Chapter 15. Religion

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.


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
Friedrich Hermann Hartmann (1822–1902)/Wikimedia Commons.) Public Domain

Loek Halman and Erik van Ingen (2015) 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 it is important to distinguish between three 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 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 the growth of Islam around the world, as well as the growth and export of Pentecostalism in and from the United States. Similarly, Fink and Stark (2005) have argued that Americans, at least, 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 to 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 be 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% 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% 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 per cent of the population in Canada identified as religiously unaffiliated. By 2011, that number had increased nearly a quarter, rising to about 24% (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 keeping 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 based on 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. To avoid privileging one religious belief system over another in the public sphere, (e.g., in government agencies or public schools), governments have tried 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 keep 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 widely-held 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 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. The tradition of “purdah” in the Pashtun areas of Afghanistan for example requires women to be either secluded within the home or veiled when in public to protect the family’s honour (Moghadam, 1992). Purdah is part of the Pashtunwali 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 who are wearing the 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 wearing 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 hijab’s original purpose. Overall, most Muslim women agree that it is a woman’s choice whether 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.) CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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 to maximize individual choice in how the spiritual 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” assembly of multiple 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?

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.) CC BY-NC-SA 2.0


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 2, 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 him or her 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 reach a higher spiritual consciousness. This is 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 must 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.

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