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Evaluate the view that religion no longer acts as a ‘shared universe of meaning’ for people today

Item B

Berger (1990) argues that religion once provided a ‘shared universe of meaning’ and was used by people to make sense of the world, and to give their lives focus and order. He refers to religion as a ‘sacred canopy’, stretching over society and helping people to cope with the uncertainties of life.

Other sociologists disagree about the role that religion fulfils in society today. Marxists, for example, argue that religion acts to dull the pain of oppression experienced by the working class under capitalism and to conceal domination by the bourgeoisie. Some feminists argue that religion oppresses or disadvantages women.

Using material from Item A and elsewhere, assess the view that religion no longer acts as a ‘shared universe of meaning’ for people today.


  • This is a relatively straightforward question if you take it as a ‘consensus versus conflict’ essay.
  • You could also throw in elements of postmodernisation and secularization.
  • And counter criticize (kind of) from a globalist perspective.

Supporting evidence from Functionalism

  • Durkheim’s argued that religion reinforces the ‘collective conscience’ by representing the social order.
  • Malinowski argued religious rituals helped the Trobriand Islanders deal with risky situations with uncertain outcomes (such as deep sea rather than lagoon fishing)
  • He also argued religious rituals help people cope with social change, such as when people die.
  • Parsons seems to be the main man who agreed with Berger: the main function of religion was to help people make sense of contradictory events.
  • In one sense you could say that religion forms the basis of the law and this provides a shared universe of meaning.

Other supporting evidence drawn from across the syllabus

  • It’s unlikely that anything other than religion can provide a ‘sacred canopy’ (Science doesn’t provide all of the answers to ‘big questions’ for example)
  • Goddess religions could be interpreted as forming a ‘sacred canopy’ – one ‘divine reality, but many paths to it’.
  • This seems to be more the case for older rather than younger people (older people are more religious)
  • Some newer religions might be providing a more ‘general’ sacred canopy… for example ecumenicalism and The New Age movement.
  • Giddens argues that religion today provides a vital role in answering big questions and providing moral purpose

Marxism/ Feminism

  • Criticize the idea of a ‘shared universe of meaning’ because religion works in the interest of elite groups.
  • It’s the meaning of the elite that is taught through religion – such as the idea that inequality is God’s will and cannot be changed.
  • Neo-Marxism and Feminist resistance against elitist and patriarchal religions are evidence against this.

Postmodernisation/ Increasing diversity of religion means there is no sacred canopy

  • The increasing diversity of religion with postmodernity suggests there is no ‘shared universe of meaning’.
  • Religion has become more about ‘me’, less about aligning with society, e.g. the New Age Movement.
  • Religion has become more about entertainment, thus is arguably no ‘deeper’ than Disneyland.

Secularisation/ growth of science means there is no sacred canopy

  • Secularization is further evidence against – fewer people believe in God.
  • It’s more likely that belief in science, rather than religion provides a ‘sacred canopy’.

Examples of religious conflicts

  • Fundamentalism
  • World Rejecting NRMs

Thoughts on a conclusion

Pick up on the different ‘functions’ in the item to write a differentiated conclusion… maybe religion doesn’t provide a ‘shared universe of meaning’ any more, but maybe it’s still used selectively by people some of the time to deal with uncertainties.

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Four theories of postmodernity and religion: a summary

A level sociology text books seem to focus on four theorists of postmodernity and religion: Giddens, Bauman, Heelas and Lyon. This post is a bare bones summary of what they say about how religion changes to ‘fit’ postmodernity.

Anthony Giddens: High Modernity and Religion 

Zygmunt Bauman: Postmodernity and Religion  

David Lyon: Jesus in Disneyland 

Paul Heelas: Postmodernity and The New Age Movement

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Sociological Perspectives applied to The Apprentice….

Now in its fourteenth season, The Apprentice is one of Britain’s longest running T.V. series and remains one of the most popular, with average weekly viewing figures stable at just over 7 million for the past four years.

WARNING: Embargoed for publication until 10:00:01 on 25/09/2018 – Programme Name: The Apprentice – TX: n/a – Episode: n/a (No. n/a) – Picture Shows: **IMAGE EMBARGOED FROM PUBLICATION UNTIL 10AM TUESDAY 25TH SEPTEMBER 2018**
Lord Sugar with The Apprentice Candidates of 2018. Lord Sugar – (C) Boundless Taylor Herring – Photographer: Jim Marks

In this post, I’m just going to analyse what its ‘social functions’ might be by applying a few sociological perspectives…

From a Functionalist perspective, which tends to focus on the positive functions which institutions perform in contributing to the maintenance of the whole, then I guess there are several positive functions which the apprentice might perform: we can see it as playing a role in secondary socialisation, reinforcing the ‘work ethic’ that is deemed so fundamental to capitalist society, for example, and even providing additional opportunities for entrepreneurs.

From a Marxist perspective the main function would probably be one of spreading false consciousness. The broad diversity of contestants suggests (As it does on any BBC show that we have equality of opportunity. This is a myth, especially where successful entrepreneurs are concerned. Such people tend to be drawn disproportionately from the middle classes.

It might also perform the function of ideological control: it has a soporific effect as 7 million people tune in to it every week, and it celebrates the values of individualism, selfishness and competition, disguising the many downsides to these traits.

I can’t see that there would be much of a feminist critique of the apprentice…. There are equal numbers of both sexes, and there are plenty of female winners who have been successful because of the apprentice. Possibly the show might be supporting evidence for liberal feminism?

Although, just as with Marxism, it does little to highlight the very real barriers that ‘ordinary women’ face every day in the workplace – such as harassment and the effects of the persistent dual burden/ triple shift.

From a neoliberal point of view, you might see this show as a real celebration of the entrepreneurial spirit. From this perspective, society needs innovative individuals to come up new business ideas to drive the economy forward, and the sort of competition we see on the Apprentice is a perfectly healthy means of promoting this.

From a neoliberal point of view, the show ticks a lot of boxes – not only is it providing an opportunity for enterprising individuals to kick-start their businesses (either through winning and getting an investment, or through simply having their profiles raised as a result of being on the show), it also provides two generations of role models – in the form of Alan Sugar himself and the young apprentices. The show is itself is even a profit generating product in its own right as well.

Finally… this is a very postmodern show…. The sphere of production become the sphere of consumption, as entertainment. And the entertainment mainly comes from the extreme individualism of the contestants. It’s also hyperreal, as I argued in this post: how the apprentice really works!

Finally, from a late modernist point of view, while most the individuals think ‘they’ve done it all themselves’ – they are wrong: they need to realise the importance of the structures they’re embedded into, not least of all the competition itself: they need that external support of £250K and Alan Sugar’s business contacts to kick start their businesses, after all!

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Religion and Age

This post presents an examination of the relationship between religious belief, religious participation and age.

Younger people tend to be less religious than older  people

  • Recent (2018) research by PEW compared the religious beliefs and practices of 18-39 year olds with those aged 40 and over. They found that younger people are less religious than old people in 41 countries, but there are only 2 countries in which younger people are more religious. There is no difference in 60 countries.

  • According to the 2011 UK census, young people are much more likely to report that they have no religion
    • People aged under 25 made up 31% of the population as a whole, but 39% of those reporting they had no religion
    • Those aged 65+ made up 16.5% of the population as a whole, but just 5.6% of those reporting they had no religion.
  • Also according to the UK National Census, ethnic minority religions tend to have a much younger age profile than Christianity or No religion. For example, 85% of Muslims are aged under 50, compared to around 55% of Christians.

Age and participation in New Religious Movements and the New Age Movement

  • Eileen Barker’s research into The Moonies (a world rejecting sect) found that the membership base was relatively young, with most members being aged between 18-30.
  • The New Age Movement tends to be made up of middle aged people, especially those in their late 30s and 40s.



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Zygmunt Bauman – Postmodernity and Religion

In modernity, ethics was simply a matter of following a set of prescribed rules already laid down by institutions such as the state. In effect, for most of modernity, individual responsibility was abolished: all one had to do to be a ‘good citizen’ was to adopt the relevant social norms according to their class/ gender/ ethnicity and obey the law.

However, postmodernity has abolished all of these external rules, and morality has become a matter of personal choice: morality has becomes privatized.

In modernity, individuals tended to have ‘life-projects’: they wanted to achieve things with their lives, to reach certain goals, which had typically been laid down by society.

In postmodernity, individuals are more concerned with a process of self-constitution: rather than achieving things, they want to ‘be somebody’. They are more concerned with getting noticed, being visible to others, but still individually responsible for every aspect of their individual identity.

According to Bauman, now that individuals find themselves responsible for their own self-identities, they increasingly turn to ‘experts in morality’ for guidance about ‘how to be’. In this context, religious leaders are in greater demand because they are one set of ‘morality’ experts who people might call upon for ethical guidance.

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Religion and Conflict: The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Crusade Against Neoliberalism….

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, seems to be firmly against corporate greed and Tory neoliberal policies which allow Corporations the freedom to exploit workers.

religion social change archbishop.png

His explicitly political stance against mainstream political and economic institutions seems to be a good example of a religious leader getting involved in political conflict.

At the Trade’s Union conference Just last week Welby described zero hours contracts as ‘the reincarnation of an ancient evil’ and accused Amazon of avoiding tax and ‘leaching’ off the public.

The Archbishop seems to be firmly in the ‘Jeremy Corbyn camp’: he has been speaking out against Tory austerity policies since he took up office in 2013. He has consistently criticized modern capitalism and tory welfare cuts; and has previously stated that he wanted to see the payday loan company Wonga put out of business (so at least he’s got something to be happy about!).

Welby probably has a lot of direct experience to draw on: all over the country Church of England churches have been setting up food banks and acting as night shelters for the homeless, effectively playing a role in filling the Tory’s welfare gap.

Relevance to A-level sociology…

This seems to be a great example of a major religious leader standing up for the poor, in the tradition of Liberation Theology.

Potentially this is religion acting as a source of conflict… here Welby is railing explicitly against mainstream political and economic institutions.

This is most definitely NOT an example of religion acting as a conservative force: this is a religious leader demanding radical change.

Final thoughts…. 

There is possibly an element of hypocrisy to Welby’s views: The Church of England itself has shares in Amazon, and even uses zero hours contracts.

This further suggests that Welby’s views might be out of step with the rest of the Church of England. Maybe the views of this one individual are genuine, but maybe he actually has any real power to really bring about any kind of far reaching, radical social change?


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Why are girls unhappier than boys?

Girls are unhappier than boys, and they have been getting progressively more miserable since 2009, at least according to the Good Childhood Report, 2017.

Somewhat depressingly, this report is evidence against the March of Progress view of childhood.

The report measures childhood well-being across a number of different ‘domains’ using a number of different sources, drawing on mainly quantitative survey data conducted with 60 000 children.

‘Domains’ are simply different areas of social life, including how satisfied children are with such things as school, family life and their appearance. Some of the questions designed to measure life-satisfaction are as follows:

childhood report summary.png

The main findings of the report…

  • The average level of well-being reported by girls has declined since 2009, while boys’ reported well-being has remained stable.
  • Girls report significantly lower levels of satisfaction with their appearance compared to boys.
  • However, the one area of life where girls report higher levels of satisfaction is within education.

childrens happiness trends

Why are girls less happy than boys?

The report also analyses the gender differences in happiness by looking at different levels of bullying and social media usage. It concludes that:

  • Differences in reported levels of bullying cannot explain the reported differences in unhappiness by gender. The report says: ‘There were significant gender differences in rates of physical bullying – 23% of boys had been physically bullied compared to 13% of girls. Rates of other bullying were very similar for girls (33%) and boys (31%)
  • Girls are twice as likely to be intense users of social media (defined as more than 3 hours a day) – 13% of girls and 6% of boys fall into this category. The report states that intense usage of social media is correlated with lower levels of reported subjective well-being, and that this may account for some of the gender differences in happiness shown above, especially where satisfaction (or lack of it) with appearance is concerned.
  • HOWEVER, the report also says that ‘normal’ levels of social media usage have no impact on happiness level and overall level of social media usage explains less than 2% of differences in reported levels of happiness: other factors are far more important.

Final Thoughts…

While gender differences in reported levels of happiness may look dramatic, this might be a bit of a distraction….. it seems that a poor experience of family life and experience of the social problems associated with deprivation and living in a poor area are far better predictors of child misery than gender!

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Types of Religious Organisation: The Sect

According to Troeltsch, the Sect is basically the opposite of The Church….

religious organisations types.png

Key characteristics of sects according to Troeltsch…

  1. They have significantly smaller memberships than churches
  2. The membership base of sects is drawn from the lower social classes
  3. Sects are not aligned with the state
  4.  Sects do not accept the norms and values of mainstream society. Sects are detached from society, and in opposition to it.
  5. Sects demand a high level of commitment from their members and they have a high level of integration. They may expect members to withdraw from society all together.
  6. They do not have ‘inclusive membership’. Membership has to be conscious and voluntary. Children cannot be born into sects.
  7. Sects tend to possess a monopoly on truth.
  8. Sects have a charismatic leader, who is generally perceived to be special. They do not have an hierarchy of paid officials.

According to Steve Bruce, the first sects in modern Europe were formed when groups of people broke away from a more established religion, because of disagreement over how that religion was interpreted.

Over time, some sects have developed into denominations.

Criticisms of Troeltsch’s ‘sect’ category….

There are very few religious organisations which tick all of the above boxes, meaning the category might be too exclusive to be useful.

Roy Wallis has suggested that it is more useful to distinguish between different types of sect according to their orientation to the wider society – such as world affirming, world accommodating and world rejecting. In other words, he argues that not all sects are ‘world rejecting’.


  • Haralambos and Holborn: Sociology Themese and Perspectives
  • Chapman et al: Sociology AQA A-Level Year 2 Student Book
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Types of Religious Organisation: The Denomination

H.R. Niebuhr (1929) was the first sociologist to distinguish between a church and a denomination. His distinction was based on a study of religion in the U.S.A.

Denominations share some, but not all of the features of churches.

Examples of denominations include the Methodists, the Pentecostals and the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

religious organisations types.png

According to Neibuhr, denominations have about 6 characteristics:

  1. Like churches, denominations draw members from all sections of society: they are inclusive.
  2. Like churches, denominations have formal organisations and are hierarchically organised with a bureaucratic structure.
  3. There tend to be several denominations in a society, so they do not have universal appeal
  4. Denominations do not claim a monopoly on truth.
  5. Unlike churches, a denomination does not identity with the state and believes in the separation of church and state.
  6. Some denominations place more restrictions on their members: for example the Methodists and the Pentecostals.

Steve Bruce suggests that denominations have become more important in society with the rise of religious pluralism.

Criticisms of the ‘concept’ of the denomination

The concept may be too broad to be useful. There is disagreement over whether certain religious organisations should be classified as sects or denominations.



  • Haralambos and Holborn: Sociology Themese and Perspectives
  • Chapman et al: Sociology AQA A-Level Year 2 Student Book
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Types of Religious Organisation: The Church

Ernst Troeltsch (1931) used the term ‘church’ to refer to a large, hierarchically organised  religious institutions with an inclusive, universal membership, typically with close links to the state.

religious organisations types.png

According to Troeltsch* Churches have about 5 characteristics:

  1. Churches tend to have very large memberships, and inclusive memberships.
  2. Churches tend to claim a monopoly on the truth.
  3. Churches have large, bureaucratic, hierarchical structures
  4. Churches have professional, paid clergy
  5. Churches tend to be closely tied to the state.

Criticisms of the ‘concept’ of the church

Steve Bruce (1996) suggests that the above definition of church may have been true in pre-modern Christian societies, but ever since the Reformation, and especially since the increase of religious pluralism, this type of definition of a ‘church’ no longer applies to organisations which formally call themselves churches in modern societies – organisations such as the Church of England.

There are several examples of ‘churches’ which do not fit the above definition:

  • The Church of England does not have universal membership.
  • Many churches today do not claim a monopoly on the truth, they tend to be tolerant of other faiths.
  • The links between the church and the state are not as strong as they once were.

It seems then, that the only ways in which modern churches resemble Troeltsch’s definition lies in their organisational structure.


  • Haralambos and Holborn: Sociology Themese and Perspectives
  • Chapman et al: Sociology AQA A-Level Year 2 Student Book