Religion in the Contemporary World

Third Edition

For Meryl Aldridge

Religion in the Contemporary World

A Sociological Introduction

Third Edition

Alan Aldridge


Second edition published in 2007 by Polity Press

This edition first published in 2013 by Polity Press

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Preface to the Third Edition
1   Defining Religion: Social Conflicts and Sociological Debates
Scientology: authentic religion or imposture?
Baha’i: world faith or apostasy?
Religion and the state
Advantages of being recognized as a religion
Disadvantages of status as a religion
Defining people as religious
Max Weber: on not defining religion
Émile Durkheim: defining religion sociologically
Contemporary sociological definitions of religion
A Wittgensteinian approach
Further reading
2   Secularization: The Social Insignificance of Religion?
Karl Marx and the projection theory of religion
Émile Durkheim and the social functions of religion
Max Weber and the disenchantment of the world
Defining secularization
Secularization from within
Decline of community
Marginalization of charisma
Cultural amnesia
Pluralization, relativism and consumer choice
Reason, rationality and science
A consensus on dystopia?
Further reading
3   Secularization Challenged: A New Paradigm?
A secularization theorist recants
A new paradigm
Voluntarism according to Talcott Parsons
The demand for religion: a rational choice?
The supply of religion: the benefits of competition?
Strict churches and free-riders
The Mormons: a new world faith?
Jehovah’s Witnesses: overcoming the failure of prophecy
The new paradigm and the rise of the megachurches
The Pentecostals
Further reading
4   Dangerous Religions? Sects, Cults and Brainwashing
Classifying Christian movements
religious movements
Dynamics of change
The rise of ‘brainwashing’
Identifying potentially destructive movements
The fall of ‘brainwashing’
Further reading
5   Dangerous Religions? Fundamentalism
Bible believers
Fundamentalism and monotheism
Features of fundamentalism
Further reading
6   Civil Religion and Political Ritual
Ritual and social integration: the legacy of Durkheim
‘In God We Trust’: civil religion in the United States
The European Union: symbols of an unfinished project
Symbolic division in society: the peace process in Northern Ireland
Political religion in an atheist society: the Soviet Union
Political religion and charismatic leadership: Nazi Germany
Character and society
Further reading
7   Gender and Sexuality
The subordination of women
Reclaiming the symbols of subordination
Gender-blind religions?
Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) identities
Further reading
8   The Spiritual Revolution
Georg Simmel: an alternative classical view
Believing without belonging
From religion to spirituality?
A new age?
Religion online and online religion
Individualism and the crisis of religious authority
Religion in consumer society
Lived religion and sociological analysis
Further reading
9   The Challenge of Diversity
The debate about multiculturalism
French culture and the veiling of women
A clash of civilizations?
The challenge of diversity
Grassroots responses to diversity
Afterword: a culture war?
Further reading

Preface to the Third Edition

The secularization thesis, once the prevailing orthodoxy in the sociology of religion, holds that religious institutions, and the common culture of beliefs and practices that they had transmitted from generation to generation, have been undermined by the impact of modernization. Religious institutions have dwindling power and authority, religious practices are falling into disuse, and religious beliefs are losing credibility. Religion might persist, but this could be only in minority movements and communities at the margins of society, or as the private beliefs and personal preferences of individuals. In both cases, religion loses social and cultural significance.

Two fundamental assumptions of secularization theory are that there is a sharp divide between the public and the private sphere, and that the public sphere has primacy over the private. Those assumptions explain why religion is described as being ‘confined’ or ‘relegated’ to the private sphere. Privatized religion, it is argued, lacks social and cultural significance. It is the form of religiosity ideally suited to a consumer society: shallow, fickle, self-absorbed, a religion of options rather than obligations, of personal expression rather than social commitment.

Contrary to these assumptions, the relationship between the public and private spheres is not given but contested. Many of the controversies examined in this book, such as the veiling of women, the teaching of religion in schools and the exemption of religion from various laws, reflect profound struggles over the definition of ‘public’ and ‘private’. Religion is a matter of identity, and identity is neither private not trivial.

Arguing that the formal belief-system and authority structure of a given religious institution or movement should not be the only or even the main objects of analysis, some sociologists are focusing on the religious experiences, practices and beliefs of individuals as they live their everyday lives. The emphasis is on the multiple ways in which people creatively select and shape a path for themselves, often drawing on beliefs and practices that are not officially approved by the authorities of their faith community.

Whereas the secularization thesis expresses a deep cultural pessimism, a naive optimism can result from undue emphasis on the liberation of individuals from authority structures. Modernity has not abolished constraint and oppression. Instead, religion involves an interplay between choice and constraint, between identity as something we choose for ourselves and identity as something that is imposed on us. At the same time profoundly individual and profoundly social, religion is a source of individual comfort and also anxiety, and of social cohesion and also conflict. It is a phenomenon of the utmost social and cultural significance.


I am delighted to have the opportunity to renew my gratitude to Eileen Barker, Jim Beckford, Christian Karner and the late Bryan Wilson for their encouragement and example. Saul Becker helped me to make this project viable. I should also like to thank the staff at Polity, particularly my editor, Jonathan Skerrett, and also Sarah Dancy, who copy-edited the text.

Most importantly, I repeat my profound debt to Ernest, Elsie and Marjorie Aldridge, and dedicate my book to Meryl Aldridge.


Defining Religion: Social Conflicts and Sociological Debates

Invited to declare their religion in their country’s 2001 national census, thousands of people in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom gave the answer ‘Jedi’ or ‘Jedi Knight’, after the characters in Star Wars. Many did so in the mistaken belief that, if enough people gave the same answer, their government would be forced to recognize Jediism as an official religion.

Asking questions about religion is notoriously sensitive, particularly in a national census, participation in which is a legal requirement on all citizens. Countries that include a question on religion in their census have therefore usually made the question voluntary, whereas all the other questions are compulsory. When people give presumably facetious answers, such as professing to be Jedi Knights, the authorities simply ignore it. Given the sensitivities and possible constitutional objections to asking about religion, many countries heave ceased to include religious questions in the census. France abandoned the practice after 1872, and the US Census Bureau did so after 1936. No other census topic, not even ethnicity or race, has been so controversial as religion.

In the United Kingdom, secularist organizations, notably the British Humanist Association ( and the National Secular Society (, argued that the 2001 census greatly overestimated the number of people who have a religious faith. According to them, the question, ‘What is your religion?’ is misleading, since it measures cultural identity rather than active religious faith. Yet, they argue, the government uses the inflated results – 72 per cent said they were Christian, and only 15 per cent said they had no religion – to justify the privileges enjoyed by religious organizations and the support they receive from the state, including the controversial state funding of faith schools. In the run-up to the 2011 census, people were urged not to say they were Christians merely because that was the faith of their parents. The British Humanist Association’s campaign slogan was originally, ‘If you’re not religious, for God’s sake say so!’, but this was judged to be potentially offensive, so the ironic reference to God was subsequently removed.

But is the contrast between active faith and cultural identity as sharp as the secularists maintain? Is cultural identity to be dismissed as merely a nominal allegiance? Defending its own use of the question, ‘What is your religion?’, the Australian Bureau of Statistics ( points out that religious organizations are major providers of services in schooling, health, community support and care for older people. This is so, one might add, in a country that is often identified as one of the most secular in the world. Many people access these services on the basis of their religious identity. Across the world, countless ‘nominal’ Christians send their children to Christian schools. Members of other faiths frequently choose a Christian school in preference to a secular one. If Hindus, Jews, Sikhs, Muslims and others aspire to faith schools of their own, it does not make them activists, still less fundamentalists.

Controversies about census questions on religion involve critical issues of religious identity and affiliation, and the relationship between religion and the state. They invite the crucial question: ‘How are we to define religion?’ One answer might be to determine the origin of the word. The first step is easy: ‘religion’ derives from the Latin word religio. But that simply invites the further question: what is the derivation of religio?

The answer to that question has always been problematic. Among the various suggestions offered over 2,000 years of scholarly debate, two stand out (Schott 2008: 105; King 1999: 35–41). The great orator Cicero (106–43 BCE) said that religio derived from relegere, meaning ‘to read again’ or ‘to retrace’. Religion involves retracing, studying, cultivating and transmitting the customs, practices and traditions of one’s ancestors. Cicero’s view is a classic expression of the perspective of the pre-Christian Roman Republic and subsequent early Empire. Religion implies cultural identity, so religion and culture are inseparable. The implication is pluralistic: every society has its own culture, and hence its own religion. The wise course is to tolerate other people’s religion, and to demand that they respect your own.

Against this interpretation, the Christian convert Lactantius, writing in the early fourth century CE, argued that religio derived from religare, meaning ‘to bind again’. Religion involves bonds of piety and devotion that tie human beings to God. Religion implies active faith. Religion and culture are not inseparable, as they were for Cicero. Religion is the transcendence of culture. True religion, which to Lactantius meant the Christian faith, puts fallen humanity into communion with God. It does not tolerate superstitious practices and false gods.

Relegere or religare: the choice is not neutral, but defines what religion really is. Any attempt to define religion is an act of power, and all definitions provoke counter-definitions. Academics, politicians, lawyers, religious leaders and their followers: all have an interest in how religion is defined.

Debates about the definition of religion carry ethical and political implications for society and for people of all faiths and none. At stake is not just the definition of religion, but the distinction between good and bad, and authentic and bogus. We can see this in the strongly pejorative tone of much of our vocabulary about other people’s religion: sects, cults, brainwashing, mind control, fanaticism, fundamentalism.

Failure to agree on a definition of religion is an inescapable social fact. Instead of deploring the failure, we should analyse it. This requires us to focus on the particular: not religion in the abstract, but this movement, these people, in that situation.

We begin with two examples. The first is a movement that has grown rapidly in many countries, but has also been unpopular and controversial: Scientology. The second case, the Baha’i faith, raises no problems in Western liberal democracies, where Baha’is are seen, in so far as they are noticed at all, as tolerant, peace-loving people who value education and give equal rights and status to women and men. In parts of the Muslim world, in contrast, the Baha’is are treated as heretics.

Scientology: authentic religion or imposture?

Scientology grew out of the therapeutic system called Dianetics, which was developed by L. Ron Hubbard and canvassed by him in the May 1950 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, before publication in book form as Dianetics: the modern science of mental health. (For an overview of the development of Scientology and key debates surrounding it, see the articles collected in Lewis 2009.) Dianetics involves a therapeutic relationship between an auditor and the individual – the preclear – undergoing the therapy. The auditor asks a series of questions, and the responses given by the preclear are registered on an E-Meter, a skin galvanometer similar to a lie-detector. From the E-Meter’s readings, the auditor can identify areas of stress caused by engrams, traumatic experiences in early childhood which the preclear has repressed into his or her subconscious reactive mind. The aim of auditing is to release the preclear from the harmful effect of these accumulated engrams by erasing them from the reactive mind, thus enabling the subject to ‘go clear’. A clear enjoys enhanced powers, such as higher IQ, better memory, and improved mental and physical health.

Scientology built a complex cosmological and metaphysical system on the basis of Dianetics. Human beings are in essence spiritual entities, thetans. Immortal, omniscient and omnipotent, thetans created the universe – made up of MEST (Matter, Energy, Space and Time) – but foolishly became trapped in their own creation as they deliberately shed their powers, eventually forgetting their own origins and status as thetans. When a human body dies, the thetan moves to the body of a new-born baby. Thetans have therefore occupied innumerable bodies during the aeons that have elapsed since the creation of MEST. The spiritual technology of Scientology builds ‘The Bridge to Total Freedom’, enabling the thetan to recover its lost powers by elimination of the reactive mind, so that the thetan can be at cause -that is, in complete control of the course of events in its life.

The development of Scientology from Dianetics had two crucial elements. First, Scientology adopted a centralized authority structure. Dianetics had been relatively free and easy: if a particular technique worked for you, fine – the customer was always right. As a result, various practitioners launched independently their own alternative versions of Dianetics, thus threatening Hubbard’s authority. He responded to this by developing a bureaucratic hierarchy and an internal system of discipline, designed to prevent the emergence of rival sources of authority within the movement.

Second, Scientology increasingly defined itself as a religion. Alternative practitioners and their followers were transformed from competitors into heretics. Greater emphasis was given to ritual, ministry, ethics, creed and similarities to the philosophical systems of Asian religions. Hubbard’s writings were and continue to be treated as sacred scripture, and are not to be criticized. Significantly, an esoteric body of doctrine developed around the story of Xenu, dictator of the Galactic Federation 75 million years ago, who dealt with overpopulation in his empire by paralysing billions of his subjects and transporting them to the planet Teegeeack (the Earth), heaping their bodies around volcanoes, and detonating H-bombs. The bodies were vaporized, but the thetans, traumatized, survived. The psychological consequences of this catastrophe, known as Incident II, have been fateful for humanity, and provide profound insights into the human condition. This is dangerous knowledge. It was revealed in 1967, thanks to Ron Hubbard’s heroic ‘plunge’ back through 75 million years. Scientologists do not divulge this knowledge to outsiders, and have to be carefully prepared to receive it, learning it in full only when they are initiated into the advanced status of Operating Thetan Level III (Rothstein 2009).

In its short history, Scientology has been caught up in a series of clashes with the authorities in several countries. An indication of the conflicts to come occurred in 1958, when the US Food and Drug Administration seized, analysed and then destroyed supplies of Dianazene, a compound that Scientology was marketing as effective in preventing and treating radiation sickness (Wallis 1976: 190–1). Dianazene proved to be no more than a straightforward compound of iron, calcium and vitamins.

Publication in Australia in 1965 of the report of a National Board of Inquiry, chaired by Kevin V. Anderson, gave rise to hostile media coverage and government-sponsored investigations into Scientology in many parts of the English-speaking world. Anderson condemned Scientology as an evil system that posed a grave threat to family life and to the mental health of vulnerable people. In the wake of this, the Australian authorities banned the practice of Scientology. In 1968, the UK government decided that foreign nationals would cease to be eligible for admission to the UK to study at or work for Scientology establishments; many were deported.

Throughout these turbulent years, the Church of Scientology continued to affirm its identity as a religion, and frequently took its case to court in an effort to assert its legal rights and to qualify for the tax concessions granted in many countries to recognized religions. One country in which the Church of Scientology has so far failed is Germany (Boyle and Sheen 1997: 312–14). The German authorities regard Scientology as a threat to the democratic principles on which the state was founded after the defeat of Nazism. The Weimar Republic, which collapsed in 1933 when Hitler became Chancellor, is judged to have been suicidal. In particular, Weimar politicians were too relaxed about democratic liberties and too indulgent towards undemocratic elements such as the National Socialists who cynically exploited the very freedoms they would then destroy. The Federal Republic is not about to repeat this self-destruction, but will be robust in its own defence. It takes firm measures to prevent what it sees as attempted Scientological infiltration of public agencies and private industry and commerce. Some German companies have dissociated themselves from Scientology, so that their business will not suffer. Scientologists experience widespread discrimination, ostracism and intolerance. Above all, Scientology is denied the status of a religion. The prevailing official view is that Scientology’s religious claims are bogus on two counts. First, they are no more than a smokescreen for the movement’s lucrative commercial activities. Scientology’s therapies are expensive. They are sold to clients who are engaged on a never-ending quest for higher states of being, a process aptly described as ‘the exchange of wealth for status’ (Bainbridge and Stark 1980: 134). Second, Scientology claims to be a religion allegedly in order to secure democratic freedoms that it does not merit and would abuse. The Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution ( produces an annual report covering the following threats to democracy in Germany: right-wing extremism, left-wing extremism, Islamic terrorism, terrorism by foreign nationals, espionage, and the activities of Scientology.

These reports contend that, despite professing to be an apolitical body that respects democratic freedoms, Scientology has a sinister agenda. Its long-term goal is to expand its membership and influence in order to achieve a society founded on Scientological principles. Such a society would not hold free and fair elections, would cease to guarantee basic human rights and would discriminate against people who were not Scientologists.

In support of these allegations, the reports quote extensively from Hubbard himself. The implication is that Hubbard’s writings are like Hitler’s Mein Kampf: they reveal what would be in store for Germany if the movement were to achieve power. In response, the Church of Scientology contentiously compares its predicament to that of the Jews in Nazi Germany, and has repeatedly appealed to the United Nations to intervene with the German authorities on its behalf.

Scientology has also had a mixed relationship with academic researchers. On the one hand, Roy Wallis gave graphic accounts of attempts by members of the Church of Scientology to discredit him personally and professionally, and to subvert or suppress his research findings. On the other hand, Scientology has also sought scholarly support for its campaigns for recognition. In 1996 I received, unsolicited, free copies of papers written by 22 distinguished academics.All of them concluded that, like it or not, the Church of Scientology qualifies as a religion.

Baha’i: world faith or apostasy?

The origins of the Baha’i faith lie in a radical religious movement within Shi’a Islam that began in Iran and Iraq in the 1840s under the leadership of the prophet known as the Bab (in English, the Gate). In some respects the Bab is to Baha’is what John the Baptist is to Christians: John prepared the way for Jesus, the Bab prepared the way for Baha’u’llah (a title meaning Glory of God). From the end of the nineteenth century, Baha’is began to spread their faith to the West, gaining converts in the United States, Great Britain, France and Germany. There are now more than six million Baha’is worldwide. (Smith 2008 provides a clear and comprehensive overview of the Baha’i faith.)

Baha’is believe that God has sent a series of prophets with a divine message for humanity appropriate to each stage of human cultural development. These prophets include Adam, Abraham, Krishna, Moses, Zoroaster, Buddha, Jesus Christ, Muhammad, the Bab and Baha’u’llah; through them, the divine plan has been progressively revealed. The prophet for our own age is Baha’u’llah; his successor is not expected for another thousand years. Baha’is say that the world’s great religions contain prophecies that have been fulfilled in Baha’u’llah and in the Baha’i faith, which is destined to become the major worldwide religion, uniting humanity in a shared theocratic system.

Neither the values nor the activities of Baha’is have caused any problems to Western liberal democracies (McMullen 2000). The faith is peace-loving and law-abiding, opposes superstition and racial prejudice, supports education and science, is committed to environmental protection and sustainable development, upholds family values, and promotes equality of women and men.

In many Islamic countries, by contrast, Baha’is have been seen as heretics, apostates and undercover agents for the Western powers. Persecution of Baha’is has been severe in the country where the faith had its deepest roots: Iran. The Baha’i faith is doctrinally offensive because it does not recognize Muhammad as the final Seal of the Prophets and the Qur’an as the absolute and definitive word of God that has existed for all eternity. In this perspective, Baha’is are apostates; that is, they have wilfully abandoned Islam – the crime of irtidad or ridda. Although the death penalty for apostasy is not mentioned in the Qur’an, it is in the Hadith (the sayings of the Prophet and his companions) and is recognized by Islamic law.

After the overthrow in 1979 of the regime of Mohammad-Reza Pahlavi, the last Shah of Iran, many Baha’is were arrested, tortured and executed. Their property was confiscated, their institutions closed, and their burial grounds desecrated. These actions had popular support. Baha’is were considered to be not only apostates, but also unpatriotic and subversive. They were judged to have supported the Shah’s programme of modernization along Western lines. Their extensive international contacts, and the location of their administrative headquarters at Haifa in Israel, were held up as proof that they were agents of the West, and not members of a genuine religion at all.

The cases discussed above highlight the fact that the definition of religion, including any attempt to distinguish authentic from bogus religion, is of more than scholarly interest. It can profoundly affect people’s lives. It raises issues of church–state relations, the constitutional rights and liberties of religious minorities, including intolerant ones, and the prospects for international agreement on human rights.

Religion and the state

Every society grants special status to religion.

The First Amendment to the American Constitution stipulates: ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.’ This placing of religion in the context of rights and freedoms shows that the Constitution’s emphasis is on protecting religious beliefs and practices from interference by the state.

France, too, has a separation of church and state. Article 2 of the law of 9 December 1905 states: ‘The Republic neither recognizes, nor funds, nor subsidizes any religion.’ In contrast to the American case, the aim is not to protect religious beliefs and practices from state interference, but to free the state from entanglement with religion. The immediate reaction from the Vatican to the 1905 law was Pope Pius X’s encyclical Vehementer Nos, which roundly condemned ‘the enemies of religion’ who ‘have succeeded at last in effecting by violence what they have long desired, in defiance of your rights as a Catholic nation and of the wishes of all who think rightly’.

Superficially, maintaining what Thomas Jefferson famously called ‘a wall of separation’ between church and state, and what in France is known as the principle of laïcité (roughly translated as ‘secularity’), might appear to be a straightforward matter. Survey evidence from the USA and France shows widespread public support for the principle of separation, which is deeply embedded in the political culture of those countries. Even so, the actual practice of church-state separation is contested, and the education system is a crucial arena in which such battles are fought – unsurprisingly, given the role of schools in the transmission of cultural values. Exclusive Brethren refuse to study computer science. Jehovah’s Witnesses reject theories of evolution, and do not want them taught to their children. Many conservative Christian groups demand that creation science or intelligent design be taught as a genuinely scientific alternative to Darwinian evolution. Legislation developed in the West over the course of centuries, and designed to deal with the rights of mainstream Protestants, Catholics and Jews, now faces unforeseen challenges.

In the United States, interpretations of the ‘no establishment’ and ‘free exercise’ clauses of the First Amendment have been deeply contested. The complexity of these debates shows that there is not a simple divide between religious activists who aim to destroy the wall of separation and committed secularists who want to keep the wall as high as possible. During the twentieth century, particularly from the 1940s onwards, the Supreme Court became increasingly active in enforcing First Amendment rights, striking down numerous state laws as unconstitutional. Ingrained in the complex legal debates are a number of crucial questions that reflect the challenge of social and cultural diversity. For example, is the underlying reality that the United States is a Christian, or perhaps Judaeo-Christian, nation? When the law speaks of ‘religion’, is it giving, and should it give, pride of place to mainstream Christianity and also, arguably, Judaism? Should public institutions be permitted to display the Ten Commandments? If so, where does all this leave the other great Abrahamic religion, Islam? And what of the world’s other major faiths such as Buddhism and Hinduism? What of the Mormons, given that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sees itself as the Christian church restored to the fullness of faith? What, finally, of the host of minority religious movements, some of them imported, but the majority home-grown?

Even if the nation is thought not to give priority to any one religion, is there an assumption that religion in general takes precedence over unbelief? Is this what is implied by the motto ‘In God We Trust’ inscribed on the currency, or by the reference to ‘one Nation under God’ in the Pledge of Allegiance, or by the fact that presidential addresses to the nation invariably end ‘God bless America’? Are these religious statements that breach the wall of separation between church and state, or are they, as the majority of Americans appear to believe, more a matter of political culture and tradition?

What counts as religion? Is desecrating the American flag a religious act, an irreligious act, or a legitimate form of political protest? Is reciting the Pledge of Allegiance a religious rite? Is intelligent design a scientific theory that should be taught in schools, or a matter of religious faith that should be kept out of them? Should school prayers be permitted, particularly if they are demanded and led by students? As in France, many of the contentious issues in church–state relations involve the place of religious beliefs and symbols in public (state) schools. This shows that although the First Amendment’s ‘free exercise’ clause is designed to shield religion from state interference, the ‘no establishment’ clause carries some implication that, as in France, the state and its citizens need protection from religious coercion.

Whatever their view of church–state relations, most modern societies operate on a ‘rule-and-exemption’ approach (Barry 2001: 32–62). Laws are passed that are binding on all citizens, except that certain specified categories of people are granted exemptions, mainly on the grounds of religion. Consider three such examples.

First, most modern societies have legislation on animal welfare that requires slaughter to be carried out humanely so that the animal suffers as little as possible. Humane slaughter implies that the animal will be stunned to render it unconscious before its throat is cut and it bleeds to death. Many societies grant an exemption from this provision to permit ‘religious’ slaughter by the Muslim Dhabh or Jewish Shechita methods, in which, traditionally, the animal is slaughtered without prior stunning.

Second, many societies have granted exemptions to Sikh men, permitting them to wear a turban instead of a safety helmet. In the UK, a law passed in 1976 exempted ‘turban-wearing followers of the Sikh religion’ from the requirement to wear a crash helmet when riding a motorcycle. Sikh men are the only people in the UK granted such an exemption.

Third, Amish communities in the USA and Canada benefit from various exemptions. A landmark United States Supreme Court decision of 1972 exempted the Amish from compulsory attendance at school beyond the eighth grade (after they are 14 years old).

These cases, and others like them, are controversial. Why should any social group be exempt from the law? Robbins (1988: 164–8) has argued that, at least in the United States, controversy about religious movements is fuelled by their status as privileged enclaves. Although the state is gradually extending its regulatory control into all areas of social life, transforming private troubles into public concerns, religion and religious movements enjoy legal privileges that insulate them from state interference in their affairs. A ‘regulatory gap’ is opening up, Robbins argues, between tightly regulated secular organizations and their privileged religious counterparts.

Barry (2001) maintains that it is almost invariably better either to impose a law on everyone or, alternatively, to abolish it. Abolishing unnecessary laws increases our freedom. If a law is necessary, members of a religious community still have choices. Jews and Muslims who object to a society’s laws on humane slaughter have the choice of becoming vegetarians. As for Sikhs, nobody forces them to ride motorcycles; they could choose another means of transport.

Although it may be denied officially, the rule-and-exemption approach implies tacit assessments of the social value of different religious traditions; the state is never neutral. Judaism and Islam are recognized as two of the world’s great salvation religions; their practices command widespread respect, and are therefore more likely to enjoy exemptions. The Amish fled Europe to escape persecution; this fact of history, and their peaceful presence in the USA and Canada for more than 200 years, is a powerful symbolic defence against apparent persecution in the New World. As for Sikhs, they have a strong military tradition; Sikh regiments fought with distinction in the British army in two world wars. Their war service was repeatedly cited as a reason for granting them an exemption from legal requirements on safety helmets. Military leaders argued that the British people owed a debt of honour to a faith community whose forebears went into battle wearing turbans. This may not have been a valid argument under British law, but it carried considerable weight as a social fact that helped the Sikhs to gain their exemption.

In all such debates the facts are disputed. Does religious slaughter inflict unnecessary suffering on an animal? Is high school education superior to education provided in Amish communities? And does a Sikh’s turban offer effective protection? As well as factual arguments, there is the persistent question: are these practices required by the religion, or are they merely a matter of custom? A growing number of Muslims, and a far smaller number of Jews, accept that pre-stunning animals does not render the meat ritually unclean. Some say that wearing a turban may be a long-standing custom among Sikhs, but is not formally required by the Sikh faith. And, if they were required to do so, presumably Amish would send their children to school without compromising their standing in the eyes of God? Is their wish not to do so really a matter of religion?

Such arguments presuppose a sharp distinction between religion and culture (Lactantius’s religare rather than Cicero’s relegere). If such a distinction is accepted, the conclusion is then drawn that only practices that are required on religious grounds are candidates for exemption. How, then, can a society distinguish between religion and culture? Can a predominantly Christian legislature correctly interpret the Hadith (the sayings of the Prophet) or the Qur’an? Could a secularist body adjudicate on Jewish ritual or the teachings of Jesus Christ? Renouncing such cultural imperialism, contemporary societies typically try to identify community leaders who will provide accurate information about the requirements of the faith community they claim to represent. This gives them an incentive to emphasize the religious elements of those communities. Because it is the path to recognition and respect, religion has become ever more important in the politics of community representation.

Secularists focus on the question: Why should religion be exempt? Religion, they argue, should be treated as a matter for the individual, a personal preference confined to the voluntary sector and the private sphere. To grant religion a special status under the law is, they say, to pander to irrationality and bigotry. It gives too much power to community activists, who claim to speak for the whole of a community and who misleadingly define that community in terms of its religion. Many things that communities might like to do are rightly forbidden, even when a religious justification may be claimed for them, such as forced marriage, polygamy, child labour and genital mutilation of young girls. These practices have no place in a civilized society – and nor, by implication, in a civilized religion.

The fundamental problem with the secularist programme is its desire to force religion into the private sphere. That outcome would be acceptable only to those faith communities, such as the Amish, that seek to withdraw from the world. Provided they are allowed to practise their faith without undue interference, they are content. Withdrawal from society is one strand in Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Buddhism, Sufism, and the Hindu and Jain faiths, but it applies with full force only to religious virtuosi such as monks, nuns and hermits. For everyone else, the message of Judaism, Islam and most of Protestant and Catholic Christianity is to call humanity to serve God through action in this world.

Religions are grounded in a source of ultimate meaning and authority; they command and demand respect. Any attempt to confine religion to a private sphere of individual belief and devotion is bound to be challenged. It is not possible, even in a society that aspires to be secular, to treat religion as a purely private affair to which the state can be indifferent.

Analysing the International Religious Freedom Reports published annually by the US Department of State (, Grim and Finke (2011) find a high correlation between restrictions on religious freedom and the intensity of religious persecution in a society. In the nation-states they identify as sociopolitical monopolies, where there are not only legal constraints on religious activity but also deep social hostilities towards some religions, levels of persecution and violence are high; examples they give include Bangladesh, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Sudan as it was before the independence of South Sudan in 2011. All these are Muslim-majority states. Grim and Finke argue that the problem is not primarily caused by Islamic fundamentalism, but by the drive to impose national unity on socially divided postcolonial societies. Contrary to those who argue that restrictions on religion are necessary to promote social harmony, Grim and Finke conclude that pluralistic, religiously liberal societies have low levels of religious persecution and violence.

Advantages of being recognized as a religion

Gaining legal protection

Religious movements are granted wide protection under the law in many countries. In the USA, the Supreme Court, as the guardian of the Constitution, has played a crucial role in determining the context in which religious movements operate.

The unconstitutionality of any establishment of religion in the USA means that no arm of government may pass legislation singling out any particular church or religious belief for special treatment. In Thomas Jefferson’s much-quoted phrase, there is ‘a wall of separation’ between church and state. After a protracted legal campaign – the so-called ‘saluting the flag controversy’ – a decision of the Supreme Court in 1943 overturned earlier rulings and upheld the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ constitutional right not to salute the flag or recite the Pledge of Allegiance.

Reciting the Pledge of Allegiance – ‘I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all’ – is a regular ritual at school and at civic events. It is a normal, taken-for-granted aspect of being American. To Jehovah’s Witnesses, however, it is an idolatrous act. It means worshipping the nationstate and its flag instead of Jehovah, much as the Israelites bowed down to the golden calf.

Over and above national legislation, religious movements may appeal to international organizations such as the European Union or the United Nations. At issue are basic human rights, as enshrined in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948: ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.’

Gaining tax benefits

Many countries grant tax concessions to officially recognized religions. Achieving recognition can therefore be an important goal. For example, the Church of Scientology’s long-running campaign against the Internal Revenue Service in the USA finally succeeded in 1993, when it was granted tax-exempt status. This brought with it the additional advantage that anyone giving money to the Church of Scientology could claim tax deductions on their contributions.

In the UK, the Church of Scientology presented a similar case, but failed. The Charity Commissioners for England and Wales ruled in 1999 that although Scientology professed belief in a supreme being, its core practices – ‘training’ and ‘auditing’ – did not constitute acts of worship. Training involves intensive study of the movement’s literature, and auditing takes the form of individual counselling sessions. Neither practice exhibits any of the characteristics that would mark it out as a form of worship: adoration, submission, devotion, veneration, homage, supplication, sacrifice, praise, prayer and thanksgiving. Scientology asserts that training and auditing bring practitioners closer to ultimate reality, the ‘eighth dynamic’ or ‘the urge to exist as infinity’, but the Charity Commissioners decided that to count this as worship would be to violate the normal meaning of the term. They also noted that Scientology is a controversial new religious movement whose benefits to society remain unproven.

The Unification Church (the Moonies) received a more favourable legal judgment. In the 1980s, the then prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, urged the Charity Commissioners to review the church’s qualification as a religion for charitable purposes, with the tax advantages that followed. Despite the clear wishes of Thatcher and intense public hostility to the Moonies, the Attorney-General dropped the case against them, leaving their status as a religion intact. They were more unpopular than Scientologists, but more recognizable as adherents to a religion. In the USA, meanwhile, the Reverend Sun Myung Moon was successfully prosecuted and imprisoned on charges of tax evasion.

In Germany, religious organizations with public law status enjoy the benefit that the state will collect taxes on their behalf from their members. To achieve public law status, a movement must prove its durability. It is required to show that it is well organized, with a sizeable membership and sound finances. It must also have been in existence for a minimum of 30 years. The law is designed to exclude short-lived volatile ‘cults’, particularly those that target young people, such as the Unification Church.

Jehovah’s Witnesses have been engaged in a campaign to qualify for public law status in Germany. Like the Church of Scientology, Jehovah’s Witnesses are not well regarded by the federal authorities, which see their movement as totalitarian.

Shedding the ‘cult’ label

The position of a minority religious movement may be strengthened if it can demonstrate its ties to an ethnic community, and through that to a major world religion. This is the case for the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (the Hare Krishna movement). ISKCON was founded in 1966 by His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. Its devotees became a familiar sight in Western cities, processing in their colourful robes, the men with heads shaven to leave only a top-knot remaining, chanting the mantra ‘Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare’ – which even became a minor hit record. ISKCON was vulnerable to derogatory classification as a ‘cult’, with allegations that it targeted vulnerable young people, brainwashed them, used deceptive techniques of fundraising, broke up families, and moulded members to be dependent on the movement and its semi-monastic life. To counter this image, ISKCON has emphasized the priestly functions it performs for the wider Hindu community (Carey 1987; Rochford 2007). This role derives from ISKCON’s roots in the centuries-old tradition of Vaishnava Hinduism, which cultivates worship of the god Vishnu and his avatars (roughly, incarnations) Krishna and Rama. Bhaktivedanta Swami’s mission to save the West from its materialism was not simply an end in itself, but was also aimed at India, calling on it to return to the true path of spirituality. The objective is to position ISKCON not as a ‘cult’, but as a component of a great world faith that deserves respect.


As well as the specific benefits outlined above, religious organizations enjoy a degree of respect as religions. As ever, this varies from society to society. In Great Britain, for example, ministers of religion are generally regarded as men and women of integrity, the charitable work of churches is well thought of, and many people continue to look to churches to provide rites of passage such as baptism, marriage and funeral services. Perhaps all this is in decline – an issue examined in Chapter 2. But even if decline is under way, the mainstream churches retain a significant degree of public esteem, and minority movements are likely to continue to seek a share of it.

Many groups campaign determinedly for some measure of ‘official recognition’, and are delighted if they succeed. Druidry provides an example. In 2010, the Charity Commission for England and Wales decided that the Druid Network qualified for registration as a charity, since it had demonstrated that its purpose was ‘the advancement of religion for public benefit’. The UK media misinterpreted this administrative decision as ‘official recognition’ of a religion that had been in existence for thousands of years. The Druid Network claimed that its pioneering four-year struggle to convince the Charity Commissioners would pave the way for other Pagan religions to achieve ‘recognition’.

Contrasted to this is the case of Finland, where a campaign by Wiccans failed in 2001 to obtain the status of a registered religious community, a decision upheld on appeal two years later. The specific advantages conferred to registered religions under Finnish law were less important to Wiccans than their desire ‘to be recognised and accepted by Finnish society’ (Taira 2010: 384).

One key element in respectability is to be known to perform good works for the benefit of others. This taps into deep-rooted themes in the major religions of the world. For Jews, giving material help to people in need is a cardinal principle of the faith. Traditionally, Jewish homes have a container, the pushka,zakat,shahada,salat,saum,hajj,