Sociology of Religion/Printable version

Sociology of Religion

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Religious Typologies

Religious Development


-- The most general sociological/anthropological theory of the formation of religions so far is contained in R. Stark & W. S. Bainbridge's book "Theory of Religion". This theory is outlined roughly below:

Most religions start out their lives as cults or sects, i.e. groups in high tension with the surrounding society. Over time, they tend to either die out, or become more established, mainstream and in less tension with society. Cults are new groups with a new novel theology, while sects are attempts to return mainstream religions to (what the sect views as) their original purity. Mainstream established groups are called denominations. The comments below about cult formation apply equally well to sect formation.

There are four models of cult formation: the Psychopathological Model, the Entrepreneurial Model, the Social Model (Subcultural Model), and the Normal Revelations model.

According to the Psychopathological Model, religions are founded during a period of severe stress in the life of the founder. The founder suffers from psychological problems, which they resolve through the founding of the religion. (The development of the religion is for them a form of self-therapy, or self-medication.)

According to the Entrepreneurial Model, founders of religions act like entrepreneurs, developing new products (religions) to sell to consumers (to convert people to). According to this model, most founders of new religions already have experience in several religious groups before they begin their own. They take ideas from the pre-existing religions, and try to improve on them to make them more popular.

The Social Model (Subcultural Model) emphasises not the founder of the religion, but rather the early religious group. According to this model, religions are founded by means of social implosions. Members of the religious group spend less and less time with people outside the group, and more and more time with each other within it. The level of affection and emotional bonding between members of a group increases, and their emotional bonds to members outside the group diminish. According to the social model, when a social implosion occurs, the group will naturally develop a new theology and rituals to accompany it.

The Normal Revelations model was added to the theory by Stark in a latter work. According to the Normal Revelations model, religions are founded when the founder interprets ordinary natural phenomena as supernatural; for instance, ascribing his or her own creativity in inventing the religion to that of the deity.

Some religions are better described by one model than another, though all apply to differing degrees to all religions.

Once a cult or sect has been founded, the next problem for the founder is to convert new members to it. Prime candidates for religious conversion are those with an openness to religion, but who do not belong or fit well in any existing religious group. Those with no religion or no interest in religion are difficult to convert, especially since the cult and sect beliefs are so extreme by the standards of the surrounding society. But those already happy members of a religious group are difficult to convert as well, since they have strong social links to their pre-existing religion and are unlikely to want to sever them in order to join a new one. The best candidates for religious conversion are those who are members of or have been associated with religious groups (thereby showing an interest or openness to religion), yet exist on the fringe of these groups, without strong social ties to prevent them from joining a new group.

Potential converts vary in their level of social connection. New religions best spread through pre-existing friendship networks. Converts who are marginal with few friends are easy to convert, but having few friends to convert they cannot add much to the further growth of the organization. Converts with a large social network are harder to convert, since they tend to have more invested in mainstream society; but once converted they yield many new followers through their friendship network.

Cults initially can have quite high growth rates; but as the social networks that initially feed them are exhausted, their growth rate falls quickly. On the other hand, the rate of growth is exponential (ignoring the limited supply of potential converts): the more converts you have, the more missionaries you can have out looking for new converts. But nonetheless it can take a very long time for religions to grow to a large size by natural growth. This often leads to cult leaders giving up after several decades, and withdrawing the cult from the world.

It is difficult for cults and sects to maintain their initial enthusiasm for more than about a generation. As children are born into the cult or sect, members begin to demand a more stable life. When this happens, cults tend to lose or de-emphasise many of their more radical beliefs, and become more open to the surrounding society; they then become denominations.

The goal or dream of most founders of religions is to convert their entire society; but of the myriad religions founded throughout history, few have been very successful. Most of the world's religious people adhere to one of a few major religions (Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism). It is very difficult for a religion to grow to this size. Most of these religions (especially Christianity) became established when they were adopted by politically powerful individuals. The religion of the common people took much longer to change (sometimes centuries). --

Religion and Gender

Ordaining Women


See Chaves, Mark. 1997. Ordaining Women.


Religious fundamentalism first appeared in the late 19th century in the USA. At that time, some of the more liberal protestants attempted to adapt their views to the modern world, while other, more conservative protestants, opposed this. They stood behind the belief that the Bible must be understood literally. They created a set of pamphlets named The Fundamentals.

We place all conservative doctrines, movements and groups which oppose the modern society, a modern way of life and science under fundamentalism. They differ from each other by the reason of their creation, their goals and the ways with which to achieve them (violence, conversation, bribery).

All of the above share some common points:

  • religious texts are perfect, without mistakes or misinterpretations - they must be read literally
  • they deny religious pluralism
  • modern society is fraught with negative influences (a society of consumers, hedonism and moral plurality)
  • they have firm beliefs in connection with their religion
  • opposition to feminism, homosexuals, abortion and birth regulation movements
  • their religion should become the foundation for the life of the society and each individual
  • all who disagree with their beliefs are considered enemies


Sociologists have been theorizing about religion since the inception of sociology. The earliest and still most commonly used theorem in the sociology of religion is the secularization paradigm. The name was borrowed from the Catholic Church that has used the term “secular” since the dark ages to describe priests working outside religious orders. It gained new meaning in sociology where it began to describe the idea of a decline and negation of religion (Beckford 2003). Casanova (1994) has argued that: 'The secularization theory may be the only theory which was able to attain a truly paradigmatic status within the modern social sciences. In one form or another … the thesis of secularization was shared by all founding fathers: from Karl Marx to John Stuart Mill, from August Comte to Herbert Spencer, from E. B. Taylor to James Frazer, from Ferdinand Toennies to George Simmel, from Emile Durkheim to Max Weber…' (p.17)

Secularization theory can be traced back to Saint-Simon (1975) who argued that association between church and state had gone through three stages. In ancient Greece and Rome, religion and state were ruled by the same class, which resulted in the interlocking of the two. In medieval times, these two became distinctly separate institutions, with the church being the predominant one. In recent times, the state has become the stronger of the two (Saint-Simon 1975).

At this point, we can distinguish four discrete variations of the secularization theory. Comte (1974) argued that the progress of sciences will result in the disappearance of religion. Weber (1990) accepted Comte’s idea of science undermining religion; however, he did not believe that disappearance of religion is altogether possible. His approach to secularization theory called for decline in religiosity (Weber 1990). The third approach, presented by Luckmann (1963, 1967, 1990), suggested that indeed religion will decline, although a distinction is made between organized religion (which, in his view, is on the decline) and private religion, which will compensate for losses in institutionalized religion. This shift from public to private religions is identified as privatization theory (Luckmann 1963; Luckmann 1967; Luckmann 1990). Parsons (1977a, 1977b) is credited with the fourth approach, which predicts transformation in religiosity. He said that the influence of organized religion is on the wane and shifting towards the personal sphere. However, Christian values are intertwined in western society and, in effect, became a sacred core of our social system (Parsons 1977a; Parsons 1977b).

Apart from the four core theories within the secularization paradigm there are numerous additional conceptualizations that attempt to fuse the original four. The most popular one is described by Berger (1967) who crossbreeds transformation and privatization theories and argues that religion does affect society, although increasingly only in the private sphere (Berger 1967). Another theory combines disappearance premise with Weber’s decline hypothesis and states that religious values are entrenched in the customs of established communities. Additionally, the conversion to industrial societies creates a challenge to these values’ authority (Wilson 1982; Wilson 1985).

The critics of the secularization theory have argued that there is no sufficient empirical support for the theory which sociologist “sacralized” and that, since the founding fathers of sociology on both sides of the Atlantic were staunch critics of religion itself, this paradigm should be abolished from the theoretical discourse (Hadden 1987; Stark 1999; Swatos and Christiano 1999). However, as Yamane (1997) argues, this “sacralized theory” offers “a paradigm in the strict Kuhnian sense of being grounded in a concrete scientific community which shares a core set of concepts, an infrastructure of ‘exemplars,’ even if there is a diversity at the theoretical level within the paradigm” (p.110). The attacks on the secularization paradigm brought on further modifications in the theory described as “neo-secularization” (Phillips 2004; Sommerville 1998; Yamane 1997). This new approach calls for not connecting secularization with falling rates of religious participation but, instead, describing it as a “descaling scope of religious authority” (Chaves 1994). This is associated with differentiation of once entwined religious and secular institutions, which became increasingly separated from their religious sphere. As Sommerville (1998:251) explains: “…we are not saying that differentiation leads to secularization. It is secularization.” Thus, it appears that the paradigm has been shifting from an emphasis on the outcome to an explication of the process itself.

The Future of Religion

The significance of religion may rise or decline or change in its public perception, and individual religious interpretations are subject to change.

Increased fundamentalism may fuel historical frictions as beliefs differ. Less fundamental approaches may propitiate.

Studies such as comparative religion could bolster interfaith cooperation. Various alternatives to religion may affect its influence.