Topic 2: Religion and Social Change

Religion as a conservative force

There are two ways in which religion can be seen as a conservative force

  • Traditional - defending traditional customs, institutions, moral views, roles etc - how society should be organised.
  • Functions are to conserve and peserve things as they are. Stabilises society and maintains the status quo.

Religions hold traditional conservative beliefs such as the Catholic Church forbids divorce, abortion and artifical contraception. They also oppose gay marriage and condemn homosexual behaviour. The church favours traditional domestic division of labour where the male is the breadwinner and the female is the one who stays at home and looks after the children.

The following perspectives views religion as a conservative force:

  • Functionalism - maintains social stability and prevents society from disintegrating.
  • Marxism - prevents social change by legitimising exploitation and inequality.
  • Feminism - legitimises patriarchal power and maintains womens subordination in the family and wider society.
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Weber: Religion as a force for change

  • According to Weber, Calvinism brought major social change such as the emergance if modern capitalism in Northern Europe.

Calvinist beliefs:

  • Predestination - God has predetermined which souls will be saved this is known as the elect. Individuals can do nothing to change this as its God's decision has already been made and cannot be altered.
  • Divine Transcendence - God is beyond this world and is imcomparably greater than any mortal that no human being can possibly claim to know his will.
  • Asceticism - refers to self-discipline and self-denial. Monks live a ascetic lifestyle this is when they refrain from luxury, wearing simple clothes, and avoiding excess in order to devote themselves to God and a life of prayer.
  • The idea of vocation or calling - As Calvinists became wealthier they took this as a sign of God's favour and salvation. As they became wealthier they reinvested their earnings into the buisnesses.
  • Calvinists refrain from all luxury, worked long hours and practised self-discipline.
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Weber: Religion as a force for change

There are two consequences of Calvinists lifestyle:

  • Their wealth and success performed a psychological function that allowed them to cope with their salvation panic. As they grew wealthier they took this as a sign of God's favour and their salvation - this goes against their original doctrine that God's will was unknowable.
  • As they grew wealthier, rather than spending the money on luxeries, they reinvested it in their businesses, which grew and prospered. This allowed the business to produce more profit to reinvest. In Weber's view, calvinism brought capitalism.
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Hinduism and Confucianism

According to Weber, Hinduism and Confucianism fail to encourage capitalism:

  • Hinduism - was an ascetic religion, like Calvinism, favouring renunciation of the material world. Its followers concerns away from the material world and towards the spiritual world.
  • Confuncianism - In acient China, Confuncianism was a this-worldly religion that directed its followers towards the material world unlike Calvinism, it is not ascetic.
  • Both religions lacked the drive to systematically accumulate wealth that is necessary for modern capitalism whereas Calvinists combined ascetic lifestyle with this-worldly factors to enable the spirit of modern capitalism to emerge.
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Evaluation of Weber's View

  • Karl Kautsy argues that Weber overestimates the role of ideas and underestimates economic factors in bringing capitalism into being. He argues that in fact Capitalism proceded rather than followed Calvinism.
  • R.H. Tawney argues that technological change, not religious ideas, caused the birth of capitalism. It was only after capitalism was established  that the ruling class adopted Calvinist beliefs to legitimate their pursuit of economic gain.
  • Not every country where Calvinists were. In Scotland, they had a large community of Calvinists but was slow to develop capitalism. However, Weberians such as Gordan Marshall argue that this was because of a lack of investiment in capital and skilled labour - supporting Weber's point that both material and cultural factors need to be present for capitalism to emerge.
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Religion and social protest

Steve Bruce is interested in the relationship between religion and social change. He looked at two examples of the role of religiously inspired protest movements in America that have tried to change society: the Civil Rights Movements (CRM) and the New Christian Right (NCM).


  • Bruce describes the struggle of the black civil rights movements to end racial segregation as an example of religiously motivated social change. Black people were excluded from society by preventing them from using the same amenities.
  • The black clergy led by Dr Martin Luther King. They played a decisive role, giving support and moral legitimacy to civil rights activists. Their churches provided meeting places and rituals such as prayer meetings and hymn singing were a source of unity in the face of oppression. Bruce argues that black clergy were able to shame whites into changing the law by appealing to their Christian values of equality. Their message reached a wide audience outside the Southern states and gained national support.
  • Bruce sees religion as a ideological resource - it provided beliefs and practices that protesters could draw on for motivation and support. He identified several ways in which religious organisations are well equipped to support protests and contribute to social change:
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Religion and social protest

  • Taking the moral high ground - The black clergy pointed out the hypocrisy of white clergy who preached 'love thy neighbour' but supported racial segregation.
  • Channelling dissent - Religion provides channels to express political dissent e.g. the funeral of Martin Luther King was a rallying point for the civil rights cause.
  • Acting as a honest broker - Churches can provide a context for negotiating change because they are often respected by both sides in a conflict and seen as standing above mere politics.
  • Mobilising public opinion - Black churches in the South successfully campaigned for support across the whole of America.

In Bruces view, the movement achieved its aims because it shared the same values as wider society and those in power. It brought about change by shaming those in power. He also identifies how religion has become involved in secular struggle and helping to bring change.


  • NCM is based on a politically and morally conservative, Protestant fundamentalist movement.
  • They have gained attention for their strong opposition to the liberalising of American society.
  • Their aim is to seek to take America 'back to God'.
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Religion and social protest

  • They strongly believe in the traditional family and traditional gender roles.
  • NCR has made effective use of the media to get their message across to people.
  • NCR has been largely unsuccessful in achieving its aims. Bruce suggests two reasons:
    • its camaigners find it very difficult to cooperate with people from other religious groups, even when campaigning on the same issue, such as obortions.
    • it lacks widespread support and has met with strong opposition from groups who stand for freedom of choice.
  • Bruce suggests that NCR has failed to achieve its aims because they are unwilling to accept other people's defintion pof how thry should live their life. NCR believe in the literal truth of the Bible and insists everyone should be made to conform to its teaching, however not everyone wants to live a life like that as there is a deep demand to make in a mature democracy.
  • In comparison with the CRM it shows how the movement needs to share the same beliefs and ideologies with those of wider society in order for it to promote social change.
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Marxist, Religion and Change

  • Marixists recognise that ideas, including religious ideas, can have relative autonomy. This means that they can be partly independent of the economic base of society. As a result, religion can have a dual character and can sometimes be a force for change as well as stability.
  • Friedrich Engels suggests that religion has a dual character - he argues that religion inhibits change by disguising inequality, it can also challange the status quo (social/political issues) and encourage social change. E.G. religion sometimes preaches liberation from slavery and misery. Also, although senior clergy usually support the status quo, lower ranks within a church hierarchy have often supported or even inspired and organised protests.

Ernst Bloch: the principle of hope

  • Bloch also sees religion as a dual character. He argues religion recognises both the positive and negative influence on social change.
  • He argues that religion can sometimes inhibit social change, but it can also inspire protest and rebellion.
  • Bloch says religion is an expression of 'the principle of hope' - our dreams of a better life that contain images of utopia (the perfect world).
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Marxist, Religion and Change

  • Utopia may decieve people with promises of rewards in heaven, however they may also help people see what needs to be changed in this world. Religious beliefs create a vision of a better world, which, if combined with effective political organisation and leadership, can bring about social change.

Marxists see religion as having a dual character because it can either encourage or discourage protest and change.

Liberation Theology (LT)

  • LT is movement that emerged within the Catholic Church in Latin America, with a strong committment to the poor and opposition to military dictatorships. LT was a major change of direction for the Catholic Church because before preached the acceptance of poverty and supporting wealthy groups and military dictatorships.
  • Factors which led to LT were: deepening rural poverty and the growth of urban slums / human rights abuses such as torture and death squads murdering political opponents / growing committments among Catholic Priests to an ideology that supported the poor and opposed violations of human rights.
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Marxist, Religion and Change

  • LT set out to change society E.G. priests helped the poor to establish support groups, called 'base communities', and helped workers and peasants to fight oppression under the protection of the church. Priests ecucated the poor about their situation, raising awareness and mobilising support.
  • Pope John Paul II condemned LT on the grounds that it resembled Marxism, and instructed priests to concerntrate on pastroral activities, not political struggle. Since then, the movement has lost influence.
  • LT played an important part in resisting state terror and bringing about democracy.
  • Some neo-Marxists question if religion is always a conservative force as Otto Maduro believes that religion can be a revolutionary force that brings about change.

The Pentecostal challange

David Lehmann shows how LT has faced competition from Pentcostal churches - he contrasts the two:

  • LT - offers an option for the poor of community consciousness-raising and campaigning for social change, led by priests and nuns.
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Marxist, Religion and Change

  • Pentecostalism - offers an option of the poor for individuals to pull themselves out of poverty through their own efforts, supported by the congregation and led by the church pastors.
  • LT offers radical solution to poverty which provides collective improvement. While Pentecostalism solution is conservative, about individual self-improvement.

Millenarian movement

  • Religion raises the hope of a better world in the afterlife, it may also create a desire to change things here and now.
  • Millenarian take their name from 'millennium' meaning a thousand years.
  • In Christian theology, refers to the idea that Christ would come into the world for a 2nd time and rule for a thousand years before the Day of Judegment and the end of the world.
  • According to Worsley, MM expect a afterlife in Heaven where they are free from pain, death, sin and corruption and imperfection. They also expect Jesus to come down to Earth and rule for a thousand years before the Day of Judgement and the end of the world.
  • MM appeal to the poor because it promises immediate improvement of life.
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Marxist, Religion and Change

  • Cargo cults are islanders who felt wrongfully deprived when 'cargo' (material goods) arrived in the islands for the colonists. These people fought against the unjust social order which was committed by the whites themselves, who were trying to colonise their country.
  • The political significance of MM is that they used religious ideas and images, but they united native populations in mass movements that spanned tribal divisions.

Gramsci: religion and hegemony

  • Hegemony is how the ruling class uses religion to maintain control.
  • Religion acts as a counter-hegemony when working class developed an alternative vision of how society should be organised.
  • There are three ways in which religion can challange hegemony, according to Billings:
    • Leadership - The miners benefitted from the leadership of organic intellectuals - many of them were lay preachers who were themselves miners and social activists. These clergy helped to convert miners to the union cause. Textile workers lacked such leadership.
    • Organisation - The miners were able to ude independent churches to hold meetings and organise, whereas the textile workers lacked such spaces.
    • Support - The churches kept miners morally high with supportive prayer meetings and group singing.
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Marxist, Religion and Change

  • This comes under religion and class conflict and how he compares class struggle in two communities - one was miners and the other was textile workers - both are working-class and evangelical Protestant. The miners were much more militant, struggling for recognition of their union and better conditions, while the textile workers accepted the status quo.
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