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Religion in the Contemporary World: A Sociological Introduction, 3rd Edition

ISBN: 978-0-7456-5346-4
256 pages
April 2013, Polity
Religion in the Contemporary World: A Sociological Introduction, 3rd Edition (0745653464) cover image

In the new edition of this widely praised text, Alan Aldridge examines the complex realities of religious belief, practice and institutions. Religion is a powerful and controversial force in the contemporary world, even in supposedly secular societies. Almost all societies seek to cultivate religions and faith communities as sources of social stability and engines of social progress. They also try to combat real and imagined abuses and excess, regulating cults that brainwash vulnerable people, containing fundamentalism that threatens democracy and the progress of science, and identifying terrorists who threaten atrocities in the name of religion.

The third edition has been carefully revised to make sure it is fully up to date with recent developments and debates. Major themes in the revised edition include the recently erupted ‘culture war’ between progressive secularists and conservative believers, the diverse manifestations of ‘fundamentalism’ and their impact on the wider society, new individual forms of religious expression in opposition to traditional structures of authority, and the backlash against ‘multiculturalism’ with its controversial implications for the social integration of ethnic and religious minority communities.

Impressive in its scholarly analysis of a vibrant and challenging aspect of human societies, the third edition will appeal strongly to students taking courses in the sociology of religion and religious studies, as well as to everyone interested in the place of religion in the contemporary world.
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Preface to the Third Edition viii

Acknowledgements x

1 Defining Religion: Social Confl icts and Sociological Debates 1

Scientology: authentic religion or imposture? 3

Baha'i: world faith or apostasy? 7

Religion and the state 8

Advantages of being recognized as a religion 13

Disadvantages of status as a religion 17

Defining people as religious 20

Max Weber: on not defining religion 22

Émile Durkheim: defining religion sociologically 24

Contemporary sociological definitions of religion 26

A Wittgensteinian approach 30

Further reading 34

2 Secularization: The Social Insignifi cance of Religion? 35

Karl Marx and the projection theory of religion 35

Émile Durkheim and the social functions of religion 38

Max Weber and the disenchantment of the world 41

Defining secularization 49

Secularization from within 50

Decline of community 52

Marginalization of charisma 54

Cultural amnesia 56

Pluralization, relativism and consumer choice 57

Reason, rationality and science 59

A consensus on dystopia? 64

Further reading 64

3 Secularization Challenged: A New Paradigm? 66

A secularization theorist recants 66

A new paradigm 67

Voluntarism according to Talcott Parsons 69

The demand for religion: a rational choice? 73

The supply of religion: the benefi ts of competition? 75

Strict churches and free-riders 80

The Mormons: a new world faith? 83

Jehovah's Witnesses: overcoming the failure of prophecy 88

The new paradigm and the rise of the megachurches 91

The Pentecostals 93

Further reading 95

4 Dangerous Religions? Sects, Cults and Brainwashing 97

Classifying Christian movements 97

New religious movements 101

Dynamics of change 107

The rise of 'brainwashing' 115

Identifying potentially destructive movements 119

The fall of 'brainwashing' 126

Further reading 129

5 Dangerous Religions? Fundamentalism 131

Bible believers 132

Fundamentalism and monotheism 134

Features of fundamentalism 138

Islamophobia 142

Further reading 147

6 Civil Religion and Political Ritual 148

Ritual and social integration: the legacy of Durkheim 148

'In God We Trust': civil religion in the United States 149

The European Union: symbols of an unfi nished project 154

Symbolic division in society: the peace process in Northern Ireland 155

Political religion in an atheist society: the Soviet Union 157

Political religion and charismatic leadership: Nazi Germany 161

Character and society 163

Further reading 164

7 Gender and Sexuality 165

The subordination of women 165

Reclaiming the symbols of subordination 171

Gender-blind religions? 174

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) identities 177

Further reading 179

8 The Spiritual Revolution 181

Georg Simmel: an alternative classical view 181

Believing without belonging 183

From religion to spirituality? 186

A new age? 191

Pagans 193

Religion online and online religion 195

Individualism and the crisis of religious authority 197

Religion in consumer society 203

Lived religion and sociological analysis 205

Further reading 206

9 The Challenge of Diversity 208

The debate about multiculturalism 208

French culture and the veiling of women 210

A clash of civilizations? 212

The challenge of diversity 214

Grassroots responses to diversity 220

Afterword: a culture war? 224

Further reading 226

References 227

Index 247

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Alan Aldridge is former reader in the sociology of culture at the University of Nottingham.
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  • Third edition of a widely praised and masterful sociological introduction to religion
  • Fully up-to-date with recent data and debates, such as the culture war between progressive secularists and conservative believers, and diverse forms of fundamentalism
  • Comprehensive scope, drawing on a wide range of social issues, and religious and spiritual movements from across the world
  • Impressive in its scholarly analysis, yet accessible to student readers
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‘The new edition of Religion in the Contemporary World is a timely guide to the social significance of religion. It is comprehensive, clear and convincing. Alan Aldridge is to be congratulated for writing such a well informed and readable account of both the routine and the eye-catching aspects of religion in various regions of the world. From “cults” to civil religion, from secularization to state control, and from diversity to identity, the analysis of arguments and examples is challenging and shrewd. This is the sociology of religion at its best.’
James A. Beckford, University of Warwick

‘Aldridge provides an insightful and thoughtfully engaged discussion of the many varieties of religion in contemporary society. His smooth narrative and timely examples make religion come alive on the page and illuminate why it continues to be such a significant social force.’
Michele Dillon, University of New Hampshire

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