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The state of religion in the modern world can be explained through several concepts, most of which have to do with religion being a product of social life.
Religion as a group phenomenon
When studying sociology of religion, one must not forget that church is an institution run by humans and attended by humans. Such institutions can be structured differently, teach varying doctrines, and practice diverse rituals (or rites) but their functioning mode is similar to any other social establishment, be it a business, an educational institution, or a governing body (Weight 2). Historically, churches are known to possess the land and financial resources that came from its adherents, either voluntarily or involuntarily, as when the Inquisition confiscated the convicted heretics’ lands and property. The latter is no longer the case today. Still, the power of a church seems to be gauged by the number of its adherents, who take part in the church’s activities, donate and otherwise assist.
Because human beings are social animals, they are likely to identify themselves with some groups, such as churches.
Research shows that those who were brought up in a religious family are more likely to belong to some religious community later in life (Wuthnow 79). Apart from a religious upbringing, over which there is much controversy, adults are more or less free to choose their religion. The choice is backed up by the costs and benefits of this or that particular religion (and church), which is the rational choice approach.
Sprouting from the freedom of choice, there are some underlying reasons for which people choose to be religious at some point in their life. One of them, as previously stated, is that people are willing to identify with a group that they choose to their taste. Another reason is that most religions have a set of moral values that adherent regards as the way to get to paradise and generally become a better person while alive. Finally, they can simply enjoy being with their group, sharing experiences, networking, and having fun.
Speaking about the experiences, shared rituals are a powerful means of social bonding, as well as common sets of beliefs and the values emanating from them. A disagreement over the interpretation of texts and the conduct of rituals is likely to result in an in-group and inter-group conflict.
The church-sect typology
The schism of doctrines and the subsequent separation of religious groups are when sects are formed. As in Weber’s classification, sects offshoot from denominations (which are weakened churches) out of protest (Swatos n.pag.; Christiano, Swatos, and Kivisto, 128). The tense relationships of sects with societies and churches, therefore, are predictable because the sects’ dogmas and practices can be regarded as extreme.
Interestingly enough, exactly how a person becomes religious also seems to apply to sects, as discussed by Stark and Bainbridge in their “Networks of Faith” (1376-1377). They state that the rational choice can take place when the benefits of sects are believed to outweigh the costs. Similarly, if a person’s family are adepts of a sect, this person can be coerced into conformity volens nolens. Such conformity, in turn, can be unhealthy because sects, as well as denominations and even churches, can go into extremes.
Fundamentalism and extremism
The notions of fundamentalism and extremism are not necessarily interchangeable. The former refers to describe those interpreting the Bible literally and stating it was unarguable. The latter denotes the way of perceiving and dealing with “crimes against God.” Some Christian groups and Islam are fundamentalists while Islamism, for instance, is extremist. Fundamentalist and extremist dispositions vary from group to group, which can be wither fundamentalist or extremist or both. An example of such crossover would be religious pro-life movement adherents who go as far as murder abortionists.
As in the case of sects (that can also be fundamentalist or extremist), tense relationships exist between the groups reactive to the environment. Attitudes attributable to extremists in particular are quite likely to generate conflicts on religious grounds.
Conflicts associated with religion
As it was mentioned, human beings are by nature social, and thus instinctively need to identify themselves with a grouping of sorts. When the self-identification goes into extremity, conflicts arise, whether it be armed hostilities based on nationalistic drive, slavery on the basis of racial discrimination, or gender-determined verbal abuse and harassment. Religion is a set of tenets bonding its adherents into social groups through teaching, preaching, rituals, and other shared activities. Socialization and other positive aspects aside, religion – or clash of religions – can be a motive for conflict.
Indeed, humans are more likely to confront each other than reconcile and rejoice because we intrinsically place our own group above the others and automatically consider those others to be in the wrong (Weight 13). Religious conflicts are serious because of that, and no less because most religions justify the genocide of the “infidels.” The main causes of prejudice can be prejudice and the conflict of the groups’ interests in their struggle for resources.
The state of religion in the modern world
Today, religion has shed its enlightening function; still, it can be explained through one of its functions, which is socialization. An institutionalized religious unit serves as a place to attend, participate in activities, and generally socialize. Unless people have been harassed into it, they are likely to find such activities gratifying. The choice of a religious unit to belong to can be based on posthumous perks or, alternately, on what religion gives while an adherent is alive: they become a better person and rise above the mundane. When such a purpose is shared by fellow adherents, the bonds become even closer.
The concept of extremism can be also used as a lens to study religion because hate crime and terrorism are challenges that all humankind has to face. It is, by contrast, a violent method of coercing people into religion and performing practices potentially dangerous to others. While some people might also find extremist actions enjoyable (although it takes a particular kind of personality), the victims, the forcefully converted, and their relatives are bound to suffer. Interestingly, extremism seems to have a social function as well, which is self-identification and having a place in a group of likeminded persons. But, albeit a similar social drive, the consequences for the society and the extremists themselves are disastrous.
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Although Christians can go into extremities sometimes, the social function of the Church and just how a person decides to adhere is visible. Rational choice links baptism, attendance, and the promise of heaven, and the pleasantness of meetings, common rites, and beliefs create the feeling of belonging.
Christiano, Kevin J., William H. Swatos, and Peter Kivisto. Sociology of Religion: Contemporary Developments. 3rd ed. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015. Print.
Stark, Rodney, and William Sims Bainbridge. “Networks of Faith: Interpersonal Bonds and Recruitment to Cults and Sects.” American Journal of Sociology 85.6 (1980): 1376-1395. Print.
Swatos, William H. “Church-Sect Theory.” Encyclopedia of Religion and Society. Hartford Institute for Religion Research, n.d. Web.
Weight, Alden. “SOC 420 Lesson 3: Religion as a Group Experience.” Arizona State University. Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ.
Wuthnow, Robert. “Religious Upbringing: Does It Matter And, If So, What Matters?” Princeton Theological Seminary. Princeton Theological Seminary Library, n.d. Web.