Types of Religious Practices: Animism, Monism, Pluralism, Sects, Cults. | Sociology for CUET by Vikash Ranjan | Sociology Guru

Types of Religious Practices: Animism, Monism, Pluralism, Sects, Cults.

(Relevant for Sociology optional for UPSC CSE)
Paper-1 ,Unit-8 : Types of Religious Practices: Animism, Monism, Pluralism, Sects, Cults.

Types of Religious Practices: Animism, Monism, Pluralism, Sects, Cults.


Animism refers to the belief/faith that not only humans, but non-human entities are spiritual beings, or at least embody some kind of life-principle. Animism encompasses the beliefs that there is no separation between the spiritual and physical (or material) worlds, and souls or spirits exist, not only in humans, but also in all other animals, plants, rocks, natural phenomena such as thunder, geographic features such as mountains or rivers, or other entities of the natural environment.

  1. Animism is particularly widely found in the religions of indigenous peoples, perhaps most interestingly in Shinto and Sererism, and some forms of Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, Pantheism, Christianity.
  2. Throughout European history, many philosophers such as Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, among others, contemplated the possibility that souls exist in animals, plants, and people. however, the currently accepted definition of animism was only developed in the 19th century by sir Edward b. Tylor, who created animism as “one of social anthropology’s earliest concepts”.
  3. According to Sir Edward b. Tylor, animism means the belief in spirits. E.B. Taylor in his famous book “primitive culture” developed “the thesis of animism” and subsequently he developed the distinction between “magic, religion and science”. in his thesis of animism, he advocated that ‘anima’ means ‘spirit’. “animism” refers to “a given form of religion in which man finds the presence of spirit in every object that surrounds him”.
  4. According to him, man’s ideas of spirits primarily originated from his dreams. In his dreams man, for the first time, encountered with his double. He realized that his double or duplicate is more dynamic and elastic than his own self. He further considered that his double, though resembled his body, it is far more superior in terms of quality from his body. He generalized further that the presence of soul in human body is responsible for the elasticity of images in dreams.
  5. Taking this fact into consideration ‘primitive mind’ considered that when man sleeps the ‘anima or soul’ moves out of the body of man ‘temporarily’ and when he is dead it leaves out the body ‘permanently’. Thereafter man generalized that “every embodiment, which is subjected to birth, growth and decay, is obviously associated with anima or spirit”. Hence, trees, rivers, mountains, which are greatly subjected to decay and expansion, were considered as the embodiments in which soul is present. Realizing this, “man started worshipping all these embodiments and that is how animism as a specific form of religions came into being”. According to Taylor, the most ancient form of animistic practice is manifested in terms of ancestor worship.
  6. Man realized that his ancestors after their death convert into spirits or souls who may be “benevolent” or “malevolent”. Realizing this, in order to convert these ‘spirits or souls’ as ‘protecting spirits’, man made them ‘periodic offerings’. In primitive communities this is known as ancestor cult and ghost worship.
  7. According to Taylor, the primitive man was not in a condition to distinguish between animate and inanimate objects. Therefore, he conceived that like ‘life and soul’ associated with human body, they should be associated with every object both animate and inanimate. Realizing this he started worshipping rocks, trees, streams, everything surrounding him extending the notion of soul and spirit to all of them. Taylor argues that religion in the form of animism originated to satisfy man’s intellectual nature to meet his need to make sense of death, dreams and vision.
  8. In many animistic world views, the human being is often regarded as on a roughly equal footing with other animals, plants, and natural forces. Therefore, it is morally imperative to treat these agents with respect. In this world view, humans are considered a part of nature, rather than superior to, or separate from it. In such societies, ritual is considered essential for survival, as it wins the favor of the spirits of one’s source of food, shelter, and fertility and wards off malevolent spirits. In more elaborate animistic religions, such as Shinto, there is a greater sense of a special character to humans that sets them apart from the general form of animals and objects, while retaining the necessity of ritual to ensure good luck, favourable harvests, and so on.
  9. Most animistic belief systems hold that the spirit survives physical death. In some systems, the “anima or spirit” is believed to pass to an easier world of abundant land or ever-ripe crops, while in other systems, the spirit remains on earth as a ghost, often malignant. Still other systems combine these two beliefs, holding that the soul must journey to the world without becoming lost and thus wandering as a ghost. Funeral, mourning rituals, and ancestor worship performed by those surviving the deceased are often considered necessary for the successful completion of this journey.
  10. From the belief in the survival of the dead arose the practice of offering food, lighting fires, etc., at the grave, at first, maybe, as an act of friendship or filial piety, later as an act of ancestor worship. The simple offering of food or shedding of blood at the grave develops into an elaborate system of sacrifice. Even where ancestor worship is not found, the desire to provide the dead with comforts in the future life may lead to the sacrifice of wives, slaves, animals, and so on, to the breaking or burning of objects at the grave or to the provision of the ferryman’s toll: a coin put in the mouth of the corpse to pay the traveling expenses of the soul.
  11. But all is not finished with the passage of the soul to the land of the dead. The soul may return to avenge its death by helping to discover the murderer, or to wreak vengeance for itself. There is a widespread belief that those who die a violent death become malignant spirits and endanger the lives of those who come near the haunted spot. In Malay folklore, the woman who dies in childbirth becomes a Pontianak, a vampire-like spirit who threatens the life of human beings. People resort to magical or religious means of repelling spiritual dangers from such malignant spirits. It is not surprising to find that many peoples respect and even worship animals, often regarding them as relatives. It is clear that widespread respect was paid to animals as the abode of dead ancestors, and much of the cults to dangerous animals is traceable to this principle; though there is no need to attribute an animistic origin to it.

Contemporary animist traditions:

  1. African traditional religions, a group of beliefs in various spirits of nature,
  2. In the Canary Islands (Spain), aboriginal Guanches professed an animistic religion.
  3. Shinto, the traditional religion of Japan, is highly animistic. In Shinto, spirits of nature, or kami, are believed to exist everywhere, from the major (such as the goddess of the sun), which can be considered polytheistic, to the minor, which are more likely to be seen as a form of animism.
  4. There are some Hindu groups which may be considered animist. The coastal Karnataka has a tradition of praying to spirits.
  5. The New Age movement commonly purports animism in the form of the existence of nature spirits and fairies.

Monism and Pluralism:


  1. Monism is a religious-philosophical worldview in which all of reality can be reduced to one “thing” or “substance.” This view is opposed to dualism (in which all of reality is reducible to two substances, e.g., good and evil; light and darkness; form and matter; body and soul) and pluralism (all of reality is comprised of multiple substances). In all of these philosophical views, the word substance in a technical sense to mean “essence,”; in other words, something in which properties adhere.
  2. Many of the early, pre-Socratic philosophers tried to understand the underlying nature of the reality that surrounded them. They wanted to determine what everything could be reduced to. For Thales (624–546 BC), the first principle of everything—that from which everything is derived—was water. For Anaximenes (585–528 BC) it was air. Two more well-known monists, Heraclitus (535–475 BC) and Parmenides (fl. Early 5th century BC), attempted to ground reality in becoming (flux) and being (permanence), respectively. Heraclitus observed that all around him was in constant flux (or change); therefore, all reality was becoming things changing from one form into another. His classic example was the observation that one can never step into the same river twice because the water is in constant motion. Parmenides, taking the opposite route of Heraclitus, said that ultimate reality can only reside in that which is unchanging; for him, that was absolute being.
  3. Moving from a metaphysical analysis to a more religious-spiritual outlook, monism is the underlying worldview of those who hold to a form of pantheism. Pantheism is the worldview that God (not necessarily the Christian god) is the ultimate source of being, and that all of reality is a manifestation of this god. Pantheism sees no real distinction between God and the universe. Plotinus (ad 204– 270), the father of Neo-Platonism, was a popular pantheist. His brand of metaphysics taught that ultimate being resided in the one. From a series of necessary emanations, out of the one, comes the divine mind (nous). The next level of emanations results in the world soul (psyche), and finally the material world (cosmos). Another famous philosophical pantheist was the 17th-century rationalist philosopher Baruch Spinoza.
  4. Monism can also be seen in the scientific realm in those who subscribe to a naturalistic materialism. According to this view, all reality is limited to the material world. There is no such thing as spirit, soul, or God. Only those things that can be perceived by the five senses are real. This is the default position of many atheists (at least those who are consistent with their worldview). One can see what happens if one takes this view to its logical conclusion. If everything is essentially matter governed by physical laws, then such things as love, morality, justice, etc., go out the window. What do those things mean in a purely material world? They are basically feeble attempts to construct meaning in a universe that is cold and deterministic.
  5. All of these philosophies—whether monistic, dualistic, or pluralistic—are attempting to deal with the problem of universals (or the problem of the one and the many). The problem of universals can be simply illustrated. Take the example of a chair. We can all conceptualize a chair in our minds and apply that concept to different instances of “chair.” All of these particular instances of the concept “chair” may differ—e.g., a simple wooden chair as compared to a fancy office chair with soft cushions and a lift mechanism—but they all share the essential characteristics of what constitutes “chair-ness.” The question that arises is what is more real: the concept of “chair”
    • Broadly speaking, the concept of monism refers to faith in one God, one body of ritual, one set of ideology and moral doctrines. During medieval period religion offered a foundation to the formation of political state. It was believed that religious differences all over the world can only glorify the variations in political identity of the state. For example roman empire emerged as a Christian state. Middle east gave way to the rise of Islamic states what was known as post Egyptian civilization.
    • However, during 18th century slave trade, expansion of the territorial boundaries of the state because of warfare gave rise to the emergence of culturally pluralistic societies. However, the major concern of the state was to transform multiculturalism into cultural uniformity. Therefore, the state patronized one religion, permitted missionaries to lure ethnic minorities to go for religious conversions. As a result, multiethnic groups because of coercion & persuasion became a part of artificially constructed monistic societies. These monistic societies glorified one sovereign ruler, one ideology, one culture developing intolerance to cultural distinctions.
    • 18th century Europe explains how cultural minorities were pushed into ghettos identified as slave race, forced to join warfare and heavy fines were imposed in them on a refusal to commanders dictates. That subsequently gave way to the rise of autocratic state striving for cultural unification.
    • After the advent of industry, free trade, the culture of democracy in 19th century Europe it was essential that people cutting across the boundaries of nation-state should be developing harmonic relationship with each other. During 19th century catholic church, its orthodox values and nexus with state was severely challenged. As a result, new education system, free market, rational political structure made appearance and state which had a written guaranteeing no discrimination to the citizen of a society on the basis of their ethnic & religious identities.


Religious pluralism generally refers to the belief in two or more religious worldviews as being equally valid or acceptable. More than mere tolerance, religious pluralism accepts multiple paths to god or gods as a possibility and is usually contrasted with “exclusivism,” the idea that there is only one true religion or way to know god.

Here are four points to begin our thinking:

  1. First, pluralism is not diversity alone, but the energetic engagement with diversity. Diversity can and has meant the creation of religious ghettoes with little traffic between or among them. Today, religious diversity is a given, but pluralism is not a given; it is an achievement. Mere diversity without real encounter and relationship will yield increasing tensions in our societies.
  2. Second, pluralism is not just tolerance, but the active seeking of understanding across lines of difference. Tolerance is a necessary public virtue, but it does not require Christians and Muslims, Hindus, Jews, and ardent secularists to know anything about one another. Tolerance is too thin a foundation for a world of religious difference and proximity. It does nothing to remove our ignorance of one another, and leaves in place the stereotype, the half-truth, the fears that underlie old patterns of division and violence. In the world in which we live today, our ignorance of one another will be increasingly costly.
  3. Third, pluralism is not relativism, but the encounter of commitments. The new paradigm of pluralism does not require us to leave our identities and our commitments behind, for pluralism is the encounter of commitments. It means holding our deepest differences, even our religious differences, not in isolation, but in relationship to one another.
  4. Fourth, pluralism is based on dialogueThe language of pluralism is that of dialogue and encounter, give and take, criticism and self-criticism. Dialogue means both speaking and listening, and that process reveals both common understandings and real differences. Dialogue does not mean everyone at the “table” will agree with one another. Pluralism involves the commitment to being at the table — with one’s commitments.
  5. While religious pluralism has been in existence since at least the seventeenth century, the concept has become more popular since the latter half of the twentieth century in Western Europe and North America. Specifically, the idea of religious ecumenism (religions working together as one) and the recently popularized interfaith movement have led to the increased acceptance of religious pluralism in popular culture. Studies by the Barna Group and others have noted the growth of ideas related to religious pluralism in American culture in recent years. In many cases, even significant numbers of people identified as Christians believe there is more than one way to heaven.
  6. Pluralism is more than the sharing of certain values or agreement on some social issues. Buddhists and Christians both agree that helping the poor is important, but such limited concord is not pluralism. Pluralism has to do with lending credence to competing truth claims and accepting diverse beliefs regarding God and salvation. In addition, two or more religions can share some doctrinal beliefs yet remain fundamentally different as belief systems. For example, Muslims and Christians agree that there is only one God—yet both religions define God differently and hold many other irreconcilable beliefs.
  7. The existence of religious pluralism depends on the existence of freedom of religion. Freedom of religion is when different religions of a particular region possess the same rights of worship and public expression. Freedom of religion is consequently weakened when one religion is given rights or privileges denied to others, as in certain European countries where Roman Catholicism or regional forms of Protestantism have special status. Religious freedom has not existed at all in some communist countries where the state restricts or prevents the public expression of religious belief and may even actively persecute individual religions. Religious pluralism has existed in the Indian Subcontinent since the rise of Buddhism around 500 BC and has widened in the course of several Muslim settlements (Delhi Sultanate1276-1526 AD and the Mughal Empire 1526-1857 AD). In the 8th century, Zoroastrianism established in India as Zoroastrians fled from Persia to India in large numbers, where they were given refuge. The colonial phase ushered in by the British lasted until 1947 and furthered conversions to Christianity among low caste Hindus.
  8. The rise of religious pluralism in the modern West is closely associated with the Reformation and the Enlightenment. Blackledge and hunt in their book “From Uniculturalism to Multiculturalism” advocate that Cultural pluralism is foundation to the rise of a multi cultural society. Multi culturalism according to him is A European concept that did not get much of approval from the African subcontinent where people preferred to go for ethnic diversity. Cultural uniformity is as a coercive manner was induced into socialist societies and most of the Islamic states of middle-east and the search for a homeland for Jews at Israel glorified the idea of creation of political state on the basis of mono cultural identities. When Europe went for pluralism this idea did not receive a global endorsement. As a result monistic societies went for religious revivalism and consolidation emphasizing on religious education, religious laws are emerging as the civil laws of the state. Hence a great ideological difference between monistic and pluralistic societies.
  9. In case of pluralistic societies, deprivation and inequality gave way to sectarian mobilizations. In case of America blacks got unified as a challenge to the political doctrine of pluralism during early 19th century that gave rise to the integration of black immigrants from different parts of the world. Challenge to pluralism comes from sectarian mobilization from within and the glorification of monistic states from outside.
  10. Clifford Geertz in his book “Islam Observed” mentions his case study of Indonesia. He found out that their exposure to Spanish colonialism, Dutch colonialism and subsequently western values did not offer their commitment to Islamic values. Therefore instead of multiculturalism cultural monoism made appearance in a big way in Indonesian society. He asserts that search for monoism is a rebellion and revolution then being a myopic orientation to one’s own culture and religion. Islamic revivalism was foundation to their independence therefore cultural monoism came as a predominant force in Indonesia.
  11. R. Robinson in her book “Sociology of Religion in India” advocates that Gandhi’s call for Ramarajya was greatly driven by call for implicit monism and explicit pluralism because Gandhi wanted that Hindus and Muslims should stay together as equal partners to modern India. But he strongly believed that Hindu cultural values can offer a right direction to the people to go for a disciplined life. In a society where monism is close to heart but pluralism becomes the rule of law people driven by emotion will stay committed to religion. She believes that anti conversion movements, communal tensions in the country are the manifestation of glorified monism challenging to state’s commitment to pluralistic ideology.
  12. Amartya Sen in his article “Secularism in India” considers that India’s pluralism has always been a doctrine of the state that mostly fails to internalize because of illiteracy, rural living and commitment to tradition. He believes that these orientations can only be transformed with the expansion of modern education, rise of modern employment and expansion of urbanism to rural pockets of Indian society.

Sects and cults

A sect is a subgroup of a religious, political or philosophical belief system, usually an offshoot of a larger religious group. The word sect comes from the Latin secta, meaning an organized religious body or organization, oriented towards ‘a course of action or way of life’.

  1. The chief feature of a religious sect is that it is a voluntary association. It is a small religious group that has branched off of a larger established religion. Sects have many beliefs and practices in common with the religion, but they have broken off from, but are differentiated by a number of doctrinal differences. Many sociologists use the word sect to refer to a religious group with a high degree of tension with the surrounding society, but whose beliefs are (within the context of that society) largely traditional.
  2. A sect seeks to impose a rigid pattern of ideal conduct on its members but seeks toleration rather than change from the larger society. Sects are concerned with purity of doctrine and with the depth of genuineness of religions feeling. As a result, demands are made upon the member to be an active participant, even a leader or missionary, as a warrant of his faith. The emphasis on purity of belief tends to create intolerance toward other groups and moves the sect toward critical assessment of the secular world in accordance with the ideals of the gospel.

Characteristics of Sect:

  1. A sect is a relatively small religious group. It is an organized body of people developing a kind of religious consciousness and raising as a major critic to mainstream religion.
  2. Sect is ideologically and operationally closed.
  3. Its members are usually, though by no means always, drawn from the lower classes and the poor.
  4. Sects often reject many of the norms and values of the wider society and replace them with beliefs and practices which sometimes appear strange to the non-believer.
  5. Sect emerge as a critic to original religion.
  6. Sect is initially leader focussed but it may continue after leader’s demise. As a result, sects are, in peter Berger’s words, ‘in tension with the larger society and closed against it’.
  7. Sects are insular groups which are largely closed to those who have not gone through the initiation procedures for membership.
  8. Sect institute a strict pattern of behaviour for members to follow and make strong claims on their loyalty.
  9. Belonging to a sect is often the dominant factor in a member’s life.
  10. The organization of sects tends to be in terms of small face to face groups, without a hierarchy of paid officials and a bureaucratic structure.
  11. Often worship is characterized by an intensity and open commitment which is lacking in main stream religion.

Origin of Sect:

  1. Max weber argues that sects are most likely to arise within groups which are marginal in society. Members of groups outside the mainstream of social life often feel they are not receiving either the prestige and/or the economic rewards they deserve. One solution to this problem is a sect based on what weber calls a ‘theodicy of deprivileged’ (a theodicy is a religious explanation and justification). Such sects contain an explanation for the deprivilege of their members and promise them a ‘sense of honour’ either in the afterlife or a in a future ‘new world’ on earth.
  2. According to other sociologists, an explanation of the sects must account for the variety of social background represented in their membership. Sects are not confined to the lower strata of society. For example, the Christian science sect has a largely middle-class membership. The concept of relative deprivation can be applied to members of all social classes. Relative deprivation refers to subjectively perceived deprivation which people actually feel. In objective terms the poor are deprived than the middle class. However, in subjective terms certain members of the middle class may feel more deprivation than the poor. Relative deprivation applies to the middle-class hippy in California who rejects values of materialism and achievement and seeks fulfilment in transcendental meditation. It applies equally to the unemployed black American who joins the black Muslim. Both experience deprivation in terms of their own particular viewpoints. Sects can therefore be seen as one possible response to relative deprivation.
  3. Sects tend to arise during a period of rapid social change. In this situation traditional norms are disrupted; social relationships tend to lack consistent and coherent meaning and the traditional ‘universe of meaning’ is undermined. Thus, Bryan Wilson sees the rise of methodism as a response by the new urban working class to the ‘chaos and uncertainty of life in the newly settled industrial areas’. He argues that ‘newly emergent social groups are, at least in the context of a society in which the religious view of the world dominates, likely to need and to evolve new patterns of religious belief to accommodate themselves to their new situation’. In a situation of change and uncertainty, the sects offers the support of a close-knit community organization, well defined and strongly sanctioned norms and values and a promise of salvation. It provides a new and stable ‘universe of meaning’ which is legitimated by its religious beliefs.

Life Span of Sect:

  1. According to sociologists Sects are short lived. H Richard Niebuhr argues that sects are necessarily short-lived for the following reasons:
    • The fervour and commitment of members cannot be sustained past the first generation;
    • The social marginality and isolation of the group, which was a major factor in the formation of the sect, may disappear. Sects with an ascetic creed tend to accumulate wealth which affords them entry into the mainstream of society.
  2. The sect then either ceases to exist or develops into a denomination. Its extreme teachings and rejection of the wider society no longer fit the social situation of its membership. If it changes into a denomination, its beliefs are modified to fit in with those of the mainstream of society; it develops a bureaucratic organization with a hierarchy of paid officials. This is the path taken by some sects. As the Methodists rose in status during the nineteenth century, the strict disciplines of the sect and its opposition to the wider society were dropped, and it became a denomination.
  3. If large sects develop in response to major religions it may lead to conflict/religious intolerance and/or rise of a pluralistic society (because of tolerance).

The cult:

The concept of “cult” was introduced into sociology in 1932 by American sociologist HOWARD P. BECKER as an expansion of German theologian Ernst troeltsch’s church-sect typology. Troeltsch’s aim was to distinguish between three main types of religious behaviour: churchly, sectarian and mystical. Becker created four categories out of Troeltsch’s first two by splitting church into “ecclesia” and “denomination”, and sect into “sect” and “cult”. Like Troeltsch’s “mystical religion”, Becker’s cults were small religious groups lacking in organization and emphasizing the private nature of personal beliefs.

  1. Later formulations built on these characteristics while placing an additional emphasis on cults as deviant religious groups “deriving their inspiration from outside of the predominant religious culture”. This deviation is often thought to lead to a high degree of tension between the group and the more mainstream culture surrounding it, a characteristic shared with religious sects.
  2. The term often highlights smaller religious movements or movements involving particularly intense religious devotion. The cult is a voluntary organisation open to all who wish to join or participate in it. According to Johnson, ‘in general the cults are not strict except in financial matters’. Yet it tends to regulate its members as per its doctrine and system of rituals which are well defined. A cult emphasizes one doctrine (above all others) or it focuses upon a god or goddess with certain definite characteristics.

Characteristics of Cult:

  1. A cult also has a high degree of tension with the surrounding society, but its beliefs are (within the context of that society) new and innovative. It may seek to transform society but more often concentrate upon creating satisfying group experience.
  2. Cults are not reactionary or revolutionary but instead are revisionary. Cult does not stand opposite to religion.
  3. Cult is a supplementation of religion than being a challenge to religion.
  4. Cult’s existence is greatly linked to life span of cult leader. He or she is a charismatic person for his followers.
  5. Cults are engaged in catering to day-to-day problems of people. Cult may have inherent contradictions, but various questions posed by followers are addressed by charismatic cult leader.
  6. Over a period cult may develop into a sect i.e. Calvinism to Protestantism.
  7. In Indian society, according to k.m. Panikkar it was during Mughals rule that sectarian division among brahmins was greatly glorified i.e., Shaivism and Vaishnavism, because Hinduism was loosing its great tradition because of loss of political patronage.
  8. If there is Distance between people and Religion, people endorses various cults

Origin of Cult:

  1. Sociologists still maintain that unlike sects, which are products of religious schism and therefore maintain continuity with traditional beliefs and practices, “cults” arise spontaneously around novel beliefs and practices.
  2. The social reality of cult is essentially rooted in heroic act. This act is a system of worship, a complex of feeling and attitudes of symbol (gestures, words, rites and rituals) and primarily a relationship with sacred object and the world beyond. It involves co-activity and a social boundary. In it, the relationship between the deity and clergy is not negligible but secondary.
  3. Cult seems to flourish in metropolitan centres where culturally heterogeneous populations are thrown together and they widely feel the impact of most rapidly impinging social change. It crates situation of contingency and powerlessness and thus the problem of adjustment. The cult of meet that situation..

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