Religion, Social Change and Conflict


Examples of Religion causing Social Change

Many sociologists now accept that religion can cause social change.

G. K. Nelson (1986), for example, argues there are many cases were religion has undermined stability or promoted change.

  • In the USA in the 1960s the Reverend Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Council supported the civil rights movement and this resulted in legislation to reduce radical discrimination.
  • The Roman Catholic liberation theology movement in 1979 supported the Sandinistas who took control of Nicaragua.
  • In South Africa, Archbishop Tutu was a prominent opponent of apartheid and helped to bring about its end.
  • In the 1980s the Roman Catholic Church in Poland joined with the free trade union Solidarity to bring an end to communist control.

More recent examples of religious activity resulting in social change include:

  • The 9/11 attacks on the USA by the Islamic organisation Al Qaeda, which resulted in significant changes in the United States foreign policy, including theinvasion of Afghanistan, and, to some extent, were used to justify the invasion of Iraq, Both these policies let to 
1 of 9

Examples of Religion causing Social Change Continu

...regime changes in these countries.

  • In Afghanistan, resistance by the Islamic Mujahideen led to the expulsion of occupying forces by the Soviet Union in 1989. This resulted in the taliban taking control in 1996 and imposing Islamic law before they, in trun, lost control in some parts of the country with the intervention of US forces in reponse to the 9/11 attacks.
2 of 9

Religion as a Radical Force

It is now widely accepted that religion can cause social change. The question has shifted, to ask in what circumstances religion tends to be conservative (prevents change) and in which situations does it lead to being a radical force for change.

Meredith B. McGuire (1981) argues that whether religion becomes a force for radical change or not is affected by a range of factors.

  • Religions with strong moral codes are more likely to have followers who are critical of society and therefore may take action to change it.
  • Societies in which religious beliefs are central to the culture (for example, in Latin America) provide more opportunity for poeple to use religion to mobilize a movement for change.
  • Where religious organizations play a central role in the economic and policitical structure of society, they have more chance of producing change.
3 of 9

Religion, Conflict and Theories

Whether religion can be a force for change or not is closely related to whether it causes conflict, as, when it does, this can lead to change.

  • Functionalism claims that religion tends to prevent conflicts by creating harmony through shared values.
  • Marxism and feminism both claim that religion can prevent conflicts by reinforcing the control of dominant groups in society: the ruling class in the case of Marxism and men in the case of feminism.
  • Weber recognises that religion can be a cause of conflict as well as harmony.

Other perspectives point out that religion can cause conflict without leading to change.

4 of 9

Examples of Religion causing Conflict

There are many examples of religion being linked to conflict, e.g. between Protestants and Catholocs in Northern Ireland (1968-1998); Muslim Palestinians and Jewish Isrealis in the Middle East (mainly 1964 -1993 but still ongoing); Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croatians and Muslims in Bosnia during the 1990s (1992-1995 with 200, 000 deaths); and Muslims and Hindus in the Indian subcontinent (ongoing). Divisions between Sunni and Shia Muslims have been significant in civil wars in Iraq, Syria and Yemen (1, 400 years and still ongoing). Some theories have begun to claim that religion causes conflict.

5 of 9

Key Study: The Clash of Civilizations

Samuel Huntington (1993) argues that people see themselves as belonging to cilvilzations that are usually linked to religion and that therefore religious indentities are increasinglu important in the modern world. These civilizations are: Western, Confucian (China), Japanese, Islamic, Hindu, Slavic-Orthodox, Latin American and African. When these civilizations come into contact, conflict tends to break out; for example, conflict between Islamic and Western civilzations.

Huntington is a controversial social scientists and his ideas have been heavily criticized. There are many examples of supposedly conflicting civilsations living in harmony. Furthermore, there is plenty of conflict within civilizations, such as conflict between different types of Christianity (e.g. Protestants and Catholics) or Muslims (e.g. Shia and Sunni Muslims in Iraq).

6 of 9

Conflict as caused by Non-Religious Factors

It can often be argued that conflicts apparently based on religion are really about other issues. For example, in Northern Ireland the conflict was more about whether the Uk or Eire (Southern Ireland) controlled the North, while in the Middle East the Palestinian - Israeli conflict is about control over land.

Karen Armstrong (2001) argues that the conflict between Islam and the West is not primarily cause by rligion but by American foreign policy. The USA has frequently intervened in Muslim countries and often supported regimes that have not brought prosperity to ordinary Muslims.

Steve Bruce (2000) claims that religious factors are often intermingled with non-religious factors in causing conflict. He cites the Palestinian - Israeli conflict, where nationality and ethinicity are intermingled with religious differences.

7 of 9

Examiners' Notes

  • Look carefully are the question when choosing which examples to use. If you are asked specifically about contempory society do not use histroical examples. You can also impress the examiner by using very recent examples from the news.
  • More sophisticated conclusions to answers on religion and social change or related topics develop the analysis beyond simply saying rleigion can sometimes be a radical force. A fully developed critical conclusion should be well developed and two sided.
  • Questions on the relationship between religion and conflict are quite common, especially as long essay questions. Expand on the view of these briefly summarized theories to develop your answer.
  • Use examples to support or contradict different viewpoints. Look out for other examples of conflict in the media.
8 of 9

Examiner's Notes Continued

  • For a sophisticated argument in conclusions on religion and conflcit, you must point out that much of the apparent conflict between religios could be over other issues.
9 of 9


No comments have yet been made

Similar Sociology resources:

See all Sociology resources »See all Religion and beliefs resources »