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Assess the extent to which religion produces social change Essay

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“Assess the extent to which religion produces social change” (33 marks) There is a great debate concerning the role of religion in social change. Whereas some sociologists believe that religion acts as a conservative force, thus inhibiting social change whether that is positive or negative, others believe that religion is a radical force and a major contributor to social change. As expected many sociologists have taken the middle ground, arguing that religion can be both encouraging and preventing social change. The most influential sociologist who advocates the view that religion acts as a radical force promoting social change is Max Weber. Weber’s book ‘The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism’ examines how Calvinism (a form of Protestantism) helped change society into a capitalist state starting in Northern Europe.

Calvinists believed in ‘predestination’ meaning that God had already chosen your place in either heaven or hell before you were born. This was a problem since no one knew who was amongst the ‘elect’ so Calvinists developed a set of values which were mainly hard work, thrift and accumulation of wealth. In Weber’s view the spirit of capitalism meant that an object was seen as the acquisition of more money and investment thus Calvinism brought social change in the 16th century in the form of Capitalism as we now know it. Karl Marx’s view differs from Weber since according to Marx religion is a conservative ideology – a set of ruling class ideas which are shaped by and legitimate class inequalities in society’s economic base. Marxists recognise that religious ideas can have relative autonomy which means being partly independent of the economic base of society.

This results in religion having a dual character and sometimes being used as a force for social change and stability. Engels agrees with Marx that religion is conservative and explains that religion could encourage social change. For example religion preaches about liberation from slavery and misery. Based on evidence, Marx’s argument is stronger than Weber’s as Marx takes a more holistic view and considers both sides; that religion can be both conservative and encourage social change. An example of this would be Martin Luther King’s movement and Christian beliefs during the Black struggle for racial equality in the USA in the 1960’s, where he quoted the Bible many times to make people realise and focus on changing the world for the better glorification of God. Weber stands firm with the argument that religion is and was the institution to bring the first major social change into the world. Weber is criticised by Marxists for underestimating economic factors in bringing about capitalism and wrongly assuming that capitalism came after Calvinism. As a neo-Marxist, Ernst Bloch’s view differs from Marxists. He also sees religion as having a dual character. He accepts that religion can inhibit social change by expressing the image of utopia which deceives people with promises of reward in heaven and lessens their desire to change their situation. However these religious beliefs may be what people need to envision a better world which can bring about social change if combined with the correct political leadership and organisation.

The PMOI (People’s mojahedin organisation of Iran) founded in 1965 are the main resistance group against the fascist Islamic Iranian regime. Even though members of the group are mainly Muslim men and women, and leaders and members recite the Quran and use quotes as examples, they believe that a future Iran will have to include a secularised government (separation of religion and state) and discrimination against anyone following any or no religion will need to be prohibited. This is how the group has many supporters who have different religious beliefs but all have the same goal of freedom for Iran. In this case it’s evident that religion doesn’t always need to be used as a tool to control a society and be misused for power. It can be a revolutionary radical force that could potentially bring about social change, demonstrating Bloch’s dual character theory. Similarly to the PMOI, Maduro argues that Liberation theology favoured the poor of Latin America in the 1960’s and opposed military dictatorships. Catholic priests helped and protected the poor and fought oppression under the name of the church which at the time was encouraging acceptance of poverty. That is until Pope John II accused Liberation theology of resembling Marxism and banned the movement instructing priests to go back to pastoral activities and not politics. The movement lost influence and Catholicism is still conservative however Liberation theology was still a major part of bringing democracy to Latin America and serving the poor. Marxists disagree with this because liberation theology helped bring democracy to Latin America but didn’t threaten the stability of capitalism. It’s important to note that both examples, the PMOI and Liberation theology are very well theoretically thought out, however both have yet to actually bring about social change and prove that religion can be a radical force. Liberation theology may have changed society’s norms for a while but went backwards in step when a powerful leader didn’t approve of the movement.

This proves that social change needs mainly cultural factors to make effective outcomes. For Functionalist Emile Durkheim, religion acts as one of the body’s internal organs; religion maintains social stability and harmony and is therefore a conservative force. Through collective worship, religion unites individuals and acts as society’s “social glue” promoting value consensus and social solidarity. Religion is conservative because it helps to integrate individuals and allows them to realise the “collective conscience” (a set of moral codes and values). People follow religion’s rules and regulations because they believe that their suffering will mean good things in an “afterlife”. This argument is weak because functionalists haven’t considered the situations when religion can be taken as an advantage for people of higher power to control society and stop social development and growth. There are some sociologists such as Steve Bruce who’ve argued that religion can both encourage and prevent social change. The New Christian right, a protestant fundamentalist movement, aims to take America “back to God” meaning making abortion, divorce and homosexuality illegal again. According to Bruce their campaign has been unsuccessful because of the liberal values of most of America’s society who believe in separation of church and state.

This suggests that some individuals may have their own beliefs on “immoral” activities such as homosexuality but those individuals will not stand in the way of others who may want to live these “immoral” lifestyles and thus Americans are comfortable with legalising such activities. On the other hand the black civil rights movement was able to connect with mainstream beliefs about democracy, equality and religious freedom. In Bruce’s view religion was able to become apart of secular struggle and achieved its aims by shaming those in power to put equality for all men and women into practice. Both of these examples emphasise that whether religion is conservative or radical really depends on the extremity of the institutions rules and regulations for its followers, and also whether it’s able to fit in with society’s current beliefs. Overall the argument that religion can both be conservative and radical is stronger. It’s evident that religion can be a “brain washer” which can be both positive and negative when used precisely with the specific leadership. Religion can then either go on to bring about good social change like we saw happen with the liberation of the black society using civil rights, or religion can be used as a tool for oppression and social control e.g. the Iranian Islamic Revolution in 1979 where the Iranian people were suffering under the oppression of the Shah and when they tried to revolutionise and change society, their opportunity was seized by Ayatollah Khomeini who’s regime has continued to oppress Iran up until now. It seems that the type of religion being examined and its relationship with society can take both contrasting views of being conservative, preventing social change, and radical, encouraging social change.