Religion, Renewal and Choice

New forms of religion

  • some sociologists argue that society isn’t completely secular, while traditional religions may be declining, other newer religions are emerging often as a result of changes in wider society such as greater individualism, choice and consumerism.

From obligation to consumption

  • Davie (2013) argues that there was an obligation to go to church as it was the norm but in modern society its now due to choice and consumerism.
  • Davie argues that religion isn’t declining but simply taking a different, more privatised form. Despite this people are still holding onto religious beliefs (believing without belonging)
  • Vicarious religion is now becoming more of a trend, this means religion practiced by an active minority on behalf of the majority who experience it second-hand. In Europe major churches are seen as public utilities or ‘Spiritual Health Service’ (it’s there when you need it like the NHS). Davie compares vicarious religion to an iceberg; the surface appears the smaller commitment but underneath lies a wider commitment
  • Voas and Crockett (2005) don’t accept Davies claim of believing but not belonging, evidence shows that both beliefs and attendance levels are declining together. Bruce adds that if people aren’t willing to invest themselves in religious practice then are they really believers?

Spiritual shopping

  • Hervieu-Leger (2000) blames the decline of religious obligation on ‘cultural amnesia’, before children were socialised into religions belief however the view that religion is passed down through generations has been forgotten. Also, the trend towards equality has banished the churches view of there being an almighty.
  • People in the modern day have developed their own ‘do-it-yourself’ beliefs that gives meaning to our lives and fit in with out own interest and aspirations (spiritual shopping).
  • Hervieu-Leger argues that two new religious types are emerging: pilgrims (those who follow their individual paths in search for self-discovery – emphasises personal development) and converts (those who join religious groups in order to belong to a community, it may be based around ethnicity – such groups recreate he sense of community that has been lost in society due to loss in religious traditions)
  • Related to postmodernity due to the increased individualisation

Postmodern religion

  • Lyon (2000) agrees that believing without belonging is becoming increasingly popular, he states that the postmodernist society we now live in is changing the nature of religion (these include globalisation, the importance of media and the growth of consumerism)
  • Religious ideas have become ‘disembedded’ from churches and spread across the media due to globalisation, e.g. televangelism has relocated religion onto the media allowing believers to express their faith without needing to attend church. This has resulted in religion becoming deinstitutionalised, it has been removed from its original location in a way that people can adapt it for their own purposes.
  • Hellend (2000) distinguishes 2 types of internet activity involving religious organisations: religion online (where religious organisations talk to their followers/coverts without any dialogue, an electronic version of their hierarchal communication) and online religion (a community where individuals can visit virtual worship, explore shared spiritual interests and provide mutual support)
  • As Hervieu-Leger noted within ‘spiritual shoppers’ as there’s more consumerism in postmodern society, we are able to pick and mix elements of different faiths to suit our tastes and make them part of our identity. This concludes that people haven’t given up on religion, just tailored it to suit their own religion, as Lyon notes religion isn’t declining just evolving. This kind of religion means that there’s a loss of faith in meta-narratives (theories that claim absolute truth), traditional religions lose authority and decline as there’s no longer a monopoly of truth.
  • New age beliefs and practices put emphasis on spirituality, reject traditional views and connecting with ones ‘inner self’, the key feature is individualism which encourages ‘self-spirituality’ or ‘self-religion’
  • Lyon criticises secularisation for assuming that religion is declining, he argues that we are actually in a period of re-enchantment with the growth of unconventional beliefs, practices and spirituality.

Spiritual revolution?

  • Some sociologist argue that a spiritual revolution is taking place within society, where Christianity (congregational domain) is giving way to ‘holistic spirituality’ (holistic milieu). Increased spirituality has seen a growth in the spiritual market.
  • Heelas and Woodhead (2005) investigated whether traditional religion has declined and whether spirituality was compensating for it, they found that in 2000 7.9% of the population attended church and 1.6% took part in holistic milieu
  • They found that congregational domain attendance was dropping overall and holistic milieu was rising, their explanations for this included: the massive subjective turn of the new age meant that there was a shift away from obligation to religion, demand duty to religion was dropping, evangelical churches while having the duty and demand of traditional churches were still rising due to their inclusion of spirituality

Weakness of the New Age

  • The problem with scale- even if newer forms of individualised religion were increasing, it would still have to fill the large gaps left by the decline of traditional religions.
  • Socialisation of the next generation- parents aren’t socialising their children into the ways of the New Age, also women from the holistic milieu are remaining childless
  • Weak commitment- sociologists found that while people dabbled in mediation, horoscopes etc they don’t actually have a serious commitment

Religious market theory

  • Stark and Bainbridge criticise secularisation as a theory noting that there has never been a ‘golden age’ of religion as well as it being Eurocentric
  • They proposed the religious market theory which is based on two assumptions: people are naturally religious and religion meets human needs and it is human to seek rewards and avoid costs
  • They argue that religion is attractive as it provides us with religious compensators (when real rewards are scare, we have supernatural ones). They put forward a cycle of renewal where some religions grow and others decline. They also state that churches operate like companies selling goods in market, churches that make their product attractive will succeed in attracting more customers (religious competition)

America vs Europe

  • Demand for religions increase when there’s more to choose from, in contrast is a religion has religious monopoly of truth then there’s no competition
  • Stark and Bainbridge believes that religion thrives in the US as there is no monopoly of truth, this means that there has been a variety of competition and a healthy religious market
  • In Europe however, most countries have been dominated by an official state church meaning that religious monopoly has been high and there’s been no competition so the lack of choice has then led to a decline.
  • They conclude that supply is the most important factor when influencing religious participation, participation increases when there is an ample supply of religious groups to choose from. Also, that the decline of religion isn’t universal

Supply-led religion

  • A lot of studies support Stark and Bainbridge’s theory that the demand for religion is greatly influenced by the quality and variety of religion on offer
  • Finke (1997) argues that lifting the Asian immigration laws in America causes Asian faiths became another option that proved popular with consumers in the religious marketplace
  • Hadden and Shupe (1988) argued that the growth of ‘televangelism’ in America shows that the level of religious participation is supply-led, commercial funding opened up competition and responded to consumer demand by preaching a ‘prosperity gospel’


  • Bruce (2011) rejects the view that diversity and competition increase the demand for religion, statistics show that decline of religion and diversity accompany one another
  • Bruce also argues that Stark and Bainbridge misrepresent the secularisation theory, it doesn’t claim that there was a ‘golden age’ just long-term decline, nor does it claim that secularisation is universal
  • Beckford claims that the religious market theory is unsociological through it claims that people are naturally religious but doesn’t explain how.

An alternative view: secularisation and security

  • Norris and Inglehart (2011) reject religious market theory over how it focuses on America
  • They claim that variations of religious following comes down to the society and the degrees of existential security (the feeling that survival is secure enough to be taken for granted), those in poor societies or poor who live in rich societies face more life-threatening risks so therefore are more religious. Therefore, demand isn’t constant and varies in between cultures.
  • Europe have the highest rate of secularisation as their society is the most equal, America however is incredibly unequal which creates high levels of poverty and brings a greater need for religion
  • Gill and Lundegaarde (2004) found that the more a country spends on welfare, the lower the level of religious participation (another reason why Europe is more secular than US). They do not believe that religion will disappear completely due to the security needed from welfare provision, it doesn’t answer all the ultimate questions that religion does.


  • They only use quantitative date about income levels, they don’t examine peoples own definitions of ‘existential security’
  • They see religion as a negative response to deprivation, they ignore the positive reasons people have for religious participation.