Religion as social change



Calvinists believed in predestination, i.e. that God had already chosen who was fit for salvation (known as the elect) and those who will not be saved. However, a believer had no way of knowing whether he or she was one of the saved or “chose ones”.

The solution to not knowing one’s destiny was to become in “intense worldly activity”, since hard work and material success were seen as religious virtues and likely sign of being God’s chosen one. 

The Protestant ethic emphasised values and virtues like hard work, thrift, trade, profit, modesty and punctuality.  Living according to these values, with hard work leading to material success, became signs of God’s grace and an indication that the individual was “chosen”.

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American civil rights movement

Bruce (2011) describes the struggle of the black civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s to end racial segregation as an example of religiously motivated social change. Despite slavery being abolished in 1865, the black community were segregated from the white majority and treated as second-class citizens, prohibited from using certain services or going into certain shops and other places. Bruce argues that the backbone of the civil rights movement was the black clergy.  Led by Martin Luther King, they provided support and moral legitimacy to civil rights activists. They were able to shame white people into changing the law by appealing to their shared Christian values of equality.  Bruce identified several ways in which the black clergy was able to support the civil rights movement, including channelling political dissent. For example, Martin Luther King’s funeral was a rallying point for the civil rights cause.

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The 1979 Iranian revolution

In 1979, Islamic fundamentalists, led by Ayatollah Khomeini, revolted against the ruling class of Iran. The Shah (“King”) of Iran was seen to be sympathetic to Western culture and changed the way of life in Iran to become more western and like America. The Shah was overthrown and Ayatollah Khomeini made the Supreme Leader of Iran.  He promised the Iranian people a return to a fairer society, following the principles of Islamic faith. There were strikes, student protests and eventually the Shah fled the country, handing over control to the revolutionaries.

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The nature and extent of religious beliefs:  If most people in a society have strong beliefs and strict moral codes which conflict with some features of the existing society then religion is more likely to inspire change.  For example, in Iran most people within society follow Islam and so it was easy to bring about a fundamentalist revolution in the 1970s as a fight back against westernisation.

The significance of religion in culture: If a religion is central to a society’s culture, it is more likely to be used as a tool for change or a way to justify change.  For example, Catholic religion is embedded in the Irish culture and teamed with Irish Republicanism was and is used to fight against British rule in Ireland

The extent of the social involvement: In societies where religion is central to its culture and religious leaders play important roles within that culture, religion is more likely to influence change.  For example, Liberation Theology in Latin America was able to influence social change because the dictators themselves claimed to have Catholic beliefs.

The degree of central authority: In societies where religious organisations have strong central authority, religion is more able to promote or prevent social change.  For example, in Islamic countries such as Iran or Saudi Arabia, religion has very strong centralised authority which is used effectively to influence the extent of social change within those societies.

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