, Max. (1958). The Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism. Translated by Talcott Parsons. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. (original work published 1905)

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. (1957). Philosophical investigations. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Woods, E. (2013). A cultural approach to a Canadian tragedy: the Indian residential schools as sacred enterprise. International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society, 26(2): 173-187.

15.2. Sociological Explanations of Religion

Abram, David. (1997). The spell of the sensuous: Perception and language in a more-than-human world. NY: Vintage Books.

Berger, Peter. (1967). The sacred canopy: Elements of a theory of religion. NY: Doubleday.

Carroll, Michael. P. (1996). Stark realities and Eurocentric/Androcentric bias in the sociology of religion. Sociology of Religion, 57(3): 225–239.

Daly, M. (1973). Beyond God the Father: Toward a philosophy of women’s liberation. Boston, Ma: Beacon Press.

Dawson, L. L. & Thiessen, J. (2014). The sociology of religion: A Canadian perspective. Don Mills, On.: Oxford University Press.

Durkheim, Émile. (1964). The elementary forms of religious life. Translated by J. Swain. Glencoe, IL: Free Press. Retrieved Dec. 20, 2015, from (original work published 1915)

Erikson, V. L. (1992). Back to the basics: Feminist social theory, Durkheim, and religion. Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, 8(1): 35-46.

Sachs, M. (2011). Rearranging Durkheim: An anthropologically ethical take on a class theory of religion. [PDF] Retrieved November 10, 2015, from

Scott, John. (Ed.). (2014). Rational choice theory. A dictionary of sociology. Oxford University Press. Retrieved November 14th, 2015 from

Shilling, C., P. Mellor. (1998). Durkheim, morality and modernity: Collective effervescence, homo duplex and the sources of moral action. The British Journal of Sociology, 49(2): 193-209.

Shilling, C. (2011). Retheorising Emile Durkheim on society and religion: Embodiment, intoxication, and collective life. The Sociological Review, 59(1): 17-41.

Stark, Rodney. (1999a). Micro foundations of religion: A revised theory. Sociological Theory, 17(3): 264–289.

Stark, Rodney. (1999b). Secularization, R.I.P. Sociology of Religion, 60(3): 249–273.

Stark, Rodney, and William S. Bainbridge. (1985). The future of religion: Secularization, revival and cult formation. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Stark, Rodney, and William S. Bainbridge. (1996). A theory of religion. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press. (original work published 1987)

Thomas, WI and DS Thomas. (1928). The child in America: Behaviour problems and programs. New York: Albert Knopf. Retrieved February 4, 2016 from

Trainor, B. (1998). The origin and end of modernity. Journal of Applied Philosophy, 15(2): 133-144.

Weber, Max. (1958). The protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism. New York: Scribner. (original work published 1904)

Weber, Max. (1958). ‘The social psychology of the world religions’ and ‘Religious rejections of the world and their directions.’ In Hans Gerth (Ed.), From Max Weber: Essays in sociology. New York: Oxford University Press. (original work published 1915)

Weber, Max. (1958). Science as a vocation. In Hans Gerth (Ed.), From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. New York: Oxford University Press. (original work published 1919)

Weber,  Max. (1958). Bureaucracy. In Hans Gerth (Ed.), From Max Weber: Essays in sociology. New York: Oxford University Press. (original work published 1922)

Weber, Max. (1966). General economic history. NY: Collier.

15.3. Religion and Social Change

Beckford, James. (1992). Religion, modernity and postmodernity. In Bryan Wilson (ed.), Religion: Contemporary issues. London: Bellew.

Berger, Peter. (1999). The desecularization of the world: A global overview.  In Peter Berger (Ed.), The desecularization of the world: Resurgent religion and world politics (pp. 1-18). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

Berry, JW. (1974). Psychological aspects of cultural pluralism: Unity and identity reconsidered. Topics in Culture Learning.  2 (Aug):  17-22.

Beyer, P. (1997). Religious vitality in Canada: The complementarity of religious market and secularization perspectives. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 36(2), 272-272.

Bibby, Reginald. (1993). Unknown gods: The ongoing story of religion in Canada. Toronto: Stoddart Publishing Co.

Bone, M. (2014). From the sacrilegious to the sacramental: A global review of Rastafari cannabis case law. In Beatriz Labate (ed.), Prohibition, religious freedom, and human rights: Regulating traditional drug use. Berlin/Heidelberg: Springer.

Chevannes, B. (1994). Rastafari: Roots and ideology. New York: Syracuse University Press.

Connelly, William. (1999). Why I am not a secularist. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Davie, Grace. (1994). Religion in Britain since 1945: Believing without belonging. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.

Dawson, Lorne. (1998). Anti-modernism, modernism, and postmodernism: Struggling with the cultural significance of new religious movements. Sociology of Religion, 59(2): 131-156.

Dawson, Lorne, & Joel Thiessen. (2014). The sociology of religion. Don Mills, Ontario: Oxford University Press.

Fisher, Mary Pat. (1994). Living religions (2nd ed.). New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Frendreis, J., & Tatalovich, R. (2013). Secularization, modernization, or population change: Explaining the decline of prohibition in the United States. Social Science Quarterly, 94(2): 379-394.

Hackworth, J., & Gullikson, E. (2012). Giving new meaning to religious conversion: Churches, redevelopment, and secularization in Toronto. The Canadian Geographer / Le Géographe Canadien, 57(1): 72-89.

Halman, L., & Ingen, E. (2015). Secularization and changing moral views: European trends in church attendance and views on homosexuality, divorce, abortion, and euthanasia. European Sociological Review, 31(5): 616-627.

Hebdige, D. (1997). Subculture: The Meaning of Style. London: Routledge.

Hervieu-Léger, Daniele. (2006). In search of certainties: The paradoxes of religiosity in societies of high modernity. The Hedgehog Review, (Spring/Summer): 59-68.

International Civil Liberties Alliance. (2013, September 22). The problematic definition of ‘Islamophobia.’ ICLA. Retrieved February 12, 2016, from

M’Baye, B. (2012). Rastafarianism: 1900 to present: Africa. In A. Stanton, E. Ramsamy, P. Seybolt, & C. Elliott (Eds.). Cultural sociology of the Middle East, Asia, & Africa: An encyclopedia. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.

Moghadam, Valentine. (1992). Fundamentalism and the woman question in Afghanistan. In Lawrence Kaplan (Ed.), Fundamentalism in comparative perspective. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press.

Murrell, S., Spencer, W., McFarlane, A., & Chisholm, C. (Eds.). (1998). Chanting down Babylon: The Rastafari reader. Pennsylvania: Temple University Press.

Pew Research Center. (2013, June 27). Canada’s changing religious landscape. Pew Research Center: Religion & Public Life. Retrieved Feb. 12, 2016, from

Raza, Raheel. (2015, September 15). Ban Niqab, burka in all public places. Toronto Sun. Retrieved Dec. 14, 2015, from

Robinson, B.A. (2003). The diversity of meanings of the term ‘religious pluralism.’ Religious Tolerance.Org: Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance. Retrieved November 4, 2015 from

Thuswaldner, Gregor. (2014). A conversation with Peter L. Berger: ‘How my views have changed.’ The Cresset, 77(3): 16-21. Retrieved, December 19, 2015, from

Statistics Canada. (2001). Religious groups in Canada. [PDF]  Catalogue no. 85F0033MIE. Retrieved Feb. 12, 2016, from

Statistics Canada. (2011). National Household Survey. Catalogue no. 99-010-X2011032. Retrieved Feb. 12, 2016, from

Statistics Canada. (2013, May 8).  2011 National Household Survey. Catalogue no. 99-010-X2011032. Retrieved Dec. 21, 2015, from

Waldram, James, D. Ann Herring and T. Kue Young. (2006). Aboriginal health in Canada. Historical, cultural, and epidemiological perspectives. (2nd Edition). Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Waters, A. (1985). Race, class, and political symbols: Rastafari and Reggae in Jamaican politics. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers.

Wuthnow, Robert. (2005). America and the challenges of religious diversity. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press

Zayzafoon, L. (2005). The production of the Muslim woman: Negotiating text, history, and ideology. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books.

15.4. Contemporary Fundamentalist Movements

Allgaier, J. (2010). Scientific experts and the controversy about teaching creation/evolution in the UK Press. Science and Education, 8(10): 797-819.

Ayala, F.J. (2006). Evolution vs. creationism. History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences, 28(1): 71-82.

Berger, P. (1967). The sacred canopy: Elements of a theory of religion. New York: Doubleday.

Berger, P. (1999). The desecularization of the world: Resurgent religion and world politics. Washington, D.C.: Ethics and Public Policy Center.

Berman, M. (1981). The reenchantment of the world. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Bleifeld, M. (1983). Creationism vs. evolution—Is education the prime target? NASSP
Bulletin, 67(459): 111-117.

Bruce, S. (1999). Choice and religion: A critique of rational choice theory. New York: Oxford University Press.

Butler, A. (1998). Godly women: Fundamentalism and female power. N.J.: Rutgers University Press.

Casanova, J. (1994). Public religions in the modern world. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

CBC News. (2008, August 8). Church members enter Canada, aiming to picket bus Victim’s funeral. Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved December 14, 2015, from

Chhachhi, Amrita. (1989). The state, religious fundamentalism and women: Trends in South Asia. Economic and Political Weekly, 24(11), 567–578.

Chehabi, Houchang E. (1993). Staging the emperor’s new clothes: Dress codes and nation‐building under Reza Shah. Iranian Studies, 26(3-4): 209-233.

Dawson, Lorne L. (2006). Privatization, globalization, and religious innovation: Giddens’ theory of modernity and the refutation of secularisation theory. In James A. Beckford and John Wallis. (Eds.), Theorizing religion: Classical and contemporary debates (pp. 110-12). Aldershot, UK: Ashgate.

Doumato, Eleanor Abdella. (2010). Saudhi Arabia. In Sanja Kelly and Julia Breslin (Eds.), Women’s rights in the Middle East and North Africa: Progress amid resistance. NY: Freedom House

Evans, J. (2011). Epistemological and moral conflict between religion and science. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 50(4): 707-727.

Hadden, J. (1987). Towards desacralizing secularization theory. Social Forces, 65: 587-611.

Hadden, J., Shupe, A. (Eds.). (1989).  Secularization and fundamentalism reconsidered. New York, NY: Paragon House.

Harlan, Lindsey. (1994). Perfection and devotion: Sati tradition in Rajasthan. In J.S. Hawley (Ed.), Sati, the blessing and the curse: The burning of wives in India. (1st ed.: 79-99). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Hawley, John S. (Ed.). (1994a). Sati, the blessing and the curse: The burning of wives in India. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Hawley, John S. (Ed.). (1994b). Fundamentalism and gender. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Higgins, Patricia J. (1985). Women in the Islamic Republic of Iran: Legal, social, and ideological changes. Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 10(3): 477-494.

Holtzman, S. (2003). Science and religion: The categorical conflict. International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, 54: 77-99.

Hurdle, J. (2007, October 31). Kansas church liable in Marine funeral protest. Reuters. Retrieved
December 14, 2015, from

Kaplan, Esther. (2005). With God on their side: George W. Bush and the Christian Right. NY: New Press.

Kershner, I. (2011, December 27). Israeli girl, 8, at Center of Tension Over Religious Extremism. The New
York Times. Retrieved December 14, 2015, from

Linkins, J. (2013, April 17). Westboro Baptist Church threatens to picket funerals of those killed in Boston marathon explosions. Huffington Post. Retrieved December 14, 2015, from

Mahmood, Saba. (2005). Politics of piety: The Islamic revival and the feminist subject. Princeton NY: Princeton University Press.

McCalla, A. (2007). Creationism. Religion Compass, 1(5): 547-560.

Moaddel, M. (1998). Religion and women: Islamic modernism versus fundamentalism. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 37(1): 108-130.

Moghadam, Valentine. (1992). Fundamentalism and the woman question in Afghanistan. In Lawrence Kaplan (ed.), Fundamentalism in comparative perspective. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press.

Müller, M. (1873). Introduction to the science of religion: Four lectures delivered at the Royal Institution with two essays on false analogies, and the philosophy of mythology. London: Longmans.

Narasimhan, Sakuntala. (1992). Sati: Widow burning in India. New York, NY: Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc.

Pew Research Center. (2015a, November 2). U.S. public becoming less religious. Retrieved December 15, 2015, from

Pew Research Center. (2015b, April 2). The future of world religions: Population growth projections, 2010-2015. Retrieved from.

Riesebrodt, Martin. (1993). Pious passion: The emergence of modern fundamentalism in the United States and Iran. London: I.B. Taurus.

Russel, M. (1989). Catholic astronomers and the Copernican system after the condemnation of Galileo. Annals of Science, 46, 365-386.

Ruthven, M. (2004). Fundamentalism the search for meaning. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.

Stark, R., Iannaccone, L. (1994). A supply-side reinterpretation of the “secularization” of Europe. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 33 (3): 230-52.

Stark, R. (1999). Secularization: RIP.” Sociology of Religion, 60: 249-73.

Weber, Max. (1958). Science as a vocation. In H. H. Gerth & C. Wright Mills (Eds.). From Max Weber. New York, NY: Free Press. (original work published 1919)

Weber, M. (1993). The sociology of religion. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Wilson, B. (1982). Religion in sociological perspective. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Wilson, B. (1985). Secularization: The inherited model. In Phillip Hammond (Ed.), The Sacred in a Secular Age. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Wilson, D.S. (2002). Darwin’s cathedral: Evolution, religion, and the nature of society. Evolution and Human Behaviour. 24: 137-143.

Yang, Anand A. (1989). Whose Sati?: Widow burning in early 19th century India. Journal of Women’s History, 1(2): 8-33.

List of Contributors to Chapter 15: Religion

Introduction to Religion–Benjamin Wilson

15.1. The Sociological Approach to Religion

The Four Dimensions of Religion–Hannah Mitchell

Table 15.2. The Religions of the World–Mikaiya Austin

Residential Schools and the Church–Courtney Locker

Types of Religious Organization–Marvin Moses Omoding

Brother XII and the Aquarian Foundation–Robyn Erickson

15.2. Sociological Explanations of Religion

Evolutionary Psychology–Tahir Chatur

Emile Durkheim–Emma Keene

Rodney Stark–Allegra Wolansky

Feminist Approaches to Religion–Mikaiya Austin

15.3. Religion and Social Change

Secularization–Shirin Souzanchi

Religious Diversity–Samantha Ballew

Muslim Women:The Niqab, Hijab and Burka–Zubaida Khan

Is Rastafarianism a Religion?–Jeff Nishima Miller

15.4 Contemporary Fundamentalist Movements

Introduction–Benjamin Wilson

Fundamentalism and Women–Katrina Kelly

The Veil and the Iranian Revolution–Sara Nadiri

The Case of Sati–Allegra Wolansky

Science and Faith–Hannah Mitchell

Creationism and Darwinian Evolutionary Theory–Gary Brett Armbrust

Image Attributions

Figure 15.1.  The elephant-headed Ganesh by Rob Brownie used by permission of the photographer.

Figure 15.2.  Life of Francis of Assisi by José Benlliure y Gil by Ras67 ( used under Public Domain Mark 1.0 (

Figure 15.3. Papa rock Star by Edgar Jiménez ( used under CC BY SA 2.0 license (

Figure 15.4. Ayahuasca (called “Santo Daime” in Santo Daime religion) waiting for beginning of the ceremonial work by Aiatee ( used under CC BY-SA 3.0 license (

Figure 15.5. May the Almighty grants our prayers by Shaeekh Shuvro ( used under CC BY SA 2.0 license (

Figure 15.6.  Conversion of Saul by Michelangelo ( is in the public domain.

Figure 15.7. Students from Fort Albany Residential School, Ontario, reading in class overseen by a nun circa 1945 from Edmund Metatawabin collection at the University of Algoma ( is in the public domain.

Figure 15.8. King of Kings by Joe Shlabotnik ( used under a CC BY 2.0 license (

Figure 15.9. Hutterite girl holding her baby sister by Galt Museum & Archives ( No known copyright restrictions exist.

Figure 15.10. Reverend Jim Jones at a protest in front of the International Hotel, 848 Kearny Street in San Francisco in 1977 by Nancy Wong ( used under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license (

Figure 15.11. Brother Twelve, Cover illustration for The Wide World magazine, December, 1942 ( is in the public domain.

Figure 15.12. Brother Twelve, photographer unknown, from  McKelvie, 1966 ( is in the public domain (

Figure 15.13. The Flammarion engraving from Camille Flammarion’s L’atmosphère: météorologie populaire (1888) ( is in the public domain.

Figure 15.14. When bachelor dens cast over waking hours a loneliness so deep from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division ( is in the public domain

Figure 15.15. Mary Baker Eddy, founder of Christian Science, from a tintype given to Mrs. Sarah Crosby in the summer of 1864 by unknown (,_c._1864.jpg) is in the public domain

Figure 15.7. Detail from The Last Judgment (Jacob de Backer, 1580s) by BurgererSF ( is in the public domain.

Figure 15.19. Peter Berger by unknown photographer ( used under Pew Research Center use policy (

Figure 15.20. Jesus Loves Wal*Mart by Mark Trammell ( used under a CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license (

Figure 15.21. Fertility Goddess (Chalcolithic, Cypress, 3000-2500 BC) Limestone by Dave & Margie Hill ( used under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license (

Figure 15.24. Friedrich Nietzsche (circa 1875) by by F. Hartmann in Basel, scan by Anton (2005) ( is in the public domain.

Table 15.3. “What Style of Dress is Appropriate for Women in Public?” by Mansoor Moaddel ( used under PEW Research Center’s Use Policy (

Figure 15.25. The Shaman by Temari 09 ( used underCC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license (

Figure 15.26. Bob Marley by Monosnaps ( used under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license (

Figure 15.27.  David Woroniecki with Sign  by Saraware
( used under CC by 3.0 license (

Figure 15.28.  Descent of the Modernists, E. J. Pace, Christian Cartoons, 1922  by E.J. Pace, with modifications by Luinfana ( used under Public Domain Mark 1.0 (

Figure 15.29. Women protesting during Iranian Revolution in 1979 by Khabar ( is in the public domain.

Figure 15.30.  The Sati of Ramabai, Wife of Madhavrao Peshwa  by Anonymous ( is in the public domain.
 Figure 15.31. Galileo Galilei  by Ottavio Leoni (1623) ( is in the public domain. 

Figure 15.32. Anti-Evolution League, at the Scopes Trial, Dayton Tennessee From Literary Digest, July 25, 1925 by Mike Licht ( used under CC BY 2.0 license (

Solutions to Section Quiz

1 B, | 2 A, | 3 C, | 4 B, | 5 C, | 6 D, | 7 A, | 8 B, | 9 A, | 10 B, | 11 C, | 12 C, | 13 D, | 14 D, | 15 C, | 16 C, | 17 C, [Return to Quiz]

Long Descriptions

Figure 15.6 Long Description: A painting of God in the sky, surrounded by his angels, with his hand pointed down and beam of light shining from it. Below, people look panicked and stare up at the sky. Many have fallen and one man has fainted. [Return to Figure 15.6]

Figure 15.28 long description: A cartoon entitled, “The Descent of the Modernists.” Three men walk down a staircase. Each stair represents a rejection of a fundamental christian belief. From top to bottom, the stairs read, “Christianity,” “Bible not infallible,” “Man not made in God’s image,” “No miracles,” “No virgin birth,” “No deity,” “No atonement,” “No resurrection,” and “Agnosticism.” The last stair is labeled “Atheism.” [Return to Figure 15.28]


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Introduction to Sociology - 2nd Canadian Edition Copyright © 2016 by William Little is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book