2. Religion & Social Change

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Religion as a Conservative Force

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

  • Conservative in the sense of "traditional". e.g. defending traditional customs, institutions or moral views
  • Conservative because it functions to conserve or preserve things as they are

Religion's conservative beliefs

  • Most religions hold traditional conservative beliefs about moral issues & oppose changes that allow individuals more freedom
  • Most religions uphold "family values" & support a traditional division of labour

Religion's conservative functions

  • According to functionalists, Marxists & feminists, religion acts to preserve the status quo
  • Religion legitimates or disguises class inequality, creating a false class consciousness & preventing revolution
  • Religion legitimates patriarchal power & maintains women's subordination
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Religion as a Force for Change

Weber: The Protestant Work Ethic & the Spirit of Capitalism

  • Predestination, divine transcendence, asceticism & vocation
  • Calvinists worked hard and saved money so they accumulated wealth, which they reinvested into their businesses

Hinduism & Confucianism

  • Both share some qualities with Calvinism, but it was in Europe that capitalism grew quickest due to the combination of asceticism & this-worldly callings


  • Marxists: Weber overestimates the role of ideas & underestimates economic factors
  • Marginalisation forced Calvinists to innovate
  • Calvinsim was present in Scotland, but capitalism did not emerge until later. This was because Scotland lacked structural factors (resources) needed for capitalism to grow
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Religion & Social Protest

The American Civil Rights Movement

  • Taking the moral high ground - pointed out the hypocrisy of white clergy who supported segregation
  • Challenging dissent - creating rallying points out of negative events e.g. MLK's funeral
  • Acting as an honest broker - respected by both sides in a conflict & above politics
  • Mobilising public opinion

The New Christian Right

  • Socially & politically conservative
  • Traditional family & gender roles
  • Largely unsuccessful due to lack of widespread support
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Marxism, Religion & Change

Ernst Bloch: The principle of hope

  • Religion has a dual character - it can inhibit & inspire change

Liberation Theology

  • Catholic Church in 1960's S. America
  • Response to growing urban slums & rural poverty
  • Strong commitment to the poor & opposition to military dictatorships
  • The Pentecostal Challenge: Encourages individuals to pull themselves out of poverty by their own efforts, where liberation theology campaigns for social change

Millenarian Movements: Appeal to the poor due to promise of immediate improvement

Gramsci: Religion & Hegemony 

  • When hegemony is established, the ruling class can rely on popular consent to rule, giving less need for coercion e.g. the Catholic Church and Mussolini

Religion & Class Conflict: Miners = militant; textile workers = passive

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