Beliefs in society: religion and social change

definition of religion as a force of social change

It encourages new ideas and new ways of behaving.

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Max Weber (The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of capitalism)

Max Weber argued that religion was a force for social change. By looking at China, India and Europe he illustrated that it was the religious beliefs held by Calvinists that hastened the development of capitalism. 

Weber notes that many past societies had capitalism in the sense of greed for wealth, which they often spent on luxury consumption. However, modern capitalism is unique, he argues, because it is based on the systematic, efficient, rational pursuit of profit for its own sake.

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Weber examined Calvinism (a form of Protestantism founded by John Calvin during the Reformation).  Calvin believed that there was a distinct group of the “elect” (those chosen to go to heaven).  They were chosen by God even before they were born.  They did not know whether they were amongst the elect.Therefore, they reasoned that if their behaviour was exemplary they could feel confident that they would go to heaven after death.

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Weber argued that it was the beliefs of the Calvinists that led to the development of capitalism.  They worked hard, could not spend their money on luxury items, so ploughed money back into the business.  They became richer and richer and became ‘capitalists’.

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examples of religion contributing to social change

Contemporary examples of religion contributing to social change

  • The 9/11 attacks on the USA resulted in changes in American foreign policies.  Countries such as Afghanistan were invaded and regime changes were made in the country. 
  • In the 1980’s the Roman Catholic Church played a part in bringing an end to communist control in Poland.
  • In South Africa Archbishop Tutu helped bring about the end of Apartheid. 
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social change related to conflict

It is now widely accepted that religion can help bring about social change.  Whether religion can be a force for change or not is closely related to whether it causes conflict; when it does, it is more likely to bring about change.  McGuire and Robinson argue that there are different factors that link to religion causing social change.  For example, a highly religious country is more likely to be critical of society and attempt to change it, but in a country where religion is marginal (the UK) it is seen as irrelevant in people’s lives and so plays a limited role in social change.

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Religious fundamentalism

Fundamentalists often return to the beliefs of an original text on which their religion is based; it is very traditional. Fundamentalism often causes conflict with other groups who they see as a threat to their religion.  Therefore, fundamentalism tends to be a conservative forcein terms of preserving traditional values but a radical forcein terms of seeking social change.  It could be argued that traditional society has been lost; society needs to change if we are to return to those values.

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Religion and social protest

Bruce sees the civil rights movement to end racial segregation as an example of religiously motivated social change.  The civil rights movement led to segregation being outlawed, with Bruce claiming that the black clergy led by Dr Martin Luther King gave moral legitimacy to the activists.  Their churches provided meeting places and prayer meetings were a source of unity in the face of oppression.Bruce claims that religion performed the following functions:

  • Black clergy highlighted the fact that white clergy preached ‘love thy neighbour’ but supported segregation.
  • The funeral of Martin Luther King was a rallying point for the civil rights cause.
  • Churches acted as an ‘honest broker’ for negotiating change as they were respected by both sides.
  • Black churches in the South campaigned for support across the whole of America.
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The New Christian Right

The New Christian Right is a Protestant fundamentalist movement that oppose liberal American society and want to take America ‘back to God’.  They campaign to make abortion, homosexuality, same sex marriage and divorce illegal and turn back time to when America held more traditional views.  The New Christian Right make use of televangelism to recruit new members and have some political support from the Republican Party.  However, the New Christian Right are not having the success in changing society that the civil rights movement had.  This may be because to achieve success in wider society, a group must hold similar views to wider society; research shows that, while many Americans may not agree with same sex marriage or abortion, they agree with the principle of individuals being free to choose how they live their lives. This makes them reluctant to pledge support to a group such as the New Christian Right.

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definition of religion as a conservative force

It maintains things the way they are.

Functionalists, Marxists and Feminists have generally dismissed the idea that religion can act as a powerful force for change. Instead they argue that religion can be seen as a set of beliefs that offer resistance to change. They see religion as helping to maintain existing values and as preserving the status quo. 

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Functionalists argue that religion holds society together for the good of all. It promotes integration and social solidarity. Religion provides a set of shared norms and values.  

 Malinowski argued that the key functions were:

  • Help the individual in times of emotional stress, danger and anxiety.
  • In times of a ‘life crisis’ such as death.
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contemporary example of the functionalist view

A contemporary example of this can be seen in the funerals of Birmingham brothers who died during the riots in summer 2011. The funerals were held in a public park in Birmingham.  There was high police presence as it was widely believed that violence would erupt. However, over 4,000 people attended – black, white, young, old, rich, poor and an array of different religious beliefs were represented.  Despite fears, it was a peaceful event that saw people travel from abroad to come together to celebrate the lives of these men – a religious celebration that united modern society. 

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  •  From a functionalist perspective, religion is good for society and good for individuals. However, it is difficult to see how religion can promote the collective conscience in contemporary society with its many different religious beliefs.  Indeed, religious pluralism found in today’s society has indeed caused social change.
  • The functionalist perspective emphasizes the positive contributions of religion to society and ignores its dysfunctional aspects. It neglects instances where religion can be seen as a divisive and disruptive force. For example, religious conflict underpins many acts of terrorism; this had divided groups and caused social change on many levels, not kept society the same.
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Marxists believe that religion justified the position of the ruling class and provided consolation for the working classes. It tended to keep the working classes in their place and therefore discouraged social change. Religion maintains the status quo in the interests of the ruling class. Marx argued that religion was a form of brainwashing. It taught a set of values which people could not argue with for fear of an eternal life in hell. Many point to the Hindu caste system as such an example. Hindus believe that if you are bad in this life then you will be reincarnated as a lower caste person. Doing something bad includes any attempt to better yourself so remaining in your caste is absolutely necessary; which is a very effective form of brainwashing from a Marxist perspective.

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  • Marxism draws attention to the fact that religion has often supported the interests of the powerful
  • Marx believed that when communism became established, the need for religion would die but evidence suggests that does not happen. Religion in communist Russia, for example, flourished, despite being actively discouraged. 
  • Marxists maintain that religion is purely a crutch for its believers, however, functionalists such as Parsons say that religion can give meaning to life and make sense of difficult situations. Many people have deeply held religious beliefs and numerous religious experiences.
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Feminists see religion as maintaining patriarchy (domination of women by men). Armstrong (1993) notes that women occupy a marginal position in most major religions. Although they have made gains in many areas of life, their gains in most religions have been limited.  Women continue to be excluded from key roles in many religions despite the fact that they often participate in organised religion more than men. Religion serves to keep women in their place, subordinate to men and most religious organisations do not allow women to become priests. This is strange given that women attend these organisations more than men and are known for their expressive role.  

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  • Some Christian religions, particularly Quakerism, have never been oppressive to women.
  • The Church of England is one of the few exceptions and have gradually increased the involvement in women, progressing from allowing them to become vicars, and moving on to Bishops.  This indicates that religion is not a conservative force but is willing to move with the times to create a more equal society. 
  • The growth of NRM’s and NAM’s are also indications that religion is a force to encourage change in patriarchal society. Many of these groups regard women as incredibly important and are in no way oppressive.  The influence that this type of movement has on individuals is growing, and with that growth comes social change. 
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General evaluation

  • It is difficult to see how religion can act as either a force for social change or a conservative force when religious beliefs are declining so rapidly.  Secularisation leads to religion having little or no influence over us as individuals and society in general.
  • Post-modern society causes uncertainty in many individuals. One of the responses to the fast moving pace of today’s society is a return to the basic, fundamental beliefs of traditional religion.  It may be that people are seeking a return to a slower, more predictable lifestyle and see religion as being the route to bring about this change.
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