Religion and social change

  • Created by: rdowd40
  • Created on: 02-06-19 12:14

Religion as a conservative force

Religion can be seen as a conservative force in two different senses:

1. Conservative in the sense of 'traditional', e.g. defending traditional customs, institutions, or moral views.

2. Conservative because it functions to conserve or preserve things as they are, maintaining the status quo.

Religion's conservative beliefs:

  • Most religions have traditional conservative beliefs about moral issues and oppose changes that allow individuals more freedom; e.g. the Catholic Church forbids divorce, abortion and artificial contraception.
  • Most religions uphold 'family values', supporting a traditional patriarchal domestic division of labour; e.g. Hinduism endorses the practice of arranged marriage.
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Religion as a conservative force

Religion's conservative functions: 

Religion is also conservative in the second sense of the word - functioning to conserve or preserve things the way they are. This view of religion is held by functionalists, Marxists and feminists. In different ways, they each argue that it contributes to social stability.

Religion and consensus:

Functionalists see religion as a conservative force maintaining social stability and preventing disintegration, e.g. promoting social solidarity by creating value consensus and helping individuals deal with disruptive stresses. Marxists and feminists see religion as an ideology that supports the existing social structure and as a means of social control in the interests of the powerful:

  • Religion and capitalism Marx sees religion as a conservative ideology preventing social change. By legitimating or disguising inequality, it creates false consciousness in the working class and prevents revolution. 
  • Religion and patriarchy Feminists see religion as a conservative force because it legitimates patriarchal power and maintains women's subordination in the family and society.
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Weber: religion as a force for change

Weber in The Protestant ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism argues that the religious beliefs of Calvinism helped to bring about major social change - the emergence of modern capitalism in Northern Europe.

  • Modern capitalism is unique because it is based on the systematic, efficient, rational pursuit of profit for its own sake, rather than for spending on luxuries. Weber calls this the spirit of capitalism.

This spirit had unconscious similarity to the Calvinists' beliefs and attitudes. Calvinism had several distinctive beliefs. 

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Weber: religion as a force for change

Calvinist beliefs:

  • Predestination God predetermines who will be saved - 'the elect' - and individuals can do nothing to change this.
  • Divine transcendence God is so far above and beyond this world that no human being could possibly claim to know his will - leaving the Calvinists to feel 'an unprecedented inner loneliness'. This creates what Weber calls a salvation panic among Calvinists.
  • Asceticism Abstinence, self-discipline and self-denial.
  • The idea of a vocation or calling to serve God - but in the everyday world of work, not in a monastery. Calvinism invented this-worldly asceticism, where a vocation means constant, methodical work in an occupation. 

Calvinists led an ascetic lifestyle shunning all luxury, working long hours and practising rigorous self-discipline. As a result:

1. Driven by their work ethic, they systematically accumulated wealth but did not spend it on luxuries (asceticism), instead reinvesting it in their businesses to produce further profit.

2. They prospered and came to see this as a sign of God's favour and their salvation. 

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Weber: religion as a force for change

Hinduism and Confucianism:

Weber argued that Calvinist beliefs were only one of capitalism's causes. Certain material or economic factors were necessary, e.g. natural resources, trade, a money economy, towns, a legal system etc.

There have been other societies with some of these factors, but where capitalism did not take off, due to the lack of a religious belief system like Calvinism. For example:

  • Hinduism in ancient India was an ascetic religion, but was other-worldly - directing followers towards the spiritual world. 
  • Confucianism in ancient China, although a this-worldly religion that directed its followers towards the material world, it was not ascetic. 
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Religion and social protest

Bruce is interested in the relationship between religion and social change, comparing two case studies of the role of religiously inspired protest movements in America: the civil rights movement and the New Christian Right.

The American civil rights movement:

The black civil rights movement of the 1950s/60s attempted to end racial segregation as blacks were denied legal and political rights in many Southern states; e.g. schools were segregated, inter-racial marriages forbidden and blacks often excluded from voting. 

  • The movement began in 1955 and direct action through protest marches, boycotts and demonstrations followed until, in 1964, segregation was outlawed. 
  • The black clergy led by Dr Martin Luther King were the backbone of the movement, giving support and moral legitimacy to activists. They shamed whites into changing the law by appealing to their shared Christian values of equality. 
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Religion and social protest

Bruce sees religion in this context as an ideological resource - beliefs that protestors coul draw on for motivation and legitimation. Religious organisations are well equipped to support protests and contribute to change, e.g. by:

  • Taking the moral high ground - pointing out the hypocrisy of white clergy who supported 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 by both sides in a 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 NCR is a politically and morally conservative, Protestant fundamentalist movement. It has gained prominence since the 1960s.
  • The NCR's aims are to make abortion, homosexuality and divorce illegal and take the USA 'back to God', turning the clock back to a time before the liberalisation of American society. 
  • The NCR believes in traditional family and gender roles, campaigns for the teaching of 'creationism' and wants to ban sex education in schools. 
  • The NCR uses televangelism, where church-owned TV stations raise funds and broadcast programmes aimed at making converts
  • The Moral majority, a right-wing Christian pressure group and part of the NCR, became the focus for political campaigning and for influencing the Republican Party. 

Bruce argues that the NCR has been largely unsuccessful because it has never had the support of more than 15% of the population at most. The democratic values of American society mean most Americans are comfortable with legalising activities such as abortion and homosexuality. 

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Marxism, religion and change

Marxists are often though of as seeing religion as an entirely conservative ideology -  a set of ruling-class ideas that legitimate class inequalities. 

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

Thus religion can have a dual character, sometimes being a force for change as well as stability.

Ernst Bloch: the principle of hope

  • The Marxist Bloch 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 vision of a better world and strive social change. 
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Marxism, religion and change

Liberation theology:

  • For centuries the Catholic Church in Latin America had been a very conservative institution encouraging acceptance of poverty and supporting wealthy elites. 
  • 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; e.g. priests leading to literacy programmes and raising political awareness. Some priests actively resisted state terror. 
  • However, in the 1980s 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. 
  • The Pentecostal challenge LT now faces competition from Pentecostalism, which has made big inroads among the poor. While LT offers a radical solution: collective improvement through political action, Pentecostalism's solution is conservative: individuals must pull themselves out of poverty by changing their personal behaviour. 
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Marxism, religion and change

Millenarian movements:

Millenarian movements are an example of the desire to change things here and now, to bring about the kingdom of God on earth. Worsley 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 immediate improvement, and they often arise in colonial situations. European colonialism shattered the traditional tribal social structures and cultures of the colonised peoples. 
  • Worsley studied the cargo cults - millenarian movements in Melanesia, where islanders felt deprived when 'cargo' (material goods) arrived in the islands for the colonists. 
  • Cargo cults asserted that the cargo had been meant for the natives but had been diverted by the whites for themselves, and that this was about to be overturned. These movements often led to widespread unrest. 
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Marxism, religion and change

Gramsci: religion and hegemony 

Gramsci 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 religion to maintain control; e.g. in Italy in the 1920s/30s, the conservative ideological power of the Catholic Church helped to win support for the facist regime. 
  • However, in some circumstances religion can challenge the ruling class; e.g. it may help the working class to see through the ruling-class hegemony and some clergy may act as organic intellectuals - leaders who can support working-class organisations. 
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Marxism, religion and change

Religion and class conflict:

  • Billings applies Gramsci's ideas in a case study comparing class struggle in two communities - coalminers and textile workers. 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 benefitted from the leadership of organic intellectuals - miners who were also lay preachers. 
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