Religious Stratification Research Paper

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1. Introduction: Two Forms Of Stratification

We can distinguish usefully between two separate sociological issues, namely the hierarchical stratification of religious roles in terms of their authority, and the stratification of religious communities within a general system of social stratification. The first line of inquiry considers the hierarchical organization of charismatic power within religious traditions; the second involves the historical and sociological study of the stratification of religious communities, especially in terms of social class and ethnicity. Both forms of religious stratification are analyzed from the sociological perspective of Max Weber (1864–1920).

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For further treatment of these topics see Religion, Sociology of; Religious Specialists; Charisma and Charismatic; Religion and Economic Life.

2. Virtuoso And Mass Religion

The sociology of social stratification is concerned with the distribution of scarce resources and with the formation of social hierarchies by the processes of social closure and exclusion. The most common illustration of social stratification would be the unequal distribution of economic resources, resulting in a simple formation of economic classes. However, stratification also involves cultural distinctions such as education, lifestyle, and cultural consumption. Weber made an original contribution to the sociology of religion by treating charisma (a ‘gift of grace’) as a religious value that is also characterized by scarcity. Because these religious values are unequally and unevenly distributed in human societies, there is religious stratification. In The Social Psychology of the World Religions, Weber (1991, p. 287) asserted ‘that men are differently qualified in a religious way stands at the beginning of the history of religion … the sacred values that have been most cherished, the ecstatic and visionary capacities of shamans, sorcerers, ascetics, and pneumatics of all sorts, could not be attained by everyone. The possession of such faculties as ‘‘charisma,’’ which, to be sure, might be awakened in some but not in all. It follows from this that all intensive religiosity has a tendency towards status stratification, in accordance with differences in the charismatic qualifications.’

Religious gifts (charisma) are in demand because they bring healing and salvation, but they are inevitably in short supply. The resulting hierarchy of spiritual gifts creates a stratification system that differentiates between the virtuoso and the mass, where the latter are, in Weber’s terminology, religiously ‘unmusical.’ This hierarchy of intense religious values stands in contrast to and frequently in opposition to the formal hierarchy of the ecclesiastical organizations of Christianity that attempted to regulate and to control the flow of charisma.

This model of virtuoso–mass religion is connected with the specific forms of salvational drive in the world religions, namely with their soteriologies. Religious systems of soteriology may be directed either toward inner-worldly asceticism or toward other-worldly mysticism. Now all religions that place a special emphasis on rebirth and spiritual renewal will create a special category of religious aristocracy, because charisma cannot be institutionalized in terms of an egalitarian distribution. This virtuoso pattern emerged as a general characteristic of religious communities, for example, among the Protestant sects, the perushim in Judaism, the Sufi dervishes of Islam, and the Buddhist monks (see Weber 1965, pp. 151–65). The existence of distinctive forms of internal religious stratification has often evolved in sharp contrast to the official doctrines of egalitarianism and universalism in, for example, Christianity and Islam.

There is demand from popular religion to enjoy the benefits of virtuoso religion such as healing, and thus there develops a distinctive pattern of exchange between the virtuosi and the mass. In return for acts of charity and direct economic support from their followers, the virtuosi offer healing, guidance, and other charismatic gifts. The layman who is completely immersed in the everyday world needs the blessing of charisma, but in return the virtuosi depend on lay tributes merely to exist. This mutual dependency and reciprocity create the conditions whereby virtuoso religion can always be diluted or manipulated to some extent by the laity who demand tangible evidence of charismatic gifts in the form of magical displays. In fact, with the possible exceptions of Judaism and Protestantism, all religions and religious ethics have had to (re)introduce cults of saints, heroes, or functional gods in order to accommodate themselves to the needs of the masses (Weber 1965, p. 103). In Asia the religious teachers or gurus function as living saviors, while in Catholicism the veneration of the saints was the real basis of popular religion. In Hasidic Judaism, despite its popular appeal to the ordinary people through, for example, its use of dance as an expression of religious joy, there was also a clear division between the spiritual elite and their disciples. In these examples, Weber recognized a paradoxical tension between the spiritual quest for perfection in the virtuosi, the pragmatic needs of the laity for healing and material sustenance, and the mutual reciprocity between elite and mass. Weber’s sociology of charismatic roles was an application of philosophical critique of Christian morals by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), who had condemned Christianity as a system of slave morality and as a product of psychological weakness. Slave morals are created out of resentment by a subservient social class, and hence the Christian doctrine of love was analyzed critically as a subconscious doctrine of a resentful social group. Guilt and bad conscience played a pivotal role in Christian ethics. Against this moral system, Nietzsche argued in favor of a revaluation of values from a position of psychological strength. Nietzsche’s genealogy of (Christian) morals in terms of a study of the stratification of values between slave and master moralities was translated directly into Weber’s social psychology of the world religions (see Stauth and Turner 1988). In Weber’s treatment of the psychology of religion, he argued that certain social carriers were crucial in the development of the cultural systems of the various religions. In particular, he claimed, for example, that Islam had been carried by warriors, Buddhism by mendicant monks, Confucianism by court officials and the literati, and Christianity by artisans and craftsmen. These occupational groups were particularly important historically in providing the world religions with a specific soteriology. Thus, the world view of Christianity was shaped by the practical rationalism of artisans and craftsmen, and in the long run this rationalism proved decisive in the connection between the Protestant capitalists and economic rationalism. This thesis has been challenged and various historians have attempted to find similar connections between Jewish culture and the rise of capitalism (see Sombart 1951) or between Islam and capitalism (see Turner 1998). The core of the Weber thesis has survived these criticisms insofar as it attempts to identify important cultural connections between religious discipline, class position, and economic rationalism.

3. Religion And Social Stratification

Religious communities or groups can also be analyzed in relation to the general system of secular stratification in terms of social class or caste. There is an extensive and complex debate about the relationship between caste, occupational groupings, notions of pollution, and Hinduism. The conventional view was that concepts of purity in Hinduism functioned to sustain a social division of labor between manual and nonmanual occupations that over many centuries evolved into a complete hierarchy of caste. Although the Hindu caste system was organized in terms of four principal castes (Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaisya, and Sudra), there was considerable diversity at the village level, where these castes were typically subdivided into subcastes or jati. Castes were ordered hierarchically in terms of ritual separation around a notion of contagious pollution. This traditional pattern broke down in the twentieth century and there has since been some mobility whereby through the adoption of upper-caste cultural practices lower castes can move up the social scale, and the incorporation of marginal cultural traditions into the Brahmanical system. This process is referred to as ‘sanskritization.’ There is thus a debate about the differences between Asian and Western systems of stratification and the legitimation of such patterns of inequality by religion (see Dumont 1970). Some sociologists argue that the term caste can be applied to any system of rigid stratification where membership is permanent, hereditary, and guarded or legitimized by religious notions of purity. For example, in the southern states of anti-bellum North America, there is a continuing system of racial orders that is reinforced by the stratification of Christian churches along a division between blacks and whites. The National Baptist Convention, the African Methodist Episcopal, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion, and the Colored Methodist Episcopal churches emerged as exclusively black institutions and illustrate the racial stratification of American denominationalism (see Dollard 1998).

Although religion has played a significant role in the legitimation of social stratification, the relationship between religion and class has to be seen in a dynamic and historical framework. There is a considerable collection of historical and sociological research findings that explore the social mobility of individuals and groups as a consequence of their conversion to evangelical Christian sects. H. Richard Niebuhr’s The Social Sources of Denominationalism (1957) is the classic illustration of this tradition in the sociology of religion. The basic argument is that ‘the churches of the disinherited’ have traditionally recruited from the poor and dispossessed through active evangelism. As a consequence of religious asceticism and education, individuals from the lower social classes move up the social scale. The same argument applies to the evangelical sects themselves which, as they become dominated by the lower-middle and middle classes, become more respectable. The process of denominationalization whereby sects acquire the characteristics of middle-class denominations in the United States has been paralleled to the social mobility of their individual members. The history of the Anabaptists, Quakers, Methodists, and Salvation Army exhibit this pattern of social change whereby sects become denominations (see Troeltsch 1931).

The churches of the middle class emphasize personal responsibility and individualism in theology, and restraint and formality in ritual. Their social teaching is concerned with individual behavior rather than with social redemption. The sects of the lower classes appeal to the deprivation of the poor through emotional preaching, healing practices, and a collective eschatology of redemption. However, because these evangelical sects typically socialize the disinherited into the dominant values of a society, the poor rise through the social scale as they acquire the habits of temperence and personal discipline (Johnson 1961). The education of the laity slowly replaces their conversion. There is some support from the history of the evangelical sects for Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism because the personal discipline of the Protestant sects results in the social mobility of the disinherited into the lower and middle classes. Habits of saving, frugality, and temperance produced a reliable workforce that was compatible with the needs of capitalist discipline. In particular, the owners of industrial enterprises recognized that factory discipline could be maintained effectively through the employment of sober Christian workers (see Pope 1942).

4. Religion And Class Conflict

There is a close relationship between class membership and religious affiliation in which religious participation functions as a cultural ladder of social mobility. This association between evangelical Christianity and the working class suggested to Karl Marx (1818–83) that the promise of spiritual salvation compensated for the material deprivation of the disinherited. In the famous argument about human alienation in capitalism, Marx (1974, Vol. 1, p. 83) argued that for a society based on private property, ‘Christianity with its cultus of abstract man, more especially in its bourgeois developments, Protestantism, Deism etc., is the most fitting form of religion.’ Within the system of capitalist exploitation, Christianity was the opium of the people, because its emotional discharge served to obscure the real nature of class inequalities. While Marx treated Christianity in a cursory fashion, Friedrich Engels (1820–95) offered a more extensive treatment of the relationship between class, religion, and political consciousness. For example, he regarded Christianity in its origins as a religion of a class of slaves and oppressed that became eventually the dominant religion of the Roman Empire. There were close historical parallels between the rise of Christianity and the development of the European working class (see Marx and Engels 1955). Engels recognized that in the Reformation the peasant revolts were an expression of real material interests against oppression, and that Christian belief provided the peasantry with a powerful ideology of protest (see F. Engels, Peasant War in Germany, 1965). These peasant protests which drew upon the Bible as a source of social and political criticism were important because they provided a model of the millenarian struggles of the seventeenth century and the secular conflicts of the nineteenth century, when working class movements continued to absorb and transform the biblical language of protest against capitalism. Methodism often provided the training ground for political protest, because the tradition of lay preaching provided a pedagogy of popular opposition. Popular leaders who emerged within the ranks of the Methodist chapels typically were expelled from the church because their secular radicalism was incompatible with the conservative teaching of the Methodist chapels (see Thompson 1963).

In the seventeenth century, the religious sects of the peasantry and yeomanry were important engines of social change in the English civil war. In the eighteenth century, Methodism had through its emotional preaching provided a compensation for this worldly deprivation. In the nineteenth century, there was an unstable alliance between working-class protest and the evangelical sects, whereby the idiom of protest depended more on the Bible than on Marxist ideology. In the English case, these causal connections between politics and religion were summarized in the Halevy thesis, which suggested that Wesleyan Methodism functioned as a social ladder between the nonconformist dissent of the artisan and the Anglican establishment, thereby contributing to social stability and evolutionary political change (see Halevy 1962).

5. Conclusion: Religion, Class And Egalitarianism

Whereas religions like Confucianism and Buddhism have not systematically provided or embraced an ideology of radical egalitarianism, the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are regarded as prophetic religions of the book that generate a Revolutionary utopia of salvation. Because they create a radical tension between this world and a sacred realm of justice, they have been seed-beds of Revolutionary movements. The actual existence of religious stratification is in this sense an offence to the theology of justice in biblical religion. Logically speaking, this tension between existing social injustice and the prophetic promise of the restoration of the faithful and the punishment of their enemies can take two forms—either a theodicy of other-worldly justice in a future kingdom or radical millenarianism in this world (see Mannheim 1997). These images of revenge and renewal provided slaves and the disinherited classes with a profound ideology of political change. However, in the Abrahamic religions the connections between social class, religious ideology, and political protest have remained highly unstable. Periods of Revolutionary fervor have been followed by periods of mystical withdrawal, and the pendulum swing between protest and quietism is well illustrated by the complex history of messianism in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (see Lantenari 1963). In Islam, the tension between the Koranic promise of a radical egalitarianism and earthly justice has proved to be a resilient source of religious protest against the dominant classes (see Marlow 1997). Although Marx and Engels assumed that religious ideologies of class protest would be replaced by secular or scientific visions of political change, religious inspiration of class protest in the twentieth century has been an important aspect of liberation theology in Latin American Catholicism and of Islamic protests against colonialism. Traditional Shi’ite notions of the Hidden Imam and justice within the Islamic community provided a powerful tool in the emergence of the Iranian Revolution which was produced by the alienation of the peasantry and the decline of traditional classes such as the merchants (see Kamali 1998). Religious stratification therefore continues to be an important feature of social and political institutions into the twenty-first century, and religious ideologies provide significant cultural components of both social stability and radical change.


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