8. Religion and Society

(a) Sociological theories of religion. (b) Types of religious practices: animism, monism, pluralism, sects, cults. (c) Religion in modern society: religion and science, secularization, religious revivalism, fundamentalism.

Table of contents


Aspects under consideration:

  1. Origin.
  2. Impact on society.

EB Tyler. Man faces existential puzzles, creates the idea of anima/soul to answer them this leads to the development of ANIMISM. It further leads to polytheism and ultimately monotheism (Abrahamic religions).

Max Muller: Said NATURISM is the earliest form of religion based on his study of the Vedas, the oldest religious texts in the world. Man’s fears nature, thus man worships nature.

Herbert Spencer held that religion is the worship of SUPERNATURE.

Marx- Opiate of the masses. Superstructure is in place to maintain economic base. No religion in communist societies, only needed now due to alienation of man from himself.

Weber: Can act as an instrument of social change. Ascetic inner world ethos leads to an increasingly goal rational society and mind-set.

Durkheim: Gave the idea of sacred/profane. Religion is nothing but a symbolisation of society, a way for man to venerate something beyond himself (society). Dual function – solidarity and regulation.

Malinowski: Religion has implications for individual too, acts as an anxiety reliever. Superiority of hope over fear affirmed by religion. (Latent function)

Parsons: Consequences at both societal and individual level. For individual plays a cognitive function, answering the unanswerable. For society, strengthens value consensus.

Merton: At the intra-level acts as an integrative force, at the inter-level acts as a divisive force ex: Deus Vult! In modern society, plurality of religions is dysfunctional.



The belief that all things possess a spirit/anima/soul. Evolves as a response to existential problems faced by the primitive man.

Monism (Advaita vedanta)

The doctrine that denies the duality between god and the world. God resides in everything whether animate or inanimate.


Belief that all religions are true with respect to their ideas about God, life and salvation. It is a popular belief that all religions lead to the same god and all paths lead to the same heaven. (Syed Ahmed Khan said all prophets have the same din; Ben Dizzy said that all sensible men are of the same religion, and sensible men never tell;Gandhi said sarva dharma sambhav or all religions lead to the same place)

Sects & Cults

Troeltsch began a systematic study of religions in the 1930s.He defined a church as:

  • Traditional religious organisation.
  • Large scale and bureaucratic.
  • Membership by birth, loosely knit.
  • Generally diffused in society.
  • No deviance tolerated.

A sect is the opposite of church in most senses:

  • Breakaway group revolting against church or state.
  • Small in size and thus strongly knit.
  • Confined to a particular section of society, usually the marginalised/deprived. Ex. Christian, Muslim, Sikh Dalits, etc.
  • Members are expected to withdraw from mainstream society.
  • No deviance tolerated as there is a monopoly on religious truth.
  • Membership is voluntary and leadership is charismatic.
  • Unstable by nature due to dilution of dogma over time. Ex. emergence caste identities within Indian Islam and Christianity which are both egalitarian religions.
  • When protest function dies out, it changes into a denomination of the old church. Ex. Buddhism began as a protest against the caste system. Later, Buddha was claimed as an avatar of Vishnu.
  • Grows in times of social change/unrest, to explain the special needs of such change.

A cult is a new religion formed by cultural innovation/import. These are new age religions which keep mushrooming every now and then. Different from sects which are breakaway groups of existing religions. Ex. the Pythagorean mathematical cult was apart from the ancient Greek faith in the Gods of Olympus.

Stark & Bainbridge conducted a comparative study of three types of cults.

  1. Audience Cult. It’s the least organised, based on mass preaching of faith.
  2. Client Cult. Better organised and provide specialised services to followers. Ex. Nizari Ismaili Hashishins in the middle east.
  3. Cult Movements. Almost like sects. Meet all religious needs, have exclusive membership and well organised.

Robert Redfield defined two streams of any religion:

  • Great Tradition. Religion of the elite literati. Gets documented and thus standardized. Confined to the top 10%.
  • Little Tradition. Religion of the ordinary people. Highly variable and changes with region alongside dialects.

Over time successful little traditions transcend to become part of the great traditions and sometimes great traditions are discarded to remain behind as little traditions.


Religion & Science

They complement each other but also impact each other.

System of acquiring knowledge based on empirical observation.
Sensate in nature.
Beliefs and practices, involve reciprocal interactions between human and extra-mundane.
Ideational in nature.
No finality as everything depends on observation.
Based on faith and thus absolute/perfect.
Well, religious
Non-utilitarian in modern societies.
Some utility may be found in terms of answering existential questions.
Answers the what and how
Answers the why
Does not act as an external guide to action. (Weber said impossibru to derive ought statements from is statements)
Only gives information.
Acts as an external guide to action.
Existential problems can be solved by religion.

Merton: Science is an outgrowth of religion. In the Protestant Ethos and Modern Science he said that protestant ethos wanted to demonstrate glory of god. As nature was made by god, thus, unraveling mysteries of nature hails glory of god.
Sorokin science is based on questionable hypothesis and religion is based on unquestionable beliefs.
Science also gains from religion in terms of value focused research. Ex. Hindu value of veneration of the cow has led to studies on the efficacy of cow dung manure in inceptisols.


Secularisation is the process which leads to emergence of a secular (European sense of the term) state and society. Early sociological thought envisaged that secularisation was inevitable. Later sociologists supported this both theoretically and empirically.

French version of secularism - freedom of the citizens and institutions from the influence of organised religion. A 2004 law prohibits wearing any overt symbol of religion.

Parsons: When society undergoes structural differentiation, it necessarily undergoes value generalisation. Secularization is a way of value generalization. Structural differentiation leads to disengagement of religion from mainstream social life, thus allowing for secular goals and ideals to take their place.

The following processes take place during secularisation:

  • Desacralisation. Decline of the sacred due to rational thought, cognitive role of religion is taken over by science.
  • Rationalisation of Mind-set. Internal secularisation of religion takes place, as it has to keep pace with the times. Ex. heaven/hell are states of mind rather than actual places. Also religion tries to accommodate rational goals. Ex. BK raj yoga meditation and health issues.
  • Privatisation of religion. Religion becomes a private affair for people, no longer affecting social relations.

Peter Berger. Plausibility structure of religion has broken down. In secular society, religion can only exist as a plurality.

Bryan Wilson. Gave empirical support to Berger. Said decline in church attendance shows that institutional religion is on the decline. Life goals are now secularised alongside increasing appeal of secular education thus, world view secularised. Such changes lead to a decline in church attendance as social needs are now fulfilled by other means. The local community has broken down.


Anthony Giddens says that shift to a post modern society leads to religion becoming more popular. Modern institutions fails to provide answers to the existential questions, and people are unable to reflexively arrive at their own meaning because the sick and dying a separated from society leading to separation of existential questions from everyday life. Religion fills this gap and provides the moral sense of purpose in life. This is accompanied by a increased privatisation of religion.

In advanced industrial countries,

  1. Old community bonds have broken down. People are more self-conscious.
  2. Bonhomie of villages is replaced by the privacy of cities.
  3. Rampant consumerism adding to a feeling of anomie and existential crisis.
  4. Rising DoL = expertise levels sky-rocket. Thus, constant efforts needed to just keep up.
  5. People look for a source of stability/determinism in the poly-normative existence of modern life and often find it in religion thus, leading to a religious revival.

It is not just revivalism, rather a dual trend of secularisation and revivalism. With this rebirth of religions a newer, more personal interpretation of religions often comes up.Revivalism leads to the development of a new identity. Identity based political dialogue develops which leads to consolidation of these identities. This revivalism is often converted to fundamentalism due to the crisis of uneven modernisation. Here religion acts as a protest ideology.

Religious revivalism has accelerated post the neo-liberal shift of the 1990s around the world.

Religious Fundamentalism

Popularly this means a hostile attitude towards modernity. This however doesn’t convey the exact sociological meaning.

ORIGIN: from “The Fundamentals of Christian Faith” a series of pamphlets published in the USA in the early 1920s. Preached return to old roots/traditions to avoid the anomic nature of a rapidly industrialising society. It emphasised a literal interpretation of religion. Followers of this tradition were dubbed as the fundamentalists by the press. The ideas were popularised by the court case of a Tennessee teacher who was sacked for teaching evolution in biology class. Globally it was popularised by the religious revivalism like the Iranian revolution in the 1970s and the Afghan Civil war.

Bruce Lawrence: Fundamentalism is a product of modernity, different from traditionalism. It is a contra-acculturative reaction against modernity i.e. the cognitive aspects of culture resist change while the tech aspects change very easily. (Acculturation: borrowing of cultural traits leading to change in the recipient culture)

Schup & Hayden: Fundamentalism is a truly modern phenomena. We try to seek original (scriptural) solutions for contemporary (21st century) problems. Fundamentalism may be viewed as a proclamation of authority of sacred texts. The reinstatement is seen as an antidote to straying from cultural moorings. (Religious fundamentalism seeks the re-coupling of state and church)

TN Madan: We move from revivalism to fundamentalism. 6 indications of fundamentalism:

  1. Scriptures are inerrant.
  2. Literal interpretation of scriptures.
  3. The present is morally and culturally decadent.
  4. Seek to reconstruct the present according to scripture.
  5. Intolerance for dissent.
  6. Abiding interest in political power. Believed to be essential for social reconstruction.

Religious fundamentalism, in short, rejects modern cognitive understanding while accepting the technology, and using that technology to protest against modernity (the cognitive aspects).

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