British Sociological Association

Sociology of Religion Study Group

British Sociological Association

Sociology of Religion Study Group

Religion in the 21st Century

Abstracts 6


Religion and politics in post-industrial democratic societies

The reconfiguration of the American public and political arenas in the late seventies--a shift that brought conservative Protestants back into national politics and promoted the consolidation of the American Roman Catholic Church as a public source of the middle-ground on social and moral issues--provoked predictions and accounts from scholars on both sides of the Atlantic. Thus, Steve Bruce predicted the fall of the New Christian Right as a significant political force and Jose Casanova argued that American fundamentalists were impeded by the rules of discourse of the public and political arenas of modern democratic societies. Yet, political scientists and sociologists inform us that conservative Christian forces have been institutionalized in politics at national, state and local levels in America.

What accounts for misunderstandings of the religion/polity nexus in the technologically advanced democracies of the West? My argument is that an appropriate comparative framework eliminates misinterpretations and explains failed predictions. An appropriate framework takes into account the relations between regime (state), religion (church), the organization of electoral and political systems (the body politic), the media and the religious demography of a country. Drawing upon David Martin's work and some recent work of James Beckford and Grace Davie and some of my own work as well, a 'new paradigm' is proposed for the analysis of the religion-politics link in post-industrial democracies. It is used to explain differences between the USA, Canada, and England in the relation between religion, post-materialist values and the expression of the embodied self in the differing public and political arenas of the countries.


The paranormal and religiosity in Sweden

The paper will describe the extent of beliefs in the paranormal amongcontemporary Swedes, especially youth, and also touch upon whether there has been an increase or not. The focus, however, will be to question the claim that these beliefs form the new kind of spirituality in Sweden.Presentation of empirical findings will make it likely that this is not the fact. Rather, the quest for meaning finds solutions in old values expressed in vague and blurred beliefs. Finally, the paper will discuss the present and the future situation for the religiosity among secularized Swedes.


Sociological readings (of the future) of religious diversity in inner city London : social cohesion, ideology, rational choice in the supermarket, or the complex ecology of faith

Sociology has tried to interpret religion in three main ways following Durkheim, Weber and Marx. More recently rational choice theory has introduced ideas taken from market economics and claimed to be a 'new paradigm' in the study of religion. It would appear that each of these approaches could give us valuable insights about the contemporary religious diversity of metropolitan cities, but the fluidity and complexity of the religious life of places like the East End of London is difficult to squeeze into the mould of any single theory. In the light of data from this context this paper explores whether it is possible to gain more insight by approaching religion in the glocal city as an organic or ecological system, in which relationships and communication between actors allow meaningful structures (and structures of meaning) to emerge at the edge of apparent chaos. My prediction, or prophecy, is that the future will be increasingly diverse and fascinating, yet inherently unpredictable.


Are the stars going out? The future of astrology as religion in the west

The signs for astrology are not auspicious. Astrology permeates popular culture and it is widely believed. However, astrology is trivialised in the meida and few believers take it seriously. In addition, astrological propositions have been widely tested scientifically but have not been confirmed. One reaction by astrologers has been to redefine astrological discourse so that it does not involve determinate references to objective states and events (thereby advancing an existing trend within 20C astrology). A second and related reaction has been to challenge the authority of science. However, there is little evidence that the central roles of scientific knowledge and rationalism in the structuring and conduct of major institutions and practices are being significantly undermined. In the next century, therefore, therefore, astrology will not transform society in any substantive way. However, serious astrology will doubtless survive as a tool employed in the private spiritual explorations of individuals whose religious needs do not involve clear propositions, collective practices or extensive theology; it will also feature as a part of broader yet still privatised New Age ensembles. Furthermore, personal experience and media coverage will continue to help foster weak but widespread public suspicion that there is something in astrology.


Icelandic normalcy: revisiting an elemental religio-cultural life form

In this paper, I will revisit my work from the past fifteen years on the Icelandic religion-culture-society nexus and suggest that an understanding of this life-world can contribute significantly to interpreting continued outfolding of religio-social and religio-cultural relations that characterizes our time. Iceland, much more than the Australian aborigines, provides a paradigm setting for examining the dynamics that may be said to constitute the (post) modern religious situation. Using examples from Icelandic history and the contemporary situation, I will suggest what developments we can reasonably anticipate in the coming decades.


 Prophets & parables. A future for Religious Orders

The lack of vocations in the West, mirroring the general drop-off in Church adherence, continues to diminish religious orders, pushing some to the verge of extinction. Individual orders are certain to die, but what of the future of the institution of religious life as such?

The theory has long been current that religious life is going through a transition at the level of its basic form, akin to the 12th century shift from stable monasticism to mendicant friars, or the 16th century innovation of active-apostolic religious life. Such a metamorphosis - if in fact it is happening - is an alarming prospect to some, and tight controls are in place.

We are invited to say what has been the effect of modernisation and forecast what follows for the future. While the institutional modernisation of religious life since Vatican II is easily described, the time of troubles which followed fast on its heels has provoked bitter disputes about its significance. Did renewal allow in the 'poison' of modernity? Or, was it a laudable exercise unfortunately blown off course by the onward march of a modernity too powerful to resist? Neither evaluation is much comfort to a thesis of metamorphosis.

In my previous work I have taken the line that, while renewal has at times been flawed, ambivalent and reactive, its more fundamental significance was in bringing to birth genuinely new religious impulses, in particular the preferential option for the poor, in the light of which it is possible to discern some lines of a new form of religious life for the future. This is a difficult thesis to maintain in the face of massive institutional dislocations, all the more so when lack of progress in implementing a new model is reported.

Doggedly, however, I maintain my position! If for no other reason than this, that the future of religious life cannot now be assured by mere adherence to its past tradition. One way or another the fires of charisma have to be rekindled; a new religious impulse is an indispensable condition of revitalisation. And yet, charisma is not the whole story.

My sketch of the future derives from an analysis of three points of tension: the competing claims (radical and conservative) of charisma; individualism versus community; and the emerging role of the laity. I draw on Jesus's technique of parable telling - homely tales with a wicked punch - for an image of Orders' life-style and mission in a future beyond their now fading institutional power.


After secularism: Goverance and the inner cities

Secularization is a theory that depends largely on church attendance statistics for its provenance. That these decline steadily is still read as conclusive evidence that the accompanying circumstances of modernization both mitigate against 'religious practise' and marginalise and privatize religious belief, in a vicious spiral of inevitable demise. This paper seeks to examine in the British political context the phenomenon identified by Josť Casanova in his important case studies of Spain, Poland, Brazil and the US: whether certain of the attributes of secularization inevitably imply the existence of another or others. From a study by means of primary sources of a phenomenon previously unexamined in relation to secularization theory - namely, the Inner Cities Religious Council, a small branch of a UK government directorate, I conclude that secularization theory as it applies to the British situation needs to be rethought. I further argue in the light of my findings, contrary to Casanova, that the process of functional differentiation and emancipation of the secular from the religious sphere can no longer be taken to be the core and central thesis of the theory of secularization (1991: 19). The paper predicts a re-alignment of religion and politics in the 21st century with a re-emergence of emphasis on religious particulars in a multi-faith context.


To follow.


The political-economy of racially-mixed congregations in South Africa, 1665-1998

The most remarkable aspect about racially-mixed local congregations in South Africa is not that they do not exist, but that some exist at all - and in some cities continued to exist through the dark history of apartheid. Such congregations have a long historical precedent in an ideal expressed by most denominations from the early colonial periods. My purpose in this paper is to sketch a preliminary socio-historical overview by noting the factors which contributed to the formation of racially-mixed congregations, and to the subsequent deviation by denominations towards segregation. These constraining factors are related to the specific colonial, post-colonial, apartheid and post-apartheid periods. In this way the manner in which such congregations converged or deviated from the dominant racial and political attitudes of their times become visible. The question how such patterns relate to the effects of incorporation into the modern world system, while not the primary focus of the study, is touched on in closing.


The secular transition: a borrowed model of religious change

The 'demographic transition', the shift in birth and death rates that accompanies modernisation, has clearly occurred but is hotly debated. Both the phenomenon itself and the theories advanced to explain it show remarkable similarities to secularisation and its attendant disputes. This parallel is important for two reasons. Firstly the resources committed to the study of modernity and population change have been vastly greater than those devoted to secularisation, and hence the theoretical discussion in that field is more advanced, if perhaps no closer to resolution. Secondly the demographic transition started much earlier, and has gone much further, than its secular counterpart, and thus the analogy offers a basis for something more like prediction than prophecy.

Falling birth rates oblige us to recognise that modernisation can produce changes that are historically unprecedented but essentially inescapable. Issues in the sociology of religion illuminated by the study of fertility decline include American vs. European exceptionalism, economic vs. cultural explanations, social mechanisms of change, and the timing and speed of transition. Religion has joined fertility in the realm of conscious choice, with similar consequences. Church-going, like large families, will become increasingly unusual.


When prophecy fails: The Brahma Kumaris and the pursuit of themillennium(s)

In this paper I intend to discuss role of prophecy in relation to the Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual University, a millenarian New Religious Movement of Indian origin. Originally a reclusive, world-rejecting organization, over the last 30 years the Brahma Kumaris have begun a campaign of active proselytizing and international growth. Thus, whilst still retaining its original millenarianism, currently within the West the organization promotes itself as part of the New Age movement and emphasizes ideas around the issues of self-development, empowerment and personal success. As a result, the Brahma Kumaris currently promote two antithetical orientations towards the future. On the one hand the organization hold to a belief in a preordained apocalypse which will be followed by the emergence of an earthly paradise populated by the 'chosen few' while on the other a view of the future influenced by the notion of self-development as open to individual choice and action is presented. Drawing on Ph.D. fieldwork, this paper will attempt to address two key issues stemming from this; firstly, what are the institutional and personal strategies employed by the University and its members to negotiate this ambivalence and, secondly, what are the possible future scenarios for the University's development - world-rejection, affirmation or a complex interaction of the two.


Prediction & prophecy in the future of religion

This brief paper examines inherent differences between prophecies and predictions, and in passing points to errors that have been made by sociologists when they have strayed into the realm of prophecy. The concepts intersect when sociologists seek, legitimately, to explain, and hence perhaps to predict, the circumstances in which prophets are likely to arise. In some societies, and in some periods, social scientists may identify institutionalized prophecy - prophetism.

Abandoning the endeavour to prophesy, the paper turns to the possibility of predicting the future of religion by assessing its viability in the light of changing social structure and culture. It is suggested that, in a world increasingly regarded as "man-made", and in which local community, and the sense of community, have undergone further decline, conditions favour continuation of the secularization process. If machine technology has promoted secularization in the 20th Century, then, it is argued, the electronics revolution and information technology appear likely to sustain that process in the 21st.

Secularization is taken to be the decline in the significance of religion in the operation of the social system, rather than decline in church attendance. The secularization thesis does not predict the total disappearance of religious belief and practice, but notes that religion revivalism appears to grow less effective in impeding the structural process of secularization. Although the churches continue to control sizeable plant and resources, church attendance is likely to decline further, causing churches to become more akin to sects. In contrast, while sects themselves may have inherited survival strategies, they might be threatened by aspects of globalization, and by the growing gap in the cultural experience of successive generations.


Capital possession: spirits and society in 21st century Britain

The main changes within Twentieth Century sociology of religion often have come from developments in academic approaches, rather than external pressures of changes in religions. Methods, such as participant observation, and theories, such as postmodernism, have been instrumental to discoveries and revaluations. Sometimes, this has led to original areas of study, reflected in the appellations 'new religious movements' and 'new age movement', and appreciations of religion in radically different societies, as in Wilson's study of Millennialism and Martin's study of charismatic Christianity. These are of particular interest to this paper, an overview of spirit possession in advanced industrialised societies.

Largely marginalised by the sociology of religion, spirit possession has, nevertheless, been shown to be central to the resurgent religions of charismatic Christianity and networks of spiritualities involving channelling. It is argued that because possession provides a social power oriented response to adverse social conditions, its study is of great importance for understanding the impact of modern capitalism. In such a context, secularisation clearly does not mean the disintegration of religious behaviour, but points to continued ambiguities within societies. Prediction is difficult, because reactions to the entrenchment of global capitalism may vary, but two scenarios are presented which take account of comparative study into the vicissitudes of religion.


Why the death of liberal Christianity may have been exaggerated

Dean Kelley's Why the Conservative Churches are Growing crystallised a shift in opinion: that conservative Christianity was growing at the expense of liberal Christianity. Belief in the steady and inexorable decline of liberal Christianity subsequently became an almost unquestioned nostrum in the study of contemporary religion.

Concentrating on the Anglophone world, this paper suggests Kelley's thesis may have led sociologists to overlook some important aspects of the religious landscape of the twentieth century. Against the decline of mainline liberal denominations must be set equally striking evidence of the widespread liberalisation of both Roman Catholic and evangelical Christianity.

The paper goes on to consider the force of the argument that such liberalisation should be understood as a step on the path to secularisation (pace James Davison Hunter and Steve Bruce). It does so by analysing some of the processes which seem to be involved in recent liberalisation including:

The growth of 'relational' religion

The domesticization of religion

The growth of small groups

The flight from deference and authority

The turn to 'life'

Such analysis leads to the conclusion that we may be witnessing a transformation of Christianity rather than inexorable demise.


Lovecrafting the Art of Magick: secularism, modernity, and emergent Stellar Spiritualities within contemporary occult discourses

This paper outlines the emergence of a set of contemporary magico-mythic tropes based on the work of cultural icon and science-fiction writer H. P. Lovecraft. An historical and theoretical analysis of contemporary Western magickal groups working within the Lovecraftian mythological paradigm will be complemented with data drawn from recent anthropological fieldwork conducted amongst the occult community in London.

Lovecraftian exegeses of magickal discourses attempt a meaningful transformation of the ontological uncertainty posited by quantum mechanics and chaos theory; whilst embedded in modern secular discourses, these contemporary scientific theories appear to contest the teleological certainties characteristic of modernity. As a consequence, 'Lovecraftian' magicians have generated a new existential modality through a fusion of scientific theory, traditional hermetic spirituality, and postmodern thought - a project emergent from, yet resisting, modernity's secular decentring of human meaning.

Elements of extraterrestrialism expressed within Lovecraft's mythology will be situated within what has been called the 'stellar current' of magickal theory (influenced by the work of the occultist Aleister Crowley), positing a belief in humanity's eventual spiritual evolution leading to post-human metamorphosis and (in contrast to earth-based neo-pagan religions) subsequent extraterrestial modes of being. This involves a co-option of ufological beliefs - the cultural popularity of which will, I predict, result in the increased centrality of Lovecraftian mythologies within Euro-American magickal subcultures in the twenty-first century.


The Self as the basis of religious faith: spirituality of gay, lesbian, and bisexual Christians

This paper aims to highlight some qualitative and quanitative data drawn from a national survey of 565 gay, lesbian, and bisexual Christians in the UK. The survey explores a host of issues in relation to spirituality and sexuality. Specifically, the following themes are highlighted: (a) religiosity vs. spirituality. The former denotes church attendance and uncritical observance of Church teachings. The latter indicates a self-based exploration of life's meaning, inextricably related to lived experiences. An overwhelming majority of the respondents regard the latter as more crucial to their Christian faith; (b) the basis of Christian faith. Personal experience is ranked highest as the most important foundation of their Christian faith; followed by human reason, the Bible, and finally Church authority.

On the whole, these themes lend credence to the argument that, in late modern society, the organisation of religious faith and spiritual identity are characterised by privatisation (e.g. Luckmann; Roof ). The self, not authority structures, emerges as the primary determining factor in shaping the expression of the individual's spirituality, whose authenticity rests on personal experience. In the case of gay, lesbian, and bisexual Christians, their personal experiences of possessing 'problematic' sexualities significantly inform the construction and expression of their Christian identities.