ost sociologists and other writers have
tended to see religion as a force to underpin and reinforce
the status quo in society. Functionalists as diverse as Emile
Durkheim and Talcott Parsons have seen religion in these
terms. Religious beliefs provide a basis for norms and values
which are shared in common.
Durkheim, in particular, was concerned that the decline
in religious belief in modern society posed the threat of
literally a state of normlessness, the lack of a moral framework
which enables society to hold together. This was the basis
for Durkheim’s interest in socialism as an ethical
system that could provide an alternative to religion in decline.
Talcott Parsons saw religion as the basis for ‘value
consensus’ providing the underlying assumptions which
give society a basis for existence.
Marxists (though not Marx) often go down the same route.
Religion is a shell game which persuades the masses that
there will be pie in the sky by and by when you die. “The
rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate, He made
them high and lowly and ordered their estate.”
Life is not as simple as this. Religion gives a very different
set of messages. A clear example is that when the peasants
rose up against the feudal system what they said was “when
Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?” In
other words, religion becomes the vehicle through which people
express social protests and radical political movements.
Religion is not always an agency of the status quo, but
can be a place where people without a voice find a word.
of the oppressed are perhaps the most positive version of
this. Cults and sects can give us a darker version of this
Very often sects draw their supporters from the members
of society who are most marginalised, who have no stake or
within the established institutions, but the irony is that
by bringing them into the institution of the sect, the organisation
often brings them into the mainstream of the wider society.
This is something which Max Weber was very aware of in his
analysis of the Protestant Ethic, that sectarian Protestants
drawn into the world of business and commerce often found
themselves drawn into the same mainstream world as other
religious currents. Unless you reject the world and head
for confrontation with it, it is so very difficult to keep
it out of your head. Look to examples such as Louis Farrakhan
to illustrate this.
World rejecting sects always find themselves in a confrontation
with the “evil world” they despise and this normally
ends with tears before bedtime in terms of the confrontation
between their world and that of an increasingly secular society.
We see this in the Waco siege and elsewhere, where people
wish to reject an external reality which they see as sinful,
corrupt and beyond reformation. The trouble with this view
is that it often leads to a self destructive set of steps,
often with cult leaders being able to exercise enormous influence
over their members, not to their members’ advantage.
An interesting point is the way that so many religious
sects, from Joseph Smith and the Jesus Christ Church of Latterday
Saints via David Koresh and the Branch Davidians to the leaders
of the Covenant of the Sword and the Arm of the Lord, assumed
that God had given them a divine right to have sex with the
female (frequently very young female) members of the group.
Divine inspiration and patriarchy seem so regularly to go
hand in hand. On the whole, we do not get the same message
from female revelations from God.
What these sects seem to do is legitimise behaviour which
would be unacceptable in the wider society. In other words,
they create and reinforce a subculture which runs against
the norms and values of the “normal” society.
Sometimes, these subcultures can be quite harmless, for example
a refusal to use information technology, but in other circumstances
they can involve behaviour which is destructive and even
murderous, in which the individual loses any sense of their
personal moral responsibility. Think about September 11 and
what was in effect a cult within Islam wreaking so much havoc.
Other examples of destructive cults include the mass deaths
in the jungles of Guyana in 1978 of the members of Jim Jones’ People’s
Temple, the suicide of Heaven’s Gate members in 1998
or the gas attack on the Tokyo underground by Aum Shrinrikyo.
An example of what might be seen as a sect, which might
also be seen as a religion of the oppressed, is the Nation
Islam. The movement was founded in the 1920s by Wallace Dodd
Ford, an itinerant door-to-door raincoat and silk peddler,
and further developed by Elijah Muhammad (alias Robert Poole),
who became the movement’s leader in 1934 when Ford
disappeared. The founders argued that Christianity was the
white man’s religion and had to be rejected by blacks
in favour of Islam, the religion of Africa. The white man
was the devil and the Nation of Islam preached racial separatism
and proposed that three southern states be set aside as a
homeland for American blacks (imagined to be the lost African
tribe of Shabazz). The ideas of Elijah Muhammad were very
far removed from those of orthodox Muslims and, initially,
for that reason, the movement did not encourage its members
to read the Koran, or study Islam, except through the temples
(note, not mosques) and ministers of the Nation of Islam
The Nation of Islam owed much more, in terms of organisation
and methods, to black churches than to Islam itself. Religion
had provided a basis for black organisation and identity
for a long time - mostly through various forms of “African” or “Ethiopian” Christianity
and occasionally through black “Zionist” or “Jewish” sects.
Blacks’ existing surnames, which had been given to
them by slave owners, should be rejected. Since their African
names were unknown they would be replaced by an X or a Y
(as in Malcolm X). X the unknown. This provided the inspiration
for Alex Haley’s book Roots. Haley also co-wrote Malcolm
The Nation of Islam stressed black identity and self-reliance.
The group had its greatest success amongst urban blacks,
often people from the poorest groups in society. Anti-drugs
and anti-alcohol its young supporters “The Fruit of
Islam” often take it upon themselves to “clean-up” black
neighbourhoods of drug dealers etc.
Because of its racial separatism the Nation of Islam tried
(without much success) to make common cause with white racist
groups like the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi party
led by Lincoln Rockwell. Marcus Garvey, who led the Universal
Negro Improvement Association in the 1930s, tried similar
approaches to the extreme right.
The Nation of Islam made an important contribution to the
Black Power movement of the 1960s through Malcolm X who eventually
broke with Elijah Muhammad, who then had him murdered. Malcolm’s
family blamed Louis Farrakhan who called for Malcolm’s
death in the Nation’s newspaper Muhammad Speaks, which
Malcolm X had founded. Malcolm had wanted the Nation to play
a more active role in the struggle for civil rights and believed
that the leaders of the Nation had become corrupt. Malcolm
also made the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, and rejected
After the death of Elijah Muhammad the organisation broke
up into conflicting factions each claiming to be the Nation
of Islam. Some groups have dropped their political and social
message and have adopted a more orthodox Islamic stance (perhaps
in return for money from Arab and Iranian benefactors).The
most important group still using the title is led by Minister
Louis Farrakhan, a former nightclub singer who married into
Elijah Muhammad’s family. Farrakhan retains the black
separatism stance and has made outspoken comments on Jews
and, most recently, the War in Afghanistan. His organisation
the Fruit of Islam (FOI) provided stewards for black presidential
candidate Jesse Jackson’s rallies and meetings both
in the 1984 and 1988 election campaigns. In the 1990s the
Nation of Islam received some publicity because of the activities
of the group Public Enemy and their espousal of Farrakhan’s
In 1995 the Nation organised the Million Man March, which
was an assertion of black male pride and a call for black
men to take responsibility for themselves, their families
and their community. Although attendance never actually reached
one million there was a very substantial response to Farrakhan’s
call and, perhaps, over half a million black men turned out
in Washington DC. This showed Farrakhan’s and the Nation’s
ability to reach out far beyond those who are members or
supporters of the Nation and to those who do not accept its
religious or political message.
Farrakhan has been barred from entering Britain because
the government considers that he is a threat to public order
and race relations. He is, apparently, very ill and we will
have to see if whoever takes over from him takes the Nation
in a new direction. The Nation of Islam newspaper is now
called The Last Call. It can be argued that some of Farrakhan’s
message - don’t do drugs, stay in school, don’t
drink, get a job and take responsibility for yourself and
others - is not that far from the American mainstream and
established black churches. Maybe Louis Farrakhan really
is as American as apple pie after all.
The Nation of Islam is just the Protestant Ethic dressed
up in the trappings of black nationalism. Although I abhor
the racism and anti-Semitism that Louis Farrakhan has espoused,
if his message can keep young black men away from drugs,
gangs and gun crime, maybe, just maybe, the old monster
has to be given some credit.