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Chapter 9

Key issues:

1. What is religion and how do sociologists study religion?

2. What is the social shape of global religions?

3. How is religion changing in the twenty –first century?

4. What are the key contemporary debates?

1.1 Introduction

Case 1:

In 1989 Salman Rushdie published his controversial novel The

Satanic Verses in Britain.

One character in the book, the Prophet Mahound, appears as a

figure of debauchery ( wickedness, dishonesty ), four language
and obscenity.

Sensing that this was a thinly disguised, blasphemous attack

on Prophet Mohammad and the Islamic faith, British Muslims
soon expressed their anger and requested a publisher’s
apology for misrepresenting the Islamic faith.

Matters rapidly escalated :

i. the book was ritually burned in Bolton and Bradford,

ii. the media accused the Muslims of intolerance,

iii. voices were raised against Rushdie in India and Pakistan,

iv. On Valentine day in 1989, the Iranian leader Ayatollah
Khomeini issued his fatwa or official call for execution
against Rushdie.

v. Although initially a British affair, The Satanic Verses

scandal escalated into an international one- symbolizing
battles between religious institutions and secular cultures,

vi. A resurgence of anti-Islamic feeling in the West.

vii. Fearing for his life, Rushdie went into hiding were he
stayed for over 10 years,

Case 2:

In March 195, a small group of terrorist released a poisonous

gas in Tokyo’s underground system, killing 12 but blinding
many more and causing complete pandemonium ( chaos ).

But this was no ordinary act of terrorism:

i. It was conducted by Aum Shinriyko, a religious sect that

claimed 10,0000 Japanese members and 20,000 in Russia.

ii. Its leader has actually created a stockpile of weapons to

kill around 10 million people.

Case 3:

In March 1997, Marshall Applewhite led 39 of his followers to

commit suicide as part of the cult Heaven’s Gate.

Their dead bodies laid out neatly in bunk beds were found in
Rancho Santa Fe, California.

The cult was a distinctly modern group- they wore sneakers
and were obsessive computer users.

Yet they looked for signs of religious meaning on their


They attached enormous significance to the Hale-Bopp comet

as a sign that their time to go to heaven had arrived.

And when the comet arrived, they were all led by cult leader to
drink a curios mix of vodka and barbiturates so that their
‘earthly vessels’ could rise to the Heavens.

Case 4:

On September 11, 2001, in by far the most devastating

terrorist action up to date, four civil airliners were hijacked by
suicide bombers and target at major US building.

Two demolished the twin towers of the World Trade Center in

New York.

The third airliner destroyed part of the Pentagon in Washington.

The fourth crashed in Pennsylvania.

These were rapidly identified with terrorist attacks, and

especially with Osama Bin Laden and his al-Qaida international
terrorist network.

Bin Laden in on record as saying he is conducting a religious a

religious war – an Islamic jihad – against America.

It is often argued that religion is in decline in the modern world-

in the face of rising rationality and science.

However, in the last few years, there is a revival of religious
faith. There has been an overall increase in Christianity,
through the use of TV evangelism.

1.2 Nature of Religion

Throughout most of human history, human beings living in

small societies attributed birth, death and even what happened
in between to the operation of supernatural forces.

Over the course of the last several hundred years, however,

science has emerged as an alternative way of understanding
the natural work, and scientific sociology offers various
explanation of how and why societies operate the way they do.

Yet religion is a matter of faith, belief anchored in conviction

rather than scientific evidence.

For instance, the New Testament of the Bible defines faith as

‘the assurance of things hoped for , the conviction of things not
seen’ ( Hebrew 11: 1 ) and exhorts Christians to ‘walk by faith,
not by sight’ ( 2 Corinthians 5 : 7 )

1.3 The sacred and profane ( blasphemous )

Durkheim claimed that the focus of religion is ‘things that

surpass the limits of our knowledge. As human beings, he
explained that we organize our surroundings by defining most
objects, event or experiences as profane .

But we set some things apart, by designating them as sacred,
that which is defined as extraordinary, inspiring a sense of awe,
reverence and even fear.

Distinguishing the sacred from the profane is the essence of all

religious belief.

Religion, then, is a social institution involving beliefs and

practices based upon a conception of the sacred.

Jews view the Torah ( the first 5 books of the Hebrew Bible or
Old Testament ) as sacred.

Christian reverse the entire Bible as sacred.

Muslim exalt the Qur’an as sacred.

All religions have models of life by which people can organize

their activities.

Usually these include:

A cosmogony – a tale about how the world / universe was


A theodicy – a tale about how evil and suffering is to be found

in the world and a broad vision of the ethical life – how people
should behave.

In addition- they are likely to have many rituals : meditations,
and mantras, worships and regulations on hygiene, diet and
sex and festivals.

1.4 Religiosity

Religiosity designates the importance of religion in a person’s


Charles Glock ( 1959, 1962 ) distinguished five distinct

dimensions of religiosity.

1. Experiential religiosity

Refers to the strength of a person’s emotional ties to a


2. Ritualistic religiosity

Refers to frequency of ritual activity such as prayer and

church attendance.

3. Ideological religiosity

It concerns an individual’s degree of belief in religious


4. Consequential religiosity

It has to do with how strongly religious beliefs figure in a
person’s daily behavior.

5. Intellectual religiosity

Refers to a person’s knowledge of the history and doctrines

of a particular region.

1.5 Understanding Religion

Although, as individuals, sociologists may hold any number of

religious beliefs or none at all, they all agree that religion has
major importance for the operation of society.

1.5.1The functions of religion : Religion as ritual

Durkheim pointed out three major functions of religion for

the operation of society:

i. Social cohesion

Religion unites people through shared symbols, values

and norms.

Religious doctrine and ritual establish rules of ‘fair play’

tat make organized social life possible.

Religion also speaks about the vital human dimension

of love.

Religious life underscores both our moral and emotional

ties with others.

ii. Social control

Every society uses religious imagery and rhetoric
( public speaking ) to promote conformity.

Few of today’s political leaders invoke religion so

explicidly, but many publicly ask for God’s blessing.

iii. Providing meaning and purpose

Religious beliefs offers the comforting sense hat the

vulnerable human condition serves some greater

Strengthen by such conviction, people are less likely to

collapse in despair when confronted by life’s calamities.

1.5.2Constructing the sacred : Religion as action.

Max Weber’s theory is that Society is a human product and

nothing but a human product, that yet continuously acts
back upon its producer.

From an action perspective, religion is socially constructed

( although with divine inspiration ).

It is one of he chief mechanisms through which meanings are

constructed and people make sense of their lives.

It is also one of the areas of life most shot through with

symbolism and ritual.

Marriage is a good example. If we look on marriage merely

as a contract between two people, we assume that we can
end it whenever we want to. Bt if partners define their
relationship as holy matrimony, this bond makes a far
stronger claim on them.

This fact, no doubt , explains why divorce rate is lower

among people wo are more religious.
By seeking our sacred meaning in any situation, in other
words, we can lift ourselves above life’s setbacks and even
face the prospects of death with strength and courage.

1.5.3Inequality, conflict and Religion : Religion as power

Max, who claimed that religion served ruling elites by

legitimizing the status quo and diverting people’s attention
from he social inequities of society.

Most religions creates or reinforce system of stratification.

Example: the caste system, a key feature of Hinduism and

stratifies into layers of priests, rulers, merchants and
servants –with a large ‘outcast’ group that does not fit ( the
untouchables ).

Gender and ethnicity also figure in religion’s tie to social


Virtually all the world’s major religion have reflected and

encouraged male dominance of social life.

In practical terms, working for political change may mean

opposing the church and, by implication, opposing God.

Religion also encourage people to look hopefully to a ‘better

world to come’, minimizing the social problems of this world.

1.5.4 Newer perspectives : Religion as a chain of memory

French sociologist Daniele Hervieu-Leger (2000 ) sees

religion as a kind of memory which provide a chain of
connection between individuals believers and their

In traditional societies, these memory are very strong

They are supported by all kinds of rituals and strong

communities and are passed from generation to generation.

But in modern societies, they become much weaker.

1.6 The Nature of religious organization

Sociologists have devised broad schemes to categorize the

hundreds of different religious organizations in the world.

The most widely used model takes the form of a continuum

( variety ), with churches a one pole and sects at the other.


Church is defined as a type of religious organizations well

integrated into the larger society.

Churches have well-established rules and regulations and

expect their leaders to undergo approved training before
being formally ordained.


At the other end of our continuum is the sect, a type of

religious organization that stands apart from the larger

Sect members hold rigidly to their own religious conviction

while discounting what other around them claim to be true.
In extreme cases, members of sect may withdraw from
society completely in order to practice their religion without
interference from outsiders.

When cultures view religious tolerance as a virtue, members

of sects are sometimes accused of being dogmatic (rigid ) in
their insistence that they alone follow the true religion.

In organization terms, sects are less formal than churches.

Thus, sect members often engage in highly spontaneous and

emotional practices as they worship.

A further distinction between church and sect turns on

patterns of leadership. The more church –like organization,
the more likely that its leaders are formally trained and
ordained. In sect, members expect their leaders to exude
( display ) divine inspiration in the form of charisma ( charm
and personality ), extraordinary personal qualities that can
turn an audience into followers, infusing them with the
emotional experiences that sects so value.

Example : Jehoval ‘s Witnesses.

To sustain their membership, many sects rely on active

recruitment or proselytizing, of new members. Sects place
great value on the experience of conversion, a personal
transformation or religious rebirth.

A sect’s openness to new members and promise of salvation

and personal fulfillment may be especially appealing to
people who perceive themselves as social outsiders.


A cult is a religious organization that is substantially outside
a society’s cultural traditions.

Cults typically form around a highly charismatic leader who

offers a compelling message of a new way of life.

Because some cult principles or practices may seem

unconventional, the popular view of cult pictures them as
deviant or even evil.

Cults are more at odds with the larger society than sects,
and many demand that members not only accept their
doctrine but embrace a radically new lifestyle.

As a result, people sometimes accuse cults of brainwashing

new members, although research suggests that most people
who join cults experience no psychological harm.

1.7 The Social shape of global religions

Religion predates history.

Early hunters and gatherers embraces animism , the belief

that elements of the natural world are conscious life forms that
affect humanity.

Animistic people view forests, ocean, mountain, even the wind

as spiritual forces.

Hunter and gather conduct their religious life entirely with the

Members and societies may look to a shaman or religious


Belief in a single divine power responsible for creating the
world marked the rise of pastoral society. Example: Christian
view of God as a ‘shepherd’.


Christianity is the most widespread religion, with nearly 2

billion followers, who constitute roughly one-third of

Christianity originated as a cult, incorporating elements of its

much older predecessor, Judaism.

Like many cults, Christianity was propelled by the personal

charisma of a leader, Jesus of Nazareth , who preached a
message of personal salvation.

Christian is one example of monotheism – belief in a single

divine power.

Yet Christianity has a unique version of the Supreme Being

as a sacred Trinity: The God the Creator , Jesus Christ, the
Son of God and Redeemer, the Holy Spirit – a Christian’s
personal experience of God’s presence.

The claim that Jesus divine rests on accounts of his final days
on earth.

Tried and sentenced to death in Jerusalem on charges that

he was a threat to established political leaders, Jesus
endured a cruel execution by crucifixion, which transformed
the cross into a sacred Christian symbol.
According to Christian belief, Jesus was resurrected – that is,
he rose from the dead- showing that he was the Son of God.


Islam has some 1.1 billion followers ( 19 % of humanity )

called Muslims.

Islam is the word of God as revealed to the prophet


To Muslims, Mohammed, like Jesus, is a prophet but not a

divine being.

The Qur’an, sacred to Muslims,, it’s the word of God ( In

Arabic , ‘Allah’ ) as transmitted through Mohammed, God’s

In Arabic, the world ‘Islam’ means both ‘submission’ and


The Qur’an urges submission to Allah as the path to inner


Muslim express this personal devotion in a daily ritual of 5


All Muslims accept the Five Pillars of Islam:

i. Recognizing Allah as the one, true God and Mohammed

as God’s messenger

ii. Ritual prayers

iii. Giving alms to the poor

iv. Fasting during the month of Ramadan

v. Making a pilgrimage at least one in a lifetime to the

Sacred House of Allah in Mecca.

Muslims are also obligated to defend their faith.

Sometimes this tenet has justified holy wars against non-

believers. Some Muslim have sought to rid their society of
Western influence they regard as morally corrupting.

Many Westerners view Muslim woman as among the most

socially oppressed people on Earth.

Muslim woman do lack many of the personal freedom

enjoyed by Muslim men, yet most accept the mandates of
their religion.

Although Islam permits a man to have up to four wives, it

admonishes men to have only one wife if having more than
one would encourage him to treat women unjustly.


Speaking purely in numerical terms, Judaism with only 15

millions adherent worldwide, is amongst the smallest of the
world’s religion.

Only in Israel do Jews represent a national majority.

Judaism is monotheistic, recognizing a single, all-powerful

A distinctive concept of Judaism is the covenant – a special

relationship with God by which Jews became a ‘chosen
people’ .

This covenant also implies a duty to observe God’s laws,

especially the Ten Commandments as revealed by Moses on
Mount Sinai.

Jew regards the Bible ( the Old Testament ) as both a record

of their history and a statement of the obligation of Jewish

Of special importance are the first 5 books of the Bible,

designated as the Torah – teaching and Law.

In contrast to Christianity’s concern with personal salvation,

Judaism emphasis moral behavior in this world.

All Jews, share a keen awareness of their cultural history,

which has included battling against considerable prejudice
and discrimination.

A collective memory of centuries of slavery in Egypt,

conquest by Rome and persecution in Europe has shaped
Jewish identity.

During World War II, anti-Semitism reached a vicious peak

when Jews experienced the most horrific persecution in
modern times as the Nazi regime in Germany systematically
annihilated approximately 6 million Jews.

The history of Judaism is a grim reminder of a tragic

dimension of the human record – the extent to which
religious minorities have been the target of hatred and even


Hinduism is the oldest of all the word religions, originating in

the Indus River Valley approximately 4,500 years ago.

Hindu number some 775 million ( 14 % of humanity ).

Hinduism differs from most other religions because it did not

spring from the life of any single person.

Hinduism has no sacred writings comparable to the Bible or

the Qur’an.

Hinduism does not envisage God as a specific identity.

Hindu beliefs and practices vary widely but all Hindus

recognize a moral force in the universe that imposes on
everyone responsibilities known as dharma.

One traditional example of dharma is he need to act in

concert with the traditional caste system.

A second Hindu principal, karma, refers to the belief in the

spiritual progress of the human soul.

To all Hindu, all actions have spiritual consequences and

proper living contributes to moral development.

Karma works through reincarnation, a cycle of new birth

following death, so that individual are reborn into a spiritual
state corresponding to the moral quality of their previous

Hinduism proclaim no ultimate judgment at the hands of the
supreme god, although the cycle of rebirth, each person
reaps exactly what the individual as sown.

The sublime state of nirvana represents spiritual perfection :

when a soul reaches this rarefied plateau, it exits the cycle
of rebirth.

Hindu may be described as monotheistic because it

envisages the universe as a single moral system: yet Hindus
perceive this moral order in every element of nature.

Rituals, which are central to a Hindu’s life, are performed in

a variety of ways.

Most Hindu practice private devotions, including,, for

example, ritual cleaning following contract with a person of
lower caste.

Many also participate in public rituals, such as Kumbh Mela,

during which pilgrims flock to the sacred River Ganges in
India to bathe in its purifying waters.


Today more than 350 million people ( 6 % of the humanity )

embrace Buddhism and almost all are Asian.

Buddhism resemble Hinduism in doctrine but like

Christianity, its inspiration springs from the life of one

Siddhartha Gautama was born to a high-caste family in

Nepal about 563 BC.

At a young man, he was preoccupied with spiritual matters.

At the age of 29, he underwent a radical personal
transformation, setting off for years to travel and meditation.

His path ended when he achieved what Buddhists describe

as bodhi – or enlightenment.

Understanding the essence of life, Gautama became a


Energized by the Buddha’s personal charisma, followers

spread his teachings – the dhamma – across India.

The Buddhists ethics are found in the five Precepts:

i. Do not kill

ii. Do not steal

iii. Do not lie

iv. Do not be unchaste [ chaste = pure, uncorrupted ]

v. Do not drink intoxicants

Central to Buddhist belief is the notion that human existence

involves suffering.

The pleasure of the world are real, of course, but Buddhists

see such experience as transitory.

Buddha rejected wealth as a solution to suffering: on the

contrary, he warned that materialism inhibits spiritual

Buddhism’s answer to the world problem is for individual to

pursue personal, spiritual transformation.

Buddhism closely parallels Hinduism in recognizing no god of
judgment: rather, it find spiritual consequence in each daily

Another similarity lies in its belief of reincarnation.

Here, again, only full enlightenment ends the cycle of death

and rebirth, thereby liberating a person from the suffering of
the world.

1.7.6 Chinese religions and Confucianism

From about 200 BC until the beginning of the twentieth

century, Confucianism was an ecclesia – the official religion
of China.

Following the 1949 Revolution, religion was suppressed by

the communist government of the new People’s Republic of

Although there is no official data, hundreds of millions of

Chinese are still influenced by Confucianism.

Confucius or properly K’ung –Fu tze lived between 551 and

479 BC.

He shared with Buddha a deep concern for the problems and

suffering in the world.

Confucius instructed his followers to engage in the world

according to a strict code of moral conduct.

Thus it was hat Confucianism became fused with traditional

culture of China.

Confucianism is enshrined in the Chinese way of life.

A central concept of Confucianism is jen, meaning

In practice, this mean that we must always subordinate our

self-interest to moral principles.

In the family, the individual must display loyalty and

consideration for others.

Family must remain mindful of their duties to the larger


In this way, layer upon layer of moral obligation integrates

society as a whole.

Most of all, Confucianism stands out as lacking a clear sense

of the sacred.

We could view Confucianism as the celebration of society

itself as sacred.

We might argue tat Confucianism is less a religion than a

model of disciplined living.

1.8 Religion : East and West

Western religion (Christianity, Judaism and Islam ) are typically

deity-based, with a clear focus on God.

Eastern religion ( Hinduism , Buddhism, Confucianism ) trend to

be more ethical codes that make a less clear-cut distinction
between the sacred and secular.

Western religious organizations is the congregation. That is,

people attend a specific place of worship wit others, most of
whom are members.

Eastern religious organizations, by contrast, are more broadly

tied into culture itself.


All religion having a conception of a higher moral force or

purpose that transcends the concerns of everyday life.

In all these religious beliefs, people of the world find guidance

and a sense of purpose for their lives.

1.8.1Religion in Europe

Christianity is one of the foundations of European societies.

For the past two thousand years, Christianity has defined life
in Europe – dignifying all major actions, from birth and
baptism through marriage to death and burial.

It has held out the hope of ‘salvation’.

In pre-Reformation feudal society, the church was unitary –

supported by royalty and the entire population.

1.8.2Religion in the UK

In contrast with the United States, where 90 % of adults

voice a religious preference, Britain is becoming a relatively
non-religious country.

Only 21 % of the British population say they have no doubts

about the existence of God, where as 26 % either do not
believe in God or do not know whether God exists.

1.9 Limited and Partial Secularization

At the start of the twenty-first century, we are entering a

new era where religion is alive and well all over the world,
even though it is undergoing a number of quite significant

There are four major trends at work. These are :

1. Limited, partial secularization.

2. The growth of fundamentalisms alongside ‘the clash of

3. The arrival of new religious movements and the ‘New


4. The development of new institutional forms of religion.

1.9.1Limited and partial secularization.

The first trend regularly discussed among sociologists is

secularization, the historical decline in the importance of
the supernatural and the sacred.

For the society as a whole, secularization points to the

waning influence of religion in everyday life.

And as religious organization become more secular, they

direct attention less to other-worldly issues ( such as life
after death ) and more to worldly affairs ( such as sheltering
the homeless, feeding the hungry and raising funds ).

In addition, secularization means that functions once

performed by the church ( such as charity ) are now
primarily the responsibility of business and government.

Secularization also means that people are less likely to view

the world in spiritual terms and more likely to see it in terms
of material goods and consumption.
1.9.2 The growth of Fundamentalism

The most extreme version of this change is the apparent

growth of fundamentalism, a conservative religious doctrine
that opposes intellectualism and world accommodation in
favor of restoring traditional , other-worldly spiritually.

There is a going influence of science and the erosion of the

conventional family, religious fundamentalists defend their
version of traditional values.

The church are simply too tolerant of religious pluralism and

too open to change.

A number of features distinguish religious fundamentalist :

1. The interpret the ‘infallible’ sacred text literally.

Insists on literal interpretations of the sacred texts as a

means of countering what they see as excessive
intellectualism among more liberal and revisionist

2. They reject religious pluralism.

Fundamentalists maintain that tolerance and relativism
water down personal faith and harshly judge most
modern faiths as illegitimate.

3. The find a personal experience of God’s presence.

Fundamentalists seek to propagate spiritual revival.

They define all areas of life as sacred.

For example, fundamentalists Christians seek to be

‘born again’ to establish a personal relationship with
Jesus that will shape a person everyday life.

4. They oppose secularization and modernity.

Fundamentalist believe that modernity undermines

religious conviction.

Secular humanism leads to profane moral corruption.

5. The promote conservative beliefs, including patriarchal


Fundamentalists argue that God intends humans to live

in heterosexual ( sexually attracted to members of
the opposite sex ) families ruled by men.

They blame feminist and gay rights movement for

contributing to moral decline.

6. They emerge in response to social inequality or a

perceived social crisis.
Fundamentalists attract members by offering solutions
to desperate, worried or dejected people.

1.9.3The clash of Civilization

It is religious conviction that has been behind many historical


One of the more dramatic potentials that arise from the

spread of fundamentalism may be the increasing risk of
major international conflicts based on upon religion.

A major issue may be between the Christian West and the

Muslim world.

1.9.4The arrival of new religious movement and the ‘New Age’

As church-like organizations become more worldly, some

people abandon mainstream religion in favor of more sect-
like religious communities that better address their spiritual
concerns and whose members seem to exhibit greater
religious commitment.

In the face of secularization, many so-called New Religious

Movements ( NRMs ) have appeared.

It is estimated that there may now be as many as 20,000
new religious groupings in Europe alone.

Examples :

Hari Krishnas and Bhagwan Rajneeh – linked to Hinduism .

Zen goups – linked ot Buddhism.

Children of God – linked to Christianity.

Unification Church

Church of Scientology.

Transcendental Meditation

‘New Age’ is a hybrid mix and match of religions, therapies

and astrologies.

It is part of what might be seen as the globalization of

modern religion- mixing as it does elements from both
Eastern and Western traditions, along with wider concerns of
environment and ecology.

1.9.5 The arrival of new religious forms

One dimension of secularization is the rise of what is known

civil religion.

This is a quasi ( as though ) -religious loyalty binding

individuals in a basic secular society.

1. The Electronic Church

In contrast to the small village congregations of the years
past, some religious organizations – especially
fundamentalists – have become electronic churches,
dominated by ‘prime –time preachers’.

About 5 % of the US television audience ( around 10

million ) regularly tune into religious television, while about
20 % ( 40 million ) watch some religious programmes every

2. The ‘Cyber-Church’

All major world religion now have a proliferation of websites

but so too do the multitude of smaller New Religious

It is a prime force for information giving.

It is also an arena for membership recruitment.

3. The ‘Mega-church’

Mega –church are very large worship centres – often only

loosely affiliated with existing denominations, and more
likely to be identified with ‘born-again’ religious or
charismatic Christian.

Example : The Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul, has 6 daily

services in a facility with 13,000.

It has 700,000 members and reaches 30,000 other

worshippers via closed circuit television.