Social Organization of Religion

In his book Religion in Society: A Sociology of Religion, Johnstone addresses a variety of important questions, connected with religion and society. In the following paper, the two of these questions, (1) what the church-sect theory is, and (2) why religious conflicts take place, will be observed.

First, speaking about the essence of the church-sect theory described by Johnstone, it is important to note that he largely bases his argument regarding the matter on Weber’s findings. The author states that the church-sect theory is the result of studies, focused on the religious economy (Johnstone, 2007). Religious economy observes the connection between sociology and economics from a special angle. It considers churches, sects, cults, and religious denominations to be ‘business enterprises’ that function according to economical laws. Thus, the evaluations of the religious economy are based on the profitability of those institutions. Also, the religious economy aims to explore how different religious formations address the spiritual needs of wide masses. In addition, this area of research has its purpose to make predictions regarding the further developments in the religious sphere that will take place in the future. Within the frames of the church-sect theory, Johnstone seeks to define each of the main players in the area. Below, sects and churches will be defined from the perspective of the church-sect theory, described by Johnstone.

According to the church-sect theory, sects are defined as small religious formations, which can be characterized by the high level of religiosity or even fanaticism and zealotry (Johnstone, 2007). Usually, sects are also secret formations. They are not registered by the local authorities, and their followers do not have their own religious buildings. Instead, people that belong to sects choose to meet in private houses or other secret locations such as forests, remote territories or abandoned industrial buildings. The sizes of sects tend to vary a lot, but most often, they are very small, not more than a few hundreds or thousands of people. Sects are usually headed by a strong and charismatic leader, who demands complete devotion and extreme commitment from one’s followers. Sect members are expected to stick to the standards, set by the leader for one hundred percent. Those members, who engage in uncommon practices, are usually disfellowshipped or punished by the leaders, and are given ‘a second chance’ for improving their ability to stick to the standards, set in the sect. Very often it happens that sects are no more than a method to deceive trustful people, and take their possessions from them. For example, such deceived people may decide to hand their houses or savings into the possession of the sect leaders. Sometimes, sects are used by mad or fanatic people and scientists, who aim to explore the impact of propaganda on the wide masses. Numerous examples are registered when sect members were convinced to kill themselves. Due to such practices, society often seeks to forbid most sects.

The church-sect theory defines churches as legal religious formations, which unite people based on some set of beliefs. These beliefs are usually written in a well-respect religious book such as the Bible, the Koran, or Bhagavadgita. Churches are distinct due to their remarkable sizes as they have thousands and even millions of followers. Very often those followers are accommodated in different countries around the world. Generally, the members of churches do not tend to have the same devotion to their religion as the followers of sects. This is explained by the fact that usually, they do not have strong leaders as sects do. For that reason, numerous churches in the world have to suffer from low attendance and the decline of faith among their members.

The church-sect theory, described by Johnstone, explains that there exists a close connection between churches and sects. Particularly, popular sects become churches in the later stages of their development (Perkins, 2008). This means that in case, the leaders of a certain sect manage to create a well-elaborated set of beliefs and dogmas that attract many supporters, their sect will inevitably turn into a church in time. The church-sect theory is one of the most popular and common theories that explain the cycle of changes within the religious area in society (Johnstone, 2007).

Next, evaluating the reasons for religious conflicts as they are shown by Johnstone, it is necessary to mention that the author mainly relies upon Marx’s findings regarding the matter in his argument. From a Marxist viewpoint, religion is specially produced to explain inequality among people (Johnstone, 2007). Marx beliefs that not all people are convinced by what they hear from religious leaders concerning inequality dogmas, and for that reason, they decide to fight for changing their situation. This becomes the most common motivation behind the actions of those, who initiate religious conflicts.

Besides, in chapter 6 of his book, Johnstone explores a variety of religious conflicts from the previous human history and modern era. The author indicates that during the studying of the reasons for those conflicts, a few major tendencies can be observed. First, numerous religious conflicts took place because of the differences in seeing spiritual values by the adherents of different religions. Because of their misunderstandings, and their inability to come to a consensus, the supporters of certain religions chose to begin wars to annihilate their adversaries. Moreover, according to the religious values of some nations, it is necessary to destroy all those people, who have different spiritual convictions and are not willing to change them. For example, the history of the Muslim religion shows many examples when Arabian people were fighting with the other nations to punish them for their spiritual ‘ignorance’ and ‘pagan’ beliefs. This situation is not strange because even the Holy Book of Islam, the Koran, urges the Muslim people to kill ‘unbelievers’ because it pleases God and guarantees a place in paradise.

In chapter 6, Johnstone also shows that not every religious conflict has a religious background in reality. The scholar mentions some examples when spiritual differences were only chosen to hide the real reasons for initiating military conflicts. Particularly, it happened many times in the previous history and even nowadays, when economical reasons were covered by more exalted religious ones. The tendency is explained by the fact that many political leaders do not want to blacken their names by flaunting their real profiteering intentions.

In conclusion, it should be stated that Johnstone’s book Religion in Society: A Sociology of Religion provides an engaging excurse into the interaction between religion and society. Particularly, Johnstone’s explanation of the church-sect theory provides an excellent outlook of Weber’s findings. Also, Johnstone’s exploration of the reasons for religious conflicts, based on Marx’s conclusions, sheds much light on this complicated issue.


Johnstone, R. (2007). Religion in Society: A Sociology of Religion (8th Edition). New York: Prentice Hall.

Perkins, R. (2008). Religion in Society: A Sociology of Religion. Sociological Analysis, 44(1), 74-75.