The term denomination was innovated in the late seventeenth century by those groups of Christians in England who dissented from the established Church of England but considered themselves to be entirely loyal to the British state and recognized the monarch as having rights with respect to the Church of England. In 1702, specifically, the Presbyterians, Baptists, and Congregationalists formed “the body of the Dissenting Ministers of the Three Denominations in and about the City of London.” The term was introduced to counter the pejorative term sect , which in popular usage had the sense of deviant or undesirable practices. The term is now used in pluralist societies for those forms of organized religious expression that generally support the established social order and are mutually tolerant of each other’s practices.

The term denominationalism was significantly introduced into the subsequent literature of the sociology of religion by H. Richard Niebuhr in his book The Social Sources of Denominationalism (Holt 1929). The central thesis of this work was that new religious organizations (“sects”) begin among the socially “disinherited,” but in the United States, as these groups attain higher social status, their religious expressions become more “respectable” or socially accepted; thus there is a movement across generations from sectarian to denominational religious life—or else the sectarian group dies out. This strongly evolutionary view has been considerably modified today. A particularly important contribution to the study of denominationalism was David Martin’s seminal article “The Denomination,” published in 1962, where he forced a reconsideration of this organizational form as a historically specific type sui generis, rather than as a stage on a quasi-evolutionary continuum.

A standard current definition of the denomination would be that of Bryan Wilson (1959:4-5), who writes that the denomination is “a voluntary association” that “accepts adherents without imposition of traditional prerequisites of entry,” such as belonging to a particular ethnic or national group, or sectarian testimonies of spiritual regeneration.

Breadth and tolerance are emphasized. . . . Its self-conception is unclear and its doctrinal position unstressed. . . . One movement among many . . . it accepts the standards and values of the prevailing culture. . . . Individual commitment is not very intense; the denomination accepts the values of the secular society and the state.

The association between denominationalism and pluralism is crucial. In pluralism, one may belong to any denomination—or none at all! Religion is pigeonholed and privatized. It is a voluntary activity to be undertaken or dismissed at the discretion of the individual. The denomination is thus marked perhaps most significantly by this voluntarism of support coupled to mutual respect and forbearance of all other competing religious groups. It is, indeed, this quality of competition that is the unique hallmark of the pluralistic religious situation; acceptance of the “free market” situation in religious ideas is the critical operating principle of denominationalism. Denominations are the structural-functional forms that dominant religious traditions assume in a pluralistic culture. The distinction between monopolistic and pluralistic societies in typological differentiation between the church and the denomination was drawn particularly in Swatos’s church-sect model (1979; see Figure C.2).

Although denominationalism is now characteristic of virtually all Western societies, it reaches its quintessential expression in the United States; that is, American denominationalism has been the model for religious pluralism throughout the world. (Andrew Greeley, for example, titled a text on American religious life The Denominational Society [Scott Foresman 1972].) The particular effect this had on American development up to the 1950s was chronicled in Will Herberg’s benchmark volume Protestant-Catholic-Jew (Doubleday 1955). Although, strictly speaking, denominationalism is a Protestant dynamic, it has become fully accepted in principle by all major religious groups in the United States; in fact, one could say that the denominationalizing process represents the Americanizing of a religious tradition, which is at the same time and in the same measure a relativizing process. Religious groups that too strongly resist this process will probably eventually face run-ins with the legal system. Since the 1940s, social scientists have been particularly interested in the relationship between denomination and both social stratification and sociopolitical variables; the term class church was first applied as an equivalent to denomination by J. Milton Yinger in the 1940s.

Although some religious groups have made specific efforts to eschew the term as a label, denomination nevertheless has been the most neutral and general term used to identify religious organizations in the United States. Organized religion or church affiliation both anticipate the denomination as the dominant religious expression in society. Religious belief and action “work together” with the sociocultural system to develop a legitimation system as a result of a mutual interdependence. The cultural significance of denominationalism in the United States particularly is that it provided a structural-functional form for organizing communal relationships relating to the transcendent realm in a pluralistic sociocultural system that itself had a specific civilizational history.
Denominations Today

Since the 1980s, and particularly with the publication of Robert Wuthnow’s The Restructuring of American Religion (Princeton University Press) in 1987, there has been considerable debate within the sociology of religion over the current significance of denominationalism in American society. This debate was presaged by a distinction drawn by the church historian Martin Marty in Righteous Empire (Dial 1970) between two “parties” in American religion. According to Wuthnow’s elaboration of this view, each denomination is now divided between the two parties (roughly, “liberal” and “conservative” Christians) on critical sociopolitical issues—reflecting in turn the relative rise in importance of “the State” as a sociocultural actor since the 1940s. The ecclesiastical “party” with which people identify is more important to both their spiritual and their moral lives than is a particular denominational label, according to this theory. The growth of “nondenominational” and “parachurch” organizations is seen as part of this process.

Others argue that this view is historically short-sighted and needs modification. Swatos (1981, 1994), for example, uses the local-cosmopolitan distinction elaborated in the sociology of religion by W. C. Roof (1972) to argue that denominationalism in the context of American voluntarism is preeminently a local dynamic, providing people “place” in a specific setting, and that this dynamic operates as much as it ever did, to the extent that cosmopolitan elaborations (e.g., denominational agency structures) can be discounted from analyses. Denominational bureaucracies are not, according to this thesis, the crucial social dynamic of the typology but a specific, transitory development. In addition, intradenominational debates have created more internally consistent denominational world-views—conservatives now dominate the Southern Baptists, while liberals have won the day among Episcopalians. Davidson and colleagues (1995) also have shown that the various denominations continue to remain significantly disproportionately represented among American elites across the twentieth century, with corrections required only to accommodate specific immigration effects. Reform Jews, for example, are now significantly overrepresented among elites, along with Episcopalians, Unitarians, and Presbyterians; Roman Catholics have achieved approximate parity with their share of the general population. On the other hand, conservative Protestants generally remain significantly underrepresented, which may explain their attempt to achieve greater political visibility.

An often overlooked historical dimension of American denominationalism is the role women played in maintaining the life of the different denominations and in the social ranking system that they may have implied. The decline of membership in some mainline denominations (e.g., Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Congregationalists [United Church of Christ]) is at least partially due to the increased presence of women in the workforce, which has resulted in a corresponding absence of women to undertake volunteer activities. Women in these denominations also are more likely to be in the professional classes and thus to have job responsibilities that do not end with the workday. Denominations that have declined in membership directly correspond to those that have most endorsed gender equality, while those that have gained membership are more gender differentiated. They also tend to attract membership from the working stratum, where even women working outside the home are, relatively speaking, more likely to be able to devote more “free” time to church activities and are less likely to experience role redefinition in the home.

See also American Religion, Church-Sect Theory, Two-Party Thesis



The religious beliefs and practices of the ancient Greeks and Romans have not attracted social scientific investigation to the extent accorded either the major world faiths or the religions of band and tribal peoples. Notwithstanding that one would be hard-pressed to find a living devotee of Zeus or Athena, Janus or Mars, that imbalance in scholarly attention is somewhat surprising, not only in consideration of the formative impact of classical civilization upon world religious history but also given the early dependence of sociological and anthropological “theory” upon evidence drawn from Greco-Roman sources. Comte, Tylor, Marx, Weber, Freud, Durkheim, Frazer, and other celebrated “founding fathers” of social science typically passed through an educational crucible featuring immersion in Greek and Latin, and their writings display easy familiarity—and at times even professional competence—with classical materials. Indeed, much of the theoretical armature of early social science discourse—evolutionary and developmental schemata, models of social organization, ideal-types, and concepts—derives from that engagement.

A true analytical dialogue between historians and social scientists on the subject of religion commences with Fustel de Coulanges’s The Ancient City , published in 1864 (Johns Hopkins University Press 1980). Fustel’s central thesis—that the primordial religious beliefs of the Greeks and Romans provided organizing frames for their advanced social institutions (family, law, property, politics)—would encourage his former pupil, Émile Durkheim, to explore the connections between religion and society more comprehensively. In two seminal works, Primitive Classification (University of Chicago Press 1963 [1903]), with Marcel Mauss, and The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (Free Press 1952 [1912]), Durkheim sought to establish that the sacred beliefs and practices of a people constitute a symbolic and ritual representation of their social order; in venerating imaginary spirits and deities, they are honoring the actual powers and structures of their own collective life. Those postulates—mingled with insights from J. G. Frazer’s The Golden Bough (St. Martin’s 1990 [1890])—would stimulate new approaches to the study of classical antiquity, pioneered by leaders of the Cambridge school. Exemplary yields from that interdisciplinary ferment include Jane Harrison’s (1903, 1912) attempts to document the dependence of various myths and rituals upon social institutions and customs, and F. M. Cornford’s (1912) efforts to trace the origins of Hellenic rationalism to key collective representations—moira, physis, nomos —that were grounded in the primitive religious notion of mana , the impersonal ordering power of life. Important later contributions by H. J. Rose (1948), Martin Nilsson (1955, 1961), and George Dumézil (1970), although differing significantly on points of interpretation, all owe various debts to the creative exchanges between the Durkheimian and Cambridge schools. The anthropological structuralism of Claude Lévi-Strauss likewise builds on that legacy, and his views—eclectically spiced with Marx, Weber, and Foucault—have exerted considerable influence on the circle of French classicists led by Jean-Pierre Vernant (1974), Marcel Detienne (1972, 1977), and Pierre Vidal-Naquet (1986).

Two other prominent traditions in social science—those founded by Marx and Freud—have also furnished analytical principles for work on ancient religion by classical specialists. Alban Winspear’s (1940) pioneering exploration into the social origins of Plato’s thought offers a religion-as-ideology line, while G. Thomson (1949, 1955) employs the categories of class and false consciousness to address issues ranging from the cultural consequences of slavery to the politics of the pantheon. In E. R. Dodds’s highly influential The Greeks and the Irrational (University of California Press 1951), key developments in the history of Hellenic religiosity are explicated with the aid of psychoanalytic principles and anthropological insights on such matters as dream states and the shame-culture/guilt-culture polarity.

Max Weber’s comparative studies in sociological world history are commonly buttressed by the author’s interpretive mastery of the source materials of Greco-Roman antiquity. In his wide-ranging explorations in Religionssoziologie , Weber strategically uses aspects of Hellenic spiritual culture and practice to draw out parallels and contrasts with other religious traditions of historic consequence: Judaism, Confucianism, Taoism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity. More directly, in the major section of Economy and Society (University of California Press 1978 [1921]) devoted to religious matters, Weber grounds many of his ideal-type categories and propositions in Greek and Roman experiences. Ancestor cults, ideas regarding the soul and afterlife beliefs, anthropomorphization and pantheon formation, the fundamental role of poets and philosophers in providing cognitive order for the divine in the absence of corporate priesthoods and canonical texts, the political religiosity of the classical city-state, Roman religious “legalism,” the rise of personal or individualistic spirituality in the form of mystery cults promising both worldly and afterlife rewards to their ritual adherents and the congregational-soteriological faiths of Orphism and Pythagorianism, the religious life of women, the consequences of civic depoliticization under Roman imperium for the growth of Christianity—these are among the many topics illuminated by Weber’s comparative-sociological analysis.

Although current scholarly fashion favors eclectic and more “middle-range” applications over “grand theorizing,” social science perspectives continue to inform the researches of ancient historians and classicists. The historian Keith Hopkins (1978, 1983), in a manner befitting his formal sociological training, has examined the religious dimensions of gladiatorial contests, the emperor cult, and the complex of beliefs and practices regarding death in Roman society. An anthropologically framed focus on gender and religion is featured in the pathbreaking studies of Sarah Pomeroy (1975) and Sally Humphreys (1983). S. R. F. Price (1984) draws upon Geertz and Bourdieu to show how emperor worship functioned both as a cognitive system and as a vehicle of symbolic power in consolidating Rome’s expanding suzerainty in the Mediterranean world. Ramsay MacMullen (1981), with a social historian’s attention to context, provides an invaluable and variegated portrait of how paganism actually “worked” in the daily lives of inhabitants of the Roman empire. The classical scholar Walter Burkert (1983, 1985, 1987) has produced several authoritative studies that display a deep learning in the social sciences and in biology, shedding light on virtually all aspects of Greek religion. The complex and tension-ridden interfacial contacts between Greco-Roman paganism, Judaism, and Christianity have preoccupied scholars since the time of Gibbon, but few have matched the analytical rigor and mastery over empirical detail displayed by either Arthur Darby Nock (1933, 1972) or Arnaldo Momigliano (1977, 1987). In the ongoing, multilingual series, Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt (de Gruyter), volumes II.16, II.17, II.19, and II.23 explore diverse facets of Greek and Roman religion, with varying degrees of social science sophistication; particularly valuable treatments are offered of the mystery cults, demonic powers, the Sibylline oracles, magical practices, and the histories and functions of principal deities of the Roman pantheon.

Religions have generally proved to be among the more durable—if endlessly adaptive—of social phenomena; once institutionalized and culturally elaborated, they are seldom eradicated or abandoned altogether. The fate of Greek and Roman “paganism” provides a striking exception to that tendency, for the triumph of Christianity—although accompanied by selective “borrowings” and syncretic fusions in both thought and ritual—did entail the eclipse of a polytheistic religious order that had reigned for more than a millennium. The sociological issues raised by that fact alone provide sufficient warrant for renewed attention by social scientists in a field that so captivated the founders of their disciplines.

Religious language

Religious language

Religious language, especially language about God, is subject to two opposite dangers: that of associating creatures too closely with their Creator and that of stressing so far the difference in sense of the same terms as applied to God and creatures that apparently one might infer that God could as well be called bad as good, impotent as almighty, nonexistent as existent, and so on. When admonished repeatedly by exponents of the “negative way” and other sophisticated theologians, that they do not mean what it seems that they mean by the terms that they apply to God (e.g., How could the reality of divine omnipotence and goodness, in any ordinary senses of these expressions, fail to imply that little girls would not die agonizing deaths of throat cancer?), the sincere inquirer may well conclude that religious claims, which once seemed good brash hypotheses, have died the death of the thousand qualifications (Flew 1966). It will not do, in other words, for language to be equivocal as applied to God and creatures—as the English word box is equivocal as applied to a container, a sort of shrub, and pugilism. On the other hand, it hardly can be univocal either—as though knowledge or goodness could be just the same in nature as between God and humanity.

A mediating doctrine of “analogy” has been developed, especially by Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theologica I, xiii): The meanings of terms to be predicated of God and creatures may have the same sort of relation as the meanings of the term healthy when applied to a human being, on the one hand, and to her food or her complexion, on the other. One may say in this case that the human being is healthy in the primary sense, while food and complexion are healthy in a derivative sense, as causes or signs of such health. However, there is no problem about describing and identifying a human being apart from such analogies, and if all terms are to be thus qualified as analogical in their theological as opposed to their ordinary use, it is hard to see how we can really know what we are doing in attributing goodness, knowledge, creativity, or anything else, to God.

To overcome this difficulty, Duns Scotus (Opus Oxoniense , I,8,3; I,3,2) maintained that “being” must be understood as univocal in all its applications, but one might protest that matters are not much mended by the invocation of a peculiar property called “being” supposed to belong in just the same sense to God, the Battle of Thermopylae, and a potted shrimp (Kenny 1959). Another possible solution is that certain attributes, for example, understanding and will, are to be conceived as the same in kind but vastly different in degree, as between God and humanity; thus God may be deemed to conceive all possible worlds, and to will the actual one, as the reader may conceive possibilities and will what actually is to be the case within her own limited sphere of influence (Lonergan 1992).

In the middle decades of the twentieth century, the logical positivists were influential in their claim that God-talk violated the rules of meaningful discourse. This they did on the ground that it did not comply with their “verification principle”—which was to the effect that all meaningful statements that were not true by virtue of the definitions of their terms were in principle verifiable or falsifiable by sense experience. But this principle is no longer much in vogue, because it not only makes mincemeat of ethics, and apparently of science in the bargain, as well as of religion, but actually self-destructs. Furthermore, on a more liberal understanding of “verification,” religion might well in principle be verified—through postmortem experience (Hick 1971) or, in the case of Christianity, by objective historical inquiry tending to confirm rather than impugn the peculiar claims made by the New Testament writers about Jesus Christ (Crombie 1955). Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (Routledge 1961) seemed grist to the mill of the logical positivists, owing to the sharp distinction it drew between significant discourse, which could aspire to represent the facts of the world, and that which was not so significant. (The quasi-mystical intimations that form the conclusion to that enigmatic work did not suit their purposes so well.) However, Wittgenstein’s later philosophy, expounded most notably in Philosophical Investigations (Blackwell 1958), has been interpreted in such a way as to encourage a view of religion and its language as autonomous and self-justifying, to be neither corroborated nor impugned by the different “language games” constitutive of science, ethics, or whatever.



The healing arts and religion have experienced ambivalent and, at times, conflicting relationships. The ancient Greeks were aware that the whole/”well” person was a balance of different “temperaments” and was simultaneously influenced by several internal and external sources—ecology, lifestyle (including diet), drugs and herbs, and the body’s internal fluids—”the four humors.” The individual was in optimal health when these humors were in balance. The Christian world also adopted Greek medicine. More spiritually, however, Jesus and the New Testament authors saw physical and spiritual wellness as so intertwined that, for optimal healthiness, individuals had to have right intentions and relations toward both God and their fellows (“neighbors”). Although bodily ills might come, right intentions and relations could produce divinely given “healing”—alleviation of disease, forgiveness for cleansing of the soul, and sometimes miraculous cures of body and mind. Communitywide disease, however, was often viewed punitively, with clergy eventually leading liturgies for alleviation. Much later and at different times, an “angelic connection,” whereby selected clergy practiced both pastoral and medical arts in tandem, emerged and was viewed as positive.

Body-Mind/Soul Split

Through the centuries, medicine became professionalized and secularized, especially during the period from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries. As Western Christendom divided into warring factions and monopolies during the Reformation and its aftermath, medicine went its way, developing separate biomechanical insights and specific technologies in various European regions to form the foundations of “modern scientific medicine.” The final shakedown in the last half of the nineteenth century involved the discovery of aseptic technique, germ theory and “magic bullets,” anesthesia, X rays, modern surgery, and recognition of the futility of sectarian and cultlike medical wars, which led to government recognition and regulation, medical monopoly, and the rise of hospital-based clinical training.

Lying behind all of these, however, was a landmark dictum pronounced in the mid-seventeenth century by the French philosopher-mathematician-physician René Descartes to the effect that “the body is a machine” and should be investigated solely by natural science methods without attention to mind and soul. Some allege that with this dictum, medicine, now unobstructed, could dissect the “body” while the church could keep the “soul.” Perhaps in the short run, this “deal” was positive for freer medical investigation of the body. In the long view, however, this split of body from mind/soul tended to institutionalize mind-body dualism, to ignore the holistic interactions of body-in-environment, and to be too reductionist in explaining the symbolic-cultural in terms solely of biomechanical origins (genes and brain functions). In short, body, mind, (social) role, and soul were no longer seen as mutually interacting and influencing each other. This body-mind split became woven into the warp and woof of modern medicine.

Biomedicine Not the Whole Truth

While biomedicine continued to advance as the final paradigm for medical truth, voices arose to point to its incompleteness and inability to interpret all of the human person. In the nineteenth century, Freud, Jung, and the psychoanalysts began to observe the recurring connections between mind and body in the unconscious, to found the subprofession of psychiatry, and to write of “psychosomatic” medicine. Selye in the mid-twentieth century wrote of “stress” and the ways persons were pushed and pulled from within and without. Challenges to “mainstream” medicine also came from “alternative” forms from the developing world and from Asia and the Far East. Cartesian or mainstream medicine could no longer remain just “medicine” or even “allopathic medicine” but increasingly came to be referred to as biomedicine , mainly dominant but actually only one paradigm of medicine.

Public health technologies, improved sanitation, “miracle drugs,” immunizations, and disease control vastly reduced the toll of mortality at the turn of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth. All this resulted in a vast reduction of mortality from contagious and infant diseases. The result was that human populations began to age, and the focus of medicine began to shift from acute to chronic conditions (e.g., alcoholism, diabetes, arthritis, lung cancer). Today, many of these ills are termed lifestyle or civilization diseases, the alleviations or preventions of which more and more have to be put into the hands of the sick persons themselves. This means that the victims’ social outlooks, intentions, support networks, peer relations, and personal philosophies—all psychosocial factors—become crucial to living with or slowing the progress of such conditions.

In the 1970s, George Engel came up with the proposal for a new, more holistic medical paradigm he termed biopsychosocial medicine, implying that the reigning and existing paradigm of biomedicine needed to be complemented by an alternate paradigm known as psychosocial medicine. Neither paradigm would replace the other, but the psychosocial, while accepting biomechanical foundations in the body, would see the person-in-body as embedded in varying social group situations, life histories, and symbolic-cultural environments including the individual’s spiritual identity.

Rhetorical Shift from “Disease” to Health and “Wellness”

Aaron Antonovsky has perhaps done the most to couple expansion of the biomedical paradigm into a biopsychosocial one with a whole new rhetoric for the health care enterprise. He says the concern must be not with “disease care” but with “ease care” or wellness, with salutogenesis or health origination. Antonovsky proposes a type of open-systems notion of health. He emphasizes immunology and the whole person’s natural defenses against threats to health both from within and from the physical and social environments. The study of the mind/brain’s ability to enhance or suppress one’s immunity to disease (psychoneuroimmunology) became a new research frontier. In Antonovsky’s system of health, major psychosocial factors—generalized resistance resources—intervene between persons and their stressors and assist persons in coping. Included in these resources is the person’s “sense of coherence” (SOC). One’s SOC includes one’s meaning or value system, “philosophy of life,” personal theodicy, and concept of religious faith. The SOC provides an interpretive basis for comprehending the near and ultimate meanings of stressful situations. Wellness does not mean attaining “perfect health” but accommodating to a particular point on a continuum between perfect unhealth and perfect health. Further, many of life’s stresses need to be viewed positively (eustress) as well as negatively (distress). Unfortunately, there is mounting evidence that modern psychiatric literature seldom deals with religious variables as it seeks to probe what holds people together or pulls them apart. Even much less is biomedicine concerned with a person’s biopsychosocial “coherence.”

Placebo Effect: A Window into Biomedicine?

The placebo effect (PE) is a phenomenon that modern medicine, from the mid-twentieth century onward, has attempted to deal with as “interference” with the allegedly positive medical applications of its drugs, procedures, and manipulations. The PE refers to the increments of healing that result naturally and apart from any specific, medical treatments. That is, some of the remissions of disease appear to result from trust by the patient in the authority of the caregiver and his or her ministrations on behalf of the patient. Biomedically, then, physicians should feel that medicine has failed if the patient gets well not from the physician’s ministrations but because of trust and a will to live (or, conversely, gets worse, despite medicine’s ministrations, because of lack of trust or a will to die). The PE is a bit of “secret” medical knowledge. Probably most caregivers are fairly aware of the bonus effects that PE-related acts of kindness, pleasantness, and truthfulness produce that caregivers can direct to anxious patients. In fact, survey evidence shows that up to half of the favorable outcomes in health care are believed by caregivers to result from these very PEs. Thus caregivers are already practicing biopsychosocial medicine, although the literature does not officially recognize this.

Religious Faith as Psychosocial?

Most theologies frown on advocating “faith healings” as a substitute for professional medicine. Yet scientific evidence is mounting that religious affiliation, practice, and related lifestyles are conducive to greater longevity, reduced disease, better health, and greater life satisfaction. The Protestant reformers concluded that medical “miracles” ceased with the apostolic age. They feared that the promise of “miracle” cures would compromise the idea of genuine “faith” and smack of magic, whereby a medical outcome of “no cure” would be deemed to be due to no, little, or weak faith. Contemporary hospital chaplains have to be careful in this area and so are personally inclined to follow a “two-track” approach, advocating both modern medicine (including PEs) but also religious faith, prayer, and sacraments promising divine “healing” but not necessarily physical “curing” (along with a secret prayer wish for a “miracle” or two).

There is also evidence that contemporary hospital caregivers see religious support and ministering as special, even unique, and not just as an extension of the “psychosocial” (whole-person interaction, social support, doctor-patient equality, mind-over-body). Caregivers may be ambivalent about the healing power of faith, but they do not seem to wish to reduce it to merely human, natural forces either. A recent survey of caregivers in three suburban American hospitals indicates that almost three-fourths prefer a Judaic-Christian, religio-philosophical view that holds that “God suffers with us” and works through human healing agents but does not necessarily promise miracle cures. The remaining caregiver segments embrace humanistic, “New Age,” or miraculous “faith healing” views.

The Park Ridge Center is a research and consulting institute in Chicago, founded by Martin Marty and others, to study the relations between health, faith, and ethics. It once produced a journal and a newsletter and sponsored a series of outstanding publications, some of which have dealt with the historical relations of religion and health, such as Numbers and Amundsen, Caring and Curing (Macmillan 1986). Other volumes have featured various denominations’ and various world religions’ individual approaches to health and medicine.



Witches and witchcraft are associated with some of the most horrifying episodes in western European and American history. Some historians estimate that upward of one million people were put to death for allegedly being witches during several centuries in Europe, with the major persecutions occurring in the sixteenth and seventeeth centuries (Johnson 1990). The Salem witch trials episode that took place in colonial America was a tragic although small example of the strength of such beliefs about witchcraft (Erikson 1966). It is of note that most of those accused and put to death as witches were women, leading some scholars to suggest that the witch craze was in part a way to control women and to take their property on behalf of the dominant religion (Catholicism) and other authorities in European society. A number of major figures in Christianity—including Luther, Calvin, Wesley, and St. Thomas Aquinas—offered theological justifications for the persecution of alleged witches.

Witchcraft and witches have attained a new level of visibility recently in American society, in part because of the growing interest in paganism and more specifically in “goddess religions,” a significant aspect of some “New Age” religions (York 1995). Johnson (1990) suggests that as many as 100,000 people, mostly women, are involved in witchcraft, which has gained considerable attention for this movement by the media. Some see the growth of interest in witchcraft as partially a reaction to the perception of the extremely patriarchal nature of Christianity. Witchcraft is practiced under the rubric of “Wicca” today and is also sometimes referred to as “the Craft.” Practitioners often are associated with “covens,” which is the usual name for the small groups of witches that meet to practice Wiccan rituals.

Typical practitioners of Wicca believe in the sacredness of the Earth, revere living things, and assume that the Divine is not just a male personage. They observe cycles of nature, with special celebrations (called “sabats”) associated with the changing of seasons. They make use of magical powers, typically to achieve self-development and to help others with some personal difficulty. These beliefs are not typical of traditional religious groups in Western society, which means that practitioners often experience difficulty being accepted by authority figures, including religious leaders, and receiving the typical protections of freedom of religion laws (Hume 1995). Sometimes associated mistakenly with satanism, Wicca has managed to receive somewhat better treatment in the media than representations of satanism (Rowe and Cavender 1991). This may be the case because of current ties that exist between Wicca and feminism.



(1864-1920) German political economist and sociologist, originally trained in jurisprudence. Faculty member, for most of his life adjunct, at the University of Heidelberg, and from 1904 editorial director of the Archiv für Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik . Author of a prodigious corpus, including the essays The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism , originally published in 1904-1905 (Scribner 1930).

The main source of information on Weber’s life is a biography by his widow, Marianne Schnitger Weber, written the year after his death and published in 1926 as Max Weber, ein Lebensbild . This work has been translated and edited in a 1975 English edition by Harry Zohn, Max Weber: A Biography (Transaction). Because Zohn has systematically researched many of Marianne’s ellipses and euphemisms, it is in many ways superior to either the original German edition or its subsequent German edition. Although Marianne Weber was a scholar in her own right, the Biography is hardly all today’s researcher might want. It is richly laced with Max Weber’s own letters and notes, as well as ones Marianne wrote, but it also displays both the fidelity of a devoted widow to her husband’s greatness and the Victorian tendency to say many things indirectly. Yet, we concur with Zohn when he says that there is “no comparable ‘Life and Works’ of Max Weber on the international book market” to equal the Biography .

Marianne’s biography, however, is not the only source we have from contemporaries. In English, Paul Honigsheim, a student and friend of the Webers, has provided a valuable contribution in his On Max Weber (Free Press 1968). This work has the advantage of setting Weber somewhat more into the intellectual activity of the time. Also available in English are some personal recollections by Karl Loewenstein appended to his Max Weber’s Political Ideas in the Perspective of Our Time (University of Massachusetts Press 1966). Additional personal recollections are available only in German. These include essays published along with Honigsheim’s original piece in the Kölner Zeitschrift für Soziologie und Sozialpsychologie in 1963 and Eduard Baumgarten’s book Max Weber: Werk und Person published in 1964.

To these accounts should be added the outstanding intellectual biographies by Reinhard Bendix, Max Weber: An Intellectual Portrait (Doubleday 1960), and by Julian Freund, The Sociology of Max Weber (Pantheon 1968). Although both of these works were published in the 1960s, few additions of significance have been made to the outlines they present. A more recent collection that tries to place Weber more clearly in juxtaposition to the intellectual currents of his own time is Wolfgang Mommsen and Jürgen Osterhammel’s Max Weber and his Contemporaries (Allen & Unwin 1987). Also of importance for one slice of Weber’s life is Mommsen’s Max Weber and German Politics (University of Chicago Press 1984).

Finally should be mentioned Arthur Mitzman’s The Iron Cage: An Historical Interpretation of Max Weber (Knopf 1970), a basically Freudian psychohistorical account of Weber’s life and work. In keeping with this genre, Mitzman places heavy emphasis upon Weber’s relationships with his mother and father, and subsequently his sexual relationship to his wife, as being critical to Weber’s personality development. Beyond this, Mitzman also argues that this personality permeates—indeed, that it practically determines—Weber’s theoretical structure and intellectual development. In this context, Mitzman also sees strong influences upon Weber’s work by the thought of Friedrich Nietzsche. (Kivisto and Swatos, 1988:14-18, have indicated elsewhere the historiographic flaws of Mitzman’s approach.)

Weber and Religion

Weber’s self-description as religiously “unmusical” has become a catchphrase for many commentators. Like Marx’s “opium of the people,” however, this phrase is more often quoted than understood. Although probably only Weber could explain exactly what he meant by the term unmusical —which he used in a variety of circumstances, not only with regard to religion—the quote can be at least given in full and placed in context, namely, a letter of February 9, 1909: “It is true that I am absolutely unmusical religiously and have no need or ability to erect any psychic edifices of a religious character within me. But a thorough self-examination has told me that I am neither antireligious nor irreligious .” It is those last words, emphasized in the original, that seem often ignored. Marianne, by contrast, tells us that Weber “always preserved a profound reverence for the Gospel and genuine Christian religiosity,” and scattered references in his discourse throughout the Biography show a vocabulary and mentalité steeped in religion. Just as Weber’s applied sociology has been given short shrift by most later interpreters, so his Christianity is almost entirely ignored (see Swatos and Kivisto 1991a, 1991b). Several points from this aspect of his life bear noting.

First, Weber’s extended family had strong, although temperamentally different, religious convictions. Weber was reared as a Christian in his mother’s liberal, nondogmatic mode. He was confirmed in his teen years, and it is clear from his letters, both at the time and after, that this was an important experience for him.

Second, while Weber was always uncomfortable with Lutheran orthodoxy, he gave much of his time in the 1890s to the work of the Evangelical-Social Congress. In association with his cousin Otto Baumgarten, and such German “social gospel” leaders as Friedrich Naumann, Paul Göhre, Martin Rade, and others. Weber wrote and spoke for a whole series of sociopolitical agenda items. Contrary to claims of great differentiation between Weber and early American sociologists, Weber can be considered as involved in and committed to an applied social gospel as were his American colleagues. A careful reading of the Biography shows that much of Weber’s strength in the 1890s up to his breakdown in 1898 was spent in speaking and writing projects, particularly at Naumann’s behest, all over the country, for what in the United States would have been called projects of “Christian sociology.” It was only when Naumann attempted to form a political party that Weber began to withdraw from these activities.

This involvement did not end with the conclusion of the acute phase of Weber’s illness. Although his activity level diminished, he continued to attend Evangelical-Social Congresses at least as late as 1907. Almost immediately upon the Webers’ return from their trip to the United States in 1905, Weber became a part of a newly founded theological discussion group (the “Eranos”) at Heidelberg. Weber also was drawn to the mystical elements in Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, and had respect for “real religiousness.” At one point, for example, he told Honigsheim (1968:100), after making something of a joke about one theologian’s “proof” for the existence of God: “This should not be taken to mean that it is not very essential to me to stand in the right relationship to that Lord.”

It is in this total life context, then, that the Protestant ethic essays, along with the rest of Weber’s studies in world religions (inter alia The Religion of China, The Religion of India, Ancient Judaism , Free Press 1951, 1952, 1958), must be viewed. Weber did not take up The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism whimsically but because the Archiv itself had as its scope “a scholarly investigation of the conditions created by modern capitalism,” which Weber chose to expand to include “the historical and theoretical recognition of the general cultural significance of the capitalistic development .” One part of this was the Protestant ethic, as he himself makes clear in several places. Likewise, his industrial sociology was precisely intended to take up “the other side of the problems that are at the center of the treatise on the spirit of capitalism.”

Marianne best summarizes the whole Weber-and-religion complex in these lines (1975:335):

Unprejudiced investigation had taught Weber early on that every phenomenon of cultural life is also economically determined, but that none is only so determined. As early as 1892-93, when as a young scholar he inquired into reasons for the flight of farmers from rural regions in eastern Germany, he was struck by the insight that ideological impulses were just as decisive as the “bread-and-butter questions.” And when he undertook his second inquiry into the situation of farm workers, together with the theologian Göhre, it was from the outset his intention to investigate, in addition to the economic situation of the rural population, the moral and religious situation as well as the interaction of the various factors. Evidently he concerned himself at an early age with the question of the world-shaping significance of ideal forces. Perhaps this tendency of his quest for knowledge—a permanent concern with religion —was the form in which the genuine religiosity of his maternal family lived on in him.
Weber’s Sociology of Religion

At the outset of his study of religion, Weber notes that his point is not to seek “the essence of religion” but “to study the conditions and effects of a particular type of social action.” For Weber, “action” includes not only overt behavior but, most important, the understanding, meaning, or significance of an act to the person engaged in it. With respect to religion, specifically, he writes,

The external courses of religious behavior are so diverse that an understanding of the behavior can be achieved only from the viewpoint of the subjective experiences, ideas, and purposes of the individuals concerned—in short, from the viewpoint of the religious behavior’s “meaning” (Sinn) . (1978:399)

The scholar of religions confronts religious constructions of reality as sociologically real constructions of reality to be studied objectively through the subjective accounts of the participants. “Not ethical and theological theories but the practical impulses toward action that derive from religion,” Marianne writes, were the foci of Weber’s studies in world religions. Yet, in his studies of religion, Weber chose aspects of the religious experience as selective foci for his research. Although he did not label the dimensions upon which he focused “the essences of religion,” by the act of choosing them he gave high priority to them as important elements to understanding religions. Why and how did he take this approach?

The “why” can be answered, at least partially, in terms of the question he is asking: What can be learned about religions as a broad range of actions in relationship to the whole array of social actions? Despite his initial point of departure, Weber was not interested in interaction among a few individuals. At the core of Weber’s sociology is the idea of Verstehen , understanding the meaning of social action. Weber was able to perceive new relationships from the reading and studying—both historical and contemporary—he had done. These implications were not a “personal experience” but were placed in the eye of the public for analytical testing. The critical questions concern the objectivity of his work and the usefulness of his analyses. Weber’s analyses of religions sometimes take the form of sets of categories, sometimes of dimensions. For simplicity, we will treat them all as dimensions and consider them in a twofold aspect: (1) the dimension of social relationships , which involves the meaning of relationships of the leadership and of the laity of a religious group to a “concealed being,” and (2) the ethical dimension, which Weber sees as peculiarly manifested in the problems of theodicy and soteriology.

Unlike Émile Durkheim, who was philosophically oriented and thus asked such questions as those surrounding the origins of different kinds of ideas of gods, Weber, in his “practical” historical orientation, accepted the idea that people believed in and acted upon the existence of them. For the participants involved in a religious action system, the evidence is “relatively rational” as “it follows the rules of experience” that a supernatural existence rests in the “extraordinary powers,” the “charisma,” present in those entities so endowed. The existence of charismatic units also implies the existence of a system of relationships between “certain beings,” the “charismatically endowed,” and some person or persons. General patterns of social relationships, based upon “symbolic activity,” emerge that can be studied through the types of leaders within different religious organizational types. Finally, through the concept of “elective affinity,” Weber focuses sharply and uniquely upon the meanings imparted to religion by the laity , inasmuch as any pattern of relationships is derived from the meanings of all the actors involved in the system of action. Thus Weber delineates a dimension of social relationships that can be termed religious as follows: (1) a belief in one or several of a wide-ranging variety of supernatural powers (2) that are evidenced in a variety of charismatic manifestations (3) articulated through symbolic expressions , (4) responded to in a variety of forms , (5) under the guidance of various types of leaders , (6) in a variety of patterns of relationships significantly determined by the patterned behavior of the lay people of the community.

For Weber, as was true of the social relationship dimension, ethics came in a wide variety of forms that changed with historical circumstances. As Weber analyzed religiously oriented behavior over time, he certainly saw an increasing prominence of ethics as part of the pattern, but he seems to say that in the earliest forms there was also an element of ethics present. This primitive form of ethics is most clearly manifested in the taboo . He argues that societies made increasing ethical demands upon the gods with the development of increased political organization, increased intellectual comprehension of an external cosmos, and increased complexity in social relationships—with an attendant necessity for oral or written contracts. The need for order intensified the need for a more orderly ethic, rather than the highly situational one found in the earlier magical period of religious development. It was the hiatus between the frequency of unethical human conduct and of uneven justice, whether humanly distributed or from external natural events, that led to perceptions of an ever “higher” god, hence to an enhancement of the ethical problem and its increased significance to religious behavior within limits set by human variance. Thus we come to the problems of theodicy and soteriology .

Weber’s discussion of theodicy is brief, serving as the bridge to his discussion of salvation. Theodicy is defined as “the problem of how the extraordinary power of such a god may be reconciled with the imperfection of the world that he has created and rules over.” This problem is particularly acute for those who understand their god as “a transcendental unitary god who is universal,” but it is not found only there. He finds it in ancient Egypt, in Aeschylus, in Hinduism, in ancient China, and elsewhere; indeed, he writes, “this problem belongs everywhere among the factors determining religious evolution and the need for salvation.” As to the variety of forms that the answers to this problem take, and thus to the variety of forms that religion itself takes, Weber denotes five: messianic eschatology, transmigration of the soul, a universal day of judgment, predestination, and dualism.

The second manifestation of the ethical dimension to which Weber turned was the problem of soteriology: salvation and how to achieve it. This problem occupies considerably more space in his work than theodicy. Nowhere does Weber specifically define salvation, but in speaking of such things as wealth and long life, he comments that “the crassest utilitarian expectations frequently replace anything we are accustomed to term ‘salvation.'” By implication, then, salvation is to be perceived broadly; in any case, as social scientists, he writes, “our concern is essentially with the quest for salvation, whatever its form, insofar as it produced certain consequences for practical behavior in the world.” There is ample evidence that Weber sees the problem of soteriology to have existed in the earliest forms of religion. In speaking of the first of his five major forms of the road to salvation—that is, ritualism—he notes the possibility of the superiority of magical relations. In speaking of his second—good works and attendant self-perfection—he mentions the importance of rebirth in “animistic” religion; in the third form, ecstasy, he acknowledges historically early activities. The other forms of soteriology he discusses are asceticism and mysticism, both this-worldly (inner-worldly) and other-worldly.

Thus for Weber ethics is a variable to be confronted at all times and in all places when studying religion, especially in its two problematic circumstances, theodicy and soteriology. Furthermore, ethics as a variable generates many potential religious forms. We can thus say, very briefly, that for Weber religion is a patterning of social relationships around a belief in supernatural powers, creating ethical considerations . Weber thus pioneers among classical sociological theorists a substantive definition of religion (as distinct from Durkheim’s functional definition based on social integration).

Weber’s Reception

One puzzle that surrounds Max Weber’s life is the waxing and waning of his popularity among different audiences (see, e.g., Mommsen 1984, Parsons 1980, Glassman 1983). How is it that this famous German of the 1890s and again of the period immediately after World War I seemed to become a relative “unknown” to be “rediscovered” by the American Talcott Parsons in the 1930s, then “returned” to Germany in the 1950s, to be the subject of a “renaissance” in the 1980s in the West as a whole?

Although Weber was invited to, attended, and spoke at the 1904 Congress of Arts and Sciences in St. Louis (on his East Elban research), his impact on sociology in the United States prior to the 1930s was almost nil. Although the early Protestant ethic essays must have been completed by the time of his visit—which he used to write the last major piece in that series—they seem to have had no part in his presentation to the Congress nor to have been taken up by American sociology during his lifetime (as were, by contrast, the contributions of Simmel and others, who are comparably ignored today).

The most important reasons that Weber was ignored have to do with the incompatibility between his understanding of the discipline and the conception of the science of society harbored by scholars in the United States. In the first place, Weber was not a system-builder, at a time when many American sociologists were intent on building a grand disciplinary system. Second, Weber’s interdisciplinary proclivities did not resonate well with those concerned to establish a distinct niche in the academy for sociology. Third, perhaps of greatest weight, Weber was decidedly antievolutionary at a time when evolutionary thinking cast a spell over many prominent sociologists. Finally, the pessimism that colored Weber’s work simply did not resonate with intellectuals participating in the optimism of the “American century.”

As the “Chicago School” began to consolidate itself as the most important center for the discipline, the lack of interest in Weber was exacerbated. Their ahistorical tendencies were compounded with atheoretical and empiricist biases. Beyond this, the empirical concerns that preoccupied the Chicago School—the dynamics of the contemporary city and race relations—were not central to Weber. By contrast, the Weberian preoccupation with politics and religion did not strike a responsive chord with Chicago sociologist Robert Park and his colleagues—or his students. The Chicago School was remarkably apolitical, seen clearly in its ecological analyses of the metropolis. In terms of religion, Chicago-trained sociologists did not enter into the Protestant ethic debate, although other American theologians and historians were doing so just a few years after the initial German publication of Weber’s thesis.

This situation changed by the 1930s. In part this was abetted by growing access to English translations of Weber’s work, beginning with economist Frank Knight’s production of the General Economic History in 1927 (Free Press) and then Talcott Parsons’s translation of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism in 1930. Another reason for an evolving interest in Weber was the fact that Americans continued to study in Germany; although Weber was already dead, these students nonetheless came under the influence of his thought. Two notable instances are Howard Becker and Talcott Parsons. The former would return and produce a number of publications devoted to explicating the ideal-type and historical sociology; the latter would, in his watershed publication The Structure of Social Action (McGraw-Hill 1937), treat Weber as of paramount importance in Parsons’s own effort to construct his grand theoretical synthesis.

If these were the only contributing figures, a distinctly American variant of Weberian sociology might have emerged. However, the ascendance of Hitler to power in 1933 resulted in the exodus of numerous German intellectuals to the United States. Collective settlements of these emigré scholars were established at the New School for Social Research and, to a lesser extent, at Columbia University. In terms of Weber scholarship, names of importance included, at the former institution, Emil Lederer, Adolph Loew, Karl Mayer, Albert Salomon, Alfred Schutz, and Hans Speier, and at the latter, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Paul Lazarsfeld, and Herbert Marcuse. Other figures who found academic homes throughout the country included Theodore Abel, Reinhard Bendix, Carl Friedrich, Hans Gerth, Paul Honigsheim, and Alexander von Schelting. The influence of some of these scholars was largely limited to the students they taught, while for others it extended well beyond their exilic institutions to the discipline at large.

Due to the multiplicity of interpretations of Weberian thought, no one assessment came to dominate American sociology’s understanding of Weber. In addition, because the translation of Weber into English occurred slowly, also in fits and starts, it is not surprising that Weberian sociology is less identified with a specific American “school” than, for example, Durkheim is with functionalism. What is clear is that aspects of his work began to be used during the 1950s and 1960s, and indeed, a rapidly expanding body of literature devoted to Weberian themes was produced. The three topics that received by far the most attention were bureaucracy, charismatic authority, and the Protestant ethic thesis. In each instance, however, but perhaps most evidently in the last, much of this research was conducted in an ahistorical manner quite at variance with the thrust of Weber’s own work on these themes. Ironically, the hegemony achieved in American sociology by Parsonian functionalism both advanced and retarded Weber scholarship, despite efforts by such figures as Bendix and C. Wright Mills to offer an alternative view. The publication of a complete translation of Weber’s Economy and Society in 1968 (University of California Press 1978) began a major rethinking as well as a flurry of new scholarship (see Kivisto and Swatos 1988).

Recovering Weber: Interpretive Conflicts and Quandaries

Whatever critique may be made of Parsons and his use(es) of Weber, it is nevertheless true that Weber’s General Economic History was available in English in the United States several years before Parsons’s translation of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism and a full decade before Parsons’s own Structure of Social Action . A number of scholars in the 1980s—encouraged by an admirable effort by Randall Collins to systematize Weber’s argument on the appearance of Western rational capitalism—have attempted to make the case that the General Economic History , which was compiled posthumously by his students and his wife from Weber’s scribbled notes, and which in his lifetime he termed “an improvisation with a thousand defects,” is to be given intellectual priority over The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism .

Because the Protestant ethic essays are one of the core texts of the sociology of religion, this thesis needs careful examination and encounters several problems: First, Weber himself revised the final version of the Protestant ethic essays from which Parsons made his translation. The “Author’s Introduction” to the collection of Weber’s essays on religion as a whole that Parsons placed at the front of the English translation of the PE essays provides quite explicitly the interpretive context that Weber intends for them. This may well have been the last thing Weber wrote and saw to almost final form in 1920. Should this material about which he was most satisfied be relegated to a secondary position vis-à-vis that of which he was most critical?

Second, the General Economic History received little attention in Anglo-America compared with that accorded The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism . If the General Economic History is actually better than the Protestant ethic essays, why was it not more well received earlier or offered later in criticism of Parsons’s subsequent use of the Protestant ethic essays? Surely its temporal priority should work in its favor rather than against it, and at the time, its translator, University of Chicago economics professor Frank H. Knight, had far more prestige than the young Parsons.

Third, it is now clear that Parsons misrepresented the Protestant ethic essays in tracing his evolutionary functionalism back to them. As a result, the General Economic History may well provide welcome relief from the many misinterpretations that have been heaped upon The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism over the years—by both friends and enemies, so to speak. Nevertheless, caution needs to be exercised in regard to the claim that the General Economic History represents “more accurately” the “real Max Weber” than the last words that Max Weber himself brought to publication.

Fourth, in view of the lack of prior attention to the General Economic History , careful consideration must be given to the possibility that the General Economic History permits a conflict-theoretical, quasi-Marxist reading of Weber more consistent with the left-liberal predilections of one current of contemporary Anglo-American sociological theory than is warranted by Weber’s corpus as a whole. Such an approach would warp Weber no less seriously than that which Talcott Parsons has been accused of doing in The Structure of Social Action .

See also Talcott Parsons, Protestant Ethic Thesis



Volunteering is the main mode by which religious and service agencies in pluralistic societies staff the so-called independent, voluntary sector and implement its basic programs and goals with a maximum of part-time, unpaid, nonprofessional “volunteers” (even though many might be former, retired professionals). Tocqueville noted that the “New World” adopted a pattern of denominational pluralism with the “voluntary church” as its mode of organizing. This mode inspired the historic development of a gamut of voluntary and service agencies (Wuthnow’s “special purpose groups”) as adjuncts of denominations and congregations as well as community organizations parallel to the churches. The growth of religious and community volunteering has been assisted by the development of interest groups based upon the lines of gender, age, ethnicity, class, political identification, feelings of “relative deprivation” and discrimination, as well as by greater leisure and longevity in retirement, greater affluence, and government support and programming.

Recent national polls reveal that over 60% of Americans “volunteer,” with the most active ones in middle age; 40% of the “young-old” (aged 65-75) and 29% of those beyond 75 report an overall average of six hours weekly. Much of volunteering is informal and probably underreported.

Recent religious history has been studded with religious special purpose groups. These are involved in providing services to the needy, evangelization, advocacy for “causes” (e.g., women’s ordination, curbing abortions or teenage sexuality). But since World War II, many more have become interdenominational or “secular” in orientation. Often such groups have redirected or revitalized denominational policy. On the other hand, associated with the proliferation of volunteerism can be faction formation, community cleavage, the development of oligarchy, and the phenomenon of the “professional layperson” career.

See also Organization Theory



The (usually intentional) use of harmful force; studies involving religion include examinations of international religious violence (e.g., Indian and Pakistani tensions), violence between groups and society (e.g., the Sikh nationalist movement), violence among groups (e.g., Protestants versus Catholics in Northern Ireland), violence among members (e.g., members’ murders of other Jonestown followers), and violence against self (e.g., religious suicide).

Because religion provides reputedly divine justification for activities, history is replete with examples of groups or members invoking the supernatural to sanctify their violent actions (e.g., abortion clinic bombings). While some explanations focus upon the pathogenic nature of the participants, others address the social contexts in which violence occurs.

A number of studies examine the processes by which some groups demonize and dehumanize nonmembers in a manner that facilitates violence. In extreme cases, demonization and dehumanization can lead to acts of religious terrorism (i.e., Islamic fundamentalist sectarianism fostering the World Trade Center bombing). Additional studies examine how various religions use violence, force, and coercion to control or punish their own members (including children) through extreme hardships, corporal punishment, injury, or death. During periods of tension, violence often increases as class, ethnic, and nationalist loyalties interweave with religion.

On the level of imagery and meaning, many religiously related symbols highlight violent tendencies in various traditions. Patriarchal symbols, myths, and teachings, for example, facilitate gender imbalances that often translate into male violence against women. Sacrificail imagery (as in Christianity) has led to religious models for personal and collective acts of martyrdom and self-violence. Christian scriptures also formed the basis for anti-Semitic violence. Likewise, apocalyptic and messianic imagery involving divine judgments of evil translate into messianically violent tendencies in some traditions of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and folk Buddhism.

Violent religious persecution is likely to occur either when the state is unable to control rising tensions among competing groups (e.g., in the former Yugoslavia) or when the state itself feels offended or threatened by religiously motivated behavior (e.g., the Iranian attacks against Baha’is).



The Second Vatican Council in Roman Catholicism, 1962-1965, which was the first “ecumenical” church council of Roman Catholics since Vatican I in 1869-1870, was convened by Pope John XXIII with the explicit purpose of aggiornamento , that is, updating the church to function in modern society.

According to Roman Catholic teaching, an ecumenical council consists of all cardinals and bishops assembled to consider church affairs and who are institutionally empowered to affect the teaching, pastoral policy, and self-organization of the church. The mandate given by Pope John XXIII to the council fathers was to adapt church structures to the needs and methods of our times.

The 16 conciliar decrees that resulted from the four council sessions created major changes in the theology and practices of the Catholic Church worldwide. These changes are summarized by Dulles (1988) as follows: (1) aggiornamento , that is, updating, modernization, or adaptation of the church to the mid-twentieth century; (2) reformability of the church, that is, the admission that the church has committed errors in the past, accepts responsibility, and is intent on reformation; (3) renewed attention to the Word of God, focus upon the Scriptures, and liturgy in the vernacular so that people can understand the message of God; (4) collegiality, that is, the view of the pope as head of the college of bishops with each bishop governing his diocese in consultation with his priests, religious, and laity; (5) religious freedom, or the approval of civil tolerance for all faiths and the rejection of any coercion in the sphere of belief; (6) active role of the laity, that is, expansion of roles for the laity in divine worship, in pastoral councils, and in the mission of the church; (7) regional and local variety, or the recognition that diversity of customs, language, and observances enhances the richness of the church; (8) ecumenism, or reverence for the heritage of other Christian churches; (9) dialogue with other religions, both Christian and non-Christian alike, that establishes dynamic tension between dialogue and the need for mission activities so that Christ may be acknowledged among all peoples; (10) social mission of the church, establishing the apostolate of peace and social justice as a continuation of Christ’s compassion on the poor and oppressed.

While many Catholics lauded the changes effected by Vatican II, there also arose a reactionary movement whose members accused the church of succumbing to the heresy of modernism. The conflict between the liberals and conservatives in the postconciliar church remains unsettled. However, there is widespread agreement among both Catholics and non-Catholics that the post-Vatican II Catholic Church is very different from the church that existed prior to the Second Vatican Council.



A value is a normative proposition; it meets a need that seeks to satisfy or that finds its meaning in a universal truth, accepted by the subject. At the same time, it is made up either of an object of particular importance for the subject agent or of a higher truth; it has a prescriptive nature, and a person is subject to a continuous effort to assert the value in which he or she believes.

A value is subordinated to the existential context, and it is always verified by social events. It is the sphere of existence that founds and circumscribes that of values. As an orientation toward a person’s actions with respect to an end, a value also can be a reference point for several norms, even as one norm may constitute the reference for a plurality of values.

In sociology, the concept of the value acquired importance in the twentieth century in a cultural context of reaction against the preceding culture. According to Luciano Gallino (1988:722-724), in this period the independent emergence of the term value was characterized by a high level of generalization. It marked the manifestation of a profound change in modern culture that occurred in particular on the social side. It was in this period that the concept of the value became an object of analysis by sociologists who offered various interpretations.
Values in Sociological Interpretation

In American sociology, the cultural change of the twentieth century led to the decline of the instinctual categories of behavior that encouraged social scholars to consider instincts, interests, and needs as the causes of behavior. It began to be accepted that the organic factor was not the cause of behavior in its rough form but only in the form that it assumes as the product of experience.

The first systematic discussion of the concept of values appeared in “Methodological Note” in the book by William I. Thomas and Florian Znaniecki, The Polish Peasant in Europe and America (University of Chicago Press 1918-1920). Here values were defined in connection with the psychological concept of “attitude.” According to Thomas and Znaniecki, while “the value” is an object that has an accessible content and meaning for the members of the social group, “the attitude” is a subjective orientation of the members of the group toward values.

These authors intended the definition of value and attitude only to be a starting point for the development of social theory. Roles are objects and not part of the orientation of the actors; social roles do not only refer to attitudes, they also express them. In Thomas and Znaniecki’s opinion, the scientific value of an event depends on its connection to other events and, in this connection, the most common factors are precisely those that have the greatest value.

By social value , Thomas and Znaniecki meant each datum that has an empirical content that is accessible to the members of a social group and a meaning in reference to which it is or it can be the object of activity. Social values contrast with natural things; they have no meaning for human activity and they are treated as valueless: When natural things assume a meaning, they become social values.

This interpretation by Thomas and Znaniecki acted as a spur to further studies and theories that have continued up until the present day. An important contribution was made by Clyde Kluckhohn in his article “Values and Value-Orientations in the Theory of Action” (1951), where he stated that “a value is a conception, explicit or implicit, distinctive of an individual or characteristic of a group, of the desirable which influences the selection from available modes, means and ends of action.” Here the cognitive element is the decisive criterion between the values and the subjective quantities such as feelings, emotions, attitudes, and needs as well as values and preferences.

In Kluckhohn’s opinion, a value is expressed in the long term and becomes desirable when it is interiorized by the subject and integrated into his or her personality system. The action is thus motivated by the “needs-orientations,” which are the objective conditions, and by the “values-orientations,” which correspond to the choices made by the person on the basis of interiorized values.

Values explain their prescriptive nature, by fixing limits within which the example of the affective faculty is admitted; they depend on the hierarchy and configuration of the ends of the personality and on the situation and requirements of the cultural system. The integration of values in an evaluative system that contributes to a large extent to identifying individual cultures is a condition for the integration of motivations in a certain system that identifies individual personalities.

Other important American approaches include Pitirim Sorokin’s Society, Culture and Personality (Harper 1947) and Paul Hanly Furfey’s The Scope and Method of Sociology (Harper 1953). Sorokin defined a value as follows: “Any meaning in a narrow sense is a value. Any value presupposes a norm of conduct with reference to its realization or rejection.” Furfey’s definition is also useful: “The quality of recognized desirability founded on goodness.”

Howard Paul Becker, in his work Through Values to Social Interpretation (Duke University Press 1950), stated that a value is “any object of any need.” Intrinsic to his work is the theory that values must be discovered in phenomena as well as in the object itself; a value is created in the object when it becomes the result of necessity or desire. In other words, as Franz Adler stated in “The Value Concept of Sociology” (1956), “a value is what is valued.” Ideally, this approach should move from static considerations of definitional abstractions to research on the process of valuing.

A further definition sees values as placed in humans and deriving from their biological necessities or from their “mind.” The following is, for example, the definition of a value that Kimball Young gave in Sociology: A Study of Society and Culture (American Book Company 1949): “A combination of ideas and attitudes which gives a scale of preference or priority to motives and goals as well as to a course of action from motive to goal.”

The theories of Robert E. Park, William E. Burgess, Ellsworth Faris, and George Herbert Mead are also of note. The definition given by Park and Burgess in Introduction to the Science of Sociology (University of Chicago Press 1924)—”anything capable of being appreciated (wished for) is a ‘value’ “—considers values as things that arise in the object where and when desire or need call upon it. Faris and G. H. Mead can be considered two sociologists who formulated a new conceptualization of values as elements of the personality.

Faris, in his two essays “Social Attitudes” and “The Concept of Social Attitudes” in The Nature of Human Nature (McGraw-Hill 1937), stated that values have an objective dimension toward which actors can direct their attitudes and actions and an attitudinal dimension that constitutes an element of orientation. Mead, in Mind, Self and Society (University of Chicago Press 1934), formulated principles according to which normative attitudes become the central part of the human personality.

Also worthy of mention is the interpretation of a value given by Milton Rokeach in his book The Nature of Human Values (Free Press 1973):

A value is an enduring belief that a specific mode of conduct or end-state of existence is personally or socially preferable to an opposite or converse mode of conduct or end-state of existence. A value system is an enduring organization of beliefs concerning desirable modes of conduct or end-states of existence along a continuum of relative importance.

The 1930s saw the return of the European theorists, in particular Max Weber and Émile Durkheim, and a wealth of theoretical and methodological concepts were published concerning, among others, the concept of values. It can be said that the relaunch of the notion of values in contemporary sociology can be attributed to Talcott Parsons’s work The Social System (Free Press 1951), which is perhaps the most complete expression of the structural-functionalist current of thought. It is a work that starts from the presupposition of the rejection of the positivistic conception of conduct as predetermined by the situation.