Other Primary-Identity Sub-Cultures and Movements

This document lists major primary-identity sub-cultures and movements which function in the same sociological niche as religions, but which are not usually classified as religions. The purpose here is to provide a statistically more complete picture of religious demographics from a sociological perspective.
  • animal rights; evangelistic vegetarianism; Vegans; PETA, etc.
  • Communism; Marxism; Marxist-Leninism; Maoism; Juche; etc.
  • gun rights; survivalists
  • feminism
  • Straight Edge
  • environmentalism
  • racial supremacists; racial separatists (Nazis, Ku Klux Klan, skinheads, Black Panthers, etc.)
  • GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered) community
  • science fiction (including comics, Star Trek, Star Wars)
  • occult, tarot; astrology; etc.
  • sports and fitness
  • political parties
  • Conservative / Liberal *
  • separatist movements
  • Alcoholics Anonymous
  • drug culture
  • biker
  • Goth; Rave; Vampire; etc.
  • cyber-culture; technophiles


Religions and other primary-identity sub-cultures fill an identical sociological niche because they:
  1. Provide a source of group identity, individual identity, and social interaction
  2. Provide a philosophical and ethical framework, and the language through which philosophy, ethics and community issues can be discussed
  3. Inspire imagination, art, literature and other creative outlets*
  4. Serve as a source of goals, effort, volunteerism and accomplishment for individuals and the group
  5. Provides a source of unity necessary for defense of the community and the community ideals
  6. Address universal experiences such as death, sexuality, family life, etc.

* Art and imagination: An example is the Animal Rights Counterculture web page, which states that its purpose is to "create and allow access to a repository of freely-distributable, original artistic works which promote the abolition of animal exploitation." It has a "Songs and Stories page" and encourages the "submission of original creative works."

There is no value judgment involved in recognizing that a group or movement is culturally distinct, and that it functions as the sociological equivalent of a religion (for at least a proportion of its core constituents). "Religion," used in this broader sociological sense, pertains to human interaction and motivation. It is unrelated to issues such as "non-rational versus rational" or "revealed or faith-based versus empirical" -- characteristics sometimes used in definitions of religion in a theological sense.

Furthermore, not everybody who supports a particular movement or engages in a particular activity is considered an "adherent" in a socio-religious sense. Many people read science fiction or play sports, but for only a few do these activities constitute their primary source of socialization, goals, and/or philosophy. Many people support feminism in general, or many of the social ideas articulated by the feminist movement. For only a minority of people who consider themselves feminists does feminism constitute their primary philosophical system and outlet for volunteerism and social action, i.e., their religion.

Additional Comments Regarding Inclusion on this List

Sociologists have defined religion as being the "ultimate reality" that people believe in, or the primary motivating factor in their lives. One homey saying has it that "Your religion is whatever you do on the sabbath."

Such definitions are potentially very broad and can pertain to anything at all. Thus defined, "making lots of money" could be a person's religion, or a person's family, or even their car, could be their religion. A definition this broad is not as useful in classifying distinctive religious groups and cultures, however. Movements and sub-cultures have been listed on this page because they meet certain additional criteria:

  1. The movement or sub-culture forms the primary cultural identity for a large number of people. It fulfills a sociological niche similar to that filled by religion, tribe or ethnicity by contributing to the beliefs, philosophy, behavior, artistic expression, social interaction and goals of its adherents.

  2. The sub-culture is not already included among lists of movements traditionally recognized as religions ("Catholic", "Muslim", "Hindu", "New Age", "Neo-Pagan", etc.)

  3. Participation in the sub-culture is voluntary, and not merely a function of non-voluntary conditions such as geography (Welch, Mexican); ethnicity (Mayan, black, Han Chinese); economic status ("the poor", "middle-class"); or biology (old, children, cancer patient, schizophrenic, blind, short, overweight, male, female, sexual orientation).

  4. Participation in the sub-culture is not simply a function of occupation. Participants/adherents represent diverse occupational background. All professions form occupational cultures ("writer culture", "politician culture", "teacher culture", etc.), but that is not the subject of this list, and that phenomenon is sociologically distinct from religion.

Factors which are not criteria for including movements and sub-cultures on this list. Movements and sub-cultures have not been listed here because they are controversial, "liberal" or "conservative", desirable or undesirable, etc. Some movements and sub-cultures have been associated more frequently with "liberal" or "left-wing" individuals and groups (e.g., environmentalism and the animal rights movement). Other movements and sub-cultures have more frequently been associated with "conservative" or "right-wing" individuals and groups (e.g., radical gun rights advocates and survivalists). But these movements are not primarily political in nature and a strong association with them is usually not motivated solely by where they fall on a left-right political spectrum as seen by outsiders.

For example, a person who considers herself generally liberal and is a frequent participant in animal rights activism may also be strongly pro-life (opposed to abortion) -- a position labelled as conservative. It would be rare for one person to lend substantial time and support to both movements simultaneously, but their involvement is not based simply on what is considered "liberal" or "conservative." Somebody else, active in the gay and lesbian community (considered a "liberal" movement) may be strongly opposed to the animal rights movement because they perceive it as slowing down AIDS research by preventing the use of laboratory animals by pharmaceutical companies. They may also be fiscally conservative and participate in Republican politics. Once again, their membership in a sub-culture is not necessarily based on its position on a political spectrum.

To reiterate, inclusion of a particular movement or sub-culture on this list implies neither approval nor disapproval. Nor does it imply any parallel to any particular religion. A direct parallel to religion in general is not implied, except in a sociological sense.

Why these are not typically classified as religions

Clearly there must be reasons why some movements, sub-cultures and groups are generally regarded as religions while other movements which fulfill similar sociological functions are not regarded as religions.

One popular and often useful notion is that a "religion" addresses the issues of deity and the afterlife. But these are only two possible topics among the endless possible topics for humans to be concerned about yet unable to quantify mathematically. Also, for many people and groups, religion and spirituality has little to do with deity and the afterlife. There are forms of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Judaism (Zen, tantrism, Reconstructionists) that focus little or not at all on deities or the afterlife, but are nevertheless classified as religions.

In a theological discussion, addressing specific concepts may be a useful criteria for what constitutes a religion. But a sociological definition is based on the impact a movement has in people and groups, not on the content of its message.

Some of the general differences are summarized below, although for each point there are many exceptions.

TABLE: Some differences between "religions" (in the sociological sense) which are traditionally labelled as "religions," and those which are not.

Traditionally Recognized ReligionsOther Primary-Identity Sub-cultures
Usually calls itself a church or religion. Outsiders usually call it a church or religion Those within and without the movement do not call it a religion (although sociologists recognize it can function as one)
Provides rituals and other markers to observe universal "life-cycle" events, such as birth, coming-of-age, marriage, and death Do not mark life-cycle events
Usually have a single, identifiable founder or prophet Recognize persons of historical or contemporary importance to the movement, but usually do not recognize a single worldwide founder.
Address the nature of deity and the afterlife as central components of their overall philosophy Primarily "religious" topics such as deity, and the afterlife are not central to the philosophy. If addressed, these topics are ancillary and subservient to the core issue(s)
Written scriptures, revelation or oral tradition are important source of authority and overall philosophy, and important in framing discussion Sources of authority and direction in the community are primarily contemporary and philosophical
Involvement with laws and the broader culture may be present, but is secondary. Primary focus is their own membership. Some groups or movements in this category strongly desire to influence the laws, behaviors, policies, etc. of the entire geographical population, not just within their sub-culture.
Expansion of influence occurs primarily through expansion of the group's voluntary membership and/or natural increase and retention of adherents. Expansion of influence occurs primarily through the spread of specific ideas and policies into the broader culture (government, mass media, academia, corporate practices)
Distinctive artistic traditions, which may include their own forms of music, writing, oratory, drama, etc. Successfully convey their message through art forms and mediums found in the broader cultures, but rarely develop distinctive styles and forms.
Affiliation with the religion is marked with a formal ceremony or recognition of affiliation; distinction between adherents and non-adherents fairly clear, although levels of participation vary Affiliation less formal, no ceremony to mark affiliation with the movement; levels of participation are extremely varied; many supporters and peripheral participants whose primary-identity culture or religion is elsewhere

One indicator that a group or movement is functioning as the sociological equivalent of a religion is that its constituents strongly object to being classified as a religion. To say that something clearly non-religious such as "being blonde" or "being a Michael Jordan fan" is a religion would incite little or no protest. Blonde people and Michael Jordan fans have little group identity associated with blondeness or with Michael Jordan. Such a statement may appear to have so little meaningful truth in it, or be so innocuous, that they feel no need to counter it.

On the other hand, to say that the environmentalism is a religion is likely to draw protests by proponents who do not wish their movement to be associated with religions they or others don't like ("unwanted baggage"), who do not wish to think of themselves as a "member" of a religion other than another one they identify with, or who do not wish to lose the advantages a non-religious movement has in dealing with the public sphere (schools, government, media, etc.). Transcendental meditation is one recent example of a religious movement which had considerable latitude in introducing itself into public schools and government programs, until it was recognized as a religion. Essentially all religions have adherents who claim that their religion is not a religion.


Conservative / Liberal. The inclusion of Conservatism and Liberalism on this list should be explained. Nobody who considers themselves generally conservative or liberal would say that their "Conservatism" or "Liberalism" is their religion. Most people would like to think that they make a reasonable decision regarding various political, ethical, moral and social topics, regardless of where their decision falls on a "left-right" or "liberal-conservative" spectrum. Most people, if they list enough issues, would be able to list at least some views which are considered conservative and some which are considered liberal. Furthermore, on any given issue there will usually be somebody more liberal or conservative. A person may think their stance on gun control is conservative, for instance, because they oppose additional restrictions on gun purchases. But an even "more conservative" ("far-right") position might call for eliminating on all legal restrictions on gun sales, and support for marksmanship classes in high schools. Most people fall "somewhere in between" on most issues. Certainly, many people are generally conservative or generally liberal, as the terms are commonly understood, but these are relative terms. The terms "conservative" and "liberal," as described here, are not religions or primary-identity sub-cultures.

"Conservatism" or "Liberalism" operate as de facto religion for people who are commonly called "knee-jerk liberals" or "knee-jerk conservatives." These are people who lend essentially unquestioning allegiance to whichever viewpoints are associated with their favored point on the ideological spectrum. They are the type of people who take a liberal stance on gun control, affirmative action, and welfare reform. Then, because identify so strongly with liberalism, they support the "liberal" position on the magnet schools, tort reform and Surinamese water rights. Yet there may not actually be an inherently "liberal" or "conservative" position on many issues.

A person who is authentically influenced by a particular religious or ethical philosophy, such as Catholicism, Buddhism, Islam or Humanism, will have viewpoints which are on both ends of the "liberal-conservative" spectrum. This is because traditional religions are not based on contemporary local social debates. Any person who supports all liberal causes or all conservative causes carte blanche may be said to be an adherent of Liberalism or Conservatism in an essentially religious or tribal sense. [Related article.]

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Web page created 31 March 2000. Last modified 20 September 2005.
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