Chapter 2: The Class Basis of Early Christianity

Christianity was a more upper-class movement in its early stages.

Definitions: Sect vs. Cult

Sect movements “occur by schism within a conventional religious body when persons desiring of a more otherworldly version of the faith break away to ‘restore’ the religion to a higher level of tension with its environment” (33). Research and sociological theory shows that those who take part in sect movements are of lower social standing than those who stay with the more mainstream body of the church.

“Cult Movements, on the other hand, are not simply new organizations of an old faith; they are new faiths, at least new in the society being examined. Cult movements always start small – someone has new religious ideas and begins to recruit others to the faith, or an alien religion is imported into a society where it then seeks recruits. In either case, as new faiths, cult movements violate prevailing religious norms and are often the target of considerable hostility” (33). (See “cult” vs. “cult” for different usages of the word.)

Stark argues that cult movements draw disproportionately from the privileged.

Class in religion in general:

Sociologists assumed for a long time that lower classes were more religious than the rich. The founders of social science (e.g. Marx, Freud) all viewed religion as a compensator for thwarted desires (e.g. false consciousness, neurotic illusion). They assumed it served the role of making the poor feel better.

But early studies found that “the deprived [were] conspicuously absent from church membership and Sunday services” (35).

Religious commitment in fact consists of a number of somewhat independent dimensions.

  • Dimensions negatively correlated to social class: accepting traditional religious beliefs, having religious and mystical experiences, and frequency of personal prayers.
  • Dimensions positively correlated to social class: church membership, attendance at worship services, participation in church activities, and saying grace before meals.
  • Dimensions with no apparent correlation to social class: belief in life after death, and belief in the existence of heaven.

Religion can in fact “compensate people for their inability to gain certain things they desire” (35). But this ability of religion has two facets. There are things that many people cannot gain because these are scarce (such as money or political power), and religion may be more useful for the poorer in this respect. “But we must also recognize a second aspect of deprivation: the ability of religion to compensate people for desired rewards that seem to be absolutely unavailable to anyone, at least in this life” (35-6), such as victory over death. Also, it is important to recognize that religious organizations provide rewards to some people such as status, income, self-esteem, social relations, entertainment, etc.

Three propositions regarding the relationship between power/social standing and religiosity (36):

  • “The power of an individual or group will be positively associated with control of religious organizations and with gaining the rewards available from religious organizations.” This explains the relative absence of the lower classes from more conventional religious organizations, for it captures the religious expression of privilege. We could call this the worldly or churchlike dimension of religious commitment.
  • “The power of an individual or group will be negatively associated with acceptance of religious compensators for rewards that actually exist.” This captures the essence of the deprivation theories of religion, and could be called the otherworldly or sect-like form of religious commitment.
  • “Regardless of power, persons and groups will tend to accept religious compensators for rewards that do not exist in this world.” This could be called the universal aspect of religious commitment. Everyone is partially deprived and in need of the comforts of faith. This helps explain why the upper classes are religious at all, and also why the more privileged are drawn to cult movements.

The Appeal of New Religions

Stark says that new religions fill openings left by weaknesses of the conventional religions in a society. I wonder, however, if this is really an accurate statement. Earlier he argued that converts to a new religious movement were people who were not strongly involved in a religion already. It could be, as he says here, that they are not involved because they are discontented with some weakness in their religion. It could also be, though, that they are not involved for a host of other reasons, and pick up the new religion because of the relations they have to members of the new religion (partly perhaps because they enjoy the attention paid to them by the members of the new religion).

Another potential weakness of Stark’s argument is that it seems to assume that a new religious movement does, in fact, address the weaknesses in the conventional religions exposed by developments in science. He makes no attempt to support this assumption. A cult movement is especially unlikely to address weaknesses revealed by modern science if it is not in fact a new religion, but an older religion transplanted to a new land. Buddhism is unlikely to address weaknesses revealed by science in Christianity.

If my argument here has merit, then new religions do not need to be built up on the weaknesses of the conventional religions. In any case, we’ll continue here within the lines of Stark’s argument.

One source of weakness in religions is the development of science and philosophy. The rise of Greek and Roman science and philosophy caused difficulties for pagan teachings; the rise of modern science has had a similar effect on some traditional Christian teachings. In both cases the revealed weaknesses were noticed first by the educated. Since the more educated are usually more privileged, we can say that “Religious skepticism is most prevalent among the more privileged” (37).

“But skepticism does not entail a general immunity to the essential supernaturalism of all religions. For example, although sociologists have long believed that people who give their religious affiliation as ‘none’ are primarily secular humanists, considerable recent research shows this not to be the case. Most such people are merely indicating a lack of conviction in a conventional brand of faith, for they are also the group most likely to express interest in belief in unconventional mystical, magical, and religious doctrines. For example, ‘nones’ are the group of Americans most willing to accept astrology, yoga, reincarnation, ghosts, and the like (Bainbridge and Stark 1980, 1981)” (37). Such people are extremely overrepresented in new religious movements.

So privileged are the most likely to be skeptical of, and thus have weak ties to, their conventional religion. And those with weak ties to conventional religion are most likely to embrace a new one.

Another point: people who are interested in converting to a new religion are those who feel capable of mastering a new culture. Early adopters of cultural innovations are above average in wealth and education. This is true in technology, fashion, and attitude, and should hold true in religion.

Despite all this argument, why would people join a new religion? There have been thousands of new religious movements; most die out.

  • The less privileged become discontented when a religious organization becomes too worldly to continue to offer them potent compensators for scarce rewards. This is the basis of sect movements.
  • But sometimes a traditional faith and its organized expression can become so worldly that it cannot serve the universal need for religious compensators. At this point the privileged become discontented.

Evidence: Cults do appeal to the well-off

Mormonism, the most successful new religion for centuries, is certainly not a proletarian movement. Its recruits were relatively rich. The same is true of Christian Science. Others that follow this pattern are Spiritualism, the Unification Church (Moonies), and Americans joining Hindu faiths such as Ananda and Satchidanana. People who went to college were more likely to express interest in (and participate in) cult movements* such as Transcendental Meditation, Yoga, and Zen, other Eastern religions, and Mysticism. We see a negative correlation between years of education and participation in both faith healing and being “born again” (both of which are sect activities).

So: Sects draw from the underprivileged while cults draw from the more privileged. What about early Christianity?

  • During his ministry, Jesus seems to have been a sect leader within Judaism. But once his followers started believing in his resurrection, it ceased to be a sect and began being a cult movement.
  • Paul brought Christianity to many non-Jews.
  • So, based on what we know about how cults draw from the privileged classes, we can agree with what New Testament historians currently believe: Paul’s missionary efforts had their greatest success among the middle and upper classes.
  • In addition, there is evidence that the earliest converts to Islam were young men of privilege.

* Conventional religions in one region are cult movements in another area. Eastern religions are thus cults in America.


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