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LifeLines – A Perfect Example of a Postmodern Approach to Religion

Lifelines: Notes on Life and Love, Faith and Doubt is a new book published in November 2018 written by Martin Rowe and Malcolm Doney, and to my mind it’s a perfect expression of a postmodern approach to religious belief.

The two authors are (respectively) a volunteer priest and one volunteer vicar in their local parishes, and this voluntarism ticks the postmodernism box straight away – no doubt being a volunteer enables them to ‘dip into’ their religions and be involved without any of the more unpleasant commitments associated with going ‘full clergy’.

To be honest I haven’t read it, but I caught a review of it by two people who had on Radio four on Sunday morning. (FINALY I get some payback for all the religious content I’m not normally interested in on a Sunday morning!).

I’ve a had a quick browse of it and it basically provides tips on how to ‘lead a good, happy life’ and reflections on some of life’s ‘deeper questions’ and ‘moral issues’ – and the advice comes from people of many faiths, and no faith, which is kind of blurring the boundaries between the sacred and the profane.

You might describe the book as well suited for our pick and mix approach to religion today, and it certainly seem to be ‘anti institutional’ yet ‘pro-spirituality’, at least judging by the brief extract below…

Anyway, just a quick update….. seems like a relevant piece of contemporary evidence for aspects of the beliefs in society course!

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Is Religion a Source of Consensus or Conflict?

Functionalism is the only perspective which has traditionally argued that religion is a source of value consensus, all other perspectives disagree with this in one way or another, but not all believe that religion is necessarily a cause of overt conflict in the world.

Functionalism

  • Functionalists generally argue that religion promotes value consensus in a society.
  • Durkheim argued that in traditional societies, religious symbols such as the totem represented society, and thus when people worshipped religion, they were really worshipping society.
  • Parsons and Malinowski both believed religious rituals helped people deal with life-crises, such as death, thus helping keep societies together during times of change.
  • Parsons further believed that religions form the moral basis of law in society, for example the 10 commandments in Christian societies.
  • Bellah argues that civil religions bind people together in contemporary societies.

Marxism

  • Marx believed that religion prevents revolution (or violent conflict) by pacifying people, through acting as the ‘opium of the masses’ and making think inequality is Gods will and that suffering in this life is a virtue. The message is to put up with suffering now and seek your reward in heaven.
  • However, in Marxist theory, the masses will eventually see through the mask of oppression and rise up bringing about a revolution and a communist society free of religion.

Neo-Marxism

  • Religion can be a source of conflict because it is autonomous from the economic base.
  • For example, religious leaders in Latin America took the side of peasant against the elite. However, attempts at social reform were ultimately repressed.

Feminism

  • Simone de Beauvoir argued that Religion oppresses women in the same way that Marx argued it oppressed people in general.
  • However, Feminism in general points out how traditional religion oppresses women and brings women into conflict with religion, especially right-wing versions of it.
  • Feminine forms of spirituality generally emphasis peacefulness, and so don’t really act as a source of conflict.

Secularisation theory

  • You can use this to argue that religion has lost its capacity to do anything, positive or negative in society.
  • It seems especially unlikely that postmodern forms of religion, such as the New Age Movement are going to be sources of conflict.

Huntington – the clash of civilisations

  • Religion has become more important as a source of identity in a postmodern global world where other sources of identity have faded.
  • As societies come into closer contact because of globalisation, they rub up against each other and people become more aware of their differences, and thus religion becomes a source of conflict.
  • Karen Armstrong criticises this, suggesting that politics and economics matter more than religion as sources of conflict in the world today.
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Karen Armstrong – September 11th 2001, Islam and the West

Karen Armstrong argues that there is no inherent incompatibility between the Western and Islamic world, but sees economic and political factors as the main reasons for increasing tensions in recent decades.

Armstrong’s arguments can be used to criticise Huntington’s ‘Clash of Civlizations’ thesis, which sees increasing conflict between different cultures/ religions as an inevitable outcome of globalisation brining ‘incompatible’ civilizations into closer contact with each other.

Islam and the failure of modernisation

Armstrong points out that in the late 19th and early 20th century, most Muslim intellectuals looked up to the process of modernisation occurring in the West at that time, and wanted Islamic countries to become more like Britain and France.

Some Islamic scholars even claimed that Britain and France were more Islamic than Islamic countries: Islam advocates the sharing of resources, and there was a trend towards this in so countries in early 20th Europe.

Armstrong characterises modernisation as consisting of:

  1. Technological evolution moving countries beyond being agricultural, and making people less dependent on nature.
  2. Increasing productivity and innovation.
  3. Higher levels of education for the general populace. 
  4. Greater inclusion of people from diverse religious backgrounds
  5. The development of the ‘modern spirit’ which involves more people engaging in politics, science and intellectual pursuits more generally.

Western imperialism and human rights

Western countries occupied most Muslim countries, including Egypt, Sudan, Libya and Algeria. There were attempts to introduce democracy in many countries, the historical record of Western occupation of Muslim countries has not exactly been conducive to ‘positive modernisation’ –

in many countries, the West backed autocratic leaders when it suited them (in return for access to oil supplies for example) and these leaders tended to deprive people of their human rights, suppressing freedom of speech for example.

In Iran for example, the Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi was installed in power in 1953 in a coup supported by the American and British. He was a particularly ruthless leader who ordered a massacre in Tudeh Square in 1978 in which nearly 900 people were killed. He was overthrown the year after in the famous Islamic Revolution of 1979.

Then in 1979 In Iraq, the British and Americans supported the installation of Saddam Hussein as a dictator, because he was hostile to Iran.

A further effect of Western occupation was to increase divisions and inequalities: money derived from British oil companies for example tended to go to the minority of autocrats, and very little trickled down to the ordinary people. In fact there is something of a history of exploitation of poor workers by wealthy corporations operating in Islamic countries.

In Iran for example, the British and then the Americans backed the Pahlavi shahs as dictatorial leaders. These turned out to be particular

The Causes of Fundamentalism

Armstrong argues that the rise of Islamic Fundamentalism is a reaction against the nationalist and secularist ideologies imposed on them by the West, which basically failed the average citizen in Muslim countries.

Fundamentalists believe they are fighting for their survival against a Western Imperialism that wants to wipe out Islam from existence.

Future Prospects:

Armstrong believes that there is no reason why Islam cannot co-exist with the West, because most Muslims are not Fundamentalists and there is plenty of room for interpreting Islam as ‘being all about peace’.

Like Lowkey does in this video:

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Armstrong isis thus more optimistic about the prospect of peaceful co-existence between religions when compared with Huntington.

Sources:

Haralambos and Holborn: Sociology Themes and Perspectives edition 8.

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The Clash of Civilizations, Samuel P Huntington

Samuel P. Huntington sees ‘civilizations’ as the most significant grouping in global society, rather than ‘nation states’, or ‘global religions’, although there are often close relationships between religions and Huntington’s concept of ‘civilizations’.

Globalization has resulted in the world becoming a smaller place, which means that there are increasing interactions between ‘civilizations’, which intensifies ‘civilization consciousness’.

According to Huntington, increasing contact between civilizations often has the effect of emphasising differences rather than similarities, which can cause an increasing amount of conflict in the world.

What are ‘Civilizations’?

For Huntington, civilizations are ‘cultural entities’ differentiated from each other by history, language, cultural traditions and, most importantly, religion.

clash civilizations.png

Huntington distinguishes between the following different civilizations, as represented in the map above.

  • Western
  • Confucian
  • Japanese
  • Islamic
  • Hindu
  • Slavic-Orthodox
  • Latin American
  • African (possibly)

As Huntington sees is, sources of identity which are not based on religion have declined. Political identities matter less since the collapse of communism, and increasing international travel has weakened national identity, ‘civilizational identity’, based mainly on religion has stepped in to fill the gap.

Clashes between civilizations

To back up his argument, Huntington points to the fact that there are many conflicts on the borders between civilizations:

  • The former Yugoslavia between Orthodox Christian and Muslim civilizations.
  • In the Middle East between Judaism, Islam and Western Christianity.
  • In India the clash between Muslims and Hindus.

Huntington believes that there will increasingly be clashes between civilizations, because these identities are based mainly on ethnicity and religion, and thus foster an ‘us and them’ type of identity.

Increasingly, political leaders will draw on ‘civilization identity’ in order to try and mobilize support, as with The Islamic State claiming Muslims should unite against ‘Western civilizations’.

Religion as a more significant cause of conflict…

Huntington is one of the few academics of religion who argue against the secularisation thesis. He believes that civilizations, based mostly on religious identity, will become an increasingly important source of conflict in the future.

At the moment, Western civilization is dominant, however, as the ‘Islamic’ and ‘Hindu’ civilisations develop more potent nuclear capabilities (Pakistan, India) and as the world shrinks further, this dominance is likely to decrease, which opens the possibility for more serious conflicts.

Huntington further argues that there is no chance of a world culture developing because civilization identity is so strong.

Evaluation

  • I’m not convinced there is any real empirical basis for Huntington’s ‘fault-lines’.
  • Even if there is some empirical basis for his civilizations, I’m convinced that religion is going to remain that important as a source of identity within each of them: the global trend, as in the West, is still towards secularisation.

Sources

Haralambos and Holborn: Sociology Themes and Perspectives, edition eight.

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Churches, Denominations, Sects and Cults: Similarities and Differences

The grid below provides a summary of some of the key characteristics of Churches, denominations, sects and cults.

As with any ‘scheme of categorisation’, many real-world examples of organisations will not fit exactly into every row. For example, some sects may appeal exclusively to white people, and some may have middle class members.

Hence these are ideal-types, and you might like to keep in mind that they are of limited use, and just a general, ‘starting point’ guideline for helping to understand the incredible diversity of religious organisations.

To find out more, please see these links:

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The causes of Fundamentalism

Steve Bruce argues that the main causes of Fundamentalism are modernisation and secularisation, but we also need to consider the nature of the religions themselves and a range of ‘external factors’ to fully explain the growth of fundamentalist movements.

Modernisation has undermined religion in at least three ways:

  • Social life has become separated from religious life (linked to the process of differentiation)
  • Rationalisation means that people are more likely to seek scientific explanations for behaviour rather than religious explanations
  • Bruce argues that in certain societies ‘religious traditionalist’ feel as if their way of life is under threat, and so they take steps to defend their traditions against the erosive influence of modernisation.

However, Bruce also argues that the existence of a group of traditionalists who feel threatened is not sufficient to explain the rise of Fundamentalism, a number of other factors are also important:

Other factors which explain the rise of religious fundamentalism:

Bruce argues that the following factors make it more likely that Fundamentalism will emerge:

  1. Where there is ‘ideological cohesion’ – around a single God and/ or sacred text for example. Fundamentalism seems to be stronger in Christianity and Islam, not so strong in Hinduism and Buddhism.
  2. When there is a common enemy to unite against – Bruce notes that Islamic Fundamentalism is often united against the USA.
  3. Lack of centralised control (ironically) – It might be that Catholicism has not developed fundamentalist strains because the Pope and the Vatican tightly control dissenters. However in Protestant Christianity and Islam, there is more freedom for individuals on the fringes to claim to have found a ‘more authentic’ and fundamentalist interpretation of those religions.
  4. The existence of marginalised individuals facing oppression – Fundamentalism needs recruits, and if a Fundamentalist group emerges with claims that it can provide a better life for people if they just adhere to the faith, it is more likely to grow
  5. Bruce further argues that the nature of Fundamentalism is shaped by how the political institutions deal with Fundamentalist movements: where they are blocked access to political representation, movements are more likely to turn to violence.

Further Analysis

Bruce argues that both the external factors above and religious beliefs themselves are important in explaining the rise of Fundamentalism.

He also points out that the specific histories of Christianity and Islam have affected the way the see politics. Christianity spent much of its early life as an obscure sect, on the political fringes, so is more concerned with ‘day to day’ (non-political) life, whereas Islam quickly came to dominate states in its early history – thus Islam is more concerned with politics than Christianity.

Bruce also argues that the nature of religion affects the way Fundamentalism is expressed – Christianity tends to emphasise the importance of belief, while Islam emphasises the importance of actions, thus Islam is more likely to develop violent forms of fundamentalism compared to Christianity.

Finally, Bruce argues that Fundamentalism has no chance of succeeding in the West, but it might in the less developed regions of the world.

Sources

Haralamabos and Holborn: Sociology Themes and Perspectives edition 8.

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Is religion a conservative force?

For the purposes of A-level sociology, ‘conservative’ usually has two meanings:

  • Preventing social change
  • Supporting traditional values.
  • We might also add a third: modest, reserved, austere, not showy.

On important analytical point is that some Fundamentalist groups want to reverse some social changes that have undermined the role of religion in society, taking society back to a more ‘traditional era’.

A second analytical point is to distinguish between the extent to which different religions promote conservative views and how successful they are in actually translating those views into actions.

Arguments and evidence for the view that religion acts as a conservative force

  • Various functionalist thinkers have argued that religion prevents rapid, radical social change and that it supports traditional values
  • Marx certainly argued that religion was a conservative force – through acting as the ‘opium of the masses’
  • Simone deBeauvoir argued that religion propped up Patriarchy by compensating women for their second class status.
  • Churches tend to have traditional values and be supported by more conservative elements in society. They also tend to support existing power structures (e.g. links to royalty and the House of Lords in the U.K.)
  • Islamic Fundamentalist movements, such as the Islamic State, aim to take society back to a more religious era
  • The New Christian Right in America support conservative values: traditional family structures, for example.

Arguments and evidence against the view that religion acts as a conservative force

  • Liberation Theology – a movement for the oppressed in Latin America stood against the powerful elites. However, it didn’t seem to have much success in changing anything.
  • The Baptist Church and the Civil Rights movement in the USA, much more successful.
  • The Nation of Islam promoted radical social change in the USA in the 1960s.
  • The New Age Movement promotes acceptance and diversity, so is not ‘conservative’ – in the sense that the New Right tend to support family values, for example.
  • Feminist forms of spirituality are not conservative.

More ambiguous arguments and evidence and analytical points

  • Max Weber’s ‘Protestant Ethic’ – Calvinism was a religion which was very ‘conservative’ and yet it unintentionally brought about Capitalism which ultimately undermined the role of religion in society.
  • As a general rule, churches and denominations tend to be more conservative.

 

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Is Science Ideological?

If sociologists refer to something as being ‘ideological’, they typically mean that it supports powerful groups in society, effectively keeping the existing ruling class, or elites, in power.

Scientists generally claim that the process of conducting scientific research and constructing scientific knowledge is value-free, and thus ‘non-ideological’. In simple terms, they claim their research reveals ‘the truth’, or the underlying causal laws of nature and the universe.

However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that science is not also ‘ideological’. This part of the religion specification overlaps with the ‘is sociology a science’ part of Theory and Methods.

The argument that science is value free and thus non-ideological

  • The scientific method involves using controlled experiments to test a hypothesis bout how variables interact with each other
  • Because all of the steps of the experiments are carefully recorded, it allows anyone else to repeat the experiment and test the results, thus verifying the results are ‘true’.
  • It follows that scientists should strive to keep their own biases and values out of the research process, because they know anyone else can test their results.
  • This should mean the knowledge collected through scientific research is objective, value free, or non-ideological.

Three ways in which science might be said to be ‘ideological’

The research process itself may simply reflect the biases of influential scientists

  • Thomas Khun found that scientific research tends to be limited by dominant paradigms.
  • A paradigm is a set of assumptions about the way the world is, which frames scientific research.
  • Kuhn found that scientific findings which didn’t fit in with the existing, dominant paradigm, were ignored.
  • In this sense, groups of leading scientists who operate within the dominant paradigm ignored the work of younger scientists whose work may challenge their world view.

The wider field of scientific research is influenced by those who fund the research

  • Bruno Latour found that scientists would limit their research depending on where their funding came from.
  • For example, if a particular drug company was funding a lab, there would be reluctance to conduct research which found anything negative about that drug company’s products.
  • In this way, scientific research which harms powerful funding bodies is less likely to be carried out.

The dominance of the scientific world view may marginalise other non-scientific world views

  • The scientific world view is a quantitative, materialistic world view, it has worked well to bring about technological ‘progress’. Because of this it may have become oppressive to other forms of knowledge.
  • Feminists have suggested that it marginalises those who prefer to do research into the more subjective, feelingful aspects of social life.
  • Religious worldviews may also be taken less seriously because of the rise of ‘scientism’.
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Is religion ideological?

If sociologists refer to religion as being ‘ideological’, they typically mean the beliefs and practices of that religion support powerful groups in society, effectively keeping the existing ruling class, or elites, in power.

The idea that religion is ideological is usually associated with Marxist and Radical Feminist Perspectives.

This sub-topic overlaps with ‘religion as a conservative force’.

The Marxist View: religion performs ideological functions

  • Marx argued that religion creates false consciousness – it teaches that social inequality is God’s will and thus mystifies the real cause of inequality and misery which is exploitation by the Bourgeoise
  • Religion is the opium of the masses – religion prevents change and keeps the elite in power by providing spiritual comfort for the poor – by making a virtue out of poverty, and promising a better life after death if people obey the rules now, for example.
  • There are direct links between the church and the bourgeoisie – the bourgeoise fund the church, and the church support (ideologically) the bourgeoisie

Criticism

  • Neo Marxist Otto Maduro argued that the Catholic Church in Latin America was relatively autonomous from the state and the bourgeois – i.e. they were not directly controlled by them. Thus, there was some degree of freedom for some priests to interpret Christianity in a way that was pro-poor and anti-elite, and not ideological. As with the example of Liberation Theology.

The Feminist View: religion is ideological

  • Mary Daly argued that Christianity was as set of Patriarchal myths. She sees the Catholic Church as especially bad: it downplayed the role of women in the bible and legitimated sex role segregation for example.
  • Simone de Beauvoir argued that religion is used by men to compensate women for their second-class status – it provides them with spiritual rewards for accepting inferior social roles.

Criticisms

  • El Saadawi suggests that Islam itself has been hijacked by Patriarchy in many countries, but is not necessarily ideological: women can fight back.
  • Carol Christ’s work shows that religion does not have be ideological: her idea of ‘embodied spirituality and focus on women ‘finding their Goddess’ stands against monotheistic religions. It is empowering for women and challenges existing power structures.

Further examples and evidence for and against the view that  ‘religion is ideological’

Religion is ideological Religion is NOT ideological
·         Marxists and Feminists generally point to established churches as the most likely institutions to support elites.

·         The New Religions right in America tends to support white, male wealth – e.g. it supports the Republican Party.

·         Max Weber… over hundreds of years Calvinist believes lead to social changes which undermined religion.

·         Postmodernism – people are free to pick and choose which aspects of religion they like. Thus, it cannot be ideological.

·         Some sects challenge the existing order – e.g. The Nation of Islam.

 

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Do Biological Differences Explain why Women are More Religious than Men?

Grace Davie has argued that women feel closer to God because they are involved in the creation of life through pregnancy and childbirth.

It is possible that being pregnant, and carrying a new life around for several months, makes women reflect more on spiritual matters such as the meaning of life, and ethical considerations of child rearing, even before the the child is born, and religion is one place where women can find answers to such questions.

It is also the case that child birth is a very intense, emotionally charged, experience, so it could be that the event itself makes women seek out religion more.

HOWEVER, is it possible to isolate the biological fact that women give birth from the traditional gender norm of ‘primary child carer’ that women still adopt in most countries?

It could just be that it is conformity to the role of primary carer is what ‘makes’ women more religious, rather than the biological fact of women being the child bearers: caring and nurturing make people think more about others, and thus more about ethical issues, which is the domain of religion.

However (again) there could be something in this: The New Age Movement (primarily made up of women) celebrates biological aspects of femininity, such as ‘motherhood’ for example.