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					             Belief Systems
• Belief Systems And Ideology

• A Belief System     is a ‘framework of ideas
  through which an individual makes sense of
  the world’
• Ideology      is a set of beliefs or principles.
                Belief Systems
• Reading the above definitions is a little confusing – are
  they not the same thing?
• In fact belief systems extend beyond ideologies.
• It is a bit of an umbrella term to include
  religions, philosophies, even science
• Ideologies are just one type of belief system eg
• And often belief systems is attached to religion
  and ideology attached to secular beliefs
Belief Systems
• Belief v Knowledge
• A belief is something we think may be true
• Knowledge is something we have proof to
  back up.
• Beliefs involve doubt
• Knowledge involves facts
• This is where a faith v evidence debate often
• Belief Systems such as religions, philosophies and ideologies do not have
  a firm factual basis but do offer attempts to explain the world
Belief Systems
• Religion and Science
• Explaining the world
• Many believe that religion has helped to explain the
• But as we discover more through science the role
  of religion has declined
• Normative guidelines
• Religion also has a normative dimension – it gives
  a code of conduct for our lives e.g. moral
Belief Systems
• Metanarratives
• Postmodernists use this phrase to describe a single
  comprehensive explanation given to explain the
• This could be a religion such as Christianity,
  Judaism etc or a philosophy like Marxism
Belief Systems
• The Enlightenment
• This is the phrase given to the advance of scientific
  explanations based on objective knowledge.
• For many this replaces the subjective views of
  religion – being based on feelings and personal
• Science is rational (based on reason) and is backed
  up by proof and is consequently often at odds with
  religious beliefs.
Belief Systems
• NOMA – Gould 1999
• Gould – a biologist –argues that science and
  religion are 2 separate realms they are NOMA
  (non overlapping magisteria).
• Science provides knowledge
• Religion provides moral guidance
• This is a relativist view which sees science as one
  of many belief systems.
   Belief Systems
• Science is superior knowledge
• Gellner (1974) argued that the objective nature of
  science sets it above all else
• Dawkins (2006) – a famous atheist – argues that
  Gould is just trying to appease powerful religious
  groups and says atheists are often marginalised in
   Is science a belief system?
• Rationalists – say no
• Science is based on facts wheras belief systems are
  based on faith
• Beliefs based on God or Gods are irrational – if
  God is creator – who created God?
• Scientific evidence has supported such things as
  darwin’s evolutionary theory and the structure of
   Is Science a Belief System?
• Realists – say yes
• Realists agree with postmodernists in suggesting
  that there are lots of belief systems in a pluralist
  world and that science is just another one of these.
• Scientists are human beings and as such can never
  be totally objective no matter how hard they try.
• Their own personal views, feelings, career
  aspirations etc. all conspire to prevent subjectivity
  creeping in.
    Is Science a Belief System?
• Khun -1972 found that scientists used paradigms – ‘a way of viewing the
  world which underlies the theories and methodologies of science’
• In other words scientists use a system of ideas which
  means they reject evidence that challenges this.
  Eventually if challenges become particularly
  common it may lead to a change in the paradigm.
• Scientists used to believe that the earth was at the
  centre of the universe and other planets etc revolved
  around us.....until a whole shift occured where the
  sun was seen at the centre.
   Is Science a Belief System?
The current paradigms of physics, chemistry
and biology suggest that such things as
homeopathy have no scientific basis yet
many researchers are assured
of their success– will this lead to a
whole new scientific paradigm?
Turner 1983
• argues that religion is important for sociologists.
• At the birth of the subject writers such as
  Durkheim and Marx had strong things to say
  about the role of religion
• Many people today hold religious beliefs and the
  variety of religious groups and beliefs from
  'established' churches to sects and cults is a
  feature of modern society
• As sociologists we are looking at:

1. What people believe
2. Why people believe
3. The organisational context of beliefs e.g.
4. How religion affects peoples lives
As sociologists our interest is not in the validity of
  religious beliefs
and you don't have to have religious convictions to
  study religion -
on the other hand religious commitments should
  not bar you from studying religion sociologically
        Defining Religion
1. Functional Definitions
These involve what religion does
It answers questions such as
What happens when I die?
Why are people poor?
And gives guidelines on how to behave

Functionalists see religion as important for
  social cohesion
          Defining Religion
2. Substantive Definitions

These say what religion is rather than what
  it does
e.g. belief in God and other supernatural
          Defining Religion
• These definitions can be combined

• Durkheim 1912 defined religion as…

• ‘a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to
  sacred things, that is, things set apart and forbidden
  which unite into one single moral community –
  called a church – all those who adhere to them’
        Defining Religion
          There are a number of important
           elements to this definition

Durkheim sees religion as a combination of
  belief and practice
i.e. doing is as important as believing
        Defining Religion
• The ‘sacred’ is important
• this makes religion special and not like the
  mundane things in this world
        Defining Religion

The community basis of religion gives rise to
  possible conflicts between communities
e.g. N Ireland
Religion can unite and divide people at the
  same time
        Defining Religion
Weber - The problem of theodicy
This is about how people see the world with
  all its problems as meaningful
Religion helps to answer the why questions in
Why have I got cancer?
Why is our community oppressed?
Why did that accident happen?
         Defining Religion
Stark & Bainbridge 1985 - Compensators

 religion makes up for things lacking in this
promise of rewards in the next life if you
  are suffering now
suffering becomes a test of faith
         Defining Religion
Ways of dealing with the problem of theodicy
  have social consequences.
 Weber saw a link between protestantism and
  the growth of capitalism.
Islam believes that suffering is crucial and has
  important consequences for such as Iraq in
  the face of Western sanctions.
        Defining Religion
Criticisms Of Functional Definitions
 They tend to include many things some
  would not regard as religious
e.g. nationalism
perhaps science has replaced religion in
  answering some of the fundamental
       Defining Religion
Criticisms Of Substantive Definitions
Many are based on Western monotheistic
  beliefs and are too narrow.
            Defining Religion
Thus the difference between the 2 approaches is one of
  practice versus belief. This is very important to
  remember when we look at the secularisation process
  later. Those who prefer the functional definitions see
  religion as still being important in the job that it does in
  society. Those who prefer substantive definitions are
  more likely to agree with the supporters of secularisation
  thesis – that religious belief has declined and has been
  replaced with rational, scientific thought.
As we would expect Functionalists see religion
   as functionally necessary.
 In particular the contribution of religion to the
   needs of society and the individual.
It’s role in maintaining social solidarity is very
‘Religion is the opium of the masses’
Again as we would expect there is a clear link to
  class-conflict. Religion is an illusion which
  eases the pain of exploitation in capitalist
In a communist utopia religion ceases to exist
  because there is no need for it.
Feminists see religion in a similar vein to the
  Marxists - causing pain and oppression –
the difference here is that this stems from
Religion serves the interests of men.
Tends to see religion as meeting the needs of
As such religion is still very important in helping
  to answer the big questions.
Post Modernism
Post Modernists too focus on the individual and
  how he/she makes sense of their lives.
People no longer accept ‘universal truths’ and as
  such adopt a pick’n’mix mentality to religion –
often taking bits from different beliefs to make
  their own sense of things.
       Religious Organisations
Most sociologists suggest that ‘church’ refers to a
  large organisation which is often linked to the
  state e.g. The Church Of England. Most
  churches fit in with the status quo of the society
  they belong to meaning that members go along
  with the norms and values of that particular
        Religious Organisations
• In the UK the term ‘denomination’ is usually used to
  refer to a branch of the Christian church e.g. Baptists,
  Methodists etc. Stark and Bainbridge (1985) use the term
  to describe ‘diluted churches’ They are separate from the
  state and more open to new ideas but they are still
  usually hierarchical structures and conform to the norms
  and values of society
       Religious Organisations
The sect/cult difference is one which does offer a
 lot of confusion. Generally sects are seen as a
 little bit deviant but generally do conform to the
 way things are in this world even if they have a
 different ‘take’ on it. Sects are generally smaller
 than churches and often have grown out of
 mainstream churches in protest over some issues.
        Religious Organisations
Of all the terms here the ‘cult’ classification is the
  most difficult to tie down.
They tend to be seen in ‘world rejecting’ terms i.e.
  they are usually critical of mainstream society
  and of other religious organisations.
They tend to be small in size with highly committed
  members. Some cults have very charismatic
  leaders and require their members to cut their
  ties with their old lives when they join e.g. with
  family, friends, jobs etc.
             Religious Organisations
 New Religious Movements
• Because of the problems with defining terms such as sect and cult and
   their confused usage particularly in the media the terms New Religious
   Movement (NRM) and New Age Movement (NAM) have been developed
   to solve the problem.

•   New Religious Movement (NRM)Is a term that is used more these days
    to get away from the Sect/Cult definition problem. It usually refers to a
    group of worshippers (not necessarily Christian)

•   These have usually undergone an intense conversion experience and are
    often regarded as ‘weirdos’ i.e. with suspicion by the rest of society
    (often via media amplification).
        Religious Organisations
New Religious Movements (NRM’s)
Is a term that is used more these days to get away
   from the Sect/Cult definition problem. It usually
   refers to a group of worshippers (not necessarily
These have usually undergone an intense
   conversion experience and are often regarded as
   ‘weirdos’ i.e. with suspicion by the rest of society
   (often via media amplification).
      Religious Organisations
Wallis talks about
1. World Rejecting NRM’s
Members are expected to cut ties with past
   lives, jobs, family etc and often live in a
   new community.
(e.g. Moonies, Hare Krishna)
      Religious Organisations
2. World Affirming NRM’s
These see the external world more
    benevolently – members live in the
    real world but see themselves as
    finding new ways of relating to it
and therefore their ‘enlightenment’
    brings more joy and contentment
(e.g. Transcendental Meditation,
       Religious Organisations
3. World Accommodating NRM’s
These tend to emphasise the
    importance of individual religious
Members live and work in the real
(e.g. Charismatic Christian Groups)
       Religious Organisations
New Age Movements

NAM’s refer to a large number of groups
  emerging since the 1970’s. The ‘new’ bit
  is often a rather paradoxical label
  because many have their routes in very
  old belief systems.
        Religious Organisations
Bruce 1996 has suggested 2 categories of NAM
•   Audience Cults
 ‘these resemble loose knit lecture circuits
   where members participate in lectures,
   seminars and workshops.
Involvement is rather sporadic and is less
   face to face and more likely to involve
   reading literature (either in hard copy or
Astrology is one of the best examples of
   this type of NAM.
          Religious Organisations
2. Client Cults
These groups offer services to their members.
Therapists have grown up in lots of different fields
   to ‘help’ clients get to grips with aspects of
   their lives, e.g. crystal therapy

Critics have argued that many NAM practices are
    more concerned with making money than
    offering real benefits to members.
        Religious Organisations
Why do people join NRM’s?

•   Practical
many members hope to gain something from
  joining, either financially, spiritually or just a
  sense of happiness and well being.
          Religious Organisations
2. Spiritual
•   Post modernists and others point out that with
    the decline of established religion people are
    still seeking answers to the big questions in life
    and therefore have cast their eyes wider than
•   These ‘spiritual shoppers’ are seeking amongst
    all the pots on offer just like a child with a bag
    in front of the pick’n’mix sweet pots in
         Religious Organisations
3. Relative Deprivation
   – People are often attracted to such groups
     because they feel that they have something
     missing in their lives.
   – This can include material poverty but often
     other factors too such as lack of esteem, lack
     of purpose, frustration with career etc.
   – This helps to explain why many middle class
     (reasonably well off) people are attracted to
         Religious Organisations
4. Marginality
 Weber – Sects attract those on the
   margins of society
‘Theodicy of Disprivilege’ – gives people
   hope of something in the next life!
Wilson (1970) a variety of situations lead
   to marginalisation -
Wars, natural disaster, economic collapse
Wallis 1984 –Not always economic
   marginalisation. Some MC whites feel cut
   off from society
        Religious Organisations
5. Social Change
Wilson – sects arise in periods of rapid
   change –traditional norms are disrupted
Bruce (1996) agrees and says that
   secularisation and weakening of
   established churches leads many to look
Established religion is too watered down for
Wilson – Sects are ‘last outposts of religion’
      Religious Organisations
Wallis (1984) pointed to a number of social
   changes helping NRM’s to grow in the
1. Growth in Higher Education
2. Youth Culture developed
3. Economic boom time
4. Radical political movements
       Religious Organisations
NRMs are popular with young adults. Such groups
  have left childhood behind but haven’t become
  tied down by careers, families of their own and
  other commitments.
World rejecting NRMs are particularly popular as
  they offer a ‘certainty’ to many young people
  at a time of uncertainty in their lives.
       Religious Organisations
Barker in her study of the Moonies (The Unification
   Church) in the 1970’s found that many members
   were young and came from comfortable middle
   class families.
The group offered a surrogate family setting for
   them and provided a lot of mutual support.
   Despite many fears of brainwashing in the
Barker discovered that the high drop out rate
   suggested a short term fulfilment of temporary
        Religious Organisations
•   Bird (1999) has suggested 3 key things these groups
•   They fulfil a spiritual need in a very
    materialistic world.
•   In order to compete in this ‘material world’ they
    offer strategies to become successful.
•   They provide ways of developing the inner self
    to develop personal happiness.
       Religious Organisations
• Why do people leave NRM’s?
1. Commitment levels too high
• The reality of living in a sect may prove too
    demanding for members.
• E.g. Barker found that some Moonie members
    left once they experienced negative aspects of the
    religion such as mass arranged marriages.
        Religious Organisations
•   Why do people leave NRM’s?
•   2. Death of the charismatic leader
•   If a person only joins due to the influence of the
    leader, they may see little point in staying if the
    leader dies
•   3. Personal crisis resolved
•   If a person has joined a sect in hope of being
    ‘healed’, they may leave once their crisis is dealt
        Religious Organisations
•   Why do people leave NRM’s?
•   4. Commitment levels are hard to sustain over
•   The second generation of members may want to
    experience life outside the sect – they may not
    have the enthusiasm levels of the original
    members. This can be seen in the Amish
          Religious Organisations
•   Why do people leave NRM’s?
•   5. The sect engages in illegal activities and is
•   Examples include the Branch Davidians (ending
    in a shoot-out)
•   The People’s Temple (ending in mass suicide)
•   The Children of God (ended when leaders
    arrested on suspicion of child abuse).