Religion as a conservative or radical force

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  • Created by: Amy
  • Created on: 12-05-13 20:40


Functionalists, Marxists and feminists believe religion is a conservative force which keeps society the same and prevents change.

Functionalists argue religion maintains social stability. Sacred objects represent the collective consciousness, which helps maintain a value consensus. Religion unites society to create social stability and helps individuals through life crises and other stressful situations which could otherwise disrupt society.

Marxists argue religion is a conservative force because it maintains ruling class power and the oppression/exploitation of the subject class. It creates a false class consciousness so the subject class are unaware of their exploitation, oppression and alienation so do not challenge the ruling class.

Feminists see religion as a conservative force which maintains male domination and female oppression in a patriarchal society. 

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Weber was interested why capitalism developed in some Western countries but not in the East. He concluded this was because religious teachings in the East – such as Hinduism in India and Confucianism in China – valued tradition and discouraged change, whereas the teachings of some Christian religions – especially Protestant form such as Calvinism – had values that encouraged capitalism and change.

16/17th Century Northern Europe: CALVINISM taught the concept of PRE-DESTINATION, where God has decided who will be saved or sent for eternal damnation in hell. It was not possible to discover or influence this decision, which led to SALVATION ANXIETY (worried because they don’t know what God’s plans are) amongst many Calvinists.

To relieve this, they looked for SIGNS FROM GOD that they had been chosen for salvation. Work was believed to be ‘God’s calling” and God was worshipped through a life of hard work, discipline and denial of pleasure.

Calvinists threw themselves into this lifestyle; those whose work was rewarded with material success took it as a sign God had chosen them for salvation. Those business people who built profits reinvested in their business.

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One of the most significant criticisms of Weber is the capitalism preceded Calvinism, rather than Calvinism preceding capitalism. Eisenstadt argued that capitalism first developed in Catholic countries such as Italy and Belgium before the Protestant Reformation of the 16th and 17th centuries.

Marxists have argued that technological change, not religious belief, led to capitalism. Both of these criticisms of Weber suggest that Calvinist beliefs were only adopted by the ruling class to justify and legitimise capitalism through a religious doctrine.

Furthermore, capitalism did not always develop in countries where Calvinism was strong, such as Scotland; however, this could be more due to a lack of skilled labour and investment capital, which, as noted above, Weber recognised was necessary along with religious beliefs to encourage capitalism. 

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Some Marxists believe that religion does not necessarily exist to meet the needs of the economy. Religion can have a degree of relative autonomy i.e. independence from the economy. Engels recognised that religion could, on the one hand, maintain the status quo, but could also preach messages of liberation and freedom from misery.

Furthermore, the Catholic Church in Poland supported attempts to challenge and, eventually, overthrow the communist government (even if the Church itself did not directly challenge the communist regime). This shows how religion may simultaneously be conservative and radical. 

Neo-Marxists such as Gramsci looked at how the ruling class maintain their dominance even during times of crisis. He argued that the ruling class use their hegemony – dominant beliefs and ideas – to control the subject class without the need to use force. However, this hegemony is not guaranteed because the subject class have a dual consciousness: the subject class are aware of the ruling class hegemony but they are also aware of their own experiences of exploitation. This means that religion could be used to help the subject class challenge the ruling class. Religion can do this when clergy act as organic intellectuals who can articulate the concerns of the subject class, make the subject class aware of their exploitation and oppression and the need for them to do something about it. 

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Maduro developed this view with his liberation theology. This particularly looked at the role of Catholicism in Latin American countries. The Catholic Church itself would support those in power and help maintain the status quo (i.e. act as a conservative force). However, individual Catholic priests could take it upon themselves to help the poor and oppressed fight against their oppressors. 

 Therefore, liberation theology demonstrates that religion can be a force to bring about social change, and challenges the view of traditional Marxists that religion simply supports the ruling class.

However, some Marxists argue that, whilst the move towards greater democracy in Latin America demonstrates religion can change society it did not, ultimately, threaten the stability of capitalism, meaning the oppression and exploitation of the subject class continued.  

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Religion and social protest

Bruce recognised the importance of religion in protest movements in America. For example, the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s was led by black preachers such as Rev Dr Martin Luther King, who led the Southern Christian Leadership Council, an organisation of black churches from the southern states of America.

The churches provided meeting places and safety from white violence, as well as performing the traditional rituals of prayer and worship to unite black people against white oppression.

Furthermore, black clergy could convince white Christians to change their views by emphasising the Christian message of equality, and pointing out the hypocrisy of white Christians who, on the one hand, preach ‘love thy neighbour’ but, on the other, turned a blind eye or supported racial segregation.

Therefore, the civil rights movement succeeded because religious beliefs helped bring out social change by emphasising that it shared the same values of wider society i.e. the value of equality. 

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Fundamentalism refers to the basic teachings of a religion, literal interpretations of religious texts and a strict adherence to moral codes of conduct. Followers often see fundamentalism as a return to traditional religion before it was ruined by the evils of modern society. 

Some see fundamentalism as a conservative force because it looks back to traditional values and how society used to be. However, to achieve this it needs to change society, suggesting fundamentalism can be a radical force.

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Islamic fundamentalists see themselves as the saviours and moral guardians of their societies. They are the chosen few who must restore true religion in an immoral land decadent society which has abandoned God’s design for living. They have a duty to translate God’s will into practice in line with a literal reading of Qur’an.

The Shah (ruler) of Iran introduced a Western curriculum into schools, secular laws into courts and invited Western companies into Iran to develop agriculture and industry. The development of the oil industry brought considerable wealth to a small elite, which left the mass population in poverty. 

The ayatollahs (religious leaders) blamed the poverty of the masses on the decline of Islam and on Western influence.  They saw the solution as a return to a truly Islamic society based on the Quran and a rejection of Western capitalism and Western ways. This would cure the disease of ‘westoxification’ and restore god’s design for living. This lead to a revolution where the people overthrew the Shah and an Islamic state was established under the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini.

This shows religious fundamentalism to be a radical force because it was radical in terms of revolution: the people overthrew the Shah and changed society to their liking. However, religious fundamentalism can also be considered as a conservative force because they reverted back to traditional ways.

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The ‘Moral Majority’ was concerned with the ‘ills of American society’ i.e. high divorce rates, widespread juvenile delinquency, *********** on the internet, adultery in the White House, abortion on demand and increasing tolerance of homosexuality and  claimed it was not God’s way.

 The solution was to impose laws that criminalised these things and wanted to go ‘back to God, back to the Bible, back to reality’ and make God the focal point of the family.

The New Christian right can be viewed as a radical force because they are trying to change modern society. However, it can be viewed as a conservative force because they want to revert back to traditional laws and values.

The New Christian Right did not succeed with their aims, mainly because they were always a minority group, but also because they never won significant public support. Many Americans are comfortable with the legislation of homosexuality or availability of abortion, even if they, personally, did not agree with them. Therefore, the NCR failed to win popular support.

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