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A Comparative Sociology of World Religions

Virtuosi, Priests, and Popular Religion

Stephen Sharot

Publication Year: 2001

A Sociology of World Religions presents a comparative analysis of the world's religions, focusing on the differences and interrelationships between religious elites and lay masses. In each case the volume contextualizes how the relationships between these two religious forms fit within, and are influenced by, the wider socio-political environment.

After introducing the book's major themes, the volume introduces and builds upon an analysis of Weber's model of religious action, drawing on Durkheim, Marxist scholars, and the work of contemporary sociologists and anthropolgists. The following chapters each focus on major religious cultures, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Catholicism, Protestantism, Islam, Judaism, and the religions of China and Japan. This ambitious project is the first to offer a comparison of the popular, or folk, forms of religion around the world.

Sharot's accessible introductions to each of the world religions, synthesizing a vast literature on popular religion from sociology, anthropology, and historians of religion, make the project ideal for course use. His comparative approach and original analyses will prove rewarding even for experts on each of the world religions.

Published by: NYU Press

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pp. vii

I began this work many years ago. I knew that I was taking on an ambitious and long-term project, but I nevertheless misjudged by some years the time it would take me. It has been with me so long that I find it difficult to let it go. For such a broad comparative work as this, there is no end to the additions and changes one can make. Apart from a sabbatical at Cambridge University...

I. Concepts and Theories

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1. World Religions, Elites, and Popular Religion

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pp. 3-19

The period of the emergence of the world religions has been termed an axial age, an age in which independent but, in some respects, parallel religious breakthroughs took place in China, India, and the Middle East.1 Beginning 800 to 600 B.C.E., the period is compressed by some to about seven hundred years, ending around 100 B.C.E.., and is extended by others to incorporate the beginnings of Christianity...

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2. Religious Action: A Weberian Model

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pp. 20-36

The comparative questions asked in this work require a conceptual framework that will be sensitive to differences across the world religions and between elites and masses within each religion but that will also be sufficiently broad to avoid one becoming lost in a multitude of differences and details. Most works in comparative...

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3. Elites and Masses: Max Weber, Weberian Scholars, and Marxist Analysis

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pp. 37-66

This chapter has two aims. The first is to present Weber’s comparisons of the world religions, systematized within the conceptual framework of religious action. The presentation is slanted in accordance with the major themes in this work that diverge from Weber’s own major organizing principles and questions. I am concerned far less than Weber with the effects of religious differences on...

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II. Religious Action in the World Religions

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pp. 67-69

There is no agreement among scholars over what constitutes a world religion, and there is necessarily some degree of arbitrariness in the choice of cases to compare. This work follows Max Weber in his focus on six of the world religions, but my choice of cases has been determined in part by the availability of sufficient information to permit the delineation of patterns of religious action of both elites and masses. The summary of Weber’s work on the world religions in the...

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4. China: State Religion, Elites, and Popular Religion in a Syncretistic Milieu

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pp. 70-101

The analysis here focuses on typical patterns of religious action of three social categories: the dominant class of scholar-officials (the literati), the religious elites of Buddhist and Taoist religious institutions, and the subordinate class of peasants and urban workers. Data on the patterns of religious action of Confucian literati are necessarily drawn from historical studies, whereas the accounts...

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5. India: Brahmans, Renouncers, and Popular Hinduism

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pp. 102-130

In contrast to China, where religious identities are too diffuse and flexible to allow their categorization according to religious traditions, the populations of India have come to identify with what are seen as distinctive religious traditions. Today, the vast majority of Indians identify themselves as Hindu; about 11 percent identify as Muslims, the largest religious minority; and about 6 percent...

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6. Nirvana and Spirits: Buddhism and Animism in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia

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pp. 131-165

Unlike Hinduism, whose great majority of adherents are to be found in a single nation, Buddhism is associated with many Asian societies, either as the dominant religion or as a prominent tradition alongside other religions. Beginning in the northern fringes of Indian civilization, the diffusion of Buddhism throughout the Indian subcontinent and beyond occurred under the emperor Asoka (268–239 B.C.E.), who ruled over northern and central India. Buddhism lasted longer in southern India than in the north, but without...

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7. Hierocracy and Popular Religion: Catholicism in “Traditional” Europe

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pp. 166-201

The description and analysis here of patterns of religious action of the religious elites and lay masses of European Catholicism refer principally to a past Europe, a “traditional” Europe that has largely ceased to exist. Recent investigations by anthropologists are incorporated into the portrayal of popular religion in Europe, but there are fewer of these than of popular religion in Hindu and Buddhist societies...

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8. Elite Scholars and Popular Saints: A Brief Excursus on Islam and Judaism

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pp. 202-210

Judaism and Islam have shared with Christianity an exclusivism that requires the building and maintenance of boundaries separating the religion from other traditions. The religious elites of Islam and Judaism referred to clearly delineated canons in promoting their great traditions, and they drew lines between official and unofficial religion. In neither case, however, was there a hierocracy similar to the Catholic...

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9. Protestants, Catholics, and the Reform of Popular Religion

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pp. 211-241

The Protestant Reformation constituted a reformulation of the goals, conditions, and means of Christian religious action. The reformulation had wide-ranging implications for the differentiations that had prevailed in Catholicism between virtuosos and “ordinary” Christians and between clerisy and laypeople. It also had major...

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10. Comparisons

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pp. 242-262

The framework of religious action, and in particular the typology of religious goals (nomic, transformative, thaumaturgical, extrinsic), provides the conceptual framework for comparisons of religious elites, popular religions, and the relationships between the two in the world religions. The reasons why religious elites and peasant masses are likely to differ in their religious actions were...


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pp. 263-308


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pp. 309-336


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pp. 337-343

About the Author

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pp. 344

E-ISBN-13: 9780814786635
E-ISBN-10: 0814786634
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814798041
Print-ISBN-10: 0814798047

Page Count: 352
Publication Year: 2001