Individuals will often adopt a religious position for reasons of identity and community1,2 rather than because they have examined the doctrine of a religious group. Associating with like-minded folk feels good, and can engender a feeling of empowerment and self-worth3. Examples of this abound, and include the sectarian strife in Northern Ireland, the attraction of alternative religions for teenagers and young adults, the embrace of Eastern mysticism by intellectuals and students at the turn of the twentieth century, and the reaction against Western materialism through the embrace of anti-commercialist religions. Many people join a religious community because it helps combat loneliness4. Religion thus serves a functional purpose quite separate from its actual religious content.
Many call themselves religious because they see it as a part of their collective communal or racial identity5. They wrongly feel that to be a proper member of an ethnic group means they must adopt a certain religion. Or the opposite - some people join a symbolic opposition religion to signal rebellion and dissatisfaction with their own community6. Studies have found that many people join a religion not because they agree with its theological arguments but because religion endows them with "an enhanced sense of solidarity" with others7.
Migration and globalisation is often a trigger for this kind of identity-based adoption. This works in two ways, together called "cultural transition and defence" by sociologist Steve Bruce8: (1) Once removed from a community that they come to miss, some adopt a religion that they associate with that community as a way of boosting their identification with it, regardless of what their beliefs are. (2) When faced with immigration, some take up more extreme forms of what they perceive to be the 'proper' religion of their own culture.
None of these social-identity factors bode well for our appreciation of what is true or correct. As a result, where religion is tied in with communal identity, it becomes very difficult to count how many believers there are in the actual doctrine9. The prevalence of social religion is an indicator of secularism, in that religious beliefs themselves are losing depth and meaning.
Religion is often used as a collective communal and racial identity regardless of whether people actually hold religious beliefs5,1. To be a proper member of an ethnic group in many cases means adopting a certain religion.
Studies have found that many people join a religion not because they agree with its theological arguments, but because religion endows them with "an enhanced sense of solidarity" with others7. The very fact of joining a group can be uplifting2.
Nothing makes children want to read a book more, than banning it. There is always a strong rebellious current in society, especially amongst the youth, and there are nearly everywhere counter-cultural religious movements that appeal to them not because of the beliefs, but simply because it annoys stuffy old traditionalists. Sometimes it is Satanism, sometimes it is Protestantism in a Catholic country, sometimes it is obfuscated Hinduism in 1960s California. If you ban religion altogether it becomes difficult to count the rebels who are therefore drawn to it, and so when you unban it, pollsters see a sudden surge in self-professed believers10.
“Some traditions - or versions of them - attract a system's elites, whereas the rebels in a society have a natural affinity for other religious beliefs or interpretations of the same tradition. [...] Similarly, the most effective dissident movements often employ religious arguments to legitimate their own positions.”
For many, the association with their new religion is shallow. Ask teenage Satanists about Satanism, and they are very unlikely to be able to provide any coherent set of beliefs, let alone be able to name Anton LaVey. But for some, the rebellion sets down roots that find intellectual engagement, and they do indeed go on to be enthusiastic and studied members - true believers. And so the self-identity as a rebel, over time, can foster genuine religiousness in some.
In today's complicated and globalized world, multiculturalism has become the norm. Individuals find themselves presented with many foreign religions and cultures and in these circumstances one's own 'traditional' religion can find itself at the forefront of one's own self-definition even though previously it was a minor technicality.
Religion is often confused with cultural identity and therefore, in seeing one's own culture competing with others, one reaction is to find renewed meaning in whatever religion is associated with one's own culture. So, some come to assert 'their' own religion more dominantly as a reaction against cultural change, regardless of whether or not they believe in the formal tenets of the religion5.
In the sociological analysis of why the USA has such high rates of strict religion for a developed country, this concept became known as "cultural transition and defence", as formulated by Steve Bruce8, explaining how defensiveness can bolster religiosity.
The coming-together of different religions results in much less certainty in religious ideas. It is especially hard for laypeople to explain the things they supposedly believe in. Because of these challenges, belief has massively declined but those who still remain firm are more committed than ever to their religious identities - often irrationally so.
Once a religion has become institutionalized or popular, some trends appear that serve to exaggerate statistical measurements of the numbers of adherents (followers) it has. Firstly, people start telling officials that they 'are' a religion for traditional reasons to do with family rather than because it is what they truly believe. Secondly, people start exaggerating how much they are engaged with the religion, i.e. how often they attend religious events such as going to Church on Sunday. Thirdly, the religion itself becomes more diverse and so encompasses a greater number of believers in various things. Fourthly, cultural norms merge with religious norms to produce distinctive practices that are hard to separate into pure categories of religion or culture, meaning that some religionists follow cultural norms without actually believing in the religious side (hence the appearance of atheist Jews, etc). Fifthly and finally, a large number of theologically-illiterate laypeople will confuse any generally religious beliefs with whatever the dominant religion is in their community. So, in Christian countries those who merely believe in God are called Christian whether or not they believe in the complications of Christian theology, but in Muslim countries those same people would call themselves Muslim because they believe in God, whether or not they believe in Islam. Established and traditional religions are over-represented in polls.
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