Religion as a force for social change

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The role of theodicies


Many sociologists see religion as a means of providing answers to fundamental questions, such as "Why are some people poor, while others are rich?", and these answers are sometimes called 'theodicies'.

Berger (1967) uses a 'sacred canopy' to refer to the different religious theodicies that enable people to make sense of, and come to terms with, the world.

Some theodicies justify keeping things as they are - status quo, while others encourage change.

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Examples of religious theodicies

  • In many Western religions, there is a belief that suffering in this life will bring rewards in the next.


  • Hinduism suggests that living the 'right way' in this life will lead to a better future life on eart through reincarnation.


  • Some theodices include a belief in fate - people believe their lives are predestined and there is nothing they can do to change them.


  • Followers of some spiritual beliefs and practices, believe that life is fated or that certain things are meant to be.
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The Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism

Calvinists were a Protestant group who emerged in the 17th century and believed in predestination.

According to Calvinists, your destiny or fate was fixed in advance - you were either damned or saved. However, it was believed that any form of social activity was of religious significance; material success arose from hard work and an ascetic life would demonstrate God's favour - your place in heaven.

Weber argued that these ideas helped initate Western economic development through the industrial revolution and capitalism. Many of the early entrepreneurs were Calvinists.

Their obsessive work ethic and self-discipline meant that they reinvested, rather than spent, their profits. These attitudes were ideal for the development of industrial capitalism.

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Weber - Authority takes on 1 of 3 forms:

1. Charismatic

People obey a religious leader because of their personal qualities. Charisma has been a common feature of leadership is some religions, which can (if the charismatic leader attracts enough followers) bring about significant changes to their local area.

2. Traditional

Those who exercise authority do so because they continue a tradition and support the preservation and continuation of existing values and social ties.

Those in authority give orders (and expect to be obeyed) because the office they fill gives them the right to.

3. Legal-Rational

This type of authority is based on laws and regulations. Orders are only to be obeyed if they are relevant to the situation in which they are given. - Used by individuals within the legal system, government and state institutions.

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Criticisms of Weber

  • Some countries with large Calvinist populations did not industrialize. However, as Marshall (1982) points out, Weber did not claim that Calvinism caused capitalism; he only suggested that it was a major contributor to a climate of change.
  • Some commentators have suggested that slavery, colonialism and piracy were more important than Calvinist beliefs in accumulating the capital required for industrialization.
  • Marxists are critical because, as Kautsky (1953) argued, capitalism predates Calvinism. He argued that early capitalists were attracted to Calvinism because it made their interestes appear legitimate.
  • Aldridge (2000) points out that charismatic leadership can be unstable, in that movements often disintegrate once the charismatic leader dies.
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