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Exploring Religion

Session 9: Overview

Religious Movements

Learning objectives

  • Understand how religious movements emerge, expand, stabilize and decline.

Religion is not static. Religious communities often embody and experience the transformative visions of religious beliefs and leaders. While it may seem that Islam has always been the majority religion of North Africa, or that Utah is predominantly Mormon, it has not always been this way. Religious movements have long been at the headwaters of religious change, both creating new religious communities or transforming existing ones. 

We can get a good picture of how religious movements affect religious change by looking at two levels: the micro level of conversion and the meso level of religious groups and organizations. At the micro level, religious communities can be profoundly transformed through conversion, that is, outsiders joining the community and embracing the faith. In an early and important sociological study of conversion, John Lofland and Rodney Stark observed people becoming Moonies, followers of Reverend Sun M. Moon. Contrary to theories of conversion that stressed how the new religion fulfilled felt needs or answered troubling existential questions, Lofland and Stark found that conversion was most strongly influenced by relationships. Those who were most closely connected to and developed stronger relational bonds with Moonies were most likely to convert—and these were often well-adjusted, generally well-off, individuals. These observations about conversion also have helped to explain the rise of Christianity from 1,000 Christians in A.D. 40 to between five to seven million just 250 years later. In his influential book, The Rise of Christianity, Rodney Stark showed how, because Christians cared for other Christians — and non-Christians they knew — during a pandemic in the second century, there was a higher survival rate for both Christians and their non-Christian friends. Because attachments are more likely to produce conversions, Stark argued that this was one of the key factors contributing to the dramatic rise of Christianity. Similar patterns have been found in the dramatic rise of Mormonism in the past two centuries, Stark found. Religious movements — the coordinated outreach of religious groups to effect change and expand their community — can create religious change, and conversion is an important source of that change.

[Note: This is the Hare Krishna (ISKCON) temple in Berkeley, CA.]

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The second level at which religious movements affect religious change is at the meso level, the level of groups and organizations. Outside of government monopolies on religion, religious groups and organizations tend to compete for members, for influence and for resources. The competition may not always be hostile or tense, but it is always there, even if behind the scenes. In this space of religious competition, religious movements seek to expand or lay claim to resources, influence and members. One prominent example is the expansion of Western Protestant missionary organizations and efforts in the 19th and early 20th century. From a handful of British missionary organizations in 1800, religious competition — both between Protestant groups and with non-Christian societies — drove expansion, resulting in more than 700 missionary societies with nearly 30,000 missionaries of both Western and non-Western origin by 1923. Such a burst of religious competition led to not only the growth of Christianity, but also the revitalization of other world religions, such as Hinduism in India and Buddhism in Korea. In India, for example, as Protestants began to produce reams of religious pamphlets and tracts, local religious leaders formed their own organizations, started printing presses and distributed material to denounce Western religious ideas. As a result, religious competition became a more dominant feature of Indian religious life, to this day. This kind of religious competition via printing and literature dates back to the Protestant Reformation, and it also was a significant source of religious growth in the 19th century U.S., as you will see in your readings.

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Religious organizations also have to strike a balance between stability and change, continuity and innovation. As Roger Finke shows in the reading in this module, religious groups attract and keep members by preserving core religious teachings as they innovate new ways to engage members and communicate the teachings in response to changes in society. A classic example of this is the rise of Methodism in the 18th and 19th centuries from a small movement within Anglicanism to one of the largest denominations in the U.S. Combining innovative methods, such as traveling preachers, small groups and open-air preaching, with an emotion-infused communication of traditional Christian teachings, the fledgling sect became a full-fledged national denomination in just a few decades. When the Methodists stopped innovating in their methods and started innovating in their core teachings in the early 20th century, the denomination declined. Another example of the tension of innovation and continuity in the spread of religion is the “mindfulness” movement. Emerging out of American counter-culture’s interaction with Buddhism in the 1960s, the meditative practice of mindfulness — and the culture around it — moved into mainstream and elite circles in the early 2000s, in large part due to consistent efforts by some to adapt and expand it. Sociologist Jamie Kucinskas describes this process using ideas gained from the study of social movements in one of the readings in this module. As she notes, as mindfulness moved into elite circles of the famous, the wealthy and the corporate, it lost its touch with its Buddhist roots as it adapted to American sensibilities.  Though many adopted mindfulness practices, the movement failed to “convert” people to Buddhist core teachings. 

As you engage in the readings and assignments in this module, think about your own observations of religious change. Where do you see groups innovating in their methods but not in their teaching, or vice-versa? What seem to be the consequences, for those that engage in the religion and those that do not?

Photos provided by Christopher Scheitle and Roger Finke. For more information on the photos, see Places of Faith: A Road Trip Across America’s Religious Landscape (Oxford University Press, 2012).

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