The Sociology of Religious Movements

An overview: Since the earliest efforts at socialization, the extended family and tribe, there have been wise men and women who gained power and support through their ability to explain the unexplainable, to perform convincing acts that could not be explained by logic and to convince others of their interpretations of the unseeable, unprovable and unknowable. In most cases, these were highly intelligent and very observant individuals who applied themselves to the first efforts at organized, logical study of nature, life and death. In other cases, these were charismatic individuals who had the gift of being able to convince others that they had the most effective explanations. Still more were able to find the time to study, record, educate and in the process, embellish or mythologize through stories and records that were taken as fact.

As populations, education, intellectual pursuit and social development became more advanced and complex, so did the work of those who explained nature in it’s observable and unexplainable form. From the earliest African religious rituals, beliefs and philosophical constructs to the vast temples and cathedrals of today, the complexity of life has caused a complexity of knowing the unknowable.

Humans seek understanding of those things that science cannot explain. Religions that involve a higher power, Nietzsche’s superman, one or more divine beings, or some anthropomorphic representation of a being that rules, made, or organizes the supernatural and natural forces of the planet have taken on the broadest and largest role in providing that understanding.

Like any other movements, religious movements possess several tools: the ability to communicate, the support of the government, the ability to raise funds and a viable mass of true believers who volunteer most of the labor required to keep the movement viable. The support of the government can come in the form of freedom to practice the religion or to have the movement or it can come in the form of legal and military dictates that those who disagree will be subject to the coercive authority of the government that is backed by law.

The particular dynamics of religious movements can originate in the actions of one or more individuals who seek to gain wealth and/or power, growing dissatisfaction with one or more policies of an established religion, or the ideas of one or individuals that result in a new religion, entirely.

The religion of Scientology is based on the ideas and concepts of a science fiction novelist. Judaism and Islam are based on the ideas and concepts of the first people to have universal written languages. Voodoo and animism are as old as the dawn of man and have survived the most determined attempts to eliminate them as African cultural components that slave owners wanted to eliminate. Rastafarian and other religious groups are believed to be the lost diaspora tribes of Israel.

Confucius convinced billions, followed by a myriad of schools throughout China, India and Asia. The indigenous peoples of every continent, of the arctic and of the grasslands and even those who have traveled the open seas for millennium have formed their own understandings and passed them on from generation to generation, regardless of the oppression or force of conquering and invading peoples.

As a result, religious movements can involve one member of a Catholic family who chooses to become a Baptist; or a religious movement can incorporate socio-political features to involve the entire world and all of its governments and religions. But one amazing factor is the ability of some religious movements, groups, laws, beliefs and practices to remain steadfast through the centuries and against any effort to restrict or to prohibit them, while others disappear with the originators.