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sociology of religion

Asked by mandy_c | Mar 15, 2007 | University Level > Sociology > Homework
mandy_c asks:

i'm writing the following essay:
“Religion has become a consumer commodity”
Discuss the validity and the possible implications of this statement.
and i cant think of how to go about answering the question; i have stated yet i keep going off on a tangent and discussing secularisattion. Am i right to talk about secularisation or is that just talking about something completely different? What examples are there of the consumerisation of religion and how can i structure an essay around it all (with a 2000 word limit)
please help! thanks,

etutor answers:

I think this is a very tough question, and I certainly think that some discussion of secularisation is called for - ndeed it might be essential, if properly focused. Some thoughts:

1. Remember that sociologists have no agreed definition of religion. Not all even believe that it involves a belief in the supernatural. Most suggest it typically involves three characteristics - an organised collectivity of individuals, a shared system of beliefs and a set of approved activities and practices. This of necessity suggests that religion can readily becomes a 'consumer commodity', given the wide range of religions on offer, and the fact that members of a particular religion do not always share the same beliefs and practices - look at the Anglican Church in this context.

2. Durkheim's functionalist view can be made relevant, since he argued that religion provides important benefits for individuals over and above its social functions. Such benefits might include renewed strength, confidence, serenity and a sense of belonging, all of which enable it to be described as an exercise in consumerism in as much as individuals can and do select and value the parts that they like/find comforting or personally helpful, Indeed, Durkheim anticipated that the religion of the future might be one in which individuals are bound together, not through their adherence to society, but by their common commitment to the 'divine' within each person - he branded this 'the cult of man'.

3. Peter Berger, following Weber's structure, argues that the process of rationalisation (encouraged by Protestantism) has tended to demystify the modern world; this has been accompanied by high levels of geographical and social mobility, and widespread exposure to the electronic media. This has resulted in an unprecedented access to, and awareness of alternative social worlds, lifestyles and belief systems. As a result, most people's worlds have become pluralised; the world is fragmented and diverse rather than united and integrated. In these circumstances, traditional religion is plunged into a crisis of credibility as individuals are faced with any number of competing belief systems and ways of living. In a pluralistic and multicultural society, each religion becomes one among many; it is increasingly difficult to maintain that any one religion has a monopoly of the truth. And all religions also have to compete with a rapidly growing diversity of secular belief systems. The result is anomie, where people lacks clear guidance and direction; traditional religion's main function as a shield against such anomie is rendered largely impotent; some religions respond by becoming more accommodating, with far less emphasis upon doctrine and obligation; to this end, they are attempting to retain membership by 'lowering the bar' and pandering to 'consumer tastes'.

4. New Religious Movements (rather than sects or cults) could also be considered, since thwy too are meeting new requirements. Some are world -affirming (e.g. in transcendal meditation, members are enabled to live more satisfactorily or successfully in the modern world). Some are world-accommodating, encouraging their members to remain within the wider society, helping to cultivate an awareness of their 'inner power' - as in the case of Siddha Yoga. World-rejecting organisations are critical of, even hostile to the secular world; like sects, they are seen by their members as uniquely legitimate, as the sole means of access to faith/salvation/happiness. Jehovah's Witnesses are a case in point. Many people join such organisations as a means of relaxation or to gain confidence (or even identity); such behaviour might readily be interpreted as 'consumerism'.

5. NRMs flourish in periods of rapid change and uncertainty, and cann thus be seen as a response to social dislocation and anomie. People who feel their way of life is threatened (by disaster, war, contact with an alien culture, etc) may be predisposed to follow a messianic leader who clearly identifies 'the enemy', preaches a doctrine of the 'final struggle' and promises the coming of a new age. Because of the intensity, even fanaticism, that is often associated with these Movements, they can certainly be seen as consumerist since those who follow them are looking for a new identity and a meaning in their lives. Again, this is a reflection of the multiplication of lifestyles and belief systems.

6. In conclusion I would explain why traditional churches, practices and doctrines are generally in decline, and then go on to explain that we nowadays have the equivalent of a market place where a much broader range of religions has developed in response to the needs and requirements of more diverse groups. In this context, the traditional institutions have found themselves having to adapt in liberal directions to compete in the market place and to retain members. Hence, in an increasingly secular world, look at the steady shift of religious institutions' views on (and tolerance of) issues such as divorce, abortion, same-sex civil unions, etc. In short, there has been a significant shift in the direction of relative rather than absolute morality, reflecting the same shift in society's attitudes/beliefs.

I hope these ideas are helpful.

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