Modern culture was to have eradicated death, or at the very least, kept it at bay. Death, a mainstay in so-called traditional societies in the form of ritual practices, was usually gory, messy and putrid. But it still gave an immense amount of meaning. The question of what happens to the dead—where the dead go, what happens to them—can be said to be at the heart of traditional culture. In modernity, we had effectively sequestered death. Both medicine and science had sanitized it, embalmed it and packaged it. It was buried. It seems that death is back.
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In an era of uncertainty—economic, political and social, we see it on TV, on the Internet; we see it everywhere. Death abroad, death at home, natural death, death by terror, death professionally produced and death caught on our mobiles. Inter Facing Death analyzes the nexus of death, mourning and media in the contemporary era in the context of recent developments in social, cultural and media theory.
The project seeks to investigate the state of ethics and morality in contemporary societies. It attempts to understand how ethics have remained relevant in times that are secular and post-traditional. It asks and explores the following questions:. Taking its cue from the work of Erich Fromm, this project scrutinizes religious experience, especially the experience of conversion from a psychoanalytic perspective. A work of synthesis and original research, this project critically assesses recent psychoanalytic literature in the study of religion but will also consist of interviews with religious converts.
Associate Professor with Tenure, April June Cover, R. Project : Research. In a prime example of how the conflict perspective can be profitably applied in Marxist studies of religion and class, they illustrate how, in the midst of conflict and misunderstanding, hegemony was being created. This was done not merely through discourse but also through place, space, and material culture. As the missionaries tried to reshape Tswana daily life into one of Christian modernity, conflict and conversation about objects such as mirrors and clocks and the control of water served to refashion the Tswana consciousness in ways that reshaped local power relations to the benefit of the colonial government—despite the good intentions of the missionaries and active Tswana efforts to resist the changes.
In other words, the Comaroffs show how cultural domination—and by extension, economic domination—comes to occur even in conflict; as Marx argues, the role of economic inequality and its relation to power is decisive. In short, this work illustrates how the conflict perspective can be fruitfully applied to analyze the role of religion in producing inequality, helping us to better understand how religion is implicated in processes of exclusion. Like Marx, Max Weber is also highly attentive to the relationship between religious ideas and economic behavior.
But Weber is highly critical of the Marxist view that religion is part of an ideological superstructure arising from an economic base. Instead, while Weber acknowledges the power of the economic sphere in human life in general and industrial capitalism in particular, he understands religion and the economic sphere to potentially be mutually constitutive. As a result, he sees religious ideas as having an important influence on the highly rationalized, bureaucratized, and unequal nature of modern capitalist societies. As we can see, although Weber approaches the issue in a very different direction from Marx, he also sees religion as, in certain contexts, legitimizing and maintaining social inequality.
However, this is not a necessary outcome in using Weberian methods. Instead, because Weber conceives of religion as a separate cultural sphere, he paves the way for understanding how religion is a more or less agentic entity with respect to social class, though the two are, at times, intertwined. This approach helps us better identify the points at which religion can positively intervene in mitigating the effects of poverty.
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Weber also directly theorizes about the relationship between religion and social class, including an important additional dimension: the distinction between class and status. Class, he argues, is determined by economic position, but status is determined by status honor, and both have an elective affinity—that is, a degree of connection—with religious preference. He links specific classes and status groups to particular theodicies, suggesting that the social group within which a religion developed has a lasting impact on it For example, he argues those with high levels of class and status tend to develop theodicies of good fortune, which see wealth and status as a deserved blessing, thereby legitimating their own social position.
By contrast, the less privileged have an elective affinity with theodicies of misfortune, which tend to see wealth and status as a sign of evil and that focus on the rewards to come in the eternal rather than temporal world. To be clear, Weber pushes back against purely materialistic explanations of religious preference, but he also works to avoid idealism as an explanation; instead, he sees ideas as grounded in the social world.
Economics, social class, and status, in other words, are continually interacting and mutually influencing each other. Finally, it is important to point out that Weber, unlike Marx, does not have a grand theory. His work is full of examples of how historical outcomes are often unintended and are instead contingent upon meaningful social action.
To illustrate how this works, he thinks comparatively through ideal types and elective affinities to establish causal relations in particular cases, and then he compiles these cases to draw more general conclusions. Part of his utility for scholars of religion and poverty is the case-specific flexibility of his methods, which scholars also use to build generalizations from the analysis of specific cases.
We see this utility at play in the studies covered in the next sections, which explore how religious ideas, styles of religious behavior, and the social structures of religious institutions can positively or negatively impact the poor in ways that do vary based on global location but that nonetheless show remarkable consistency across national, cultural, and religious lines. Moreover, studies have found that this process often has profound unintended consequences for the poor, both positive and negative.
For example, in studies of poverty policies in Western nations, Sigrun Kahl , explores how popular understandings of the poor as deserving or undeserving and variation in the ways that national poverty policies emphasize welfare and work can be traced back to the religious doctrines of most influential religious denomination in each nation. Predominantly Catholic countries such as France and Italy see the poor as deserving and emphasize welfare; Lutheran countries such as the Scandinavian nations see both individual and structural factors in poverty and emphasize a balance between welfare and work; while Reformed Protestant countries such as the United States tend to see the poor as undeserving and thus prioritize work in their poverty policies.
Indeed, the observation that one of the ways that class influences religion is through the development of class-specific religious behaviors, which in turn can reproduce the existing social structure, has long been a part of the study of religion and social class.
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Richard Niebuhr works in this vein to emphasize that social structures such as race and class impact the development and growth of religious movements, resulting in religious forms that reflect their social position. He draws particular attention to the role this plays for the poor: the disinherited do not find their needs met in the churches and thus form their own sects.
However, once they have achieved a degree of cultural respectability, they neglect the poor that have taken their place, which leads this new body of the poor to develop their own sects as well, thereby continuing the cycle. This question of what types of differences in religious behavior and organization are seen in churches that appeal to the working class versus those dominated by the middle or upper classes and how such divisions may serve to support or reproduce social inequality has continued to remain a subject of interest in different bodies of literature, including the community studies highlighted in the section on Marx and deprivation theory studies that tend to focus on the lower classes see, e.
McCloud and Mirola summarize the conclusions of these various works:. Much of the recent work on religion and class that continues to grapple with this issue of class-based differences in styles of religious practices now does so from a Bourdieusian perspective see, e. Class, in short, involves boundaries, the way we distinguish between ourselves and others see, e. Footnote 3. Returning to Weber, scholars have also found aspects of his work that do not explicitly address religion, such as his theorizing on bureaucracies and organizational cultures, to be useful in evaluating the effectiveness of religious institutions in addressing poverty.
As this research shows, even when religious organizations identify a need in the community and make an effort to assist the poor, such attempts may go awry for reasons that have nothing to do with theology. Rather, their institutional or group culture may work against these efforts. Furthermore, as Mooney illustrates in her study of Catholicism and the Haitian diaspora in cities in three different Western countries, the broader social context in which religious organizations are operating, particularly local laws and cultural views of religion and ethnicity, plays an important role in fostering or constraining social action that religious groups organize on behalf of the underprivileged.
In her own research and that of others who have studied religion among the urban poor in the United States e. As a result, even though Sullivan finds that religion plays a key role in the private lives of the poor single mothers whom she studies, and that many will go out of their way to make sure their children attend church, very few are involved with religious communities themselves. Although these women are individuals who are often desperately in need of the support, sense of belonging, and social capital that religious communities can provide, they frequently feel ashamed of their circumstances and their failure to be respectable and thus avoid churches and other religious groups.
In turn, many, although certainly not all, of the churches studied rarely make the effort to reach out to them as fellow Christians and potential members of their congregation. He shows us how the institutionalized ideological orientations of churches condition their view of and interaction with the poor in the local community. The rare churches that actively engaged in the community were those with prophetic and social transformation orientations, a finding echoed by Unruh and Sider , who show that churches with a holistic orientation that focus on meeting both the spiritual and social needs of the communities that they serve have the most successful missions.
However, McRoberts does emphasize that congregations are dynamic organizations, and as such, their ideological orientations can change, which then, in turn, shifts their activism efforts. He finds that such adjustments are due not to large-scale political or economic changes e.
Unruh and Sider make a similar observation in the Anglo-American evangelical context: congregations draw on ethnic, denominational, and historical scripts to shape their mission orientation, but they also add in their own innovations in ways that continually renegotiate historical patterns. This micro-level work illustrates how it may not be enough for a religious institution to identify poverty as a problem and create a program to address it; when groups involved in such efforts inevitably encounter problems—such as a clash between the class-conditioned expectations and modes of interaction on each side—the communications among group members may prevent them from making the changes necessary for the program to succeed.
Prayer, for example, has been identified as particularly powerful, in that it adds a transcendent dimension to political action, sets an expectation for adherence to certain ethical values, and does important identity work Wood, ; see also Braunstein, Other practices that Wood sees as important for the organizational success of the faith-based Pacific Institute for Community Organization PICO in Oakland, California, include one-to-one organizing, credentials, political conflict, and evaluation sessions.
Just as certain religious interactional practices and organizational cultures can impede efforts to assist the poor, other ones—often consciously chosen to facilitate the development of social capital—strongly support such endeavors. As we saw with the Marxist literature, Weberian work on religion, social class, and poverty in the Global South illustrates basic similarities with the structures and dynamics found in the West while also further enriching our understanding of these processes.
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In particular, the works discussed here provide additional insight into, on one hand, the ways in which religion can exclude the poor through class and status-based behavior and through the structures of local religious institutions that allow the more powerful to reap the benefits of development aid. However, on the other hand, we also explore how religion can also strongly benefit the poor; this occurs when religious communities commit themselves to more egalitarian structures that empower the poor in the religious context. He finds that locations that had Protestant missions in earlier eras now have more stable democracies than countries that did not.
Overall, however, this type of work has not been a major focus in sociological studies of religion in a global context; other issues and theoretical and methodological strands have been more important. Research in various global contexts illustrate that even if religious organizations do create communities that reach across class lines, the power dynamics of class and status do not remain at the doors of a church, temple, or mosque, often to the detriment of the less privileged.
Some converts had hoped that their religious involvement would provide them with the opportunity to network with local Christians, but they tended to remain in subordinate positions within the church community and had few opportunities to access important institutional resources such as intensive Bible training. As such, although they valued their faith and found it personally meaningful, Cao uncovers little evidence that their religious involvement helps to substantively improve their lives in any economic or social sense.
Burdick examines why the progressive Catholic church failed to expand its constituency among the poorest in the community but instead remained a largely middle-class movement. He finds that liberationists emphasized literacy and middle-class status symbols such as clothing and home furnishings in their community and small-group interactions, leaving the poor and illiterate feeling uncomfortable and excluded.
Many of the poor found the local evangelical Protestant groups to be more welcoming and less judgmental. These churches also helped them solve their individual life problems, such as providing networks for decent jobs or otherwise improving their life chances, in ways that the Catholic church did not.
Political scientist Timothy Longman provides a stark example in his study of Christianity and the Rwandan genocide. He presents case studies of two Presbyterian parishes to show how the social structures and theologies of churches, who are frequent conduits for development aid for the poor, can affect the degree to which those most in need are able to receive it.
He shows that some parishes can be patrimonies and may distribute resources in a paternalistic or clientelistic fashion. In the case of Kirinda parish, this meant that those most favored by the pastor were chosen for parish jobs—a source of a more secure living than enjoyed by most in the parish—and that the businesspeople in the community likewise secured a prominent place in the parish. They headed committees that made decisions about workers on development projects and distribution of development aid to people, and they used this power to create clientelistic relations with those to whom they gave aid.
This process included a focus on their own self-benefit, often through forms of corruption including kickbacks. The poor who did not have the ability to enter into such relationships were critical of the leadership but could do little to change the system.
Moreover, this structure did not just disadvantage the poor; it also had deadly consequences: Longman argues that such structures ended up dividing the parish and facilitating the genocide. By contrast, a poor rural parish located not far away in Biguhu was led by a pastor with a strong commitment to liberation theology and had a more egalitarian social structure that resisted hierarchies among those belonging to the church.
Instead, the parish encouraged community involvement among all its members. In terms of its benefits for those living in the most abject poverty, the parish empowered its poor by positioning those most in need in leadership positions in cooperatives and small development projects. They were encouraged to see themselves as working in unity with others and did not create or support distinctions with those who were better off. They empowered the poorest among them. If we link the success of liberation theology at the Biguhu parish back to its failure to help the poor in the Brazilian context, we can see a clear difference in religious style and culture, which in turn has important implications for whether the poor feel excluded: the Biguhu parish did not emphasize literacy, as did the liberationist Catholics in Brazil.
At a time when the global middle class is growing rapidly Heiman et al. Rogers , for example, compares the religious styles of middle-class Buddhists and Protestants in urban China and finds that both groups exert their moral authority as educated and cultured persons to delimit appropriate forms of religiousness, a process that serves to draw and reinforce class boundaries, as well as religious ones. Such attempts, regardless of whether they are conscious or inadvertent exercises of power, play out not only at the individual level but also, as Longman shows, at the institutional level as well.
As we have shown in this essay, social science has demonstrated that while religion can and does often aid in producing social and economic changes that benefit those living in poverty, it can also be implicated in shoring up social and economic inequalities that have adverse effects upon the poor. On the positive side, religion often offers structural benefits to those in poverty and can assist people in navigating their everyday lives.
These benefits include, for instance, the services that religious institutions provide for the poor, the personal and communal meaning people from all classes derive from religion, and the fact that religious organizations remain a key building block of civil society in countries around the world. At the same time, religion can sustain and even promote class divisions and inequalities that are inimical to the values and ideals of many religious traditions. When and how religion either benefits or inhibits those in poverty is not simply a function of theology, though theology can play an important role, but also one of religious leadership, organizational dynamics, cultural contexts, and the broader social structures of local society.
However, when religion can be activated to aid the poor, it is often a powerful force for change.
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Importantly, such findings are, within limits, applicable not only to the Western contexts in which sociology developed but also the world more broadly. At the same time, it is important to note that despite our focus on social class in this piece, we recognize that for all the influence it has on the relationship between religion and poverty, it is not the only mediating factor at play. Other social inequalities, particularly race, ethnicity, and gender, also intervene in this process, and there remains much room for work on the interplay of these different factors.
Their focus is on religion and American politics, but we suspect that complex religion provides a fruitful starting point for research on other topics and in other locals, including religion, class, and poverty in a global context. To conclude, as sociologists, we have primarily worked within the sociology of religion literature to explore the question of whether religion always helps the poor, with additional input from related works in other social science disciplines such as political science and anthropology.
For many who work on religion and poverty, these insights confirm much of what they already know from their own engagement in fields as diverse as theology, religious studies, and development studies: that religion can be a powerful source for social change but that religious congregations have weaknesses when it comes to addressing the needs of the poor and that empowerment takes hard work. However, we hope that this brief review of some of the theoretical and empirical insights that sociology has to offer helps practitioners situate their own knowledge in the global context as they encounter the new challenges that arise in our increasingly globalized world.
Data sharing not applicable to this article as no datasets were generated or analyzed during the current study. We recognize that the definition of social class is highly variable and remains contested in the sociological literature. Providing a definition is beyond the scope of this essay, and we instead work with the concept as broadly conceived by Marx and Weber.
See Lareau and Conley for a recent compilation of sociological thinking on the topic. Even in the post-Mao era, China remains a highly atheistic society. Most Chinese do not identify with a religion, so the majority of Christian rural migrants in Wenzhou converted after moving there, often due to the evangelizing efforts of boss Christians. Mahmood , Rao , and Winchester all show how religious actors actively deploy specific religious practices to inculcate desired religious dispositions. Berryman P Stubborn hope; religion, politics, and revolution in Central America.
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