Religious Movements

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Most people do not perceive religious beliefs as changing very much over time. Religions, after all, are engaged in the propagation of eternal truths. While it is understandable that religious organizations may change, that process is perceived to occur only very slowly. Indeed, changes in beliefs are perceived to occur so slowly that adherents and leaders alike hardly notice.

Contrary to popular perceptions, both religious beliefs and religious organizations are dynamic, ever-changing phenomena. Changes in the beliefs and organizational structure of religions reflect adaptations, accommodations, and innovations to continuously changing cultural, political, and economic environments. Without more or less constant change, religions would become irrelevant to their environments, and would simply become defunct. Indeed, this has been the fate of many religions in the history of humankind.

Changes in both beliefs and organizational structure may occur as the result of actions taken by leaders empowered to make such changes, but even greater change occurs as the result of religious movements. How religious movements effect change, both within and outside religious organizations, is the subject of this essay. The essay unfolds in three parts. First, the classic scholarly literature about religious movements is examined within the framework of a simple typology that pivots on the origins and target of change sought by movements. Second, the phenomenon of religious fundamentalism is examined as an exemplar of religious movements. Selection of fundamentalism is appropriate because it is one of the most important religious movements of the twentieth century. In the final part of the essay, the emerging theoretical work on religious movements is linked to some practical implications of religious movements and the future of religion in human cultures.


Religious movements may be understood as a subcategory of social movements—that is, organized efforts to cause or prevent change. There are three discrete types or categories of religious movements. First, endogenous religious movements constitute efforts to change the internal character of the religion. Second, exogenous religious movements attempt to alter the environment in which the religion resides. Third, generative religious movements seek to introduce new religions into the culture or environment.

Religions consist of beliefs, symbols, practices, and organizations. Endogenous movements seek to change one or more of these aspects of a religion. Some endogenous movements have had monumental impact on both history and culture—for example, the great schism that split Christianity into Western Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy in the eleventh century; and the Reformation, which developed in the sixteenth century and split Protestantism from Roman Catholicism. Other movements, while important to the participants, have been of little cultural significance.

Endogenous movements frequently result in a schism—the division of the religious organization into two or more independent parts. Protestantism has been particularly schism-prone. Melton (1996) has identified more than 750 Protestant groups in North America alone. New religious groups formed through the process of schism are known as sects. Sectarian movements tend to be led by laity, or lower-echelon clergy. Many religious movements result in reform rather than schism. Reform is a more likely outcome when movements are initiated by the religious leaders, or when the religious hierarchy responds to and coopts grass roots demands for change. Through the centuries, the Roman Catholic Church has been particularly effective in coopting and reincorporating movements into the church. We see them today as religious orders.

Pope John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965) in response to strong internal pressures to modernize the Roman Catholic Church and improve relations with other faiths. The Council produced many wide-sweeping changes in the Catholic Church. In addition, it spawned many other religious movements within the Catholic Church (e.g., liberation theology, the movement for women's ordination, and movements for greater lay participation).

A second important hierarchically initiated movement of the twentieth century was the Protestant ecumenical movement. After several centuries of denominational proliferation, mostly occurring as the result of schism, the second half of the twentieth century has witnessed a powerful ecumenical movement that has resulted in the union of diverse Protestant traditions.

Exogenous movements constitute a second general type of religious movement. They are concerned with changing some aspect of the environment in which a religious organization exists. All religious organizations bring four imperatives to the environments in which they exist: (1) survival, (2) economic viability, (3) status, and (4) ideology (Hadden 1980). As long as these interests are secure, the religious organization exists in equilibrium or harmony with its environment. This is the normal relationship between religions and the culture. In sociological literature, these groups are identified as churches, or denominations.

When a religious group's interests are threatened, or the leadership seeks to enhance or expand interests, religious movements may ensue. Often, exogenous religious movements are indistinguishable from social movements. Indeed, they are frequently pursued in coalition with secular social movement organizations.

In addition to legitimating religious movements with transcendental principles, religious leaders are often enlisted by secular social movement leaders to legitimate their movements. As a general proposition, religious leaders are specialists in the legitimization of social movement causes.

In the second half of the twentieth century, liberal Protestantism has forged coalitions with virtually every liberal cause on the scene. Evangelical (conservative) Protestantism, on the other hand, has coalesced with economically and socially conservative causes. In both instances, religious organizations engage in movement activity to promote some element of their ideology. At the same time, in doing so, they hope to enhance their status. Much of the exogenous social activism of evangelical Christian groups during the past quarter-century has been grounded in the presupposition that a morally corrupt society threatens the survival of culture itself.

The very essence of religious organizations is that they carry cultural values, ideals, customs, and laws that claim transcendental character. When religious leaders engage in exogenous religious movements, they almost always draw on these transcendental principles to legitimate their cause. The claim that movement objectives are part of a divine plan, or that God is on the side of the movement, may serve as a powerful motivation for adherents of the faith to participate. Witness, for example, the many occasions during the 1980s when Islamic leaders exhorted their followers to engage in jihad (holy war).

The civil rights movement in the United States was substantially a religious movement. It was led by black ministers, activities were organized in black churches, funds were raised in liberal white churches, white clergy bolstered the troops who marched and picketed, and idealistic black and white youth—motivated by their religious traditions—participated in civil rights campaigns and projects.

The strength of the movement came not only from the broad base of religious participation but also from the ability of the leaders to legitimate the movement constantly in terms of sacred religious principles. For example, civil rights leaders repeatedly quoted the passage in the Declaration of Independence that acknowledges the role of the Creator in human rights: "We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. . . ."

The Solidarity labor movement in Poland, which was the first major social movement that led to the collapse of communism in eastern Europe, sought and received legitimacy from the Catholic Church. Not only in Poland but also throughout eastern Europe, religious traditions were deeply involved in the movement for liberation from communism.

Not all exogenous religious movements are movements of liberation. Around the globe religious groups call on divine providence to help them in struggles against other religions, ethnic rivals, and unsympathetic governments.

There are literally hundreds of these movements around the world in various stages of ascendancy or abatement. In predominantly Hindu India, Muslims in the northern province of Kashmir seek independence or union with Pakistan, while Sikhs in the nearby province of Punjab have for many years waged a bloody confrontation with the government for independence. In Sri Lanka, just off India's southern shores, Tamils, members of a Hindu sect, seek an independent state in a nation that is predominantly Buddhist. In Northern Ireland, Protestants and Catholics have experienced periodic conflict since Protestant settlers arrived in the middle of the seventeenth century, but since 1968 the two rivals have been locked in a high level of tension punctuated with intermittent outbursts of violence.

The third type of religious movement is generative—a deliberate effort to produce a new religious movement. Either new religions are introduced to a culture externally by missionaries, or they are products of innovation (invention) by members of the culture. Whereas schismatic movements produce variations on an existing religion within a culture, new religions are novel to the host culture. Sociological scholars refer to these new religions as cults.

New religions are not necessarily newly created. Hare Krishnas, adorned in saffron robes and chanting on street corners, first appeared in the United States during the mid-1960s. The Krishnas brought with them Hindu beliefs and practices that were clearly novel to North America, but that had been first practiced in India in the sixteenth century. In contrast, the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, a Korean and founder of the Unification Church, created a religion that involved a blending of significantly reconstructed Christian beliefs with important elements of Eastern religions. In still another example, L. Ron Hubbard, a science fiction writer, published a book in 1950 titled Dianetics, which outlined psychotherapeutic or mental health techniques. The book became a bestseller, and in 1954 Hubbard founded the Church of Scientology.

In these three groups we have examples of, first, the importation of an old religion based on sacred texts of Hinduism (Hare Krishna); second, a newly created religion based on reported revelation from the God of the monotheistic traditions of Judaism and Christianity (Unificationism); and third, an indigenous religion based on techniques of modern psychotherapy (Scientology). All are new and novel to North American culture.

The late 1960s and early 1970s produced a flurry of new religious movements in the United States. The youth counterculture of the 1960s provided a receptive environment for new religions. Equally important, the repeal of the Oriental Exclusion Acts in 1965 paved the way for many Eastern gurus to come to the United States as missionaries of their faiths. While not nearly as extensive, this activity can be compared to that of the Christian missionaries, who flocked to Africa and Asia, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, to seek converts to their faith.

This period of rapid cult formation was not particularly unique. The nineteenth century, for example, produced a large number of cult and sectarian movements in the United States. Christian Science, Mormonism, Seventh-Day Adventism, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Theosophy are but a few examples of groups that emerged in that time frame and that remain viable in the late twentieth century.

Significant social science literature exists on all three types of religious movements: endogenous, exogenous, and generative. The focus of inquiry has shifted significantly over time, and the discipline of the investigators has influenced the selection of questions addressed.

During the formative years of sociology much attention was devoted to discerning how new religions arise and evolve. This interest was motivated by the legacy of early sociological writing on the church-sect typology by Max Weber and Ernst Troeltsch. Sects develop as a result of dissent within churches, when the dissenters break away and form sects. Over time, they institutionalize and gradually become more like the churches they earlier broke from, even as new sects are being formed. Sects tend to recruit disproportionately from the "disinherited," or the economically deprived classes. Further, sectarian groups tend to socialize their members to the dominant middle-class values of society.

Until the mid-1960s, much of the sociological literature focused on movements that have here been identified as endogenous. Much of this literature concerned questions relating to the formation of religious movements and could be classified as consisting of theories of: (1) deprivation (socioeconomic and other), (2) social dislocation, and (3) socioeconomic change.

Historical work has focused on exogenous and generative movements. Norman Cohn's monumental work The Pursuit of the Millennium concludes that revolutionary millenarian movements during the eleventh and sixteenth centuries drew their strength from groups on the margin of society. Cohn uses the term marginal to describe persons who are not just poor but who also have no "recognized place in society [or] regular institutionalized methods of voicing their grievances or pressing their claims" (1970, p. 282). Historical literature supports much sociological work that finds religious groups emerging on the fringe of society.

Anthropological literature tends to focus on generative movements. The question that dominates their inquiry was inherited from the evolutionary agenda of Social Darwinism in the late nineteenth century: What are the origins of religion? New religions, they conclude, emerge during periods of rapid social change, disorganization, and dislocation. In anthropological literature, this cultural strain is most often identified as the result of the invasion of an indigenous culture by a militarily advanced culture—the typical pattern of conquest and colonization by European cultures from the late fifteenth century forward.

The new religions are variously identified as "cargo cults," "messianic movements," "nativistic movements," and "revitalization movements." Anthropological literature postulates that new religions emerge as a means of dealing with cultural stress. La Barre (1972) generalizes from the scores of ethnographic studies of anthropologists to locate the origins of all religions in cultural crisis. Lanternari, surveying anthropological and historical literature on new religions that emerged as a result of intercultural conflict, concludes that these religions "tend to seek salvation by immediate action through militant struggle or through direct and determined opposition to the foreign forces" (1965, p. 247).

Psychological literature has been much less concerned with religious movements. Following the logic of Sigmund Freud's cultural bias against religion, many psychologists have identified the leaders of religious movements as psychopathological and their followers as psychologically defective. This literature has not been particularly productive of insights about religious movements.

The ferment of generative religious movements in the wake of the youth counterculture of the late 1960s stimulated a tremendous volume of sociological inquiry. In terms of sheer volume, research and theorizing about "new religious movements" eclipsed all other subtopics of inquiry in the social scientific study of religion during the 1970s and 1980s (Bromley and Hadden 1993). These studies examined (1) the organizational development of new religions, (2) the structural and social-psychological dynamics of affiliation and disaffiliation, and (3) the persistence of intragroup conflict between new and established religious traditions.

In addition, the 1980s saw significant theoretical developments in the conceptualization of the role of religious movements in sustaining religion in human cultures. By the early 1990s, this literature was beginning to be recognized as a distinct departure from, and a challenge to, the prevailing model of religion that dominated the social sciences for most of the twentieth century. Indeed, from the inception of the social sciences, scholars worked within an intellectual framework that viewed religion as incompatible with the modern world that is dominated by science and reason.

In 1993 Stephen Warner published an article that proclaimed a "new paradigm" in the sociology of religion. The key theoretical ideas in Warner's argument were most closely identified with the work of Rodney Stark and his colleagues. Warner showed how support for the new paradigm has been mounting in much social research, but especially in the work of young social historians. We will return to the "new paradigm" in the final section of this essay and examine how it has altered our understanding of the role of religious movements in human culture. Further, we will see how the new paradigm restructures the central task of the sociology of religion as the study of religious movements.

We turn next to an examination of fundamentalism, a religious movement that spans most of the twentieth century. Several reasons are offered for exploring fundamentalism in some depth. First, fundamentalism is one of the most important movements of the twentieth century and, thus, deserves to be examined in its own right. Second, the widespread cultural prejudice against this conservative manifestation of religion has spilled over into scholarly literature, with the result that little empirical understanding of fundamentalism developed until near the end of the century. Third, the foundation for a much better understanding of fundamentalism is now in place. We shall briefly discuss the literature that constitutes this foundational work, and point to some research tasks that are required before a mature scholarly understanding of fundamentalism can be achieved.


Fundamentalism is an important religious movement that dates from the early twentieth century. Fundamentalism may be understood as protest against the quest of liberal Protestant scholars to resolve the apparent contradictions between religious knowledge and scientific discoveries. Such an effort, it was believed, could lead only to Christianity's capitulation to the ontological superiority of science as a path to truth.

From the early years of fundamentalism, most persons who have stood outside the movement have seen it through stereotypical lenses—provided substantially by the mass media—and have failed to grasp the complexity, nuances, and implications of the movement. Thus, almost from the beginning of the movement, fundamentalism has been a concept associated with religions that are perceived to be backward and potentially dangerous.

Fundamentalism has four distinct meanings. The first three meanings were in place by the end of the first quarter of the twentieth century; the fourth does not appear until the last quarter of the century. The different meanings are often intermingled in both mass media and scholarly usage, with the result of considerable confusion and misunderstanding of the phenomenon. Significant theological and historical literatures are available on fundamentalism, but neither a theoretical nor an empirical sociological literature is well developed. This section of the essay of religious movements first identifies the four distinct meanings of fundamentalism and locates each in historical context. It then turns to a discussion of how a seriously flawed construct might be employed to better understand the phenomenon, and especially its utility for comparative sociological research.

First, fundamentalism refers to a Christian theological movement that experienced its greatest strength in the first quarter of the twentieth century. This movement was concerned with defending the faith against an internal movement seeking to make changes to accommodate Protestant Christianity to the modern world. As a theological movement, fundamentalism sought to purge the teachings of "modernism" from churches and theological schools. Modernist teachings had emerged during the late nineteenth century as a means of accommodating Christian doctrine to the evidence and teachings of science.

The most basic teaching of fundamentalism is that the scriptures are inerrant—that is, literally true. Closely related is the doctrine of millenarianism, which prophesies the imminent return of Christ. In the early days of the fundamentalist movement, these theological battles were waged in the leading theological seminaries of the nation (e.g., Princeton Theological Seminary).

An important development in this struggle was the publication, between 1910 and 1915, of a series of twelve books that sought to defend and reaffirm "fundamental" Christian principles in the face of the teachings of liberal scholars that did not believe the Bible should be understood as literal truth. Leading scholars from the United States and England contributed articles to the books, titled The Fundamentals, which were published by two wealthy Christian brothers, Lyman and Milton Steward. Copies of The Fundamentals were distributed gratis to over a quarter-million clergy members, seminary students, and teachers throughout the United States. These tracts provided the inspiration for the name of the movement. The term "fundamentalism," however, was not coined until 1920 by Curtis Lee Laws, a Baptist newspaper editor.

Defense of the faith against the encroachment of modernist theological teachings was at the core of the movement. But the holiness movement profoundly influenced fundamentalism, which was just as concerned with correct behavior as fundamentalism was with correct belief. The personal piety and renunciation of "worldly" vices of the holiness movement was combined with the combative spirit of theological fundamentalism to produce a political fundamentalism, the second distinct meaning of fundamentalism.

Fundamentalism as a political movement has had several phases. The first wave of political fundamentalism was a short-lived but vigorous conservative movement with several agendas, including temperance and anticommunism. The critical and ultimately fatal crusade of the fundamentalist movement occurred in the arena of public education policy. Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, which had gained popularity among scientists and teachers, was clearly incompatible with a literal reading of the Bible. Among other incompatible passages in the Bible, the Genesis story of creation states that the earth and all that dwells therein were created in six days. The fundamentalists launched a campaign to prohibit the teaching of Darwinism in public schools, a campaign that initially met with considerable success in several states.

The struggle came to a climax in 1925 in one of the most celebrated trials of the twentieth century. John Scopes, a substitute biology teacher, was charged with violating a Tennessee state law that prohibited the teaching of evolution. Dubbed the "Monkey Trial," this epochal event drew two of America's greatest trial lawyers to the tiny town of Dayton, Tennessee. Speaking for the prosecution was William Jennings Bryan, brilliant orator and presidential nominee of the Democratic Party on three occasions. Bryan was the unchallenged leader of the fundamentalist political movement. Clarence Darrow, a bitter foe of organized religion, defended Scopes. Darrow gained prominence as a defender of labor unions and in litigation against monopolistic corporations. He was believed by many to be the outstanding trial lawyer in the nation.

The highlight of the trial came when, in a surprise move, Darrow called Bryan as a witness. While Bryan claimed to have been a scholar of the Bible for fifty years, his ability to defend some of the finer points and implications of fundamentalist theology proved wanting. In the end, his testimony was a debacle for the prosecution. George Marsden described the scene thus:

Bryan did not know how Eve could be created from Adam's rib, where Cain got his wife, or where the great fish came from that swallowed Jonah. He said that he had never contemplated what would happen if the earth stopped its rotation so that the sun would "stand still." (Marsden 1980, p. 186)

The trial was quintessentially a confrontation between the emerging modern world and the forces of tradition. The drama was played out on the turf of traditionalism—a sleepy, small town in Tennessee—but journalists who were sages of the new modern order communicated the trial to the world. The fundamentalists were portrayed as fossilized relics from an era long past. Darrow himself portrayed the trial as a struggle of modern liberal culture against "bigots and ignoramuses" (Marsden 1980, p. 187).

John Scopes was convicted, but that fact seemed inconsequential. The forces of modernity and tradition had met face to face, and modernity triumphed. William Jennings Bryan collapsed and died a few days after the trial without ever leaving Dayton, Tennessee. In popular myth, Bryan died of a broken heart. Bryan had planned a national campaign to compel schools across the nation to teach evolution as a theory, not a scientific fact. There was no one else of Bryan's stature to pick up the cause. The first wave of political fundamentalism died when Bryan was unable to defend its theological underpinnings.

The third distinct meaning of fundamentalism emerges from a melding of the theological and political movements to create a popular caricature of small-town Americans as culturally unenlightened religious fanatics. Journalists H. L. Mencken and Sinclair Lewis, writing in the second and third decades of this century, set the tone and style of a genre of lambasting literature that subsequent generations of writers have admired and sought to emulate. Fundamentalists were portrayed as backwater fools preyed on by hypocritical evangelists, and as a withering species destined to disappear from the modern world. They could be meddlesome and annoying, but they were not viewed as politically dangerous. In time they would most certainly die off, even in the rural hinterlands of America.

The Scopes trial clearly marked the demise of the first wave of political fundamentalism. Fundamentalists in the major Protestant denominations lost ground to the modernists on the theological front. But biblical fundamentalism did not so much wane as pass from high public visibility. A number of leaders bolted from mainline Protestant churches and formed new denominations and seminaries. But out of the limelight of the press and mainstream culture, fundamentalism did not wither as had been forecast. Rather, it continued to grow, particularly in the Midwest and the South (Carpenter 1997).

Fundamentalists also were schism-prone, so that none of the scores of groups developed into large new denominations, such as occurred with the Baptists and Methodists in the nineteenth century (Finke and Stark 1992). This, too, served to diminish the fundamentalists' visibility. An important development occurred during the 1940s when fundamentalism effectively divided into two camps. The first, which was more insular and combative toward the larger culture, joined with Carl McIntire to create the American Council of Christian Churches (ACCC). McIntire was militantly antimodernist, and he viewed the ACCC as an instrument for doing battle with the liberal Federal Council of Churches (FCC), which in 1950 became the National Council of Churches.

A second and larger contingent of fundamentalists, who were neither with the militant McIntire contingent nor the modernist tradition aligned with the FCC, came together in 1942 to found the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE). Theologically the NAE might have considered themselves neofundamentalists, but they recognized the negative cultural stereotype associated with fundamentalism. The use of the term "evangelical" was a reappropriation of a term that most Protestant groups used to describe themselves before the modernist-fundamentalist schism. Some of the leaders of the NAE later admitted that the name "evangelical" was a strategy to escape the negative cultural stereotypes against fundamentalism. The concept of evangelicalism was simply more respectable.

Publicly NAE leaders stressed their desire to emphasize the positive aspects of their beliefs in contrast to the highly negative and combative posture of the ACCC toward both theological modernism and political liberalism. The label "evangelical" has served well those millions of Christians whose theological beliefs are hardly discernible from those identified as fundamentalists. Billy Graham, perhaps the most respected religious leader of the second half of the twentieth century, is considered an evangelical. Theologically speaking, his basic beliefs are virtually indistinguishable from those of fundamentalist Jerry Falwell, or from those of the leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention, which staged a takeover of the Southern Baptist denomination during the 1980s.

While fundamentalism continues to be defined in terms of assent to biblical literalism, fundamentalism in the United States is highly varied in terms of the social organization, nuances of belief, and social class background of adherents. To the general public, however, fundamentalists are known in terms of the caricature that is the legacy of the Scopes trial debacle—people who are narrow-minded, bigoted toward persons different from their own kind, obscurantist, sectarian, and hostile to the modern world. The mass media dredge up enough examples of people exhibiting these traits to keep the stereotype alive.

From the 1930s forward there have been periodic flurries of right-wing political activity led by preachers and laypersons who have been labeled fundamentalists. During the Depression, William Dudley Pelley, Gerald B. Winrod, and Gerald L. K. Smith led movements that blended religion with anti-Semitism. For many decades from the 1940s forward, Carl McIntire was a strident anti-Catholic propagandist; Frederick C. Schwarz, Billy James Hargis, and Edgar Bundy were among the most visible anticommunist crusaders of the post–World War II era.

Liberal political pundits and scholars have always viewed fundamentalist groups with mixed feelings. Some have unequivocally looked on them with great alarm, and that sense of alarm has always been greatest during periods when fundamentalist movements were highly visible. Outside periods of high visibility, the general consensus of scholars is that the fundamentalist right embodies doctrines and attracts an element that is on the fringe of the mainstream of American politics. While perhaps repugnant to the liberal ethos, they have not been widely perceived as a serious threat to democratic institutions.

This perception vacillated yet once more in 1979 when Jerry Falwell, a fundamentalist television preacher, founded a political organization named the Moral Majority. Initially the media paid little attention, but when Falwell and his fellow right-wing fundamentalists organized to help elect presidential candidate Ronald Reagan, interest picked up. When Reagan reached out and embraced the fundamentalists, attention escalated. Following the Reagan victory, along with the defeat of several ranking senators and congressmen, Falwell claimed responsibility. Pollster Lou Harris agreed that the fundamentalist vote was the margin of victory for Reagan. Postelection analysis did not support this claim (Hadden and Swann 1981), but the high media profile of Falwell and his fellow televangelists gave fundamentalism its highest public profile since the 1920s.

This wave of concern about the political power of fundamentalists might have blown over quickly were it not for the timing of the development with the rise of the Islamic imam Ayatollah Khomeini. Khomeini led a revolution that deposed the shah of Iran. Shortly thereafter, his followers held sixty-two Americans hostage for fourteen months. Political analysts concerned with the power of the fundamentalists in America were soon comparing the religious right in America with the followers of Ayatollah Khomeini and other radical Muslim factions in the Middle East. From these comparisons was born the concept of Islamic fundamentalism. This linkage was quickly followed by the labeling of selected politically active religious groups around the world as "fundamentalist."

Thus was born the concept of global fundamentalism, the fourth distinct meaning of fundamentalism. During the 1980s the idea of global fundamentalism became widely accepted by the mass media and scholars alike. But like previous uses of the term, global fundamentalism has suffered from lack of systematic conceptualization and consistent application. The global application of the concept thus has many of the same underlying presuppositions of the popular caricature of fundamentalism in U.S. Protestantism.

"Global fundamentalism," thus, is an uncomplimentary epithet for religious groups that are viewed as out of sync with the modern world. Fundamentalism, whether the American variety or of some other culture and faith, is characterized by blind adherence to a religious dogma or leader, and by zealous rejection of the modern world. It is also widely assumed that fundamentalists are contemptuous of democratic institutions. The concept is not applied to religious movements that are perceived to be on the side of human betterment. Thus, liberation theology, which is global in character, is not considered to be fundamentalist in spite of the fact that it bears some considerable resemblance to movements that have been characterized as fundamentalist.

Inconsistencies in the application of the concept fundamentalism are readily apparent. This was nowhere so evident as the failure to apply the concept to Afghan Muslim guerrillas who fought the Soviet army to a standoff during the 1980s. Both theologically and politically the Afghan rebels were unmistakably Islamic fundamentalists, but they were almost never so identified in the Western press. Rather, these Afghans are almost always referred to as the mujaheddin, usually with positive references such as "courageous," "brave," and "freedom fighting." But seldom did anyone mention that mujaheddin means, literally, one who fights a jihad or holy war. This and other instances of inconsistent application suggest that the concept of fundamentalism is reserved for religious zealots who are disapproved.

In sum, popular use of the concept of global fundamentalism has tended to connote the same stereotypical content that the term conveys when it is applied to Protestant fundamentalists in the United States. Given this history, it might be argued that fundamentalism has not been a concept of great utility for sociological analysis and, thus, its use should be discouraged. In support of this argument, it can be said that the social scientists have done little work to define, conceptualize, or measure fundamentalism.

To propose that fundamentalism should be abandoned as a social science concept may be premature. The introduction of the idea of global fundamentalism has served to focus rather considerable attention on the phenomenon—whatever it may be. The suggestion that the phenomenon might exist across cultures and world religions invites comparative analysis that was lacking when the concept was restricted to American Protestantism.

By the late 1980s serious comparative analysis of fundamentalism had begun. One of the first things learned from comparative inquiry is that fundamentalism cannot be explained away as part of a broader conservative cultural resistance to innovation. Bruce Lawrence's research on Islam led him to the conclusion that fundamentalism is a product of modernity and, thus, is a phenomenon that did not exist prior to modernity.

To view fundamentalism as merely an unenlightened backwater resistance to innovation is to give it a misplaced emphasis. Lawrence argues that fundamentalism is a product of modernity, and "because modernity is global, so is fundamentalism" (Lawrence 1989, p. 3).

Shupe and Hadden (1989) similarly argue that "fundamentalism is a truly modern phenomenon—modern in the sense that the movement is always seeking original solutions to new, pressing problems" (p. 112). Further, the solutions the propose are new. Secularization, the cognitive counterpart to modernization, has progressively sought to compartmentalize religion from, and defined it as irrelevant to, other institutional spheres. Fundamentalism acknowledges that religion has lost authority in the secular world. Further, it perceives secular values to be seriously at variance with the sacred tradition it proclaims.

Fundamentalism may be seen as a movement that seeks to reintegrate religion into the mainstream of culture. Thus conceived, fundamentalism may be defined as a proclamation of reclaimed authority of a sacred tradition that is to be reinstated as an antidote for a society that has strayed from its cultural moorings. Sociologically speaking, fundamentalism involves (1) a refutation of the radical differentiation of the sacred and the secular that has evolved with modernization and (2) a plan to dedifferentiate this institutional bifurcation and thus bring religion back to center stage as an important factor of interest in public policy decisions.

Fundamentalism is clearly an assault on the cognitive components of modernization. Insofar as the process of modernization is not globally uniform, the development of fundamentalism may be expected to manifest a different character in different cultures. Thus conceived, the varieties of fundamentalism can be examined without the baggage of presuppositions that assume it is necessarily a regressive force in culture.

So conceived, fundamentalism is not antimodern. Fundamentalists, for example, are typically not against the use of modern technology, but rather certain applications of technology viewed to be at variance with the faith. Fundamentalists have proved themselves to be particularly adept at utilizing technology, particular communications technology, to their own ends. From the invention of radio to the development of syndicated television broadcasting, fundamentalists have dominated the use of the airwaves for religious broadcasting in the United States. They have also succeeded in developing a significant global presence. In terms of sheer volume, the four major international religious broadcasting organizations transmit more hours per week in more languages than the BBC, Radio Moscow, and the Voice of America together (Hadden 1990, p. 162).

The American Academy of Arts and Sciences launched the most ambitious comparative study of fundamentalism to date in 1987 with a substantial grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Over a period of five years, the Fundamentalism Project, led by historian Martin E. Marty, brought together scholars of religion from around the world to prepare studies of groups that have been identified as fundamentalist.

This project was important for several reasons. First, it both encouraged a large number of scholars to study the phenomenon seriously, and provided resources for them to do so. Second, by bringing these scholars together to critique one another's work, the project significantly leavened the individual and collective intellectual products. Third, the monumental five-volume work published by the University of Chicago Press, with over one hundred research papers, constitutes an enormous repository of information about fundamentalist and fundamentalist-like groups in every major faith tradition around the world. (See Marty and Appleby 1991, 1993a, 1993b, 1994, 1995.)

The one major fault of this otherwise marvelous inquiry into the nature and scope of fundamentalism is that the leadership early made a strategic decision not to define the subject matter. From the onset, project leaders spoke of family resemblances. If a group shared some family resemblances, it was an appropriate group for investigation. This strategy served to avoid long debates that would most certainly have ensued among scholars from many disciplines, cultures, and faith traditions. But in the end, the family resemblances became a proxy for a definition. The proxy, in turn, became a typology that suffers the same conceptual flaw as the church-sect typology—the indiscriminate mixing of correlates with attributes in a definition (Stark and Bainbridge 1979).

A serious result of this study design flaw is an inability to differentiate between fundamentalism and that which is not fundamentalism. The implications of the flaw become evident when, for example, one seeks to differentiate between fundamentalist and nationalist movements. This criticism notwithstanding, the Fundamentalism Project has given an enormous boost to an understanding of the nature, origins, and scope of a phenomenon that has been substantially shrouded in misunderstanding for almost a century. Clearly, this is a fine example of scholarly inquiry into the study of religious movements moving in the right direction. Further, the raw data in the form of five volumes of published papers is a valuable resource for others to use in advancing understanding of fundamentalism.


During the last two decades of the twentieth century, the study of religious movement became the cutting edge in the development of sociological theory about religion. To understand how and why this occurred, it necessary to back track just a bit to explore the development of the sociology of religion during the century.

For the better part of the twentieth century, the sociology of religion was presaged by the classic writings by the founding generation of social science: Emile Durkheim, Sigmund Freud, William James, Bronislaw Malinowski, Karl Marx, Max Weber, and a few other notables. By midcentury, the advent of survey research added a new dimension of interest in studying religion. Much of this work could be characterized as applied, not very theoretical, and conducted by nonacademic scholars. In the academy, scholars of religions studied the classics with an eye toward fine-tuning the founding fathers' brilliance, or aligning their own work with classic writings.

In 1973 Charles Y. Glock and Phillip Hammond, working under the imprimatur of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, published a volume of essays entitled Beyond the Classics? The question mark in the title of this stock-taking volume reveals the negative conclusion—social scientists had not moved much beyond the classic statements about religion.

Insofar as their perceptions of religion were concerned, the classic scholars held highly variable views, but they tended toward a common assessment of the future of religion. The prospects of religion against the rising tide of rational thought, science, and modernity were highly precarious. Secularization theory was a template laid over the work of the classicists to explain the fate of religion. In a phrase, secularization is the process whereby human cultures and institutions are loosed from ecclesiastical dominance.

From the perspective of secularization theory, the concept religious movement almost has the quality of an oxymoron. Many scholars who studied modernization during the second third of the century viewed religious movements as a kind of "residual noise" that had no relevance to the main currents of social change. Anthropologists frequently viewed religion as a prime mover in the formation of "revitalization movements," but the evidence of their case studies pointed to less than felicitous conclusions for aborigines; that is, in the end, modern cultures triumph over "primitive cultures." And modern culture is secular. If religion is moving toward extinction, the study of this phenomenon is less interesting than if it were perceived to have a buoyant quality in the face of dynamic new ways of understanding the world and the human condition.

Beginning in the 1960s, several factors would serve to point intellectual thought in the sociology of religion away from the presuppositions of secularization theory. First, those who studied the civil rights movement, and the human rights movements that quickly followed, could hardly ignore the role of religion both in leadership roles and as a force that legitimated movement activity. Second, the youth counterculture of the late 1960s began with young people's "freaking out" on drugs and then came to a conclusion with many of those same youths' "freaking out" on Jesus, or some guru from Asia. Third, the power of religion to energize large communities of people became increasingly evident in the late 1970s and early 1980s with the coincidence of a renewed fundamentalist political movement in the United States, and the politicized Muslim youth in Iran. Once scholars began to focus their attention beyond the United States, the presence of religious movements on every continent and in every faith tradition became increasingly clear.

Each of these developments drew the attention of scholars who found resources to investigate the phenomenon. In differing ways, each of these developments called attention to the incongruity of religion as a dynamic and vital force in culture and the inherited legacy of secularization theory that had long ago sentenced religion to extinction. If religion is dead, or about to slip into a comatose condition, why are religious movements thriving everywhere scholars turn?

In the discipline of sociology, more persons gravitated to the study of new religious (generative) movements then any of the other movements. Many scholars began their inquiries much as anthropologists might pursue ethnography, but soon they were engaged in comparative work, and looking at the history of new religions in the United States during the nineteenth century. Eventually the scholars of new religious movements would see the discordant implications of their work for secularization theory.

As noted in the conclusion to the first part of this essay, Warner has argued that the sociology of religion is in the midst of a process of ferment that he characterizes as a "paradigm shift." His argument is framed in Thomas Kuhn's classic statement, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962). The accumulation of anomalous findings to the prevailing theory has mounted to the point of producing an intellectual crisis. Defenders of the old paradigm rally to shore up their position, while new evidence accumulates that simply cannot be incorporated.

The tone of Warner's unrelenting presentation of evidence in support of a new paradigm appears early in his forty-page essay:

The emerging paradigm begins with the theoretical reflection on a fact of U.S. history highly inconvenient to secularization theory: the proportion of the population enrolled in churches grew hugely throughout the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, which, by any measures, were times of rapid modernization. (1993, pp. 1048–1049)

Warner draws heavily on historians who collectively have accumulated enormous evidence that demonstrates American religious history simply does not fit the secularization model. Warner finds an explanation for this in the historical fact of disestablishment, that is, the separation of church and state in the American Constitution. By protecting the institutionalization of religion, but protecting no religion in particular, the Constitution creates an environment in which religions can compete and, thus, thrive and grow, or atrophy and die. Sociologically speaking, the Constitution legitimated a social structure in which pluralism is not only permitted but also encouraged. Whereas religious monopolies discourage the expansion of religion, pluralism promotes the growth of religion.

Warner is cautious in not making his claim for a paradigm shift beyond the U.S. boundaries, but his limiting of the argument to the United States seems clearly to be overly cautious (Hadden, 1995). The role of disestablishment in promoting the growth of religion is important in the case of the United States, and Warner's argument can be fully incorporated into a larger framework of a global paradigm.

Over the past two decades, the seminal work of Rodney Stark and his colleagues has galvanized the study of religious movements and contributed almost immeasurably to the development of the new paradigm that Warner invisions. As the senior scholar in the enterprise, Stark has surrounded himself with a group of exceptionally able collaborators. Together they have developed a theory, identified a research agenda, pursued that research agenda vigorously, and inspired others who have joined the task of building a new model for understanding religion.

For almost a decade, Stark's principal collaborator was William Sims Bainbridge. Stark and Bainbridge's work together began in 1979 with an article that bore a modest subtitle, "Preliminary Concepts for a Theory of Religious Movements." In this paper they identified and defined key concepts for the study of religious movements. They then proceeded to fill in details with more than twenty published papers over the next five years. These papers were published together in 1985 under the title The Future of Religion. Two years later Stark and Bainbridge published A Theory of Religion (1987), a work of monumental importance. A Theory of Religion goes beyond religious movements to provide a comprehensive theory that accounts for the origins, dynamics, and persistence of religions in human cultures. Beginning with six axioms, these authors deductively create more than a hundred definitions and nearly three hundred and fifty propositions.

The theory has sweeping implications for an understanding of religion in the modern world. First, the theory deduces why religion must necessarily be ubiquitous in human cultures. Second, religious institutions are human constructions and, thus, subject to constant change. Third, religious movements are the principal mechanism through which religious change occurs. Hence, if religious are constantly in flux, and religious movements constitute the principal mechanism for change, it follows that the core focus of inquiry for social science is the study of religious movements.

The theory is clearly inspired by rational choice theory. Stark's collaborations with Roger Finke, a sociologist, and Lawrence Iannaccone, an economist, are especially rich with concepts and imagery from economics. They speak of a religious economy as embracing all the religious activity of a given culture, and they work comfortably with concepts like markets, niches, supply-side religion, monopoly, and competition. Still, both Stark and Bainbridge vigorously object to the criticism that the paradigm is "nothing more" than a wholesale borrowing from economics and rational choice theory. (See Bainbridge 1997, pp. 350–356; Stark and Finke 2000).

As of the writing of this essay, the new paradigm lacked a name and, hence, the reference to the "new paradigm." Rational choice theory has emerged as a significant development within American sociology. The American Sociological Association now has a rational choice section, and there is a journal entitled Rationality and Society. This perspective has also been referred to as the "theory of religious economy," but this too implies a narrower perspective than either Stark or Bainbridge wishes to communicate. In 1994 Lawrence Young, of Brigham Young University, convened a conference on "Rational Choice Theory and Religion," at which the principal contributors to the "new paradigm" were participants. Stark's own reservations to the name "rational choice theory" are communicated in his opening essay to the proceedings, entitled "Bringing Theory Back In." His concluding remark captures his commitment to follow theory wherever it may lead to fruitful insights: "My goal is to bring real theories into sociology, not to found a new theoretical sect."

Rejecting the names "rational choice theory" and "theory of religious economy" would appear to be a wise strategy, at least for the present time. Many scholars who are presently studying religious movements would also reject the identification of their work with either of these names. Still, a very large proportion of the emerging scholarship about religious movements is informed by and also adds credence to the emerging new paradigm. For a more detailed examination of this literature, and an annotated bibliography of religious movements studies that are informed by the new paradigm, see Hadden's Religious Movements Homepage on the Internet, (1999). To locate these materials, go to the front page and search on "new paradigm bibliography."


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Jeffrey K. Hadden

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