Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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Deprivation is distinguishable into relative and absolute deprivation. Physical abuse, starvation, and poverty are seen as forms of absolute deprivation, whereas relative deprivation can be defined as the discrepancy between what one expects in life and what one gets. Both absolute and relative deprivation are causes of the deprived one's receptivity to particular (religious) messages: "Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest" (St Matthew 11:28).

Deprivation was seen by generations of scholars, not necessarily Marxists, as the cause of both personal religious commitment and sect and cult formation. The German scholars Max Weber and Ernst Troeltsch were pioneers with regard to the relationships between sect and church membership, and social class and status group. In The Social Sources of Denominationalism (Holt 1929), H. Richard Niebuhr saw sects as the "churches of the disinherited"; because of their lack of economic and political power, the less privileged needed religion most, and sects and cults could provide their members with compensation for the lack of social and personal success.

In the 1950s and 1960s, much theorizing centered on the construction of typologies. This was also the case in deprivation theory. For example, Charles Glock (1964, Glock and Stark 1965) distinguished five types of deprivation, depending on the kinds of strain felt: economic, social, organismic, ethical, and psychic deprivation. Every type gave rise to a particular type of religious group, respectively: sect, church, healing movement, reform movement, or cult. According to the class into which it fell, Glock could predict the "career" of the particular religious group. According to Bryan Wilson (1973), most new religious movements in the Third World were either thaumaturgic—that is, they responded to very specific and acute forms of deprivation—or revolutionist—to the strain felt by the putative imminent destruction of the world.

Since the 1970s, deprivation theory has been criticized by various scholars. Its main defect is that, although the ideology component in the recruitment of members is rightly stressed, class is but one of the many factors that affect religious commitment. Another serious defect is the absence of any social network consideration. These shortcomings can be met when deprivation theory is integrated into a more full-fledged theory. This can be done, as was demonstrated by Stark and Bainbridge (1987), for example, in their formal, rational choice theory on religious behavior.

See also Compensators, Rational Choice Theory.

Durk H. Hak


C. Y. Glock, "The Role of Deprivation in the Origin and Evolution of Religious Groups," in Religion and Social Conflict , ed. R. Lee and M. E. Marty (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964): 24-36

C. Y. Glock and R. Stark, Religion and Society in Tension (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1965)

R. Stark and W. S. Bainbridge, A Theory of Religion (New York: Lang, 1987)

B. Wilson, Magic and the Millennium (London: Heinemann, 1973).

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