Are Religious Beliefs and Practices Changing to Reflect a New Era of Diversity and Choice?

8 August 2016

In the recent years there has been evidence to support that religious activity and religious beliefs are declining in the UK e. g. the rise of new religious movements such as Jehovah’s witnesses (sect), but some sociologists reject this and say that religion isn’t declining it is just changing to fit into a more increasingly changing society. Davie is one of these sociologists; in her view religion is taking a different, more privatised form. She explains this by giving the example of that people no longer go to church because they feel they have to or because it is respectable to do so.

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She says that although churchgoing has declined it is simply because attendance is now a matter of personal choice rather than the obligation it use to be. As a result there is believing without belonging, where by people hold religious beliefs but don’t go to church. Therefore the decline of traditional religion is matched by the growth of the new form of religion. Davie also notes a trend towards vicarious religion, whereby people are experiencing religion second hand.

This is a typical pattern in Britain and northern Europe. In these societies people still use the church for rites of passage, rituals that make a change of status such as baptisms, weddings and funerals. Similarly Bibby’s findings show that only 25% attended church but 80% said they have religious beliefs, identified positively with religious traditions and turned to religious for rites of passage. Although they rarely went to church, they continued to be interested in the supernatural.

This shows that people are now choosing whether or not to go to church as now it is not seen as an obligation to go and therefore is creating more choice and it shoes that it is becoming more of a personal choice and individualised which is creating more levels of religiosity. However there are some critics of her theory of believing without belonging such as Voas and Crockett show evidence from the British Social Attitudes survey shows that both church attendance and beliefs in God are declining. If Davie were right there would be higher levels of beliefs.

Burce adds that if people are not willing to invest time in going to church it reflects the declining strength of their beliefs. He states when people no longer believe they wish on longer to belong and their involvement in religion diminishes. Similar to Davies, Hervieu-Leger continues the theme of personal choice and believing without belonging. She agrees that there has been a decline in institutional religion in Europe, with fewer people attending church in most countries. She says this is partly because of cultural amnesia and as a result of this it has allowed children in today’s society to decide which religion to follow themselves.

They now have no fixed religiosity identity and they are ignorant of traditional religion. A consequence of this is that it undermines traditional institutional religion and has now become individual consumerism; people today feel they have a choice as consumers of religion and have become spiritual shoppers. We now develop our own ‘do it yourself’ belief that gives meaning to our lives and fits in with our interests and aspirations. Religion is becoming a spiritual journey in which we choose the elements we want to explore and the groups we wish to join, as an individual rational choice.

As a result of this Hervieu-Leger argues that two new religious types are emerging. Pilgrims that follow an individual path in a search for self discovery and converts which join religious groups that offer a strong sense of belonging. As a result of these trends religion no longer acts as the source of collective identity. Her view can be related to late modernity. This is the notion that in recent decades some of the trends within modern society have begun to speed up, such as the decline of tradition and the increase of individualism. This explains the weakening of traditional institutions e.g. the Church and Mosque as well as the growing importance of individual choice in matters of religion e. g. self healing. Hervieu-Leger’s view backs up that religious beliefs and practices are changing to reflect a new era of diversity and choice because of the fact that people are now choosing what to belief in and choosing different parts of different religions to belief in, rather than religiously following the teachings of the bible without question. Lyon describes how globalisation has increased the movements of ideas and beliefs across national boundaries.

Due to the central role played by postmodern society by the media and information technology, which saturates us with images and messages from around the globe. These ideas have become disembedded, for example the electronic church and televangelism disembed religion from the real, local churches and relocated it on the internet allowing believers to express their faith without physically attending church. Lyon describes a harvest day crusade held not in church but at Disneyland as an example of how the boundaries between different areas of social life become blurred in postmodern society.

As a result religion becomes de- institutionalised, being removed from their original location in the church, they become a cultural resource that individuals can adapt for their own purposes. Also postmodern society involves the growth of consumerism and especially the idea that we now construct our identities through what we choose to consume. Similar to what Hervieu-Leger emphasises that we act as a spiritual shopper. We no longer have to sign up to any one religious tradition, instead we can pick and mix elements of different faiths to suit our tastes and make them part of our identity.

According to Lyon we have become religious consumers making conscious choices about which elements of religion we find useful. An effect of this is having a great variety of religious products to choose from is a loss of faith in Meta narratives. Now people have access to a wide range of different and competing versions of the truth and therefore dominant religious organisations and traditions lose their authority and decline. In a result being replaced by new religious movements that we can sample. This gives people more of a choice and range in what they as an individual want to belief in as people are becoming religious consumers.

However critics argue that of Bruce that argues that consumerist religion that Lyon describes is weal religion it has little effect on lives of its believers. Also some sociologists argue that a spiritual revolution is taking place, that traditional Christianity is giving way to holistic spirituality or new age beliefs and practices that emphasis personal development and subjective experience. Heelas and Woodhead come up with two groups the congregation domain and the holistic milieu which show that the holistic milieu becoming more popular. The religious market theory contributes to this.

The main sociologists are Stark and Bainbridge that come up with the concept of a cycle of religious decline revival and renewal. They describe a perpetual cycle throughout history, with some religious declining and others growing ant attracting new members. For example churches decline they leave a gap in the market for sects and cults to attract new followers. They state that the demand for religion increases when there are different sorts to choose from because consumers can find one that meets their needs. By contrast when there is a religious monopoly it leads to the decline.

This is because without competition a church has no incentive to provide people with what they want. They also argue that the demand for religion is greatly influenced by the quality and variety of religion on offer and the extent to which it responds to people’s needs. However Norris and Inglehart show that levels of religious participation exist in catholic countries where the church has a near monopoly such as Ireland and Venezuela. By contrast, countries with religious pluralism, such as Holland and Australia, often have low levels of participation. This contradicts Stark and Bainbridges theory.

Also critics of the religious market theory are the existential security theory. Norris and Inglehart reject religious market theory on the grounds that it only applies to America and fails to explain the variations in religiosity between different societies. Norris and Inglehart argue that the reason for variations in religiosity between societies is not different degrees of religious choice but different degrees of existential security. For example poor societies have less security and therefore likely to be more religious but richer societies that are more secure are more than likely to have lower levels of religiosity.

An alternative approach that can explain some of these trends is Bruce’s theory cultural defence and transition. This shows higher than average levels of religiosity. Cultural defence is where religion provides a focal point for the defence of national, ethic, local or group identity in a struggle against an external force such as a hostile foreign power. Cultural transition is where religion provides support and sense of community for ethic groups such as migrants to a different country or culture.

Bruce argues that religion survives in such situations only because it is a focus for group identity. Overall there is evidence to support the view that religious beliefs and practices are changing to reflect a new era of diversity and choice. Such as that of Davie and believing without belonging and vicarious religion and that it is becomes increasingly privatised and a matter of personal choice. Evidence from Hervieu-Leger also supports this and her concept of spiritual shopping that the diversity of choice that there is to choose from. The idea of a spiritual revolution supports this.

Lyon and religious consumerism, the fact that people are constructing their identities though what we choose to consume. However there are theories such as the existential security theory that argue the level of religion we have isn’t due to the diversity and choice we have but the amount of existential security they have. And also Bruce’s theories of cultural defence and transition. In conclusion there are many arguments but there are more to support that religious beliefs and practices are changing to reflect a new era of diversity and choice.

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