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Religious Organizations

Religious Organizations

Author: Zach Lamb

Identify the various components of religion.

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Source: Intro Music by Mark Hannan; Public Domain

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Hello. Welcome to Sociological Studies. Thank you for joining me. In this lesson we're going to talk about the Church and the organization of religious activity in terms of different varieties such as, the church, a sect, a cult. And we'll see that each of these things here is more or less socially integrated, and they can be situated on a continuum from more social integration, more connection with society as a whole to less connection with the larger society and buying into a cult.

Well, the church is the institution of religion and is integrated into society as a whole. There are two ways in language that we commonly use when we talk about a church. First is, you could say something like, the church has decided that we should not allow gay marriage. And in this sense you are talking about the Church as an institution. But you could also say I'm going to church, that building there, that physical space where you do that worship and shoulder rubbing with everybody else in the church. So then you're talking about the Church as an actual space.

Scientology is an institution of religion that is integrated into society as a whole, as is Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Unitarian Universalist. These are examples of churches. These churches in the institutional sense could last for centuries. They have many rules and regulations, governing the conduct of practitioners and clergymen. So often you have to be educated and ordained in order to be a religious leader in institutionalized churches.

We also have what we call State Churches. State Churches are churches that are formally integrated with the Nation-State as a whole. It's linked to the Nation-State. The state of Islam, and Pakistan, and Iran, for instance, are State Churches. Many countries in Northern Africa and the Middle East are State Church countries. There's discussion in Egypt right now for instance, about what kind of Post-Revolution State do we want?

We want one that is ruled by Islamic law or do we want to move to a more secular democratic society? And time will tell what that country does. State Churches consider everyone in society as a member. So in this sense they're much less tolerant for outside or contradictory religious views. After State Church, we have denominations. Catholics, Baptists, Lutherans, Methodists, Episcopalians, these are denominations. Each of these denominations have its own beliefs, but they recognize that others have their own beliefs as well, and so they are largely tolerant of each other. So you can think of Christianity as having many denominations like I just mentioned.

Next let's move on to talk about a sect. A sect is a smaller, less formal, and more spontaneous religious group that exists apart from the larger society. A good example to think about a sect is the Amish in America. They're not that integrated with the rest of American society as a whole. They live in fact, most of the time separated from the rest of the larger society in terms of culture, geography, et cetera.

So this is a good way to think about a sect. Leaders in a sect aren't formally trained most of the time, but are charismatic people capable for producing emotional responses in others. And typically a sect happens when a group spins off from a denomination or from a church. And since they're smaller, they don't necessarily last for centuries, but can be short-lived as long as the charismatic leader is around for the sect.

Lastly, and even more extreme, is a cult. A cult is a small close-knit group who devoutly follows the instruction of one leader or a small group of charismatic leaders. You might remember the Heaven's Gate cult group who committed suicide following the Hale Bopp Comet so that their spirits could go to an alien ship that was thought to be following the comet.

So a charismatic leader comes along, Marshall Applewhite, and convinces a group of people that we have an alternative vision, an alternative way of life. And so he starts to get followers and this is how a cult happens. Typically it's a charismatic leader. And cults largely stand outside of society. They're not socially integrated with the larger society, in terms of culture and custom.

They're often more short lived. Cults either fizzle out or get enough followers and become more integrated with society, become denominations. Finally, we have what we call Civic Religion.

So it's not religion in the common sense that you might think of when you think of religion, but certainly nationalistic and civic activities come to resemble religious activities. So Civic Religion is a devotion to the State and to the citizenship ideals of that State. This is pretty sociological interesting. Think about the times we collectively venerate the flag at sporting events, and in the Pledge of Allegiance and the National Anthem. You could even look at these as rituals, in the Derkheimian sense, that unified the collective under the veneration of the State.

We come together to venerate and engage in rituals that reaffirm the collective. Our way of life is holy, and everyone should follow our way of life. A certain citizen might think-- you might think that about America. Well, they're not living like us so their living in sin, even you could say. You may have heard of the term "nationalism." And excessive nationalism is akin to religious devotion. So civic religion is an interesting way to look at how, as a collective nation, we behave in a religious fashion.

Finally, Fundamentalism. Fundamentalists, you could have Christian Fundamentalists. You could have Islamic Fundamentalists. Each denomination can have a fundamentalist faction, but fundamentalists take their book as truth, and their beliefs as truth, and to have no tolerance for contradictory beliefs. So they're highly tradition-bound groups that stick rigidly to the teachings of the past.

And Christian Fundamentalists will take every word in the Bible as truth, whereas a more progressive Christian might say, well, these are just general guidelines. It was a story. It's not necessarily meant to be taken literally, but a fundamentalist will reject all that and take it as truth. This is an introduction to descriptive overviews of various types of religion. Have a great rest of your day.

Terms to Know

The institution of religion that is integrated into society as a whole.


A religious-like devotion to a state and the citizenship ideals of that state.


A small, close-knit group who devoutly follows the instruction of a charismatic leader.


A church that recognizes religious difference and exists separate from the nation state.


A highly traditional worldview that dismisses all other religious groups by taking one book as word-for-word truth.


A smaller, less formal and more spontaneous religious group that exists apart from the larger society.

State Church

A church that is linked to a nation state.