Sociology of Religion

An important intellectual shift has taken place in the sociology of religion as many of its longest held theoretical positions, passed down from the founders of the field, have been overturned. These changes have been so dramatic and far-reaching that Warner (1993, p. 1044) identified them “as a paradigm shift in progress,” an assessment that since that time “has been spectacularly fulfilled” (Greeley 1996, p. 1).


Typically, the emergence of a new paradigm rests on both an empirical basis and a theoretical basis. Over the past thirty years, there has been an explosion of research on religious topics and a substantial number of new facts have accumulated. The bulk of these discoveries have turned out to be inconsistent with the old paradigm. In response to the growing incompatibility between fact and traditional theory, new theories have been constructed to interpret the empirical literature.

There are five major points of dispute between the old and new paradigms. In this article, each one is described, followed by a brief summary of the pertinent evidence. Finally, additional recent trends in the field are noted.

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Religion Is Harmful

For nearly three centuries, social scientists condemned religion as harmful to the individual because it impedes rational thought and harmful to society because it sanctifies tyrants (Stark 1999b). The premise that religion is irrational and psychologically harmful has taken many forms, all of them notable for the open contempt and antagonism they express toward faith. Thus, as Freud explained on one page of his psychoanalytic expose of faith, The Future of an Illusion (1961 [1927], p. 88), religion is an “illusion,” a “sweet—or bittersweet—poison,” a “neurosis,” an “intoxicant,” and “childishness to be overcome.” More recently, Carroll (1987, p. 491) claimed that praying the Rosary is “a disguised gratification of repressed anal-erotic desires,” a substitute for playing ”with one’s feces.” In a similar fashion, Ostow (1990, p. 113) asserted that evangelical Protestantism is a matter of regression “to the state of mind of the child who resists differentiation from its mother. The messiah and the group itself represent the returning mother.”

In rejecting assertions that religion is rooted in irrationality, proponents of the new paradigm cite a growing literature that finds religion to be a reliable source of better mental and even physical health (Ellison 1991, 1993; Idler and Kasl 1997; Levin 1996; Pargament and Park 1995). Two literature reviews published in 1987, pointed to the positive health effects of religious involvement regardless of the age, sex, race, ethnicity, or nationality of the population being studied (Jarvis and Northcutt 1987; Levin and Schiller 1987). In a more recent review, Levin (1996, p. 850) found that that relationship still holds and suggests that these results point to a ”protective epidemiologic effect of religiosity.”

In the field of gerontology, of research on religion and aging has grown so rapidly that a new journal (Journal of Religious Gerontology) has emerged and older journals have devoted special issues or sections to discussions of the topic. Krause (1997, p. S291) summarized the literature: “[A]n impressive body of research indicates that elderly people who are involved in religion tend to enjoy better physical and mental health than older adults who are not as religious.”

Not only is religion associated with better mental and physical health, all the current theorizing about religion accepts the rational choice principle as its first axiom (Gill 1998; Greeley 1995; Iannaccone 1990, 1995a, 1995b; Miller 1995; Sherkat 1997; Stark 1996a, 1996b, 1999a; Stark and Bainbridge 1980 [1987], 1996; Stark and Finke 2000; Stark and Iannaccone 1993, 1994). Most of these scholars do not employ the ”thin” version of rational choice currently used in economics (Iannaccone 1995b) but the ”thick” version (Ferejohn 1991), similar to what Weber ([1922] 1993, p. 1) had in mind when he wrote that

religiously or magically motivated behavior is relatively rational behavior… It follows rules of experience… Thus, religious and magical behavior or thinking must not be set apart from the range of everyday purposive conduct…

What about the harmful social effects of religion as it sustains the powerful and dispenses false consciousness to the exploited and debased? Engels (Marx and Engels 64 195, p. 316) claimed that early Christianity ”first appeared as a religion of slaves and emancipated slaves, of poor people deprived of all rights, of peoples subjugated and dispersed by Rome.” Does it not follow that religion appeals most strongly to the lower classes?

While the old paradigm identified religion as the opiate of the people, the new paradigm notes that religion also often is the “amphetamines” of the people in that religion animated many medieval peasant and artisan rebellions (Cohn 1961), generated repeated uprisings among the native peoples of Africa and North America against European encroachment (Wilson 1975), and recently served as a major center of mobilization against tyranny in eastern Europe (Echikson 1990). The notion that religion primarily serves to compensate the deprived and dispossessed has become untenable. The consensus among scholars rejects as “imaginary history” Engels’s notion that the early Christian movement was rooted in proletarian suffering. The facts force the conclusion that Christianity’s greatest early appeal was to the privileged classes (Stark 1996a). In similar fashion, since the early 1940s many researchers have attempted to connect religiousness to social class, but their findings have been weak and inconsistent (Stark and Finke 2000). Consequently, the need for new theorizing on the role of religion in the political affairs of nations has been recognized (Gill 1998).

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Religion Is Doomed In Modern Times

As the social sciences emerged in the wake of the Enlightenment, the leading figures eagerly proclaimed the demise of religion. Tocqueville wrote in his famous early nineteenth-century study, Democracy in America ([1840] 1956, vol. II, p. 319):

The philosophers of the eighteenth century explained in a very simple manner the gradual decay of religious faith. Religious zeal, said they, must necessarily fail the more generally liberty is established and knowledge diffused.

This came to be known as the secularization thesis: In response to modernization, “religious institutions, actions, and consciousness, [will] lose their social significance” (Wilson 1982, p. 149). Tocqueville was virtually alone in rejecting the secularization thesis; perhaps no other social scientific prediction enjoyed such nearly universal acceptance for so long. Thus, the anthropologist Wallace (1966, p. 265) wrote in an undergraduate textbook:

The evolutionary future of religion is extinction. Belief in supernatural beings and supernatural forces that affect nature without obeying nature’s laws will erode and become only an interesting historical memory… Belief in supernatural powers is doomed to die out, all over the world, as the result of the increasing adequacy and diffusion of scientific knowledge.

In the late 1990s, the secularization thesis has been buried under a mountain of contrary facts (Bossy 1985; Duffy 1992; Greeley 1989, 1995, 1996; Murray 1972; Stark 1999c). The primary empirical basis for claims of ongoing secularization has been the very low rates of religious participation in contemporary European nations, where weekly rates of church attendance often are below 5 percent. However, the overwhelming weight of historical research shows that these low rates do not represent a decline. Church attendance always was extremely low in those nations, and it is not clear that they ever were effectively Christianized (Greeley 1995; Stark 1999c). Furthermore, in those nations the overwhelming majority express firm belief in the supernatural, pray, and describe themselves as religious. It is perverse to describe a nation as highly secularized (as those committed to the old paradigm still do) when two-thirds or more of its residents say they are ”religious persons” and fewer than 5 percent say they are atheists. The interesting question thus does not concern secularization but is, “Why are these societies of believing non-belongers?” as Davie (1994) has expressed it. What is it about the churches in those nations that prevents them from mobilizing participation?

Looking to the world as a whole, there is no consistent relationship between religious participation and modernization. Indeed, the very few significant, long-term declines in religious participation that have been seen in the world are greatly outnumbered by remarkable increases (Stark and Finke 2000). What needs to be explained, therefore, is not religious decline but variation. Finally, the spread of science cannot cause secularization, because science and religion are unrelated. Scientists are as religious as anyone else, and the more scientific their fields, the more religious are American academics (Stark et al. 1996).

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One Last Spasm

The twin propositions that religious behavior is rooted in irrationality and that religion must soon yield to secularization have been dealt a blow by the finding that the more liberal (or secularized) a religious body becomes, the more rapidly it loses members, while denominations that sustain more vigorous and traditional theologies have prospered (Finke and Stark 1992; Iannaccone 1994; Kelley 1972; Stark and Finke 2000). How can it be that the ”fundamentalists” grow while the liberals lose out? Proponents of the old paradigm have invoked the notion that this is but one final, dying spasm of piety. They claim that the expansion of evangelical Protestant churches in the United States (and presumably in Latin America, where they are experiencing explosive growth) is a frantic ”flight from modernity,” that people who feel threatened by the erosion of traditional morality are flocking to religious havens (Berger 1967; Hunter 1987, 1983). Berger (1967, p. 11) described American evangelical Protestant churches as follows: ”They are like besieged fortresses, and their mood tends toward a militancy that only superficially covers an underlying sense of panic.” Nearly thirty years later Thurow (1996, p. 232) explained, ”Those who lose out economically or who cannot stand the economic uncertainty of not knowing what it takes to succeed in the new era ahead retreat into religious fundamentalism.”

A fatal problem with this explanation is that, as was noted above, the relationship between social class and religiousness is weak and inconsistent. Conservative churches actually include a fair share of highly educated, successful, and sophisticated people who display no apparent fears of modernity (Smith 1998, 2000; Stark and Finke 2000; Woodberry and Smith 1998).

The new paradigm has no difficulty explaining the growth of evangelical churches because it does not confuse price with value. As Iannaccone (1994, 1992) has demonstrated, ”strict” churches—those which require more from their members—are a better value because they offer far more in the way of rewards, both worldly and otherworldly. In this sense, to opt for a more traditional religious affiliation is to make the more rational choice, in that it yields a greater ratio of rewards over costs.

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Idealistic Humbug

Generations of social scientists have embraced the notion that religion is a dependent variable and that whatever appears to be a religious effect is ultimately merely a mask for something more basic, something ”material.”

Although social scientists in most other areas of study have long acknowledged the truism that if people define something as real, it can have real consequences, this concession usually has been denied in the area of religion. Instead, there has been a general willingness to agree with Marx that any attempt to explain “reality” by reference to an unreality such as religion is “idealistic humbug.” Rather, one must explain religion by reference to “realities” such as ”the mode of production.” That is, one “does not explain practice from the idea but explains the formation of ideas from material practice” (Marx [1845] 1998, p. 61). As Marx’s collaborator Engels explained, ”All religion . . . is nothing but the fantastic reflection in men’s minds of those external forces which control their daily life . . . the economic conditions . . . the means of production” (Marx and Engels 1964, pp. 147-148).

These views did not originate with Marx; they have been nearly universal among social scientists for close to three centuries (Stark 1999b). Even Weber, having attributed the rise of capitalism to the “Protestant ethic,” traced the source of that ethic to material conditions (including the rise of the bourgeoisie, population growth, and colonialism), thus limiting Calvinist doctrines to being at most a proximate rather than a fundamental cause of capitalism. Even so, Weber has been bitterly criticized for affording religion any causal role. Emile Durkheim and his functionalist heirs dismissed religious belief as an insignificant epiphenomenon, regarding ritual as the only active religious ingredient and as being only a proxy for a more basic factor, social solidarity (Stark and Bainbridge 1997).

The new paradigm is committed to the proposition that people often act from religious motives and that in many cases no more fundamental or material cause can be found. Four historical examples reveal the conflict between paradigms on this central issue.

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Crusading for Land and Loot

For centuries, historians believed that the Crusades to the Holy Land were motivated by faith, that tens of thousands of European nobles and knights marched to the Holy Land to rescue it from Muslim ”desecration.” However, by the end of the nineteenth century social scientists had penetrated those appearances to discover that the crusaders really went in pursuit of land and loot. Having summarized the many economic problems facing Europe in the eleventh century, including the population pressures and land shortages that were said to beset the knightly class, Mayer (1972, pp. 22-25) stressed the “lust for booty” and the “hunger for loot” that motivated the crusaders: ”Obviously the crusade acted as a kind of safety valve for a knightly class which was constantly growing in numbers.” He went on to emphasize the need to recognize “the social and economic situation of a class which looked upon the crusade as a way of solving its material problems.”

Although there is extensive evidence that the crusaders truly believed they were going for purely religious reasons, this material can be ignored because there exists a definitive refutation of the materialist position. In 1063, thirty-two years before Urban II called for the First Crusade to the Holy Land, Pope Alexander II, backed by the evangelical efforts of the monks of Cluny, attempted to organize a Crusade to reclaim Moorish Spain.

Here, very close at hand, lay great wealth and an abundance of fertile land, and the Pope had declared that all who fought for the Cross in Spain were entitled not only to absolution for their sins but to all the wealth and ”lands they conquered from the infidel” (Runciman 1951, vol. 1, p. 91). However, hardly anyone responded, and little or nothing was achieved. The materialist interpretation of the Crusades fails when faced with the fact that crusaders were not lured to nearby Spain in pursuit of rich and relatively easy pickings, while soon afterward tens of thousands set off for the dry wastes of faraway Palestine and did so again and again. Why did they do that rather than go to Spain? Because Spain was not the Holy Land. Jesus had not walked the streets of Toledo or been crucified in Seville.

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Heresy and Class Struggle

Beginning in the eleventh century and lasting though the sixteenth, Europe was swept by mass heretical movements— Waldensians, Cathars (called Albigensians in southern France), Hussites, and many others—culminating in the Reformation. Tens of thousands died on behalf of their religious beliefs, but maybe not.

Many historians possessed of an excessive sociological imagination have claimed that these great heretical movements were not primarily about doctrines and morals, if indeed religious factors were of any significance at all. Instead, they argue, the religious aspect of these movements masked their real basis, which was of course class struggle. Engels (Marx and Engels 1964, pp. 97-123) identified some of these movements, including the Albigensians, as urban heresies in that they represented the class interests of the town bourgeoisie against those of the feudal elites of church and state. But most of the heretical movements were, according to Engels, based on the proletariat, which demanded restoration of the equality and communalism of early Christianity (Engels and many other Marxists have claimed that the early Christians briefly achieved true communism). Engels granted that these class struggles were characterized by religious and mystical rhetoric but dismissed this as false consciousness. Following Engels, many Marxist historians have “exposed” the materialism behind the claims of religious dissent. Thus, in 1936 the Italian historian Antonino de Stefano claimed, ”At bottom, the economic argument must have constituted, more than any dogmatic or religious discussions, the principle motive of the preaching of heresy” (quoted in Russell 1965, p. 231). Even many historians not committed to orthodox Marxism have detected materialism behind medieval dissent. For example, the non-Marxist historian Cohn (1961, p. xiii) reduced medieval heresies to “the desire of the poor to improve the material conditions of their lives,” which “became transfused with phantasies of a new Paradise.”

It is not necessary for proponents of the new paradigm to deny that class conflicts existed in medieval times or to suppose that people participating in heresy never paid any heed to their material interests to reaffirm that religion lay at the heart of these conflicts. If their primary concerns had been worldly, surely most heretics would have recanted when that was the only way out. It was, after all, only their religious notions they had to give up, not their material longings. However, large numbers of them chose death instead. Moreover, these movements drew participants from all levels of the class system. The Albigensians, for example, enlisted not only the bourgeoisie but, in contradiction to Engels, most of the nobility as well as the clergy of southern France and indeed the “masses” (Costen 1997; Lambert 1992; Mundy 1985). Finally, the claim that the majority of the participants in any given heresy consisted of peasants and the poor is lacking in force, even in the instances in which it might be true. Almost everyone in medieval Europe was poor and a peasant. Gauged against this standard, it seems likely that the “proletarian masses” were quite underrepresented in most of these movements (Lambert 1992).

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Medieval Jewish Messianic Movements

For Jews the messiah has yet to come, but again and again over the centuries, groups of Jews have hailed his arrival. An early episode resulted, of course, in Christianity, but it would not be an exaggeration to say that hundreds of other messianic movements have occurred in Jewish communities over the past two millennia, and such movements were especially common in the European diaspora during medieval times (Cohen 1967; Lenowitz 1998; Sharot 1982).

In a sophisticated analysis of these religious movements, Sharot (1982, p. 18) noted the huge literature that stresses that messianic movements are

responses to the disruption of social and cultural patterns… [produced by] a disaster such as an epidemic, famine, war, or massacre. Following a disaster, persons feel vulnerable, confused, full of anxiety, and they turn to millennial beliefs in order to account for otherwise meaningless events. They interpret the disaster as a prelude to the millennium; thus their deepest despair gives way to the greatest hope.

Although some messianic Jewish movements did erupt after a disaster, as he worked his way through all the better-known cases, Sharot (1982, pp. 6566) was forced to agree with Cohen’s (1967) earlier study that many movements seemed to come out of nowhere in the sense that they arose during periods of relative quiet and therefore that “disaster was not a necessary condition of a messianic outburst.”

Sharot made this concession very reluctantly, and often seems to forget it. Nevertheless, his scrupulous accounts of specific incidents frequently show that a movement was the direct result of religious rather than secular influences. In many cases, an episode began with an individual or small group poring over the Kabbalah (a collection of Jewish mystical writings) out of purely personal motives and then ”discovering” that the millennium was at hand. Thereafter, they shared this knowledge with others, who in turn assisted in arousing a mass following. In other instances, someone became convinced that he was the messiah and was able to convince his family and friends (Stark 1999d).

One can of course argue that Jews in medieval Europe were always victims and hence always ripe for millenarian solutions. However, constants cannot explain variations, and in as many cases as not, nothing special was going on to cause a movement to arise then rather than at some other time except for direct religious influences in the form of people advocating a new religious message or circumstance.

Of course, people often do turn to religion in times of trouble and crisis, but the new paradigm rejects the claim that crises are a necessary condition for religious innovations and recognizes that religious phenomena can be caused by other religious phenomena.

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The Mystical 1960s

A huge literature attributes the ”explosive growth” of new religious movements in the United States in the late 1960s and early 1970s to profound social causes. Particular attention has been given to uncovering the secular causes of the special appeal of Eastern faiths for Americans in that period. Cox (1983, p. 42) blamed “the most deteriorated, decadent phase of consumer capitalism,” charging that converts to Eastern faiths had “been maddened by consumer culture” (p. 40). Serious journals published equally hysterical explanations. As Robbins summarized (1988, p. 60), each of these analyses identified one or more “acute and distinctively modern dislocation which is said to be producing some mode of alienation, anomie or deprivation to which Americans are responding.” With a fine grasp of the essentials, Barker (1986, p. 338) commented that “those who have read some of the sociological literature could well be at a loss to understand why all young adults are not members [of new religious movements], so all-encompassing are some of the explanations.”

In fact, there was no growth, explosive or otherwise, of new religious movements in this era (Melton 1988; Finke and Stark 1992); the rate of new movement formation was constant from 1950 through 1990. As for the brief increase in the proportion of Eastern faiths among new American movements, capitalism had nothing to do with it. Rather, in 1965 the elimination of exclusionary rules against Asian immigration made it possible for the first time for authentic Eastern and Indian religious leaders to seek American followers directly. Consequently, there was an increase in the number of Eastern religious organizations, but the number of actual converts was minuscule. Even so, these movements were the result of religious efforts, of face-to-face recruitment activities motivated by the religious convictions of missionizing gurus.

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The Evils of Pluralism

More than three centuries ago, early scholars of comparative religion assumed that by publicizing the beliefs of the world’s many faiths, they could advance the cause of atheism, that by virtue of their competing claims, each religion would refute the others (Preus 1987). This view has led to the claim that faith is a very fragile thing that cannot survive challenge; hence, pluralism—the existence of several competing religious bodies in a society—is said to be incompatible with strong religiosity. Durkheim ([1897] 1951, p. 159) asserted that when multiple religious groups compete, religion becomes open to question, dispute, and doubt and thus “the less it dominates lives.” Eventually these views were formulated into elegant sociology by Berger (1967, 1979), who repeatedly argued that pluralism inevitably destroys the plausibility of all religions and only where one faith prevails can there exist a ”scared canopy” that is able to inspire universal confidence and assent.

These notions are mistaken, having been taken over uncritically from the justifications given by European state churches for their monopolies. It is indicative of the undue respect given European social science that American sociologists accepted this view, since religious competition is an obvious basis for the extraordinary levels of religious participation in the United States, in contrast to the religious apathy prevalent in societies with a monopoly church. Indeed, the positive role of competition is obvious in American history. In 1776, when most American colonies were dominated by a state-supported church, about one person in five belonged to any church. After the Revolution, the onset of vigorous religious competition eventually resulted in about two-thirds of Americans belonging to a church (Finke and Stark 1992)

To fully appreciate the power of pluralism, it was necessary to cease treating religion as primarily a psychological phenomenon and take a more sociological view, an approach that also has been characteristic of the new paradigm. The concept of a religious economy (Stark 1985) made it possible to adopt an overall perspective on the religious activities in a society and examine the interplay among religious groups. This analysis quickly revealed that the main impact of religious competition on individuals is not confusion or the corrosion of faiths but to present the individual with vigorously offered choices. As Adam Smith pointed out more than two centuries ago, monopoly religions are as subject to laziness and inefficiency as are monopoly business firms. Thus, it is axiomatic in the new paradigm that religious competition strengthens religion because as firms vie for supporters, they tend to specialize their appeals, with the overall result that a higher proportion of the population will be enrolled. As of 1999 there had been more than twenty-five published studies based on many different societies and different eras, offering overwhelming support for this view (Finke and Stark 1998; Stark and Finke 2000).

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A Focus on Religion

Despite emphasizing that religion does have effects, the new paradigm is not limited to that perspective. Rather, in addition to a sociology of religious effects, the new paradigm has promulgated a sociology of religion per se.

For a long time sociologists interested in religion attempted to justify their topic by demonstrating its importance to those who specialized in one of the more of the ”secular” areas of the field. Thus, some sociologists devoted studies to demonstrating religious effects on political behavior such as voting and opinions on current issues. Others sought to convince demographers that religion was crucial to fertility studies. This trend has been enshrined in textbooks on the sociology of religion, all of which have consisted almost entirely of topics on “religion and family,” “religion and economics,” “religion and prejudice,” and so on.

However, having become part of a relatively large and well-established specialty, sociologists in this area have become sufficiently confident to made religion the real center of study rather than trying to draw legitimacy from its connections to other topics. Consequently, there has been renewed attention to what religion is as well as what it does (Boyer 1994; Greeley 1995; Guthrie 1996; Stark 1999a). There also is much new work on religious and mystical experiences (Hood 1997; Howell 1997; Neitz and Spickard 1990; Stark 1999d). Other scholars have focused not on the causes or consequences of prayer but on its nature and practice (Poloma and Gallup 1991; Swatos 1987). Also, increasing attention is being paid to images of God (Barrett 1998; Greeley 1995; Stark forthcoming).

In addition, there is an impressive new literature on religious socialization (Ellison and Sherkat 1993a, 1993b; Granqvist 1998; Kirkpatrick and Shaver 1990; Smith 1998), on denominational switching (Musick and Wilson 1995; Perrin et al. 1997; Sherkat and Wilson 1995), and on conversion (Hall 1998; Rambo 1993; Stark and Finke 2000). Amid all this activity, the case study literature is blooming as never before (Davidman 1991; Goldman 1999; Heelas 1996; Lang and Ragvald 1993; Lawson 1995, 1996, 1998; Neitz 1987; Poloma 1989; Washington 1995).

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