The Changing Face of Religion


Religion as a concept is hard to pin down. If you read any number of books on the subject, you’ll find any number of definitions. For the purposes of this post, I am going to tentatively define religion, in a very broad sense, as ‘a way of accessing a power greater than yourself’. That is not a wholly satisfactory definition, but I need something to work with in this post, otherwise it will be impossible to write. I’m hoping that this post will show you why it is so hard to define religion, and will also provide an insight into the shape of religion in the 21st century, particularly the Western world of the 21st century.

Religion is changing. Since around the mid 20th century, this thing we call religion has evolved into a slippery, amorphous blob of a concept that is incredibly hard to pin down. According to Max Weber, a sociologist who researched many aspects of Protestantism from the Reformation through to the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution, the seeds of modern religion were sewn when Martin Luther led the Protestant breakaway from the European Catholic church in the 16th century. Weber argued that one of the consequences of this is that people realised that the dominant worldview could be challenged. In other words, rationalism was born. This is relevant today, because Weber believed that it was the Protestant Reformation that allowed people the freedom to think for themselves and choose what they want to believe, one of the central pillars of our 21st century Western society. Ironically, Weber also believed that this rationalism contributed to the decline in religion that was documented in the West from the mid 19th century all the way through to today, as people realised that they didn’t have to be religious at all if they didn’t feel that the evidence was there.

Hopefully it might be becoming clear how the seeds for the current religious landscape were sewn. Returning now to the 20th century, a big change started to happen around the 50s. Small religious breakaway movements, called sects (so called by Troeltsch) had been popping up since the Reformation, but in the 50s, a vast body of religious ideas, know collectively as New Religious Movements (NRMs) began to emerge. One way of categorising these is to split them into sects and cults. Please be aware that I am not using either of those words in a derogatory way. By sects, I am referring to NRMs that have split from an existing religious framework and by cults, I am referring to NRMs that are completely unique in their beliefs. The problem with this is that most NRMs don’t fit easily into the categories. Take the Unification Church (the Moonies), though many of their doctrines are unique (such as Reverend Moon being the Messiah) others are not (such as the concept of the Messiah). Other researchers have tried to create other typologies (systems), but all of them have flaws. This is why it is becoming so hard to define what religion is.

Of course, established religions still exist. The Church of England is still the state religion in England and the Catholic church is still dominant in many European countries. Though the situation is different, America is still largely considered a Christian nation. The fact remains, however, that church attendance is declining in the West, as is belief in the Christian God. In sociological terms, this is called secularisation – the process by which religion loses its influence in society. Eminent sociologists such as Steve Bruce (the author of God is Dead) point to a large body of evidence that shows that conventional beliefs and practices are declining.

However, secularisation theorists often ignore the changes in religion. Interest in NRMs is high, particularly among poorer people, women and ethnic minorities. Heelas and Woodhead’s reasearch in England (the Kendal Project) showed the growth of the New Age (a type of NRM) and showed how interest is growing. Heelas believes that NRMs – and in particular the New Age – have the potential to replace organised religion in the places where it is declining. I don’t know enough about the statistics to know whether that’s a realistic vision of the future or not, but the increasing importance of such NRMs cannot be understated. If you’ve read your horoscope, have a dream catcher above your bed or wear lucky charms, you’re accessing the world of NRMs in some way. That’s why religion is changing – it is becoming far easier to access. In fact, many people are involved without even knowing it. Many self-help type initiatives are linked to this amorphous blob of NRMs in some way; you do not have to be a committed member of a religious group to access some of these NRMs.

Furthermore, individualised religions are emerging. By engaging in something known as ‘spiritual shopping’ (Hervieu-Leger), people can create their own belief systems from the bits they like best of existing religions. This could take the form of a belief in Fate, some sort of afterlife, a sacred view of nature, a vague belief in karma or something else entirely. These individual beliefs do not fit comfortably into the body of NRMs, as broad as that body is, making it even harder to pin down religion in the Western world. There is no end to the things that people could believe.

So what’s the point in me writing this? Well, actually it’s great sociology revision for me! But that aside, I think it’s important that people are aware of what’s going on around them in society. Religion is a massive deal for a huge amount of people and we cannot be ignorant of that. Furthermore, a lot of people make sweeping generalisations about religion without really knowing what it is; I want to show how risky that can be. Religion is changing and we have to acknowledge that, or we’ll be stuck in the past.

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