Asian religions, and some classical western philosophers, believed that history consisted of an endless series of cycles: the Wheel of Life, eternal return, or eternal recurrence. This idea can also be found in nineteenth-century European philosophies that related to religion, notably the work of Friedrich Nietzsche, and it is not entirely implausible that processes analogous to the individual's life cycle occur on larger, societal scales. Probably the most impressive cyclical theory that gives religion a central role is the one proposed by Pitirm A. Sorokin. For Sorokin, the most influential elements of culture are those that concern the inner experience of people, their images, ideas, volitions, feelings, and emotions. The essence of a culture is defined by the view people have of the nature of reality, the goals they value, and the means they emphasize in reaching these goals.

In his theory, each great civilization emerges out of a period of chaos with a coherent set of spiritual beliefs that give it strength. Often it is born in the development of a new religious tradition. At this point, it is what Sorokin called an ideational culture. A successful ideational culture grows and develops. With success, however, comes complaisance. The society slowly loses its faith in spirituality, doubt sets in, and the culture begins to become sensate, a perspective on existence that is the opposite of ideational. A sensate culture believes that reality is whatever the sense organs perceive, and it does not believe in any supernatural world. Its aims are physical or sensual, and it seeks to achieve them through exploiting or changing the external world.

Depending upon circumstances, most people in a sensate society will exhibit one of three personality orientations. Active individuals use technology and empire-building to take charge of the material world. Passive individuals indulge themselves in pleasures of the flesh. And cynical individuals exploit the prevailing conditions for their own profit without any ideal to provide fundamental values. The entire cycle of which he wrote can take many centuries to complete, but Sorokin believed that western society was approaching a crisis point.

Ultimately, a sensate civilization is likely to crash, ushering in a new period of intense cultural chaos out of which a new ideational civilization may be born. Sorokin wrote, "Neither the decay of the Western society and culture, nor their death, is predicted by my thesis. What it does assert... is simply that one of the most important phases of their life history, the Sensate, is now ending and that we are turning toward its opposite through a period of transition. Such a period is always disquieting, grim, cruel, bloody, and painful" (vol. 3, p. 537).

Were Sorokin alive today, he probably would cite the rise of Islamic fundamentalism as confirmation of his theory, suggest that it would result in widespread conflict and religious revival in Islamic societies, even as European Christian culture continued to descend toward at least temporary collapse.


a.) Sorokin, Pitirim A. 1937. Social and Cultural Dynamics. New York: American Book Company.

    Related Concepts  
The following Concepts can potentially capture some of the ideas of this theory.

Level of religious commitment. This is usually measured through self-report of various measures. Asking individuals how they view the Bible, whether it is authoritative and perfect, or full of myths, allows researchers to approximate how religious one views herself. The frequency of attendance at church also provides a measure of the level of a person's religious commitment. Researchers also take how much money a person gives to their place of worship as a measure of religiosity.

Religious Behavior

Type and amount of religious actions an individual exhibits. Closely tied to the concept of religiosity, religious behavior focuses upon what individuals are doing in relation to religion specifically. The most commonly used measure of religious behavior is church or worship service attendance. Research shows that the act of attending alone exerts a powerful influence on individuals. Another religious behavior that can be operationalized is contributions toward religious activities or entities. Self-reported religious experience can also be used as a measure of religious behavior. This measure is less well-known and as such utilized less in research.

Religious Belief

On its most basic level religious belief refers to views toward the supernatural. Usually paired in research with measures of religious tradition and religious behavior, measuring religious belief allows researchers to gain insight into what respondents are thinking concerning the supernatural. One of the most common religious belief measures is whether or not respondents believe in God. A new strain of research is focusing not just on if individuals believe in God, but specifically what they believe God to be like. The images of God variables are used to create various scales that have proven to be highly predictive of attitudes and behavior. Probably the most common religious belief measure used in religious research is biblical literalism. This variable grouped with religious tradition and religious behavior is a common set of religious controls for any statistical model. Beyond these religious beliefs lie a less-used list of other beliefs. Belief in Hell, Jesus, salvation, Satan, angels, demons, heaven, or the "end times" provide a rich palate of possible research opportunities dealing with religious belief.

Religious Identity

Religious self-identifications (Smith, 1998:233). One ongoing discussion within the sociology of religion is how to categorize individuals religiously. In the past researchers have created categories that they fit individuals into by their religious tradition or certain religious beliefs. For example, to categorize individuals as Evangelical Protestants researchers could use their religious denomination (e.g., Southern Baptist) or by certain beliefs commonly attributed to Evangelicals (e.g., individuals must be "born-again" to receive salvation). Religious identity is now used as another way to categorize individuals and it relies entirely on respondents placing themselves within a certain category. A strength of this specific categorization technique is that it ensures the individual sees herself in this category and is not just placed there by a researcher according to a predefined typology.

Religious Preferences

"Individual's evaluations of competing religious goods" (Sherkat, 1997:69). Religious preferences as a concept is used to explain why individuals participate in different religions and styles of religion. It seeks to answer why specific religious choices are made. Generally, religious preferences are adaptive, grow stronger with consumption, and can respond to new information (Sherkat, 1997:66). Individuals learn their preferences through socialization and past experiences; immersion in religious communities bring individuals to have particular religious understandings which give religion value (Sherkat, 1997:70).

Some possible operationalizations of religious preferences include how individuals view the Bible, God, or the path to salvation. Each of these are theological issues and serve as markers to what types of religious goods individuals prefer. Religious experience could also approximate the preferences individuals might have for religious goods. Some might desire an experiential faith while others do not.

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