Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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Although its demise has been long predicted by social scientists, religion today—far from being driven out by the combined forces of industrialization, materialistic values, sociotechnological specialization, and science, in short, the forces of secularization—shows remarkable vitality. This fact is an embarrassment to modern social theory. If we accept the hypothesis that secularization inexorably results from the growth of specialization, science, and so on, then we would expect the United States to be one of the most secularized countries in the world. Instead, it is among the most God-believing and religion-adhering nations. It is also the seedbed for an enormous number of new religious movements. The picture that is unfolding not only in the United States but in many of the advanced industrial societies as well is one of mainline traditionalism in religious devotion competing with a somewhat militant fundamentalism and a panoply of highly personalized and syncretistic forms of religious expression (Roof and McKinney 1987). The personalized forms of religion include occultism (Luhrmann 1989), self-discovery and support groups (Westley 1983, Wuthnow 1994), and small communities where charismatic leaders preach varying degrees of separation from society and, in extreme cases, suicidal confrontation (Moore and McGehee 1989, Zablocki 1980).

Much of what is new in this picture is the result of the general privatization of individual life in modern societies (Luckmann 1991). The "private sphere" is enhanced by the phantasmagoric character of modern mass media and consumer markets—talk-show personalities espousing the spiritual benefits of body massage, pocketbooks sold at supermarket checkout lines that promise new self-awareness obtained from special diets, astrological advice in newspaper columns, and the like; the list seems endless. Because the present state of religious institutions and religiosity is extremely diverse and in flux, any attempt to predict what changes may come about even in the next few decades is problematic. Here, we will focus instead on general models of religious change that have been employed in the social sciences.

The social sciences have devised a number of general approaches to the problem of religion and change. One perspective stresses that religion is a cause of macrohistorical changes in social, political, and economic institutions. A second emphasizes that religions themselves undergo change in response to forces emanating from nonreligious spheres of social and personal experience. A third argues that, viewed long term and on a global scale, religious change is evolutionary. Fourth, an influential initiative has explored the connection between modernization and secularization. Finally, it has been argued that religious change can have an oscillating pattern.

Although it is heuristic to classify social scientific approaches to religion and change in this manner, it is important to recognize that these several perspectives overlap in practice. Moreover, there are other ways to categorize the different research perspectives in this arena. For example, some students of religion and change take an interest in large-scale, historical processes while others focus on small-scale, localized, and comparatively ephemeral changes. As we proceed, an important caveat to keep in mind is that all theories of religion and change remain tentative at this writing. As quantitative analyses of religious phenomena become increasingly sophisticated, social scientists grow ever more impressed with the fact that statistical models in which religious variables are either the cause or the effect yield only modest relationships. Religion, although connected with society and social conditions, remains a somewhat autonomous sphere.

Religion as a Cause of Institutional Change

Christianity has provided the focus for two major theses regarding the impact of religion on other institutions. The first of these studies was Edward Gibbons's analysis of the decay of the Roman Empire under the dissipating influence of Christianization. An even more influential study was that by Max Weber. His Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (Scribner 1958 [1904-1905]) spawned a tireless debate concerning the possibility that religion lies behind the development of rational, capitalist economies in Europe. In Weber's original thesis, it was the "worldly asceticism" of Protestantism that formed the basis for capitalist business practices of savings and investment. The idealist thrust of the Protestant ethic thesis invited much criticism for failing to take into account a host of technological and institutional innovations that accompanied or, in many cases, preceded the Protestant Reformation. Recent Weberian scholarship has shown that later in his career Weber had substantially revised his original thesis to suggest that the Roman Catholic Church of the High Middle Ages, which itself had become rational-bureaucratic and entrepreneurial, laid the institutional foundations for the development of capitalist enterprises in Europe (Collins 1986).

Religious Change in Response to External Forces

One of Émile Durkheim's (1984 [1912]) most seminal contributions to the sociology of religion was to suggest that religious beliefs and practices change in accordance with changes in the morphology or structure of the social group adhering to these beliefs and practices. Followed rigidly, this leads to a crude reductionism. The basic concept, however, has exerted an enormous influence on the social sciences. Anthropologists, for example, have found the idea useful for comparing the religious systems of preindustrial societies. (Swanson [1960], in an empirical cross-cultural study, demonstrates that specific religious beliefs correspond to the number and variety of "sovereign groups" in societies.)

Predictably, Weber, with his greater sensitivity to social inequality and differentiation within societies, offers an alternative inspiration to sociologists of religion. He argued that social classes have different experiences and needs, and so tend to acquire and support quite different forms of religious orientation. Prophetic, moralistic religions come into existence with the rise of urban, commercial classes. Emotional, salvationist religion has an elective affinity with the urban poor, while rural populations, subject to the whims of nature, use magic in the attempt to control these forces, and elites prefer an intellectualist religion that confirms their right to high status.

On a less grand historical stage, there have been countless studies of cult formation and the development of new religious movements. Although it is generally conceded that new religions often appeal to marginalized members of society, this doesn't mean that new recruits are necessarily limited to the poor and downtrodden. Many of the new religious movements in the United States have successfully appealed to the well educated and affluent. Stark and Bainbridge (1985) suggest that what often distinguishes these recruits is that they come from family backgrounds where more conventional religion was given little or no emphasis. On the other hand, anthropologists have shown that new religious movements, particularly of a nativistic or millenarian sort, tend to proliferate when small societies come into contact with large, dominating societies (Wallace 1966).

Religious Evolution

The idea that religion has undergone a fairly steady, unilinear process of differentiation and development was accepted by many thinkers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, including Durkheim and Weber (although Weber did not see the process as inevitably unilinear). Modern proponents of this model of change (Bellah 1964, Luckmann 1991, Wallace 1966) have refined it with better data supplied by recent ethnographic, historical, and archeological research.

A rough outline of religious evolution can now be given with some confidence. Prior to the late modern period of present-day industrial societies, the social forms of religion were of three basic types, and these types directly corresponded to the complexity of the societies in which they were embedded. In hunting-gathering and simple horticultural societies, the social form of religion appears diffused throughout the social structure and is virtually homologous with society itself. The second social form of religion developed with the advent of the first state organized societies of the Middle East and was characterized by a differentiation of religious functions and their coalescence in institutions that were in close proximity to, or partial identity with, political institutions. The third social form of religion—a highly differentiated and specialized institutional sphere—became prevalent in the agrarian societies of Europe and Asia but most notably in western European Christianity. The most recent, modern phase of evolutionary religious development is still unfolding and is thus hard to define accurately. Nevertheless, modernity seems to be characterized by multitudinous religious institutions and bountiful forms of privatized religious expression (Luckmann 1991).


The term secularization suggests that religious culture, religious institutions, and religious beliefs tend to atrophy under conditions of advanced industrialization and modernization. Although several distinct lines of theory spring from this basic idea (Tschannen 1991), the secularization thesis was one of the major assumptions of the social sciences until only a couple of decades ago. Now, with conservative religious movements thriving in advanced industrial countries such as the United States and religious revivals occurring in western Europe and the former Soviet Union, it is no longer certain that the secularization thesis has validity.

One recently proposed theory disputes the secularization thesis entirely (Stark and Iannaccone 1994). When public expression of religion is monopolized by the state, people will in time grow apathetic and feel less inclined to practice the prescribed religion. The resulting ebb in public religious enthusiasm is what is normally taken to indicate secularization. According to the advocates of this theory, however, religious expression has not actually disappeared. It has gone underground and finds expression in unofficial ways. This situation can be contrasted to the one when there is no state monopoly of religion and instead there exists an "open market" of freely competing faiths. Now, religious organizations zealously promote their products, and public religious participation is enthusiastic. Such a theory naturally lends itself to the idea that religious change can fluctuate over periods of time as the market of religious "suppliers" changes.

Oscillating Change

Ages of faith alternate with ages of apathy and disbelief; periods dominated by vibrant religious symbolism and healthy religious organizations alternate with periods when symbolism pales and the organizations teeter; periods in which there is only one accepted church give way to periods rife with sectarian revival and religious pluralism. These are all examples of oscillating religious change.

The grand historical schemes of oscillating change that Pitirim Sorokin advocated are no longer favored by most social scientists, but more limited employment of the oscillating change model is still quite viable. Church-sect theory, to cite what is perhaps the most notable example of this, finds ample historical evidence for cycles of church development followed by sectarian division (Finke and Stark 1992). A much older and often neglected version of the oscillation model was put forward by a fourteenth-century Arab historian credited with being a forerunner of social science, Ibn Khaldun* . His classic theory of religious revival and the circulation of political elites in the Muslim societies of the Middle East is a prototype of oscillating change theory and has been recently used to understand the relation between Islam and society (Gellner 1981).

Edward B. Reeves


R. N. Bellah, "Religious Evolution," American Sociological Review 29(1964):358-374

R. Collins, Weberian Sociological Theory (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986)

É. Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (New York: Free Press, 1965)

É. Durkheim, The Division of Labor in Society (New York: Free Press, 1984[1912])

R. Finke and R. Stark, The Churching of America (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1992)

E. Gellner, Muslim Societies (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981)

T. Luckmann, "The New and the Old in Religion," in Social Theory for a Changing Society , ed. P. Bourdieu and J. S. Coleman (Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1991): 167-182

T. M. Luhrmann, Persuasions of the Witch's Craft (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989)

R. Moore and F. McGehee III (eds.), New Religious Movements, Mass Suicide, and Peoples Temple (Lewiston, N.Y.: Mellen, 1989)

W. C. Roof and W. McKinney, American Mainline Religion (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1987)

R. Stark and W. S. Bainbridge, The Future of Religion (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985)

R. Stark and L. R. Iannaccone, "A Supply-Side Reinterpretation of the 'Secularization' of Europe," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 33(1994):230-252

G. E. Swanson, The Birth of the Gods (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1960)

O. Tschannen, "The Secularization Paradigm," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 30(1991):396-415

A. F. C. Wallace, Religion (New York: Random House, 1966)

F. Westley, The Complex Forms of the Religious Life (Chico, Calif.: Scholars Press, 1983)

R. Wuthnow, Sharing the Journey (New York: Free Press, 1994)

B. Zablocki, Alienation and Charisma (New York: Free Press, 1980).

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