Log in

No account? Create an account

July 2018



Powered by LiveJournal.com

Issues in Sociology of Religion (560)

Church, Sect, and Cult

I have a problem with the Church/Sect/Cult classification of religions. As I understand it "Churches" are defined as existing religions institutions, "Sects" are new religious institutions that form by slitting off from existing ones, and "Cults" are new religious organizations that form outside of existing ones. In some cases that would be the distinction between someone who started a new movement while they were still a member of an existing church and someone who left the church then started their new movement. Whether a person was in the building or left it before they started teaching their new ideas seem a fairly petty distinction.

I just don't see the point.

It would be as if biologist classified animals as 1) known European animals 2) variations on known animals, 3) other animals.

It makes much more sense, to me, to classify religions by their roots, their influences and origins. To study how practices and ideas move from place to place. There are plenty of valid distinctions one can make about religious institutions. Whether they are democratic or authoritarian in their structures. Whether they focus on practice or belief. Whether they are focus on past revelation or ongoing contact with the divine. Whether they proselytize. Whether they are open or closed in membership.

Religions vs Churches

And why do sociologist of religion use the word "religion" when they mean "religious institution". A religious institution is a church, not a religion.

What is Sociology of Religion?

I am interested in sociology of religion but the sociology of religion program at Cornell focuses on social structure of religious organizations. I am interested in the why people believe the things they do and what causes those beliefs to change. There is almost no overlap between the social structure of religious organizations and religion and social change but both are called sociology of religion. (and even "religion and social change" can sometimes mean the relationship between religious organizations and social activism.)

Religion and Rodney Stark

When I got the December issue of the "Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion" I was a bit put off by the SSSR Presidential Address "Putting an End to Ancestor Worship" by Rodney Stark.

Professor Stark is a highly respected authority in the field of sociology of religion. Although I found his "A Theory of Religion" lacking in elegance, and in general his work has what I consider a Christian deist bias. In reading Professor Stark I would feel more comfortable with an authority in sociology of religion who did not use religious language in disparaging metaphors.

As a Pagan I am in favor of Ancestor worship so it was with some trepidation that I approached his Presidential address.

As it turns out I agree with his premiss that in the sciences there should not be creedal tests based on adherence to doctrine of past masters. Scientific theories are not meant as doctrine to be taken on faith. They should stand on their merits. It has been pointed out that the difference between the humanities and the sciences is that the humanities read old books and the sciences read the most current journals. And if sociology means to be taken as a science we should avoid faith based scholarship.


I am also interested in why people believe the way they do. I'm leaning toward the idea that religious belief, and maybe even spiritual belief, is biologically based. Many people seem to be hard-wired to believe in a personal god. Even on the occasions when their belief in a particular god is broken, they take up another one or they may hate god but they don't stop believing. Then there are people who just don't care about it very much. I'm not talking about atheists. That’s just the flip side of the same coin. I’m leaning toward the idea that believers and non-believers may have a biological difference or a difference in brain function. I know as we age, we tend to become more religious and I wonder if the physical changes of aging make us more open to religion. Certainly the growing awareness of the inevitability of death has a huge impact. I think it would be interesting to do a study of people in early middle to late middle adulthood who consider themselves very religious (Pagan, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, whatever) and see if their brains are different from secular people in the same culture.