Belonging, Religious

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Belonging, Religious

Belonging to a religion can have many aspects, including a sense of identity, confidence that one knows the truth about the supernatural, hostility toward people who do not belong, emotional attachment to the group, and fellowship with other members. All these factors vary across individuals and denominations. The nominal Christian, who decorates a Christmas tree and hides Easter eggs for the children but never attends church and is not listed as a member of any particular congregation, belongs only in a sentimental manner. In contrast, a sect member who attends several meetings a week, has few friends outside the group, and frequently goes door to door to spread the doctrines of his or her faith belongs in a far more profound sense. When pollsters ask Americans superficially what religion they belong to, many respond in terms of their nominal affiliation with a religious tradition, which may merely reflect a vague sense of cultural identity. More painstaking research methods are required to reveal the complex and often subtle ways in which a person may be religious.

In the early decades of the sociology of religion, scholars tended to conceptualize religious identity rather globally in terms of the three major western historical traditions: Jewish, Roman Catholic, and Protestant. Classic studies, such as Suicide (1897) by Émile Durkheim and The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904–1905) by Max Weber, described people primarily as belonging to one of these three heritages. For example, Durkheim noted that Protestantism was split into a number of denominations and sects, but for him this meant that Protestants lacked the full benefits of belonging to a religious community enjoyed by Catholics, rather than that each separate Protestant group was a community of belonging.

In the following decades, American sociologists of religion tended to write about denominational differences as historical residues that should be outgrown, or as the expression of unfortunate social conflicts that should be resolved. Even as late as the 1950s, American sociologists of religion conceptualized "the religious factor" primarily in terms of these three gross categories, and many even argued that they were in the process of merging into a single nationwide sense of belonging to American religion without any consciousness of sectarian barriers.

During the 1960s, however, the rapid development of survey research revealed that American religion was a patchwork of a bewildering number and variety of faiths. Some denominations began to some extent as ethnic churches—for example, German Lutherans; English Episcopalians; and Irish, Italian, and Polish Roman Catholics. The decline of ethnic barriers, however, did not lead to a blending of the denominations, because social and theological cleavages sustained differences between existing groups and even created new dimensions of religious variation. America has proved to be an especially fertile ground for the emergence of new sects within existing traditions and for the irruption of largely new traditions, pejoratively called "cults" but more neutrally called "new religious movements." By the end of the twentieth century, scholars had written about more than a thousand separate American denominations, any one of which was capable of providing a distinctive sense of belonging.

Members of a particular group may believe that the only legitimate faith is their own, and all others are mistaken or even sacrilegious. This view is called particularism, and it can be found among some believers and groups in every religious tradition. Many Christians believe that a person can gain salvation only through faith in Jesus and that everyone who rejects Jesus is damned. Survey research studies tend to find low levels of particularism among very liberal Protestant denominations (e.g., Episcopalians, Methodists, United Church of Christ), moderate levels in a number of other large groups (e.g., Presbyterians, Disciples of Christ, Northern Baptists, and some Lutheran groups), and high levels at the sectarian end of the Protestant spectrum (e.g., Southern Baptists and sect members). Overall, Protestant-Catholic differences are insignificant. Some sects are so particularistic that members are encouraged to believe that only those who belong to their specific organization will be saved.

At the extreme, particularism can be associated with outright antagonism toward other groups. In their influential book Christian Beliefs and Anti-Semitism (1966), Charles Glock and Rodney Stark argued that Christian particularism is a major source of hostility toward and discrimination against Jews. However, this study has been faulted for using rather longs chains of inference from one statistical analysis to another and for using measures of anti-Semitism that emphasized the doctrinal differences between Christians and Jews rather than focusing on actual behavior directed against Jews. Even if the claim was true when the data were collected, it may no longer be true today. Many evangelical Protestant leaders have made highly publicized tours of Israel, which may have reinforced positive images of Israelis as the heirs of the ancient Hebrews, thus encouraging philo-Semitism among particularistic Protestants. Members of particularistic sects see the world as a moral theater where good battles against evil, but they are quite capable of scripting positive roles for nonmember allies in this drama. The diffuse but powerful evangelical movement testifies to the possibility of cooperation among people in different particularistic groups, as long as they have a sense of belonging to a shared crusade.

Fundamentally, religious belonging means membership in a particular social group, with strong attachments to other individual members. This is clear in the contemporary sociological literature on religious conversion, which emphasizes that an individual must develop strong social bonds to members before he or she becomes a committed member of the group, and that attachments to nonmembers can prevent conversion. Few people convert merely because they find a group's beliefs attractive, or because they undergo an intense emotional experience. Rather, belief and emotional attachment tend to grow gradually under the influence of friends or relatives who already belong.

Generally, to belong to one religious group means not to belong to another, so all religions are to some extent particularistic and socially separated. To attend religious services at one place and time, with one subset of one's neighbors, means to be cut off to some extent from the other neighbors. People turn to religion to solve the inescapable human problems of death, deprivation, and meaninglessness, and a religion must demand something particular of its adherents if its promises are to be at all credible. The decades-long hope of the ecumenical movement that all Christian denominations could come together seems as far from fulfillment as ever. People feel the need to belong to a particular religious group, even if it is not theologically particularistic, and belonging to American religion in general is tantamount to not belonging at all.

See alsoChurch; Congregation; Conversion; Cult; Denomination; Ecumenical Movement; New Religious Movements; Proselytizing; Religious Communities; Religious Studies; Sect; Sociology of Religion; Syncretism.


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Lenski, Gerhard. The Religious Factor. 1961.

Niebuhr, H. Richard. The Social Sources of Denominationalism. 1929.

Roof, Wade Clark, and Wilham McKinney. AmericanMainline Religion: Its Changing Shape and Future. 1987.

Smith, Christian. American Evangelicalism. 1998.

Stark, Rodney, and William Sims Bainbridge. The Future of Religion. 1985.

Stark, Rodney, and William Sims Bainbridge. A Theoryof Religion. 1987.

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William Sims Bainbridge