A Merry but Secular Christmas!

A YouGov Poll conducted last year in 2020 shows that the majority of those who celebrate Christmas (and Easter) in the UK do so in an entirely secular way.

The survey results provide some useful evidence to support the view that religion does not play a significant role in British society, as this traditionally Christian and religious event seems now to have lost its religious meaning for the majority of people.

These findings are mainly relevant to the beliefs in society module, especially the secularisation debate.

Below I share some of the findings from this recent survey. NB the Survey looked at both Christmas and Easter, but i only report on XMAS below, ’tis the season, after all!

The Declining Significance of Religion at Christmas

According to YouGov’s sample of almost 2000 people, 61% of them celebrate Christmas in an entirely secular way.

And while 31% say they ‘combine the religious and secular’ at Christmas, if you look at what people actually do, only 20% of them go to Church with 10% reflecting on the meaning of the Birth of Christ, and there must be some kind of overlap between these, so some of those 30% above may say they mix the secular and religious, but at least some of them don’t actually do anything to express that religiosity!

I quite liked this alternative way of measuring ‘religious attitudes at Christmas’ – 71% pay no attention to what the Pope or Arch Bishop of Canterbury say at Christmas…..

Although this doesn’t necessarily measure people’s level of belief, because you can be religious and yet no believe in religious authorities, but this does show us low levels of interest in formal religious hierarchies.

TBH I’m surprised that 27% of the population do pay some attention, I expected that to be lower.

Finally, the perception people have is that Christmas is becoming less religious….

While it’s interesting to know what people think, remember that questions about perceptions don’t tell you what’s actually going on, just what people think is going on!

Sources/ Find out More

You can find out more about the results from this YouGov survey here.

Spiritual Abuse – its relevance to A-level Sociology

Spiritual abuse can be defined as the weaponisation of religious beliefs in order to coerce or control someone who shares that same set of beliefs.

This may take the form of someone with power within a religious institution using their position of authority to manipulate their congregation or followers into doing what they want them to.

However it can also occur in domestic settings, with one more dominant partner using religion to exert coercive control their partner and/ or children. In most cases it is the male partner (husband) controlling the female partner (wife).

The concept of religious abuse, and the unfortunate existence of it, is most relevant to the Beliefs in Society module within A-level sociology,

Examples of religious abuse include..

  • Authorities not allowing Divorce even when there is rape within marriage.
  • The interpretation of religious texts to justify physical and economic control over another person.
  • Men hiding women’s head coverings so they can’t go out.
  • Using religious beliefs to shame people into behaving in a particular way.

Religious Abuse…. Relevance of the concept to A-level Sociology

The fact that religious abuse happens both at an institutional level and within domestic settings suggests that religion is used as a form of control, and thus is support for mainly feminist perspectives on religion.

HOWEVER, we need to be careful about how strong this evidence is – while there are no doubt cases of religious abuse, there are no statistics on them, so we have no idea of how widespread religious abuse is.

Also, the fact that we are finally seeing the concept being discussed suggests that more conservative, traditional religions are being challenged and thus losing power, which supports some postmodern views of religion.

The increasingly vocal sources criticising traditional religions views and ‘labelling’ them ‘abusive’ basically saying that such views are only one interpretation among many and the victims of such abuse are free to take on their own interpretation and ‘break free’ of cultural and domestically imposed ‘spiritual abuse’.

The very existence of a discussion which challenges such abusive practices makes it less likely that people will be prepared to put up with being victims in silence, even though being a victims is still obviously grim, and getting out of the cycle of such abuse can still be very challenging when you are trapped within it, very much a case of ‘easier said than done’.

Spiritual Abuse: Find Out More!

There is a useful definition of Domestic Abuse here at the National Domestic Abuse Hotline.

This article puts spiritual abuse in the context of Covid-19.

Dr Maryyum Mehmood is one of the main dudes studying the concept in the UK today.

Jews and Muslims Unite to Help Combat Poverty

Sociology is usually all doom and gloom, but here’s a nice example of something positive for once…

This community food kitchen in Nottingham is a joint project between Jews and Muslims which takes surplus food from supermarkets and cooks it to distribute it to those in financial difficulty.

Relevance to A-level Sociology

This is a great example of a project where religion is working to promote consensus in society, relevant to the beliefs in society module.

Although NB this is thought to be the ONLY joint project between Jews and Muslims in the UK.

But at least it goes to show that religious difference don’t have to be a source of conflict!

Just a quick post for today, they can’t all be 500 or more words long!

Please click here to return to the main ReviseSociology home page!

Paedophile-Priests and the Declining Signficance of Religion…..

A recent report found that there have been at least 216 000 child victims of sexual abuse since the 1950s at the hands of clergy and other officials working for the Catholic Church in France.

The victims are mainly teenage boys and the figures are probably an underestimate. There could well be over 300 000 victims.

The report found evidence of 3200 abusers out of a total of 115 000 priests in France.

The report took two years and involved looking at historical records of church cases and inteviews with victims and their families.

To date (as I understand it) not one of these paedophile-priests has been prosecuted. There has been a culture in the Cahtolic Church in France of covering all of this up and allowing the abuse to just carry on even though it was widely known it was taking place.

It was only in 2019 that the Pope changed the law in the Vatican to explicitly criminalise sexual abuse, including the grooming of minors, and removed the discretion of senior clergy to simply ignore the existence of abuse if they were aware of it going on.

Relevance to A-level sociology

This grim report is of obvious relevance to anyone studying the beliefs in society option and the crime and deviance compulsory aspect of A-level sociology.

I guess students could use this material in relation to the question of whether religion causes conflict or consensus in society. Certainly now this is out in the open the church is clearly in conflict with mainstream values which see Paedophilia as one of the worst crimes.

In terms of Crime and Deviance it shows the context dependency of deviance – child abuse is universally condemned in society, but not in the Catholic Church’s recent history.

It also offers some support for the Marxist theory – that the crimes of the powerful are more costly than the crimes of the poor, and also shows us how the powerful can cover up their crimes and avoid punisment.

This will also probably lead to the further decline of the Catholic Church – now that it is out that this level of abuse has been happening but ignored it just shows how this institution isn’t really ‘sacred’ at all, it just carried on tolerating these hideous crimes to protect its own reputation.

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!

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.

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.

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.

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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