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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?

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belief systems
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 systems2
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 Existentialism
  • And often belief systems is attached to religion and ideology attached to secular beliefs
belief systems3
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 occurs
  • Belief Systems such as religions, philosophies and ideologies do not have a firm factual basis but do offer attempts to explain the world
belief systems4
Belief Systems
  • Religion and Science
  • Explaining the world
  • Many believe that religion has helped to explain the unexplainable.
  • 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 guidelines
belief systems5
Belief Systems
  • Metanarratives
  • Postmodernists use this phrase to describe a single comprehensive explanation given to explain the world
  • This could be a religion such as Christianity, Judaism etc or a philosophy like Marxism
belief systems6
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 views
  • Science is rational (based on reason) and is backed up by proof and is consequently often at odds with religious beliefs.
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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.
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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 society
is science a belief system
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 DNA
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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.
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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.
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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. church,sect

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
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 religion17
Defining Religion

2. Substantive Definitions

These say what religion is rather than what it does

e.g. belief in God and other supernatural beings

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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’
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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

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Defining Religion


  • The ‘sacred’ is important
  • this makes religion special and not like the mundane things in this world
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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

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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 life

Why have I got cancer?

Why is our community oppressed?

Why did that accident happen?

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Defining Religion

Stark & Bainbridge 1985 - Compensators

religion makes up for things lacking in this life

promise of rewards in the next life if you are suffering now

suffering becomes a test of faith

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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.

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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 questions

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Defining Religion

Criticisms Of Substantive Definitions

Many are based on Western monotheistic beliefs and are too narrow.

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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 important.



‘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 society.

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 Patriarchy.

Religion serves the interests of men.



Tends to see religion as meeting the needs of individuals.

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
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 society.

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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
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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.

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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.

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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).
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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 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).

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Religious Organisations

Wallis talks about

  • 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)

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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, Scientology)

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Religious Organisations

3. World Accommodating NRM’s

These tend to emphasise the importance of individual religious experiences.

Members live and work in the real world

(e.g. Charismatic Christian Groups)

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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.

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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 on-line).

Astrology is one of the best examples of this type of NAM.

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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.

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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.

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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 before.
  • 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 Woolworths!
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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 NRMs
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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

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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 elsewhere.

Established religion is too watered down for some

Wilson – Sects are ‘last outposts of religion’

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Religious Organisations

Wallis (1984) pointed to a number of social changes helping NRM’s to grow in the 1960’s

  • Growth in Higher Education
  • Youth Culture developed
  • Economic boom time
  • Radical political movements
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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.

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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 media,

Barker discovered that the high drop out rate suggested a short term fulfilment of temporary needs.

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Religious Organisations
  • Bird (1999) has suggested 3 key things these groups offer:
  • 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.
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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.
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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 with.
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Religious Organisations
  • Why do people leave NRM’s?
  • 4. Commitment levels are hard to sustain over time
  • 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 community.
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Religious Organisations
  • Why do people leave NRM’s?
  • 5. The sect engages in illegal activities and is ‘terminated’
  • 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).