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

By Liam Turnbull

Many people seem to believe 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 inherent in the movement; some have caused the movement to rise and spread to different parts of the world, whereas other components have proved to be shortcomings that have prevented it from becoming a major world tradition. The Rastafarian religious movement did not rise to global prominence and remained a socially marginal religion largely due to: 1) the relatively weak communicative linkages between ‘creators’ of the movement and social carriers, with stigma playing a major role; 2) the traditional ‘repatriation to Ethiopia’ view which is inherently exclusive; 3) the extreme ‘virtuoso’ standards of behavior that must be upheld’ (such as maintaining dreadlocks and abstaining from alcohol) and 4) the political repression of the movement and its lack of formal political support overall. These factors worked against the successes of the movement in gaining publicity and recognition, which included its eventual acceptance for members of different ethnic groups and the religion’s alternative structure to bureaucratic-like religions such as Catholicism. Other factors such as the movement’s organizational structure and treatment of women, however, are not in fact major social causes for its failure to grow.

When examining why a movement may fail to reach prominence worldwide,  Max Weber, a distinguished social scientist from Germany and commonly seen as one of the principle founders of sociology, analyzed new religious movements historically through studying how a movement gains support. In his book The Sociology of Religion, he first distinguishes between ‘heroic or virtuoso religiosity’, and ‘everyday or mass religiosity’ types (Weber, 1963). Virtuosos are extremely religious and intense. Mass religiosity types (the majority of people), on the other hand, are not. In turn, it’s not enough for virtuosos to engage in mass/everyday religiosity practices; they will not feel religiously ‘fulfilled’. New religious movements generally will contain communicative linkages between creators (mostly virtuosos) and carriers (largely mass religiosity types), where creators communicate and convey their religious message to social carriers. 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. The Rastafarian movement, although it may contain elements of both, primarily requires their members to uphold sect standards. How did this movement arise, and what are the fundamental characteristics of a Rasta?

The name “Rastafarian” is originally derived from the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie I, who before his coronation was named Ras Tafari (Murrell, 1998). Ethiopia was the first African state to be free from colonialism. When Ras Tafari was subsequently crowned, many analogies were made to the Old and New Testaments (a “King of Zion”, “Conquering Lion of Judah”) (Murrell, 1998). This event coincided with Marcus Gavey’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 / a living god, and that he will aid in the repatriation of all black people to Ethiopia (Zion); those living under the repression of “Babylon” (originally viewed as Westerners or colonialists) will then be free from White oppression (Murrell, 1998). In that sense, it is a messianic/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 thus very similar to Christianity in a number of ways (Barrett, 1977).

Most new religious movements are born out of conflict (Kurtz, 197), and the Rastafarian movement is no different. The Rastas arose in a period of Jamaican colonialism. Anti-colonial struggles, such as those started by Marcus Gavey, 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). Given that there are similarities between the Rastafari movement and some of the mainstream traditions, why has the movement failed to develop global prominence on the same scale?

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

The spread of the Rastafarian movement to other parts of the world, however, such as in the UK or America, 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 (the music’s audience). (Murrell, 1998). 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 the “Road to Zion” or loving ‘Jah’ (God); 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 songs like these may have increased awareness of the Rastafari movement, it may not have provided the kind of publicity that artists had originally intended, and it may have led to an increase in negative stigma for the movement in general (Murrell, 1998).

Furthermore, the communicative linkages between Marcus Gavey and social carriers was traditionally limited to Africans and Jamaicans in particular. Arguably, the main goal of the movement itself was repatriation back to the homeland of Ethiopia for Africans (Murrell, 1998). Does this then exclude all other non-Africans, thus creating a limited amount of potential social carriers, and in effect causes the movement to preserve its sect/virtuoso tendencies?

The idea that Rastas had to be Black could have greatly hindered the movement’s progress. The traditional goals of the religion solely concerned Africans: their desire for repatriation, freedom from Western oppression and a reversal of “the current master/slave pattern”, and the belief that Ras Tafari is the Black messiah (Murrell, 1998). These beliefs clearly align with sect and virtuoso attitudes. The ability for mass-religiosity types to join the movement is thus greatly restricted.

Following the emperor’s death or ‘disappearance’, however, 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 repatriation supporters. Additionally, the view that White people are “simply evil” in general “is no longer central to Rastafari belief(s)”, and Babylon can now be seen “to represent all oppressive organizations and countries in the world” (Murrell, 1998, p.6).

Perhaps, in Weber’s terms, these changes were made in order to progress in a more ‘church’ direction. This illustrates the sect-church tension and a movement’s aspirations 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 Black repatriation; others want to expand in more of a church direction and appeal to mass-religiosity types (Murrell, 1998). The movement may have succeeded in becoming more inclusive and inviting to others. These successes, however, were offset by the fact that many Rastas still believe in the Black messiah, and this traditional view inherently discourages mass-religiosity types. There is already a stereotype that Rastafarians cannot be of different cultures (Murrell, 1998), and some Rastafaris will not even accept the identification of other Rastas who do not uphold strict sect/virtuoso standards (Murrell, 1998).

Another success for the movement was the fact that it could be seen as an alternative to the strict bureaucratic model of Catholicism; you are instead free to interact with the divine and engage in spiritual reflection as you choose. As Murrell states, the movement is inherently “anti-ecclesiastical”  and lacks formal organization (1998). The sect standard where holiness is internal to each member is thus very apparent. Could the overall growth of the Rastafarian movement, however, be impeded by this lack of rigid authority and organizational complexity? Conversely, one can point to other major traditions in which they also do not have strict bureaucratic authority figures, such as with Hinduism (Kurtz, 2012) or Protestantism (lecture). It is therefore unlikely that this was a major social cause for the failure of the Rastafarian movement to become a mainstream religion.

Considering the fact that the Rastafarian movement has a separate religious code for women (Barrett, 1977), could this have also worked against the movement’s rise? The movement itself was first seen as a “patriarchal movement” (Murrell, 1998).  Additionally, the common term ‘Rastaman’, a self-defining term for Rastafarians, may denote a certain aspect of demoralization or segregation for women. Although this patriarchal set-up  could have discouraged women from joining, the relative subordination of women is apparent in many mainstream religions’ beginnings (e.g the familial role of the wife in Christianity and Islam) and they still persist today; the fact that the Rastafarian movement was patriarchal may not be a strong social cause in any case for its lack of growth.

Additionally, other virtuoso/sect standards that may not sound appealing to mass-religiosity types are also evident, such as the important requirement of maintaining dreadlocks (Owens, 1976).  It is also a common belief to be vegetarian or vegan and abstinence from alcohol is also required, the reason being that one should live naturally and in harmony with the Earth (Owens, 1976).  Being Rastafarian could even be seen as a way of life, strongly reinforcing the notion that the movement has remained in Sect form throughout its history despite its relative growth in recent years (Owens, 1976).

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 aboriginal sects/religions, where groups consume hallucinogens such as peyote for example (Kurtz, 2012), thus further reinforcing the virtuoso attitudes within and the stereotypes/stigma external to the movement. To engage in illegal behaviour for religious purposes is very sect-like indeed (lecture); even in Jamaica, marijuana was not decriminalized until earlier this year (in 2015). Perhaps this deviant/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 still cannot be held by Rastas, and they were often disproportionately subjected to police brutality (Owens, 1976). These factors would greatly discourage 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 (lecture) 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. Rastafarians have also 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 (lecture); the Rastafarians have not had such a luxury.

Some racial attitudes and other extreme ideologies are no longer central elements to the Rastafarian movement. Racially charged stigma associated with the movement, however, which is still reinforced today, 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. Its failure is more due to these doctrinal and self-definitional factors (rather then any patriarchal or organizational problems) that have offset the social successes of the Rastafarian movement; the continued political repression and lack of political aid for the movement has also proven to be a major social cause in its failure to become a true mainstream religion. In the words of Leonard E. Barrett, “where go the Rastafarians?” Will the Rastafarian movement continue to grow until it eventually rivals the current major world traditions? Or will the Rastas maintain their traditional practices and continue to ‘chant down Babylon’, regardless of how many band-wagoners join them in song?


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).

– – – – – – –

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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s