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Some sects dissolve without growing into denominations. Sociologists call these established sects    . Established sects, such as the Amish or Jehovah’s Witnesses fall halfway between sect and denomination on the ecclesia–cult continuum because they have a mixture of sect-like and denomination-like characteristics.

A denomination    is a large, mainstream religious organization, but it does not claim to be official or state sponsored. It is one religion among many. For example, Baptist, African Methodist Episcopal, Catholic, and Seventh-day Adventist are all Christian denominations.

The term ecclesia    , originally referring to a political assembly of citizens in ancient Athens, Greece, now refers to a congregation. In sociology, the term is used to refer to a religious group that most all members of a society belong to. It is considered a nationally recognized, or official, religion that holds a religious monopoly and is closely allied with state and secular powers. The United States does not have an ecclesia by this standard; in fact, this is the type of religious organization that many of the first colonists came to America to escape.

A young Mennonite boy in a straw hat is shown eating a piece of pizza.
How might you classify the Mennonites? As a cult, a sect, or a denomination? (Photo courtesy of Frenkieb/flickr)

One way to remember these religious organizational terms is to think of cults, sects, denominations, and ecclesia representing a continuum, with increasing influence on society, where cults are least influential and ecclesia are most influential.

Types of religions

Scholars from a variety of disciplines have strived to classify religions. One widely accepted categorization that helps people understand different belief systems considers what or who people worship (if anything). Using this method of classification, religions might fall into one of these basic categories, as shown in [link] .

One way scholars have categorized religions is by classifying what or who they hold to be divine.
Religious Classification What/Who Is Divine Example
Polytheism Multiple gods Belief systems of the ancient Greeks and Romans
Monotheism Single god Judaism, Islam
Atheism No deities Atheism
Animism Nonhuman beings (animals, plants, natural world) Indigenous nature worship (Shinto)
Totemism Human-natural being connection Ojibwa (Native American) beliefs

Note that some religions may be practiced—or understood—in various categories. For instance, the Christian notion of the Holy Trinity (God, Jesus, Holy Spirit) defies the definition of monotheism    , which is a religion based on belief in a single deity, to some scholars. Similarly, many Westerners view the multiple manifestations of Hinduism’s godhead as polytheistic , which is a religion based on belief in multiple deities,, while Hindus might describe those manifestations are a monotheistic parallel to the Christian Trinity. Some Japanese practice Shinto, which follows animism    , which is a religion that believes in the divinity of nonhuman beings, like animals, plants, and objects of the natural world, while people who practice totemism    believe in a divine connection between humans and other natural beings.

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Source:  OpenStax, Introduction to sociology 2e. OpenStax CNX. Jan 20, 2016 Download for free at http://legacy.cnx.org/content/col11762/1.6
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