Topic 2 - Religion and social change

  • Created by: rdowd40
  • Created on: 10-02-19 13:54

Religion as a conservative force

The term conservative can have 2 meanings: 

  • Traditional customs and values
    • Religion can be seen to hold traditonal conservative beliefs. For example, the Roman Catholic Church holds traditonal views on divorce, sexuality, contraception and gender. 
  • Functions to conserve and maintain the status quo
    • Functionalists claim that religion binds people together, promotes integration and reinforces the collective conscience. 
    • Marx had similar view to functionalism in that he saw religion as maintaining the status quo. However, he argued that religion operates in the interests of the ruling class rather than those of society as a whole.
    • From a feminist perspective, religion can be seen as ideological in that it socialises people into accepting patriarchy and gender inequality as natural and inevitable.
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Weber: religion as a force for change

Weber argues that the religious beliefs of Calvinism helped to bring about major social change in relation to the emergence of capitalism. 

Calvinists had four distinctive beliefs:

  • Predestination - God has predetermined who would be saved - the 'elect' - and that this could not be changed through anything they did during their life.
  • Divine transcendence - No one could possibly claim to know God's will including the Church and priests. This lead to what Weber calls a salvation panic in Calvinists, as they couldn't know whether they would be saved and they couldn't change their fate.  
  • Ascetism - This refers to abstinence, self-discipline and self-denial. 
  • The idea of a vocation or calling - Before Calvinism, the idea of a religious vocation meant renouncing everyday life to join a convent or monastery. Weber calls this other-wordly ascetism. By contrast, Calvinism introduces for the first time the idea of this-worldly ascetism. For this reason, the Calvinists led an ascetic lifestyle sunning all luxury, worked long hours and practised rigorous self-discipline. Firstly, their wealth and success performed a psychological function that allowed them to cope with their salvation panic. Secondly, driven by the work ethic, they systematically and methodically accumulated wealth by the most efficient and rational means possible
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Weber: religion as a force for change

Hinduism and Confucianism: 

Weber was not arguing that Calvinists beliefs were the cause of modern capitalism, but they were one of the causes. 

Hinduism is seen to be other-worldly as it directed its followers concerns away from the material world and towards the spiritual world. Whereas, like Calvinism, Confucianism was a this-worldly religion that directed its followers towards the material world but, unlike Calvinism, it was not ascetic. Both Hinduism and Confucianism thus lacked the drive to systematically accumulate wealth that is necessary for modern capitalism.

Calvinism was unique in combining asceticism with a this-worldly orientation to enable the spirit of modern capitalism to emerge. 

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Evaluation of Weber


1. Sombart argued that Weber was mistaken about the beliefs held by Calvinists. The doctrine of predestination was not intended to produce the rational pursuit of profit. However, this was one of its unintended consequences in that it led to the Protestant work ethic. 

2. A second criticism points to parts of the world where Calvinism was strong, but capitalism did not develop until much later. However, Marshall argued that Weber did not claim that Calvinism was the only factor necessary for the development of capitalism. 

3. Kautsky, a Marxist critic, argued that early capitalism came before and largely determined Protestantism. Which came first: Calvinism or capitalism? Defenders of Weber insist that a distinctive rational capitalist entrepreneur did not emerge until after Calvinism. 

4. Other critics question whether it was the religious beliefs of Calvinists that led to them becoming people. According to this view, Calvinists devoted themselves to business because they were excluded from holding public office and from joining certain professions by law. However, Weber's supporters argue that only Calvinists developed capitalists behaviour involving rational planning to accuulate capital.  

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Religion and social protest

Like Weber, Bruce is interested in the relationship between religion and social change. 

The American civil rights movement:

Bruce describes the struggle of the black civil right movement of the 1950s and 1960s to end racial segregation as an example of religiously motivated social change. Bruce argues that the black clergy were able to shame whites into changing the law by appealing to their shared Christian values of equality. Bruce sees religion in this context as an ideological resource - it provided beliefs and practices that protesters could draw on for motivation and support. Using this example he identifies ways that religious organisations are well equipped to support protests and contribute to social change:

  • Taking the moral high ground - pointing out the hypocrisy of the white clergy who suppported racial segregation
  • Channelling dissent - e.g. Martin Luther King's funeral was a rallying point for the civil rights cause
  • Acting as an honest broker - because they are respected in both sides of conflict and seen as standing above mere politics
  • Mobilising public opinion - by campaigning for support  
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Religion and social protest

The New Christian Right: 

The New Christian Right is a politically and morally conservative, Protestant fundamentalist movement. 

Their aims are to make abortion, homosexuality and divorce illegal. Turning the clock back to a time before the liberalisation of America. 

They believe in traditional family and gender roles, campaigns for the teaching of 'creationism' and want to ban sex education in schools. 

Bruce argues that the NCR has been largely unsuccessful because it never had the support of more than 15% of the population at most. 

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Marxism, religion and change

Marxists recognise that ideas, including religious ideas, can have relative autonomy - they can be partly independent of the capitalist economic base of society. 

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Ernst Bloch: the principle of hope

- The Marxists Bloch (1959) : sees religion as having a dual character. He accepts that religion often inhibits change, but argues that it can also inspire protest and rebellion. Religion is an expression of 'the principle of hope' - our dreams of a better life, containing images of utopia. 

- Images of Utopia can sometimes decieve people - e.g. promises of rewards in heaven - but they may also help people to create a vision of a better world and strive for social change. 

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Liberation theology

Liberation Theology (LT) 

- LT is a movement that emerged within the Catholic Church in Latin America in the 1960s, with a strong commitment to the poor and opposition to the military dictatorships that then ruled most of the continent. 

- LT emerged because of the growth of rural poverty and urban slums throughout Latin America, and human rights abuses following military take-overs. 

- LT emphasises 'praxis' - practical action guided by theory.

- However, in the 1980's the Church's official attitude changed, the conservative Pope John Paul II condemning LT as being akin to Marxism. 

- However, LT played an important part in resisting dictatorship and bringing about democracy in Latin America. 

Evaluation - Use LT to criticise traditional Marxist views. Neo-Marxist Maduro (1982) argues that LT shows religion can be a revolutionary force. However, though LT helped bring about democracy, it did not threaten capitalism.  

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Millenarian movement

Millenarian movements are an example of the desire to change things here and now, to bring about the kingdom of God on earth. Worsley (1968) argues that they expect the total and imminent transformation of this world by supernatural means, creating heaven on earth. 

- They appeal mainly to the poor because they promise immidiate improvement, and they often arise in colonial situations.

- European colianilism shattered the traditional tribal social structures and cultures of the colonised peoples. 

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Gramsci and hegemony

Gramsci (1971) is interested in how the ruling class maintain their control over society through ideas rather than simply through coercion (force). 

- Hegemony - ideological domination or leadership of society - is the way the ruling class are able to use ideas such as religion to maintain control. 

- However, in some circumstances religion can challenge the ruling class.


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Religion and class conflict

- Billings (1990) applies Gramsci's ideas in a case study comparing class struggle in two communities - coalminers and textile workers - in Kentucky in the 1920s and 1930s. Both were working-class and evangelical Protestant, but the miners were much more militant, struggling for better conditions.

- The differences in levels of militancy can be understood in terms of hegemony and the role of religion. The miners benefited from the leadership of organic intelllectuals - miners who were also lay preachers.   


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