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Lakewood Church and the Prosperity Gospel

Three out of four of the Largest churches in the U.S. preach the ‘Prosperity Gospel’ – these are megachurches which preach the idea that God is a spiritual source which individuals can call upon to ‘enrich’ their lives – popular buzzwords include ‘hope, destiny and bounty’, and the sermons are filled with optimism, with the Christian themes of guilt, shame, sin and penance hardly ever being mentioned.

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Osteen’s Lakewood Church in Texas

These mega churches are attended by 10s of thousands and watched by millions, and it’s estimated that one in five Americans now follow the ‘Prosperity Gospel’, which is a sort of cross between Pentacostalism and Faith healing and run by celebrity mega preachers such as Joel Osteen and Kenneth Copeland.

Joel Osteen’s sermons draw in a massive 7 million viewers a week, and more on Satellite radio. Apparently he practices his sermons for hours, until he gets them exactly right, totally polished.

Osteen’s Church is the ostentatious Lakewood in Texas, and it brought in an income of $89 million in 2017, the same year it failed to open its doors to those driven to homelessness by Hurricane Harvey, at least until a social media backlash forced it to do so!

Osteen himself has a personal fortune of around $60 million and speaks broadly for the broken middle classes of America. He is a fan of Positive Thinking, as is Donald Trump.

Underlying both Trump’s and Osteen’s idea is a belief that God underwrites the justice of the marketplace – or put another way, the market rewards those who work hard!

Sociological Perspectives on Lakewood

The best fit perspective here seems to be Marxism – this seems to be a modern day version of the religious/ ideological justification for wealth and inequality in America.

Although a deeper question from this perspective is why so many people are stupid enough to believe this?!?

Perhaps it’s because it’s just too hard to accept the truth that it’s neoliberalism which has made so many people rich at the expense of so many others being relatively or absolutely poor.

Or perhaps it’s simply because it fits in with the neoliberal ideology, and the widespread acceptance of the prosperity gospel in the states is a sign of how far gone so many of the population are!

Sources

Adapted from The Week 18 May 2019

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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 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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What is Religious Fundamentalism?

The early 21st Century has seen the rise of various Fundamentalist groups, for example:

  • The increasing influence of the New Religious Right in the United States
  • The rise of Zionism in Israel
  • The rise of Islamic Fundamentalism in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Steve Bruce: Communal and Individual Fundamentalism

  • Communal individualism is that usually found in less developed countries and is primarily concerned with defending communities (or nations) against what are perceived to be ‘modernist’ threats such as western materialism, individualism, multiculturalism, and human rights. These are typically seen by ‘communal fundamentalists’ as secularising forces which undermine religion.
  • Individualist fundamentalism is more likely to be found within developed nations and is mainly associated with the New Christian Right in the United States – it is concerned with maintaining traditional values within the context of a stable liberal democratic nation state.

Five Key Features of Fundamentalist Movements

According to Chapman et al (2015) Fundamentalist movements share the following characteristics:

  1. A literal interpretation of religious texts, which are seen as infallible – they take their ‘moral codes’ straight from their sacred texts. A good fundamentalist is supposed to lead their life in accordance with the original sacred text of the religion, and there is little room for flexibility in this. However, one of the major criticisms of Fundamentalism is that religious texts are often obscure and they have been interpreted at some point by whoever is in power, so there is no such thing as a ‘literal interpretation’.
  2. They regard all areas of social life as sacred – Fundamentalists tend to impose their views on others in a society, and police people’s day to day behaviour closely to make sure that day to day life is being lived in line with their interpretation of the sacred text.
  3. They do not tolerate other religions – they have a monopoly on truth, and when Fundamentalists take power, they tend to purge the symbols of other religions from their area and persecute people of other faiths.
  4. They have conservative beliefs – Fundamentalists tend to support traditional gender roles and are against ‘progressive’ liberalisation, such as women playing a greater role in work and politics and they tend towards tolerance and even celebration of sexuality diversity.
  5. They tend to look at past religious eras with nostalgia, and sometimes want to change society back to how it used to be, before secularisation, when society was more religions

 Sources

Chapman et al (2015) Sociology AQA A-Level Student Book 2

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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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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.

 

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Why are older people more religious than younger people?

Older people are more religious than younger people, as measure by religious participation and religions belief. This post explores three reasons why this might be.

The biological affect of ageing

It seem ‘natural’ to assume that as people get older and closer to death, they become more interested in what happens after they die, which is something religions have answers to. It may be that people become more religious closer to death because they find the thought of an afterlife more comforting than the thought of themselves just turning to dust.

This kind of fits in with the postmodern view that people actively use religion people use religion to help them die, rather than to help them live.

Older people are more detached from society

Older people tend to be more socially isolated than younger or middle aged people. The older you get, the more likely you are to have witnessed your friends dying and you are more likely to have serious health issues which prevent you from interacting with friends and family.

This is especially the case with women who live longer than men, and thus are more likely to outlive their male partners. This could go some way to explaining the higher levels of religiosity among women compared to men.

Social changes mean each generation is less religious than the previous generation 

In this theory, it is not so much that the religious beliefs of individuals change as they get older, rather that social changes mean that each generation is less religious than the previous generation.

Secularization has resulted in religion becoming disengaged from society, so it is much less part of day to day social life: religion doesn’t influence politics like it used to, the status of religious education in schools has declined, and church attendance has dropped.

Each successive generation is also less likely to socialize their children into religious beliefs and practices, thus resulting in a gradual decline in religiosity generation after generation.

 

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Why are there more women in the New Age Movement than men>?

Woodhead (2007) suggested women are more attracted to New Age Movements because they experience double alienation in the family…. they family fails to give them a sense of occupational identity, and they feel dissatisfied with their limited role as housewife and caregiver. New age movements offer a chance for self-exploration and can provide women with a sense of identity and self worth. (However this position has been criticized – forthcoming post).

For example, some elements of the New age encourage women to express their ‘authentic’ selves, rather than trying to reinforce their traditional socially constructed female roles as mothers and housewives.

However, at the same time, the New Age ALSO celebrates many positive aspects of femininity, such as subjective experiences, intuition and emotion, and this may also appeal to women much more than men.

The New Age movement may appeal especially to middle class women, stay at home mums, who have the time and the money to be able access the rather expensive and various New Age therapies; and the new age is partly about health and healing.

Finally, there is also the fact that New Age Movement is mainly run by women, who primarily seem to market their products and services to other women.

Criticisms of the above theories

  1. The New Age Movement is tiny, very few people and thus very few people show any interest in it!
  2. If women did join the new age movement because of double alienation, then most women should be working class, but they are not, most women are middle class.
  3. Most of the activities engaged in do not provide a sense of coherent identity, making up for dissatisfaction with life in general: seriously, how is a couple of yoga classes a week going to do this?

 

 

 

 

Limitations of ‘Traditional Gender Role Theory’ in explaining why women are more religious than men

Women’s higher levels of religiosity could be due to different age profiles: women live longer than men, and older people are more religious than younger people.

Also, it doesn’t explain the higher levels of religiosity among women who don’t accept traditional feminine roles. Most members of the New Age Movement are female, and very few accept traditional, hegemonic prescriptions of femininity.