Religion and Social Change

Does religion prevent social change, cause social change or does it depend?

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4 main arguments

Religion prevents social change:
Religion is a cause of the rentention of conservative or traditional values, this is the views of functionalists and marxists. 

Religion causes social change: 
Quite simply there are those who believe that religion causes change in society, for example, Weber.

'It Depends' approach:
Depends on a variety of things, in some cases, religion causes change and in others, it prevents change. 

Changes in society causes change in religion:
This is the basis of the secularisation debate, is religion in decline? 

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Religion is functionally necessary, it helps to maintain social stability and value consensus, it also reinforces the collective conscience, it also strengthens values and beliefs and promotes social solidarity. 

Collective worship is regarded as particularly important for the integration of society since it enables members to express their shared values asnd strengthens group unity. By worshipping together, people have a sense of commitment and belonging, ritual is very important to functionalists such as Durkheim and Parsons.

1: Marxists see the role of religion as oppresive and divisive rather than 'integrative' 

2: Functionalism does not apply well to societies where a number of religions co-exist, therefore not seen as relevant for many modern societies.  

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'Religion is the opium of the masses' - Karl Marx 

Religion is essentially a tool of class exploitation and oppression, it is a part of the false consciousness where people are conned into believing everything is fair. Religion dulls the pain of oppression in the promise of paradise in the next life.

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Religion Causes Social Change

Weber believed that there was a relationship between religious beliefs and the ethos of capitalism. He believed that ascetic protestantism was responsible in helping capitalism spread across Europe. The form focused on strict adherence to biblical rules with an emphasis on hard work and self denial. 

The religious beliefs of Protestantism paired with the presence of the necessary economic conditions resulted in the development of the capitalist system. 

A variety of Protestantism, Calvinism, was particularly influential.

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Calvinism was a 17th century protestant religion based on the works of John Calvin. 

They believed in pre-destination but were not sure that they were a part of the 'elect' destined for heaven, this led to a salvation panic. Their frugal lifestyle helped them to convince themselves that they were saved. 

There was:

  • heavy emphasis on hard work 
  • no idleness 
  • no dancing, theatre or music 
  • sex was only for the purpose of procreation 
  • cold baths
  • vegetarian diets to dampen sexual ardour

The closest group to the Calvinists of Weber's writing are the Amish.

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It Depends Approach

This approach suggests that religion can both prevent change and force change depending on the circumstances. An important point concerning change, however, is that religion can promote two main types of change, radical: a new direction in society, conservative: a return to the social arrangements of the past. 

Thompson: outlines a range of factors affecting the relationship between religion and social change: 

1: Charasmatic leaders

2: Beliefs and practices 

3: Relationship to society 

4: The social status of religious membership 

5: The presence of alternative avenues to change 

6: Organisational structure 

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Charismatic Leaders

Leaders cause social change e.g Hitler 

People are attracted to charismatic leaves and are persuaded by them 

However, Charisma is often seen as dangerous, a leader can make people do things they wouldn't normally do.

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Beliefs and Practices

The main distinction here is between this worldly beliefs and other worldly beliefs. 

Other worldly beliefs 
Stress the powerfulness of humans and the inevitability of misery in the world, but salvation in the world to come, consequently they provide little motivation to change society. 

This worldly beliefs 
Encourage the individual to try and change the world for the better glorification of God - The Moonies.  

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Relationship to Society

To what extent is the church linked to the state?

The closer the link, the more likely it is that a church will support the state and maintain the status quo, e.g. Catholic Church in Ireland. 

Social status of religious membership 
There is a tendency for established churches to draw their membership from upper class status groups while sectarian movements tend to attract less privileged groups. 

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Organisational Structure

Religions that have a centred priesthood, hierarchy of paid officials and a beauracratic structure often inhibit social change.

Sect-like organisations tend to encourage a 'withdrawel' from the world. Church-like organisations encourage civil rights. 

Neo Marxists such as Gramsci suggest strong churches like the roman catholic church can provide a vehicle for change in some parts of the world, as they have done in Latin America.  

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