Sociologists of religion have described religious organizations in terms of Western categories.They distinguish between churches, sects, denominations and cults.
In Western societies, mainstream and established churches may be in decline, but evangelical groups, new religious movements and the world religions followed by immigrants to these societies are all growing.
There is a wide belief in God and the afterlife among those who do not belong to or worship in any organized religious group.
Weber argued that whilst Eastern religions promote values that do not sit easily with capitalist economics, Protestant and particularly Calvinist beliefs and values fit well with the drive and investment patterns that enable capitalism’s development.
Secularization describes the process whereby religion loses its influence over the various spheres of social life.
Classical sociological theory continues to exert a strong influence over the contemporary sociology of religion.
Marx saw religious beliefs as ideological (the opium of the people), attributing to gods a divine power to shape individual lives which, in fact, lies within the power of human beings and societies.
Maffesoli theorizes that, although traditional, national religions may be in decline, people in large urban areas increasingly live in the ‘time of the tribes’, and that the continual creation of neo-tribes demonstrates that there remains a very strong human need and a quest for close social contact and interaction that can be seen in religious terms.
Studies of individual religious practice – everyday ‘lived religion’ – show that, in the pursuit of generic definitions and theories of religion, sociology may have largely ignored the creative blending of ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ elements by individuals trying to make sense of their place in the world.
Inclusive definitions tend to be functionalist in orientation, viewing religion as functionally necessary for society, or referring to religion as all those beliefs about the forces that shape human destiny.