In the social sciences generally, as well as in the social science of religion, the term theory is actually used in a multitude of applications. In a sense, every specific theory embodies a somewhat different idea of what theory means, so it is not surprising that this word tends to confuse people. For example, fully 93 articles in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy have “theory” in their titles, yet they approach it from almost as many different directions.
Citing the work of Rodney Stark and William Bainbridge, we offer the following general definition of a theory:
A theory is a set of statements, or hypotheses, about relationships among a set of abstract concepts. These statements say how and why the concepts are interrelated. Furthermore, these statements must give rise to implications that potentially are falsifiable empirically.
Rodney Stark and William Sims Bainbridge, A Theory of Religion (New York: Toronto/Lang, 1987), p. 13.
Attachment theory posits that religion can be explained by understanding the human need for attachment in general, and one’s relationship to her/his parents specifically. Childhood experience is of particular importance to explaining adult religiosity from this perspective. Attachment styles are generally divided into a tri-chotomy of:
Parental relationships are implicated in religiosity in one of two ways:
Modeling, where one’s human attachment style serves as the pattern for attachment to religion and the divine or
compensation, where religion serves as a substitute for human relationships.
Within the framework of the theory, the need for attachments is underpinned by biosocial impulses and desires that have developed over the period of human evolution.
Used in the psychology of religion, these approaches attempt to delineate the different motivations for the expression of religiosity. Originally developed by Allport and Ross (1967), the effort was to distinguish internal motivation to be religious from the external or immediate benefits offered by participation in a religious community. In other words, it seeks to distinguish between “religion that serves as its own end goal” and religion “used in the service of other goals or needs–i.e. as an instrumental value” (Gorsuch 1988: 210).
This research led to many future studies employing and refining the scale, most notably dividing the extrinsic dimension in two, as well as the development of metrics to assess different orientations such as Batson’s (1976) ”quest” dimension. Debates remain about whether some actions, such as attendance at worship service, are indicative of intrinsic or extrinsic religious motivation.
Originating in psychological studies of religion, these approaches highlight the ways in which individuals utilize religion to cope with difficult situations and make sense of events in their lives. Research indicates that people typically have naturalistic and religious meaning systems operating simultaneously, and how these systems are combined to make sense of events depends on the characteristics of both the individual and the event in question. Research on attributions is typically carried out in experimental settings where subjects are presented with scenarios or vignettes and asked how they would explain and understand the situations presented.
Similarly, research and theory indicates that religious coping is more likely to occur in situations perceived as uncontrollable. As such, levels of religious coping vary not only by individual characteristics, but also by social location (status set). Together these theories posit that religion helps satiate human need for meaning and explanations addressing existential concerns.
Interactive Ritual Chain Theory (IRC) is a perspective focusing on the interactions and the emotional input and feedback of individuals within those interactions. Drawing on the work of Durkheim ( 1995) and Erving Goffman (1959, 1967), the theory is formally posited by Randall Collins (1993, 2004; see his 2010 essay on micro-sociological approaches to religion). IRC asserts that interactions produce or deplete the “emotional energy” of participants depending on key factors. These factors include the physical co-presence of interactants, exclusivity of the group, a mutual focus and mood, and bodily synchronization. Given its situational emphasis, IRC is difficult to measure quantitatively, but it is insightful for qualitative research, especially in areas such as worship rituals. Importantly, IRC theory also situates religious actors in social space and outlines the linkages between ritual, affect, and belief.
This perspective posits that religion survives and can thrive in pluralistic, modern society by embedding itself in subcultures that offer satisfying, morally-orienting collective identities which provide adherents with meaning and a sense of belonging.
In a pluralistic society, religious groups which are better at transmitting and employing the cultural tools needed to create both clear distinction from, and significant engagement and tension with other relevant out-groups (short of becoming genuinely countercultural), will be relatively successful (Smith, 1998:118-119). Although similar to the religious economies claim that groups at a medium level of sociocultural tension will attract the most adherents, this perspective focuses more on issues of identity and symbolic boundaries by drawing on cultural sociology.
Studies of conversion, religious schisms, and secularization utilize social network theory to understand the influence of community and networks on the religious life of individuals, groups and societies. In his classic study of suicide, Emile Durkheim used religion as an indicator of how well or poorly a society was socially integrated; other research indicates that religion actively builds social networks (Durkheim 1897, Stark and Bainbridge 1981, Bainbridge 1987, Bainbridge 2006).
Religion may produce strong social networks, but it also depends upon them. Thus religion may feature as either the independent or dependent variable in studies related to this theoretical perspective. There are a number of studies of social networks where religious vitality is the result of levels of social integration (Bainbridge 1990, Stark and Bainbridge 1980, Bainbridge 1989). Also see “Conversion Theory.”
Secularization has a long history of theory relating to the idea that religion will become less powerful as a social institution with the progress of “modernity.” For example, Berger defines the term as meaning: “The process by which sectors of society and culture are removed from the domination of religious institutions and symbols” (1967:107). Secularization perspectives are varied, but in general there are three levels upon which secularization is theorized to occur (see Tschannen 1991). These are: 1) Macro – social differentiation; 2) Meso – the decline of significance of religion in organizations; and 3) Individual – a reduction in levels of practice, belief, or affiliation at the individual level. A hotly debated topic concerns the degree to which secularization is an inevitable process as societies “modernize,” or whether instances of secularization are “exceptions” (see Davie 2002; Martin 1991). Another source of contention is whether all three levels of secularization are necessarily linked together or whether processes at one level may occur without those at another.
Secularization was for a long period the dominant perspective on religious change in the social sciences. Yet there has never been a single theory of secularization. A family of theories drew on classical sociological theory. Durkheim posited that increasing social differentiation as a result of the expanding social division of labor would lead to the separation of the sacred and secular realms. Secular institutions would become predominate, the “collective conscience” generated by religious participation would erode, and the functions performed by religion would be taken over by newly specialized institutions, such as the nation-state and the education system. Weber proposed that the increasing dominance of instrumental rationality in economic and political institutions was leading to the “disenchantment” of everyday life, and eventually the eclipse of religious reason. Marx saw religion as little more than an ideological system for the justification and perpetuation of class domination, arguing that as class consciousness and materialism advanced religion would disappear.
In general, contemporary proponents of various secularization theories observe that modernity tends to erode religion’s plausibility, intensity, and authority. Further, these theories tend to posit the contemporary retreat of sacred institutions, the privatization of faith, and the “progressive shrinkage and decline of religion” in public life (Casanova 1994). Within this broad consensus, however, there are a variety of theoretical positions.
Peter Berger (1967) offers a micro-level version of the theory that focuses on the plausibility of religious concepts. He argues that changes in religious consciousness are due not only to science and the Enlightenment but also to the expanding social and cultural pluralism that is a central feature of liberalizing societies. This confrontation with pluralism was posited to damage the plausibility of religious dogma. When religious adherents encounter credible others with rival and fully incompatible claims to ultimate truth, their own certitudes begin to suffer. In liberal societies, multiple religious and secular groups jostle for influence on the basis of philosophical and ethical claims, undercutting each of their claims to predominance, and ultimately leading to the privatization of religion in civil society.
There is also a macro version of the theory. In the decades following the Second World War, most social scientists expected convergence among the Western industrial democracies and, with varying degrees of lag, a general move toward modernity by the “developing” societies. Modernization was expected to bring prosperity and opportunity, initiating a “culture shift” to post-traditional values and lifestyles (Inglehart 1990). As Ronald Inglehart and Wayne Baker (2000) explain, “Modernization theorists … have argued that the world is changing in ways that erode traditional values. Economic development almost inevitably brings the decline of religion, parochialism and cultural differences.” In fact, cross-national research does suggest a generally negative association between development and religiosity, though with some caveats. More recently, the modernization theory of secularization has been modified. Neo-modernization theory now rejects the linear implications of past formulations and seeks to link the micro and macro-levels in its explanation for religious change. The key micro-level factor is now held to be existential insecurity; the greater that insecurity, the more likely that people will be religious. But where economic, political and social conditions have improved such that personal security improves, religion loses its impact. This does not mean that the world is growing secular, however, since most of the world’s population growth is occurring in the poorest, most unstable, and most traditional societies (Norris and Inglehart 2004).
There is no unified theory of secularization, and some of the mechanisms proposed by secularization theorists seem to remain obscure. In addition, it is not clear why indicators of “secularization” are high in some modern societies – for instance, in many Western European societies – but lower in others such as the United States, or why some countries that are far less developed than the Western industrial democracies are more irreligious. Berger (2002), once a prominent proponent of the secularization thesis, now declares, “Our age is not an age of secularization. On the contrary, it is an age of exuberant religiosity, much of it in the form of passionate movements with global outreach.” Social scientists proposing the religious economies model have generally been highly skeptical of secularization theory. Rodney Stark (1999) advised that the thesis be left to “rest in peace”; contrary evidence and theoretical shortcomings effectively consigning it to the dustbin of history.
Others note that secularization often appears to be an intentional political project, rather than a spontaneous socio-cultural development (Smith 2003; Froese 2009). Many studies identify the central role played by church–state institutions in causing variation in secularization across societies. Political mobilization on the basis of religion is often triggered by the efforts of political elites to reduce the public role of religion (institutional secularization) or extend governmental authority to domains previously organized by religious organizations. State regulation or penetration into areas once dominated by religion often provokes conflict, especially where it threatens the influence of religious authorities. “Reasonable” government regulation of religious expression or activities in the interest of secularization is often viewed as an attack on religion.
Finally, there are the new cultural approaches to secularization theory that argue against linear secularization narratives but still contend that secularization is manifest in the pluralism of religious worldviews and highly individualized assemblages of religious and supernatural beliefs. As is becoming apparent in Europe and the United States, even where belief in the supernatural remains, denominational and confessional attachments appear to be weakening. As a result, religious preferences are becoming more individualized, the status of orthodox religious authorities is diminishing, and growing proportions of people seek a spirituality divorced from conventional religion (Lambert 2004). As Phil Gorski (2005) aptly puts it, “the weakening of traditional Christianity appears not as a decline of religion per se … but as a return to polysemism, since the new worldviews are not uniformly theistic.” Thus it is not that religion inevitably declines but that religion as it has been theologically and institutionally understood in the West for the last several centuries is being irresistibly altered.
Religious economies perspectives are built on rational choice assumptions. In particular these approaches assume that there are potential benefits to religious participation, both psychological and inter-personal, that people may seek. With the analogy that overall levels of religion in an area are like a market, it assumes an innate demand for some type of explanation system and posits that differences in levels of participation can be at least partially explained by the supply of “religious goods” in an area. Producers of these religious goods and individual consumers become central concepts, as well governmental regulation of religion. Other important concepts include the level of tension between a religious group and the surrounding socio-cultural environment and the level of “strictness” required to be a member of a religious group.
“Individuals act rationally, weighing costs and benefits of potential actions, and choosing those actions that maximize their net benefits.” (Iannaccone, 1997:26)
“Within the limits of their information and understanding, restricted by available options, guided by their preferences and tastes, humans attempt to make rational choices.” (Stark and Finke, 2000:38)
“A religious economy … encompasses all of the religious activity going on in any society.” (Stark and Finke, 2000:35)
This theory holds that religion is just as important a feature of modern society as it is of traditional society, but it takes different forms and possesses different characteristics. While compatible with functionalist theories, this theory does not depend upon them, because it concerns the historical transformation of religion, whereas religion’s functions may be constant. Among the most influential variants of this perspective is the pattern variable theory of Parsons and Shils.
According to them, five socio-cultural dimensions of variation together describe modernization and are applicable to religion as well as to all other major institutions of society. With the traditional end of the dimensions on the left, the pattern variables are:
Affectivity – Affective Neutrality
Self-orientation – Collectivity-orientation
Particularism – Universalism
Ascription – Achievement
Diffuseness – Specificity
Modern religion, as defined by the right end of these dimensions, is emotionally cooler than traditional religion, which is oriented toward very large social collectivities such as all humanity rather than the self and which promulgates universalistic norms and hopes of salvation, placing responsibility for moral choice in the individual. Modern religion becomes differentiated from other institutions of the society. These continua are intended to be five dimensions, rather than aspects of one, implying that prior to the completion of modernization some societies and their religions might be mixed types.
A recent critique of this theory, which grants that it has been exceedingly influential, comes from Nils Gilman (2003). Various forms of modernization theory are also intertwined with theories of secularization. Although these links were at one time conceptualized in a teleological fashion (see Gorski and Altinordu 2008), more recent scholarship has suggested that the link between secularization and modernization is more complex (e.g. Almond et al. 2003 Casanova 1994; Warner 1993).
According to this perspective, religion exists because it serves an integrating function for society as a whole. Durkheim suggested this when he argued that God represents the society, and in worshiping God, society really reveres itself. The elements of the culture that are essential to the society’s survival are labeled sacred, in this theory. Unlike theories of the rise and fall of civilizations, functionalists do not consider the survival of a religious culture to be problematic. While flavors of this theory are common in older writings on religion, among the best texts to consult are Durkheim 1915, Parsons 1937, and Parsons 1964.
Some readers of these works would draw the inference that religious individuals are more likely to follow society’s norms than non-religious individuals. However, pure functionalist theory does not rise or fall on whether this hypothesis is true, because it concerns the society as a whole, rather than individuals. In his 1964 journal article, Parsons suggests that the proof of functionalist theories of religion can be found in the fact that all societies have possessed religion – that it is an evolutionary universal necessary for the survival of society. He also considers religion to be a precondition for the development of many of the apparently non-religious features of modern society.
According to this theory, fertility and mortality rates change in a predictable manner, when a society evolves from a traditional to a modern form. Initially, death rates are high, because of the primitive technology and economic poverty of a traditional society, so birth rates were also high to sustain a stable population. At the beginning of modernization, technological and economic progress reduces the death rate, but the birth rate remains high through social inertia, so there is a population explosion. Eventually, the birth rate comes down as well, and the result is a stable population with low fertility and mortality rates. A classic statement comes from Kingsley Davis.
By the mid-1980s, however, it was apparent that most advanced industrial or post-industrial societies had birth rates that were too low to offset even a greatly diminished death rate, and after the distorting effect of the changing age distribution had worked its way through, these societies seemed doom to population collapse. The immediate relevance to religion is two-fold, because low birth rates undercut some of the family-related variables that encourage religious participation and because one of the few factors that could sustain fertility at the replacement level is religion. However, as Nathan Keyfitz pointed out, only fundamentalist religions, like radical Islam, may have sufficient fertility, and thus society ironically may become more religious through modernization rather than less (Keyfitz 1987).
This perspective has been used to explain the relative success of more conservative religious movements, in spite of the high numbers of disaffiliates in post-industrial world.
Asian religions, and some classical western philosophers, believed that history consisted of an endless series of cycles: the Wheel of Life, eternal return, or eternal recurrence. This idea can also be found in nineteenth-century European philosophies that related to religion, notably the work of Friedrich Nietzsche, and it is not entirely implausible that processes analogous to the individual’s life cycle occur on larger, societal scales.
Probably the most impressive cyclical theory that gives religion a central role is the one proposed by Pitirim A. Sorokin. For Sorokin, the most influential elements of culture are those that concern the inner experience of people, their images, ideas, volitions, feelings, and emotions. The essence of a culture is defined by the view people have of the nature of reality, the goals they value, and the means they emphasize in reaching these goals.
In his theory, each great civilization emerges out of a period of chaos with a coherent set of spiritual beliefs that give it strength. Often it is born in the development of a new religious tradition. At this point, it is what Sorokin called an ideational culture. A successful ideational culture grows and develops. With success, however, comes complaisance. The society slowly loses its faith in spirituality, doubt sets in, and the culture begins to become sensate, a perspective on existence that is the opposite of ideational. A sensate culture believes that reality is whatever the sense organs perceive, and it does not believe in any supernatural world. Its aims are physical or sensual, and it seeks to achieve them through exploiting or changing the external world.
Depending upon circumstances, most people in a sensate society will exhibit one of three personality orientations. Active individuals use technology and empire-building to take charge of the material world. Passive individuals indulge themselves in pleasures of the flesh. And cynical individuals exploit the prevailing conditions for their own profit without any ideal to provide fundamental values. The entire cycle of which he wrote can take many centuries to complete, but Sorokin believed that western society was approaching a crisis point.
Ultimately, a sensate civilization is likely to crash, ushering in a new period of intense cultural chaos out of which a new ideational civilization may be born. Sorokin wrote, “Neither the decay of the Western society and culture, nor their death, is predicted by my thesis. What it does assert… is simply that one of the most important phases of their life history, the Sensate, is now ending and that we are turning toward its opposite through a period of transition. Such a period is always disquieting, grim, cruel, bloody, and painful” (vol. 3, p. 537).
Were Sorokin alive today, he probably would cite the rise of Islamic fundamentalism as confirmation of his theory, suggest that it would result in widespread conflict and religious revival in Islamic societies, even as European Christian culture continued to descend toward at least temporary collapse.
It deserves note that the notion of a cyclical periodicity has been also applied to Western religions, and to more narrow phenomena such as political movements. For example, some researchers (Jelen 1991; Lienesch 1993) have suggested that religiously motivated political activity in the United States follows a cyclical pattern, based in part on the activation of negative affect toward out-groups (e.g. immigrants, homosexuals), and the subsequent mobilization of religious particularism.
Inspired by Lofland’s field research on recruitment to the Unification Church, in its earliest days sending evangelists from Korea to the United States, Conversion Theory offers a series of steps a person must go through in order to become a member of a new religious group:
Experience enduring, acutely felt tensions
Within a religious problem-solving perspective,
Which leads him to define himself as a religious seeker;
Encountering the group at a turning point in his life
Wherein an affective bond is formed (or pre-exists) with one or more converts;
Where extra-cult attachments are absent or neutralized;
And where, if he is to become a deployable agent, he is exposed to intensive interaction (Lofland and Stark 1965).
Fifteen years after he had collaborated with Lofland, Stark worked with Bainbridge on a paper that implied that several of the steps of the model were unnecessary, and that frequency of social interaction – the last three steps – could be quite sufficient (Stark and Bainbridge 1980). Although the process of conversion remains an important idea, the importance of social networks for conversion is the aspect of conversion theories that have had the most impact on further research. More recently scholars have taken the focus on networks and incorporated it into religious switching, and even de-conversion.
“Cognitive science is the interdisciplinary study of mind and intelligence, embracing philosophy, psychology, artificial intelligence, neuroscience, linguistics, and anthropology.” Paul Thagard in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, available online.
Recent cognitive theories have not yet been fully integrated into the social science of religion, but researchers have many opportunities to expand the scope of cognitive science (Bainbridge 2006). Wuthnow (2007) provides an introductory overview of the issues, extant literature, and potential for research avenues with regard to cognitive theories and religion.
There are actually several distinguishable cognitive theories of religious phenomena, they are:
Attribution of Intentionality: Perhaps the most widely influential theory currently in the cognitive science approach to religion holds that faith in supernatural beings is a cognitive error that naturally springs from the way the human brain evolved (Boyer 2001, Barrett 2004, Abbott 2003).
Cognitive Consistency: Theories in this sub-category argue that humans have a natural need to form consistent mental models of the world, and thus they will exert effort to resolve any contradiction between two beliefs, or between a belief and a behavior (Festinger et al. 1956, Festinger 1957).
Cognitive Efficiency: This kind of theory postulates that the human mind naturally seeks simple models of reality, and that humans will tend to avoid extreme cognitive effort. This perspective is similar to, but distinguishable from, cognitive consistency theories (Miller 1956, Newell 1990, Boyer 2001, Allport 1954, Bainbridge 1995).
Modes of Memory: Harvey Whitehouse has argued that different styles of religion are based in different parts of the brain, specifically in different memory structures (Whitehouse 2004).
Pragmatic Epistemology: Whereas some theories consider religion to be the result of cognitive errors, this theory argues that religion serves the interests of the individual and thus is true for that very reason (James 1948).
Theories in this broad category assert that each major civilization, and perhaps smaller units as well in prehistoric times and remote regions, has a degree of cultural coherence, often marked by a distinctive religion. When two such civilizations come into contact, they compete, sometimes for several centuries, with resultant religious conflict. Also, it seems likely that every civilization eventually will exhaust its central cultural principles and collapse. Thus these theories tend to concern the rise and fall of civilizations (See Gibbon 1776).
Gibbon suggests that the establishment of Christianity as the state religion was an attempt by Constantine and some of his successors to strengthen the Roman Empire. More recent scholars have argued that Christianity did indeed have a characteristic that made it suitable as a stabilizer of the state and perhaps the civilization in which the state was embedded, namely particularism. By rejecting the truth of alternative religions, it asserted a principle of central authority that could be useful to stabilize the governance of a large society (See O’Donnell 1977).
A more general civilization theory was proposed by Oswald Spengler. Spengler asserted that every great civilization was based on a single idea, and when this idea became exhausted, the civilization would fall. For modern, Western civilization the idea was boundless space, and when the Age of Exploration came to an end, by the year 1900, the doom of the west approached. Ideas like Spengler’s continue to be popular among politically conservative intellectuals, some of whom consider Christianity to be the central idea of the West (See Burnham 1964, Buchanan 2002).
Among the modern attempts to develop data that could test or refine civilization theories, the World Values Survey stands out. Publications based on it tend to give a mixed picture, with some evidence that major cultural blocs in the world do indeed have somewhat different values, but perhaps not markedly different (See Inglehart and Baker 2000). Samuel Huntington was well-known advocate of the idea that civilizations are based on competing and incompatible religious traditions, thereby limiting the extent possibilities concerning inter-civilization cooperation.
Churches are religious bodies in a relatively low state of tension with their environments.
Sects are religious bodies in a relatively high state of tension with their environments.
The sect-church process concerns the fact that new religious bodies necessarily begin as sects or new religious movements and that, if they are successful in attracting a substantial following, they will, over time, almost inevitably be gradually transformed into churches. That is, successful religious movements will shift their emphasis toward this world and away from the next, moving from high tension with the surrounding socio-cultural environment toward increasingly lower levels of tension. As this occurs, a religious body will become increasingly less able to satisfy members who desire a high-tension version of faith. As discontent grows, these people will become dissatisfied that the group is abandoning its original positions and practices. At some point this growing conflict within the group will erupt in a split, and the faction desiring a return to higher tension will found a new sect. If this movement proves successful, over time it too will be transformed into a church, and once again a split will occur. The result is an endless cycle of sect formation, transformation, schism, and rebirth. The many workings of this cycle account for the countless varieties of each of the major faiths (Finke and Stark 1992:44-45).
The church/sect cycle is proposed as a general theory of change in religious organizations over time. It is rooted in the work of Max Weber and Ernst Troeltsch, but has recently been taken up by rational choice theorists.