Where Go The Rastafarians?: A Sociological Inquiry into a ‘Failed’ or ‘Marginal’ Religious Movement

By Liam Turnbull

There is a common misconception that the Rastafarian religion was created solely as an excuse to smoke marijuana. Although its members may use marijuana for spiritual reflection, there are many other beliefs and traditions that are inherent in this movement. In particular, the religion has strong anti-colonial roots; one of the central and original aims of the movement was to be free from colonial control and repatriate back to Ethiopia. The movement has, however, somewhat departed from these traditional viewpoints. ‘Repatriation’ has transformed into a spiritual philosophy which symbolizes the ‘freeing of ones’ mind’, as opposed to the political goal of ‘the freeing of oneself’ from the chains of colonialism (Murrell, 1998). What is the significance of this transformation? Has the movement’s new philosophy arisen in an effort to expand and spread globally? Or has it developed as a survival strategy from the perpetual repressive structures that have worked against it throughout its existence? Unlike bureaucratic-like religions such as Catholicism or other Abrahamic religions, the Rastafarian movement has not gained the publicity and recognition to perpetuate its success.

In this paper, I dissect the work of theorists to offer a sociological perspective on why the Rastafarian religious movement did not rise to global prominence and has remained a socially marginal movement. There are four key themes that I came across during my research: firstly, the relativiely weak communicative linkages between ‘creators’ of the movement and social carriers, with stigma playing a major role; second, the traditional view of repatriation serving to spark resentment from colonial powers; third, the extreme ‘virtuoso’ standards of behavior that must be upheld and finally, the political repression of the movement and its lack of formal political support overall.

As Lester Kurtz states, most new religious movements are born out of conflict (2012), and the Rastafarian movement is no different. The name “Rastafarian” is originally derived from the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie I, who before his coronation was named Ras Tafari (Murrell, 1998). When Ras Tafari was subsequently crowned, many analogies were made to the Old and New Testaments, often being referred as the “King of Zion”, the “Conquering Lion of Judah”, and so on (Murrell, 1998). This event coincided with Marcus Garvey’s movement in Jamaica to enhance civil liberties and the status of Blacks globally (Barrett, 1977), and with an earlier claim he made: that an African king shall be crowned, and that “he shall be the redeemer” (Barrett, 1977). Traditionally, the Rastafarians believe that Ras Tafari is the Black Messiah or a living god, who will aid in the repatriation of all black people to Ethiopia, or Zion as referred to by Rastafarians. Those living under the repression of “Babylon” (originally viewed as Westerners/colonialists) will then be free from white oppression. (Murrell, 1998). The Rastas arose in a period of Jamaican colonialism. Anti-colonial struggles, such as those started by Garvey, soon took on supernatural elements. (Barrett, 1977). King Ras Tafari could provide repatriation to Zion for Jamaicans and all Africans around the world (Murrell, 1998).  And in that sense, it is a messianic or millenarian cult: eventually the oppressed will be free through supernatural aid (perhaps from the ‘return’ of Ras Tafari), and the master-slave relationship will be reversed (Barrett, 1977). Considering that the bible was the only religious book they had access to, it is no surprise that it is one of the foundational writings of the Rastafarian movement and is very similar to Christianity in a number of ways (Barrett, 1977).

Our discussion of the Rastafarian movement is contextualized through the sociological narrative of Max Weber who distinguishes between ‘heroic’ or ‘virtuoso religiosity’, and ‘everyday’ or ‘mass religiosity’ types (1963). Virtuosos are extremely religious and intensely orthodox. On the other hand, mass religiosity types, which consists of the majority of people, are not. It is not sufficient for virtuosos to engage in mass, everyday religiosity practices; they simply will not feel religiously ‘fulfilled’. Virtuosos function as religious creators in new religious movements, while mass religiosity types are seen as carriers of the movement. New religious movements generally will contain communicative linkages between creators and carriers, where the creators communicate and convey their religious message to social carriers. (Weber, 1963). This linkage is then connected to the idea of a ‘sect’ and ‘church’.

In Weber’s “Sect-Church” dynamic, each structure caters to either mass religiosity or virtuoso types: sect like standards are more appealing to virtuosos, whereas mass religiosity types are attracted to religions with ‘church’ standards.  In sects, the religion usually becomes a life-style for virtuosos. Sects, however, do not appeal to mass-religiosity types. In order for that new movement to grow globally, they need to then become more church-like in order to enhance appeal. (Weber, 1963). The Rastafarian movement, although it contains both sect and church elements, primarily requires their members to uphold sect standards.

Given that there are similarities between the Rastafari movement and some of the mainstream religions, why didn’t the movement rise to global prominence on the same scale as Christianity or Islam?

To begin, the communicative linkages between creators and their message to social carriers were substantially weaker when compared with the major world religions. Marcus Garvey could be seen as the primary social creator and prophet (as Ras Tafari himself was not a contributor to the movement), with Jamaicans acting as social carriers. Yet, Marcus Garvey was more concerned with the anti-colonial struggle in general than with the specific religion itself. (Barrett, 1977). Compared to Christianity, for example, Jesus’ apostles strongly enhanced the communicative linkages between themselves and social carriers when promoting Christianity abroad.

In cases where the Rastafarian movement did spread to other parts of the world, such as the UK or America, it could be due, in large part, to the musical influence that Rasta musicians had on the world stage. Bob Marley and Peter Tosh (among others) could also be seen as ‘creators’ of the movement, where the message is communicated to social carriers and mass-religiosity types (which would be the music’s audience). The ‘message’ conveyed, however, could have been misinterpreted by the majority of listeners who were not already familiar with the movement. (Murrell, 1998). There have not been a lot of interpretations and attention from the mass media towards treading the “Road to Zion” or loving ‘Jah’; rather, the peaked interest among mass-religiosity types has been in smoking ‘ganja’ and that you shouldn’t worry, “cause every little thing is gonna be alright”. Although it may have increased awareness of the Rastafari movement, it may not have provided the publicity that artists had intended, and it may have led to an increase in negative stigma for the movement in general. (Murrell, 1998).

Following the emperor’s death or ‘disappearance’, many traditional aspects of the Rastafarian movement have been altered. According to Murrell, the “doctrine of repatriation” has been reinterpreted by some Rastas as a “voluntary migration to Africa, returning… symbolically, or rejecting Western values and preserving African roots/black pride” (1998, p.6). This change has opened the door to some mass-religiosity types who may have not been able to repatriate physically.

Perhaps, in Weber’s terms, these changes were made in order to progress in a more ‘church’-like direction. This illustrates the sect-church tension and a movement’s aspiration into becoming global, yet still trying to uphold the sect standards which the movement was founded upon. Some virtuosos still see Ras Tafari as the black messiah and strongly believe in the sect-like idea of a physical repatriation; others want to expand in more of a church direction and appeal to mass-religiosity types (Murrell, 1998). Some Rastafaris will not even accept the identification of other Rastas who do not uphold strict sect or virtuoso standards (Murrell, 1998). The movement is inherently “anti-ecclesiastical” where you are free to interact with the divine and engage in spiritual reflection as you choose (Murrell, 1988). This is a direct alternative to the strict bureaucratic model of Catholicism, in which the sect standard, where holiness is internal to each member, is thus very apparent.

Other ways that the virtuoso/sect standards manifest are through the important requirements of maintaining dreadlocks, practicing vegetarianism or veganism and abstaining from alcohol (Owens, 1976). Perhaps not coincidentally, many Rastafari vituoso practices are prohibited and/or deemed as highly deviant. The most popular and perhaps controversial practice of Rastafarians is the ritual inhalation of marijuana for spiritual reflection (Owens, 1976). Widely considered by other religions and society at large as deviant, it may be particularly hard to convince potential converts to join a movement that has an illegal practice as a common ritual. It could also be viewed analogously with some indigenous sects/religions, where groups consume hallucinogens such as peyote (Kurtz, 2012), thus further reinforcing the virtuoso attitudes within, and the stereotypes and stigma external to the movement. Even in Jamaica, marijuana was not decriminalized until early 2015. Perhaps this deviant and illegal behaviour even arose historically as a way to protest against the ‘Babylonian’ oppressors (Murrell, 1998).

The Rastafarian movement itself was often punished and suppressed by Jamaica in its earlier history; lots of higher-paying jobs could not be held by Rastas, and they were often disproportionately subjected to police brutality (Owens, 1976). These factors greatly discouraged mass-religiosity types from joining, to the point where only virtuosos would be likely to resist repression. However, the same was true with Christianity and other major religions when they first started as movements and subsequently overcame persecution. Rastas are now no longer persecuted, and 6 out of 10 Jamaicans are either Rastafarians or sympathizers to the movement (Barrett, 1977). Regardless, political systems still work against the Rastas to this day, such as the inability for them to hold many higher-paying jobs in Jamaica as noted above. Furthermore, Rastafarians have been significantly underrepresented in the Jamaican parliament (Barrett, 1977). Many of the other mainstream religions had political systems that aligned with their own beliefs, such as with the rise of Christianity when Constantine was emperor; the Rastafarians have never had such a luxury.

Although the Rastafari movement did in fact arise as an Abrahamic religion, there is a common tendency to view Christianity as not only the norm for religious comparisons, but also as a goal of which all other religions should strive towards. Yet, as both a religion and anti-colonial movement, it is imperative for the Rastafarian religion to be seen beyond a Christian lens or a Western perspective. This is evident in the teachings of the movement. The notion of ‘chanting down Babylon’, and being free from Western oppression incorporated tangible, political elements into a spiritual context.

In the words of Leonard E. Barrett, “where go the Rastafarians?” (1977, p.248). Stigma associated with the movement, reinforced to this day, has been detrimental to the movement’s growth. In addition, the relatively weak communicative linkages between creators and social carriers, and the membership requirement of upholding virtuoso/sect standards, has hampered its rise. The continued political repression and lack of political aid for the movement has also proven to be a major social cause in its repression as a global revolutionary movement and its potential to mobilize anti-colonial activism.

This paper was presented at the Decolonizing Conference: Undergraduate Symposium at the University of Toronto (November 2016).


Barrett, Leonard E. The Rastafarians – The Dreadlocks of Jamaica. Kingston: Sangster’s Book Stores, 1977. Print.

Kurtz, Lester R. Gods in the Global Village – The World’s Religions in Sociological Perspective. 3rd ed. Los Angeles: SAGE Publications, 2012. Print.

Murrell, Nathaniel Samuel, William David Spencer, and Adrian Anthony McFarlane, eds.Chanting Down Babylon: The Rastafari Reader. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1998. 6. Print.

Owens, Joseph. Dread – The Rastafarians of Jamaica. Kingston: Sangster’s Book Stores. 1976. Print.

**The paper title, “Where Go the Rastafarians?”, is credited to Leonard E. Barrett (1977).

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10349131_10153565671482305_1321112283940025100_nOriginally from Vancouver, Liam Turnbull is a 3rd year New College student studying Political Science, Sociology, and Philosophy. In his paper “Where Go The Rastafarians?: A Sociological Inquiry into a ‘Failed’ or ‘Marginal’ Religious Movement, Liam uses Max Weber’s sociological framework of religion to analyze factors that may have contributed to the Rastafarian religion’s relatively low popularity worldwide when compared with other major religions.

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