Friday, April 1, 2011

Religion, Society & Diversity

The relationships between any factors of society are complex, changing, and debated. Whether the debates contribute to social harmony, predict future trends, or if can only observe what will naturally unfurl is also available for debate. The influencing significance of each factor of religion, society, and diversity upon one another varies between disciplines. Religion and society are both changeable and are consistently feeding into each other’s realms, with the rise of diversity affecting all aspects of social life. This essay summarises theories relating to the effects of religion on society and vice versa, whilst accepting that they are not truly mutually exclusive. It also explores the debate on the effects of diversity as it increases with globalisation and modernisation.

When exploring religion as systems of faith and worship, it can be difficult to disentangle it from the cultural context within which it is being scrutinised. By the same token, religion as identity is difficult to disentangle from other forms of identity of race, class, gender and ethnicity (Warf and Vincent 2007, p599). Due to the inseparable relationship of religion with politics, economics, media, and individual autonomy and identity, care must be taken not to assume that religions are homogenous unchanging doctrinal groups. Rather, according to the theory of Weber, religions are varied and changing systems that give meaning to social life and identity (Tucker 2002, p167). They can provide individuals with direction in terms of their social actions, using spirituality as a base for their framework for meaning. Whilst spirituality can exist individually, Ammerman (2010, p157) argues that religious institutions ‘give shape to discourse about spirituality’, providing a structure to that spirituality. This in turn can result in spiritual experiences being ‘institutionally shaped’ (Ammerman 2010, p157), so that spirituality and the religious institution with which one associates become one and the same.

Religion affects society by appealing to individual need for meaning, but also utilises its power to influence society via the State. There has been a worldwide shift toward secularisation, described by Turner as having three components: decline in Church membership and attendance; marginalisation of the Church from public life; and the dominance of scientific explanations of the world (Turner 2006, p440). Although this shift may have appeared to separate State and religion in secularised nations such as Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and many in Europe, the influence of religion on policy choices is apparent. It has been contended that religion’s role in national and international politics is indeed growing (Warf and Vincent 2007, p597). However, whilst religion influences society it is simultaneously being influenced by other societal factors and norms. It adjusts with the changing conditions of society to reproduce security in the meanings of the period. In the classic theory of Althusser, the Church is described as a key institution that impresses the ideologies of the dominant groups of society to the remainder of the populous. In this way, religion exercises power to conform the ways in which people decipher meaning, and the way that they act, in accordance with dominant ideologies (O’Shaunessy & Stadler 2002, p216). It is suitable to recall that ‘religion is a way of crystallising cultural patterns and not a fully autonomous phenomenon’ (Parker Gumucio 2008, p319).

Another key institution Althusser exemplifies as a pusher of the dominant ideology is the media. Religion is able to liaise through the media (and vice versa) to output the messages and meanings that are beneficial to the status quo. Yet it has been argued that thanks to the media ‘the globalisation of popular religion makes it increasingly difficult for the virtuosi to regulate the mass’ (Turner 2006, p440). The effects of globalisation and modernisation on religion and society is a mass arena of study; the diversity that is a result of it being a significant factor. It was assumed that increased diversity would lead to a decrease in religious activity. However, in the wake of modernisation, this has not been proven to be the case.

The theory was that competition and religious choice would lower the credibility of any one faith (Warf and Vincent 2007 602), whilst rising levels of security and well-being would see individuals having less need to seek meaning from religion (Pettersson 2006). To the contrary, Bouma (2007) suggests that what he calls a ‘religious resurgence’ has occurred. His argument is that the increased religious diversity and contact that results from migration, coupled with the failure of ‘secularist humanist paradigm’ to explain meaning, explains the shift (not decrease) in religious participation (Bouma 2007, p188). Sociologist, Thorleif Pettersson (2006) explains the shift of religious participation similarly, suggesting that secularisation as caused by modernisation may influence religion to become a matter of individual choice rather than social issues. In this sense, religious participation isn’t declining, but rather the ‘societal effects’ of religion are changing, with religious focus becoming centred on the home and family, and less bound in institutions. This resonates with Webers prediction that rationalisation associated with modernisation ‘encourages the capacity to think in terms of abstract principles not tied to specific religious traditions’ (Tucker 2002, p174).

Bouma’s notion of ‘religious resurgence’ is supported by Religious Market Theory, which works on the law of supply and demand, claiming that the cultural diversity resulting from globalisation provides people with increased supply (competition). The more competition and less regulation there is in the religious market, the better quality the supply of religion will be to meet the demand, and hence more participation (Pettersson 2006, p238). The theory is contentious as it assumes that religions act as profit-maximisers, but Bouma has identified competition as being a healthy result of cultural diversity for religious participation. There is the possibility of religious competition leading to interreligious conflict, when one group ‘seeks to overcome, eliminate, or convert the other to extinction’ (Bouma 2007, p190). Boundaries are created around particular groups in order to separate them from the ‘imaginary other’ that they feel is a threat to their own group. In Australia, the media representation of ‘terrorist attacks’ such as 9/11 have led to a created ‘other’ being those of Muslim faith. Where European migrants were the threatening other in the 1950s, and Asian migrants in the 80s and 90s, now the focus has shifted to Muslims as the threatening other, as they are associated with fundamental terrorism (Bouma 2007, p197). It has been suggested that interreligious conflicts need to be contextualised as interethnic conflicts (Parker Gumucio 2008). The implication here is that religious boundaries have become less defined as diversity allows for more exchange between belief systems, culminating in individualised, rather than homogenous, religious realities.

In light of the complexities and symbiotic relationship between religion and society, it is clear that it is not helpful to view religion as homogenous but rather must take factors of spirituality, politics, economics, individual meaning and identity into account when assessing its effects and influences. Permeable boundaries that diversity creates are changing the ways in which people practice religion, whilst not decreasing the amount of practice or spirituality as a whole. Theories of religious resurgence and the religious market to explain this shift in religious practice have been shown to be valid in response to globalised diversity, yet whether the effects are positive or negative to society has not been discussed. The effects of diversity on religion and society can only continue to be observed, with the hope that the creation of ‘the other’ is reduced to avoid conflict.


Ammerman N.T, 2010. Challenges of Pluralism: locating Religion in a World of diversity. Social Compass 57(2): 154-167.

Bouma G.D, 2007. Religious Resurgence, Conflict and the Transformation of Boundaries. In P Beyer and L Beaman, Eds, Religion, Globalization and Culture. Leiden and Boston, Brill: pp187-202

O’Shaunessy. M. & Stadler, J. 2002. Dominant ideology, RSAs and ISAs. Media and Society: an introduction. 2nd ed. Oxford University Press, Oxford: pp198-221

Parker Gumucio, Cristian, 2008, Interculturality, Conflicts and Religion: Theoretical Perspectives. Social Compass 55(3): 316-329

Pettersson, Thorleif 2006. Religion in Contemporary Society: Eroded by Human Well-being, Supported by Cultural Diversity. Comparative Sociology 5(2-3): 231-257

Tucker, K. H. 2002. Weber: Modernity and Rationalisation. Classical Social Theory. Blackwell Publishers London: pp154-187

Turner, Bryan S. 2006.Religion. Theory, Culture & Society 23(2-3): 437-444

Warf B and P. Vincent, 2007. Religious diversity across the globe: a geographic exploration, Social and Cultural Geography 8(4): 597-613.

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