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How Religious Stratification Impacts Social Status

Instructor: Benjamin Olson
This lesson will define two basic forms of religious stratification and explain how such social organizations impact social status. Several examples of religious stratification from different parts of the world will be provided.

What Do We Mean by Religious Stratification?

Within any given culture there will almost always be some form of hierarchy. Such hierarchies can take many forms and be based on many different sets of criteria, from gender to race, to economic status, to culturally specific statuses appointed at birth. Religious stratification is one of the most common and significant forms that social hierarchies can take. Within complex, diverse societies, powerful majority religions often hold their social power over the heads of less powerful minority religions. In more homogeneous societies, religions will frequently identify different categories within the prevailing religion, creating sub-designations with varying degrees of social power.

Hinduism and the Caste System

Traditionally, Hindu society in the Indian subcontinent has been divided up into separate castes, birth groups that distinguish one's social status and employment. The main groups that make up the caste system in India are as follows, in descending order of social status: Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras. Additionally, there is another birth group that functions outside of the caste system: the Dalits.

Brahmins maintain the highest level of social status within Hindu culture and are typically religious leaders, teachers, and intellectuals. Kshatriyas are the second most powerful caste, performing work related to warfare and politics. Vaishyas are in the middle of the caste system and work as traders, shopkeepers, and in agriculture. Shudras are the second least powerful caste within Indian culture, often working in manual labor. The Dalits, the least powerful group within Hindu society, exists outside of the larger order of Hindu society. The Dalits were traditionally forced to work cleaning bathrooms, collecting garbage, and other employment deemed unclean by higher caste Hindus.

The persecution and ongoing ostracization of Dalits has been one of the chief criticisms of the caste system within Hinduism. The caste system that prevailed in India for thousands of years has faced social and political pressure for reform since India gained independence in 1947. The Indian constitution forbids discrimination based on caste; however, the caste system is still very much a fact of life in Hindu societies throughout the Indian subcontinent.

Religious Stratification in Western Europe

As Christianity spread across Western Europe in the years following the fall of the Roman Empire, religious stratification came to take many forms in different parts of Europe at different times. In Northern Europe, traditional polytheistic practices persisted longer than anywhere else in Europe. Christian towns were often established around churches, while pagans continued to live in the more remote countryside. Iceland was one of the last places in Europe to accept Christianity. Icelandic pagans were often referred to as heathens, a term that simply means from the heath, or the boggy wetland areas outside of towns and settlements.

Iceland's decision to formally adopt Christianity around 1000 CE seems to have been more of a political and economic decision than a spiritual one. During the medieval period, pagans were often forcibly converted to Christianity, and Christian kingdoms were as inclined to use military force as they were to deploy missionaries against unconverted pagan communities; Iceland hoped to avoid aggression from Christian kings in Norway and Denmark, while also reaping the economic benefits of inclusion in Christendom.

Throughout the medieval and early modern periods in Western Europe, Jewish communities suffered social ostracization, segregation, and often violent persecution. Bizarre, unfounded accusations of child sacrifice and blood drinking known as blood libels were often leveled against Jews, resulting in the murder of individual Jews, and sometimes whole communities. The religious stratification in Western Europe during the medieval and early modern periods was oppressive and often violent. The anti-Semitic terror that manifested itself in the Holocaust during the 20th century was the culmination of centuries of Jewish persecution in Western Europe.

Religious Stratification in America

The United States has always been a remarkably heterogeneous, religiously diverse nation. Prior to European contact, Native American cultures produced an impressive array of religious worldviews and ritual processes. Early European settlers were often religious minorities seeking religious freedom in the New World. Despite this history of religious diversity and constitutional protections for the free exercise and non-establishment of religion, the United States has seen many periods of religious stratification and segregation.

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