The Sociology of Religious Movements

By Coleman, John A. | Anglican Theological Review, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

The Sociology of Religious Movements


Coleman, John A., Anglican Theological Review


The Sociology of Religious Movements. By William Sims Bainbridge. New York: Routledge, 1997. 474 pp. $74.95 (cloth); $24.95 (paper).

I have already decided to assign this book as a text for my course in sociology of religion this year. This indicates my positive esteem for this study. I will assign it because of its focus on religious movements as a species of social movements rather than on religion as collective episode, institution or collectivity. Bainbridge defines what he intends by the phenomenon: "A religious movement is a relatively organized attempt by a number of people to cause or prevent change in a religious organization or in religious aspects of life" ( p. 3).

Religious movements have many similarities with political, cultural and social movements and can be studied using social mobilization theory derived from these sources, provided we recognize the connection of religious movements to beliefs or feelings about the divine. A focus on religious movements helps us see what is dynamic in religion, what is being born or dying.

Not many works in sociology of religion focus on religious social movements. Even fewer include any explicit theoretical map to understand them. Too often the recounting of religious movements gets straight-jacketed into the often misleading categories of church, sect and cult or reduced to the phenomenon of schism. Bainbridge tests here the adequacy of his earlier theories of religion, employing a market metaphor to explain the competitive advantage of religious forms in relative tension with their surrounding environments. Bainbridge also "refutes" secularization theories which predict the demise of religion. In his view, religions emerge, persist or are supplanted by new forms which provide general or specific compensators to address universal human needs (e.g., for comfort, for meaning, for a sense of purpose when faced with death or set-back).

Much of the theory in this book has been more broadly described elsewhere in Rodney Stark and William Bainbridge, The Future of Religion (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985) and Stark and Bainbridge, A Theory of Religion (New York: Peter Lang, 1987).

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