Sociology: Religion and social change


Religion as a conservative force

Religion can be seen as a conservative force in two different senses:

  • Conservative in the sense of ‘traditional’, e.g. defending traditional customs, institutions

  • Conservative because it functions to conserve or preserve things as they are, maintaining the status quo


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Religion's conservative beliefs

  • Most religions have traditional conservative beliefs about moral issues and oppose change that allow individuals more freedom; e.g. the Catholic Church forbids divorce, abortion and artificial contraception 

  • Most religions uphold ‘family values’, supporting a traditional patriarchal domestic division of labour; e.g. Hinduism endorses the practice of arranged marriage

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Religion's conservative functions

Religion is also conservative force maintaining social stability and preventing disintegration, e.g promoting social solidarity by creating value consensus and helping individuals deal with disruptive stresses

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Religion and consensus

Functionalists see religion as a conservative force maintaining social stability and preventing disintegration, e.g. promoting social solidarity by creating value consensus and helping individuals deal with disruptive stresses

Marxists and feminists see religion as an ideology that supports the existing social structure and as a means of social control in the interests of the powerful:

  • Religion and capitalism Marx sees religion as a conservative ideology preventing social change. By legitimising or disguising inequality, it creates fake consciousness in the working class and prevents revolution 

  • Religion and patriarchy Feminists see religion as a conservative force because it legitimates patriarchal power and maintain women’s subordination in the family and society
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Weber: Religion as a force for change

Weber in the ‘The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism’ argues that the religious beliefs of Calvinism helped to bring about major social change- the emergence of modern capitalism in Northern Europe

  • Modern Capitalism is unique because it is based on the systematic, efficient, rational pursuit of profit for its own sake, rather than for spending on luxuries. Weber calls this the spirit of capitalism 

This spirit had unconscious similarity to the Calvinists’ belief and attitudes. Calvinism had several distinctive beliefs

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Tawney argues that technological change, not religious ideas, first led to capitalism. The bourgeoisie then adopted Calvinist beliefs to legitimate their pursuit of economic gain

Kautsky argues that Weber overestimates the role of ideas and underestimates economic factors in bringing capitalism into being capitalism into being. He argues that in fact capitalism preceded rather than followed calvinism

Others argue that although Calvinists were among the first capitalists, this was not because of their beliefs but simply because they had been excluded by law from political office and many of the professions, like the Jews in Eastern Europe. They turned to business as one of the few alternatives open to them, However, Weberians reply that other religions minorities were also excluded inthis way but did not become successful capitalists

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Calvinists beliefs: Predestination

God predetermines who will be saved- ‘the elect’- and individuals can do nothing to change this

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Calvinists beliefs: Divine transcendence

God is so far above and beyond this world that no human being could possibly claim to know his will- leaving the Calvinists to feel ‘an unprecedented inner loneliness’. This creates what Weber calls a salvation panic among Calvinists

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Calvinists beliefs: Asceticism

Abstinence, self-discipline and self-denial

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Calvinist beliefs: The idea of a vocation

Or calling to serve- but in the everyday world or work, not in a monastery. Calvinist invented this-worldly asceticism, where a vocation means constant, methodical work in an occupation

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Use Kautsky to criticise Weber for overestimating the role of ideas and underestimating economic factors in bringing capitalism into being. Kautsky argues that capitalism actually came before rather than after Calvinism

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Calvinists led an ascetic lifestyle

Calvinits led to an ascetic lifestyle shunning all luxury, working long hours and practicing rigorous self-discipline, As a result:

  • Driven by their work ethic, they systematically accumulated wealth but did not spend it on luxuries (asceticism), instead reinvesting it in their businesses to produce further profit 

  • They prospered and came to see this as a sign of God’s favour and their salvation

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Hinduism and Confucianism

Weber argued that Calvinist beliefs we only one of capitalism’s causes. Certain material or economic factors were necessary, e.g. natural resources, trade, a money economy, towns, a legal system etc

There have been other societies with some of these factors, but where capitalism did not take off, due to the lack of a religious belief system like Calvinism. For example: 

  • Hinduism in ancient India was an ascetic religion, but was other-worldly- directing followers towards the spiritual world 

  • Confucianism in ancient China, although a this-worldly religion that directed its followers towards the material world, it was not ascetic

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Religion and Social Protest

Bruce is interested in the relationship between religion and social change, comparing two case studies of the role of religiously inspired protest movements in America: the civil rights movement and the New Christian Right

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The American civil rights movement

The Black civil rights movement of the 1950/60s attempted to end racial segregation as blacks were denied legal and political rights in many Southern states; e.g. schools were segregated, inter-racial marriages forbidden and blacks often excluded from voting 

  • The movement began in 1955 and direct action through protest marches, boycotts and demonstrations followed until, in 1964, segregation was outlawed 

  • The black clergy led by Dr Martin Luther King were the backbone of the movement, giving support and moral legitimacy to activists. They shamed whites into changing the law by appealing to their shared chritian values of equality

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Ideological resource

Bruce sees religion in this context as an ideological resource- beliefs that protesters could draw on for motivation and legitimation. Religious organisations are well equipped to support protests and contribute to change, e.g. by:

  • Taking the moral high ground- pointing out the hypocrisy of whiye clergy who supported racial segregation 

  • Channeling dissent, e.g. Martin Luther King’s funeral was a rallying point for the civil rights cause  

  • Acting as honest broker because they are respected by both sides in a conflict and see as standing above ‘mere politics’ 

  • Mobilising public opinion by campaigning for support
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The New Christian Right (NCR)

  • The NCR is a politically and morally conservative, Protestant fundamentalist movement. It has gained prominence since the 1960s

  • The NCR’s aims are to make abortion, homosexuality and divorce illegal and take the USA ‘back to God’, turing the clock back to a time before the liberslisation of American society 

  • The NCR believes in traditional family and gender roles, campaigns for the teaching of ‘creationism’ and wants to ban sex education in schools 

  • The NCR uses televangelism, where church-owned TV stations raise funds and broadcast programmes aimed at making converts 

  • The Moral Majority, a right-wing Christian pressure group and part of the NCR, became the focus for political campaigning and for influencing the Republican Party

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Marxism, Religion and Change

Marxists are often thought of as seeing religion as an entirely conservative ideology- a set of ruling-class ideas that legitimate class inequalities 

However, Marxists recognise that ideas, including religious ideas, can have relative autonomy they can be partly independent of the capitalist economic bases of society 

Thus religion can have a dual character, sometimes being a force for change as well as stability

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Ernst Bloch: the principle of hope

  • The Marxist Bloch sees religion as having a dual character. He accepts that religion often inhibits change, but argues that it can also inspire protest and rebellion. Religion is an expression of ‘the principle of hope’ - our dreams of a better life, containing images of utopia 

  • Images of utopia can sometimes deceive people- e.g. promises or rewards in heaven- but they may also help people to create a vision of a better world and strive for social change

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Liberation Theology (LT)

  • For centuries the Catholic Church in Latin America had been a very conservative institution encouraging acceptance of poverty and supporting wealthy elites 

  • LT is a movement that emerged within the Catholic Church in Latin America in the 1960s, with a strong commitment to the poor and opposition to the poor and opposition to the military dictatorships that then ruled most of the continent 

  • LT emerged because of the growth of rural poverty and urban slums throughout LAtin America, and human rights abuses following military take-overs 

  • LT emphasises ‘praxis’- practical action guided by theory; e.g. priests leading literacy programmes and raising political awareness. Some priests actively resisted state terror 

  • However, in the 1980s the church’s official attitude changed, the conservative Pope John Paul II condemning LT as being akin to Marxism 

  • However, LT played an important part in resisting dictatorship and bringing about democracy in Latin America

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Use LT to criticise traditional Marxist views. Neo-Marxist Maduro argues that LT shows religion can be a revolutionary force. However, through LT helped bring about democracy, it did not threaten capitalism

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The Pentecostal Challenge

LT now faces competition from Pentecostalism, which has made big inroads among the poor. While LT offers a radical solution: collective improvement through political action, Pentecostalism’s solution is conservative: individuals must pull themselves out of poverty by changing their personal behaviour

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Millenarian Movements

Millenarian movements are an example of the desire to change things here and now, to bring about the Kingdom of God on earth. Worsley argues that they expect the total and imminent transformation of this world by supernatural means, creating heaven on earth

  • They appeal mainly to the poor because they promise immediate improvement, and they often arise in colonial situations. European colonialism shattered the traditional tribal social structures and cultures of the colonised peoples

  • Worsley studied the cargo cults 

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Millenarian Movements: Cargo Cults

Millenarian movements in Melanesia, where islanders felt deprived when ‘cargo’ (material goods) arrived in the islands for the colonists 

  • Cargo cults asserted that the cargo had been meant for the natives but had been diverted by the whites for themselves, and that this was about to be overturned. These movements often led to widespread unrest

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Gramsci: Religion and Hegemony

Gramsci is interested in how the ruling class maintain their control over society through ideas rather than simply through coercion (force)

  • Hegemony- ideological domination or leadership of society- is the way the ruling class are able to use religion to maintain control; e.g. in Italy in the 1920/30s, the conservative ideological power of the Catholic Church helped to win support for the Facist regime 

  • However, in some circumstances, religion can challenge the ruling class; e.g. it may help the working class to see through the ruling-class hegemony and some clergy may act as organic intellectuals- leaders who can support working-class organisation 

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Religion and class conflict

  • Billings applies Gramsci’s ideas in a case study comparing class struggle in two communities- coal miners and textile workers. Both were working-class and evangelical Protestant, but the miners were much more militant, struggling for better conditions 
  •  The differences in levels of militancy can be understood in terms of hegemony and the role of religion. The miners benefited from the leadership of organic intellectuals- miners who were also lay preachers 

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