To What Extent Do Sociologists Agree That Religion Is a Force for Social Change?

To what extent do Sociologists agree that religion is a force for social change? Throughout history, there has been an on-going debate as to whether or not religion is a conservative force, or a force for social change. Whilst many Sociologists such as Durkheim, see religion as a positive conservative force; creating social harmony and solidarity, others disagree claiming religion to be a strong force for social change and as neo-Marxist Otto Maduro believes, religion has the power to initiate revolutionary change.
Firstly, both Functionalism and Marxism takes on the approach that religion is a conservative force as both hold the view that religion aids society, in terms of allowing it to stay within its existing practices. However, the two perspectives disagree on why and how religion helps to do this. Functionalist, Durkheim stated that religion is essential in creating shared norms and values. He claimed that practices of religion and in the law, help people to live their lives.
In modern Western society there are thirteen bishops in the House of Lords, who all influence which laws are made and passed, in accordance with Christian teachings. Such issues as abortion, euthanasia, and divorce are discussed and decisions are made about them, which are influenced by the church. Through this system of having a religious guidance, a value consensus is created, by which most of society accepts. This is also known as a collective consciousness which Durkheim taught, formed “social solidarity”; leading to a harmonious and stable environment for people to live in.

Durkheim and many other Functionalists viewed social solidarity as highly important, as they believed it allowed people to feel socially supported reducing the risk of people feeling a sense of anomie. Durkheim himself was very focused on the “sacred” and “profane”. He claimed that religious procedures are something which societies see as being divine. For example, a supernatural being such as an omnipotent God, would be sacred. However, not only that but something does not have to be scared for it to be divine, thus meaning, as the Bible is full of religious teachings it is a divine object.
Durkheim emphasised that divine matters, cause strong feelings of respect and defence. These strong beliefs can cause passionate emotions of dedication and encouragement thus establishing group solidarity; again ruling out the sense of anomie. The Functionalist argued that in a more profane manor, the church unites the community by having events like, tea afternoons, fates, jumble etc. This way the church is permitting people to give something back to their society but also receive help or companionship if they need it. Nevertheless, Durkheim is criticized for discarding the idea of a sacred being, being the main attribute of religion.
On the other hand, Neo-Marxist Otto Maduro observes how religion contains the authority to inspire a revolt thus generating social change. Maduro refereed to the “liberation theology” to put his view forward. Between the 1950’s and 1960’s, South America was largely Catholic but many priests started to separate themselves from the Catholic Church; claiming that it was their duty to assist and liberate those who were being oppressed. This is when the “liberation theology” first started to be taught. These teachings opposed the current situation; leading to a revolution.
Oscar Romero was a Catholic bishop who spoke out about the injustice of so many people, and for this he was assonated. His death sparked a huge amount of outrage and fury by the people he was trying to help, groups such as the Democratic Revolutionary front united to oppose what the government was doing, in terms of exploiting the people. Maduro used the “liberation theology” to highlight how religion can perform as a force for social change. Another example, of religion being a force for social change is the Apartheid system in South Africa.
This was the legal racial separation of people from1948 until 1993, which meant that various races were separated into different districts and discriminated against in coherence with their colour. White people had priority over housing, jobs, education, and political power, whereas the coloured people were forced to live in poverty and suffer. Reverend Trevor Huddleston travelled to South Africa and spoke out peacefully against the Apartheid, which soon led to his arrest but also put a lot of attention on what was occurring in South Africa for other countries to take notice of.
Soon after the arrest, Western democratic countries put into place anti-apartheid policies and took action. South Africa was forbidden from sporting events and trading was made more difficult for them, forcing for them to come to an arrangement. By 1980 the Apartheid had completely broken down and black South Africans were freed. Desmond Tutu then became the first ever black Arch Bishop, underlining how significantly religion had led to social change, for the better. Conversely, Marxists view religion as acting as a conservative force because they propose it prevents revolutionary change.
Marx argued that religion is an important form of social control. All through history the church has acted in such a way that people conform to it. This was done through God and Hell, which were exercised as a deterrent. The people in power quickly realised that religion had a great hold over the population and so it became part of “the power group”. For example, Kings used to give money or land to the church in exchange, the church would preach the peasants whatever the monarchy told them to. Even in today’s society, Queen Elizabeth still has the title “Defender of the faith” and she is also head of the Church of England.
Illustrating that those in power, still have control over the church, and what the republic hear. Marx explored how the dominant ideology was conveyed through sermons, and Bible teachings. These sermons and Bible teachings could be said to consist of a false hope for some people. Many of the Bible stories communicate that idea that if you are poor in this life and you suffer, when you die you will be rewarded by God in Heaven. These promises of a perfect afterlife, keep the working classes in their place; reducing their aspiration to change society.
The Caste system in India is a good model of how religion keeps people in their places. The Hindu Caste system separates the people into four different classes, depending on their occupation and family background. The Kshatriyas are the top class and according to the traditional Hindu principles, they are there to protect the people. The Chandalas also known as the untouchables are the lowest class, and are discriminated against as they are believed not to follow the “true” Hindu faith. It used to be that these people were not allowed to walk around the village or city during day time, or speak to anyone other than other Untouchables.
The Cate system was enforced through law books, religious teachings, kings and the threatening of being punished in this life and the next if you question which class you are placed in to; again preventing people from changing their social conditions due to fear of God but leaving the alienated. In contrast to this, Althusser rejects the concept of alienation because he feels it is unscientific, and based on an idealistic theory that human being have “true self”. Nevertheless, Functionalist Michael Robert Bella stated that in modern societies that state connects with religion to unite the country.
This is known as a “Civil religion”. Through creating a religion around the idea of a nation state, the religion acts as a value consensus; creating social solidarity. For example, in America the people pledge their allegiance to the flag, to honour their country and to God. On the dollar bills, the words “In God we trust” are printed, to remind people that God is there for them no matter what. Bella accentuates that religion is not a force for social change as it united a society and makes it stronger as it holds something in common, that being a belief in God.
On the contrary, Neo-Marxist Gramsci looked into Hegemony, which is the way in which the ruling class maintain their privileged positions by making them seemed justified. In this instance, Gramsci looks at how hegemony occurs through religious ideas, rather than coercion. The ruling class rely heavily on the majority of the population consenting to their rule. During the 1920’s Gramsci observed that there was a large amount of traditional moral control of the Church in helping to gain support for Mussolini’s fascist regime in Italy.
This highlights how the ruling class and religion combined to reach a certain goal, and to achieve the population’s approval. However, Gramsci also specified that religion does have to potential to develop and either support or challenge the ruling class. For example, The Archbishop of Canterbury recently published his highly critical feelings of the Conservative parties polices. Also the “Stop Capitalism” campaign outside St Pauls Cathedral was primarily supported by the church; allowing the protesters to correspond their thoughts on our society.
This stressed Gramsci’s point that the church is not directly under the influence of the ruling class, and so does have the potential to create social change if an anti-hegemony situation occurs. As well at this, Functionalist Parsons, declared that religion is a positive force in times of uncertainty. People turn to religion to answer those “ultimate questions” about life, such as “What is the point? ” Parsons maintained that in situations like death, marriage and birth, people turn to God for answers and hope. Religion does not create social change, as it is not intending to do so.
Religion is there for when a person is scared, looking for salvation or just needs someone to care about them. Similar to Parsons, Malinowski, who was an anthropologist, carried out a study to find out if all societies had a religion. He travelled to an ancient society in The Trobiand. Malinowski observed that when the men went out of the lagoon to fish, entering into the open water, it was seen as a highly dangerous event, which not everyone would come back from. He then went on to see that before the men left the lagoon a ritual of yam giving took place.
It appeared to Malinowski, that this was a religious ceremony which gave consolation to the families as well as wider society. Consequently, a Functionalist may assert the point that religion does not provide social change, as again it is there to produce social solidarity, in the way that it aids people, giving them something in common again to minimise the risk of anyone feeling unwanted or alone. Conversely, recent research on the Trobiand islands has challenged Malinowski’s research and his interpretation of the meaning of yam giving.
Whilst carrying out his research Malinowski did not speak directly to the people, he simply observed; placing his own version of events onto the situation. Modern research has shown, through the use if interpertistic techniques, that the yam giving was a marriage intension, much like a proposal rather than being worried about the fishermen. The modern researches were not looking at what the action was, unlike Malinowski, they were looking at what the meaning behind the action was (commonly known as Verstehen. ) This new research brings to light the fact that these people, who appeared to have no religion, were living happily with each other.
This could them further suggest that if religion was introduced to them, their society could change because it something they have never needed to consider before, consequently implying that religion could be a force for social change, if it is introduced as a completely alien topic. In addition, Weber wrote “The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism” examining how Protestantism was a huge part of how society changed into a capitalist economy. He claims that the values of ascetic Calvinist Protestantism shaped a work ethic which encouraged capitalism.
Calvinists believed in “predestination”, the theory that God chooses whether you go to heaven or hell before you are born. This formed a psychological problem for Calvinists, as they did not know if they were one of the “elect”. As a solution to this they developed a set of values that expressed hard work, frugality and the growth of wealth. These ethics inherently led to the “spirit of capitalism”, and Weber assured that this is why Capitalism first developed in Northern Europe, where Calvinism and Protestantism were most commanding. Weber’s research is a firm paradigm of religion generating social transformation.
His research is still useful when looking at today’s societies, with countries such as Germany and Sweden which converted to Protestantism, and are model countries economically. Whereas, countries which are still Catholic like Spain and Greece are in a financial crisis. Lastly, many feminists view religion as being a patriarchal institution that presents inequalities through religious beliefs; functioning via a patriarchal ideology. Feminist’s dispute that most of the religious organisations are male dominated. Judaism and Catholicism forbid women from becoming priests.
Karen Armstrong debates that the clear discrimination against women in this manner, is evidence of women’s demotion. As well as this, in places of worship the two sexes are often segregated, the women being put at the back perhaps behind screen, whilst the men are in the sacred areas. Sometimes women are not allowed to participate in the practices, this maybe reading out a passage or preaching. In the Islamic culture, women are menstruating are not allowed to the Qur’an and could be asked to leave the place of worship all together, so as not to pollute of contaminate the sacred environment.
In many of the sacred texts, like the Bible, women are stereotyped as a temptress and blamed for anything that goes wrong, For example, in Genesis Eve creates the fall of humanity by picking the fruit from the forbidden tree of knowledge. This is ironic as the entirety of the Bible stories are supposedly written by men. However, before the rise of Christianity women were not always seen as the males subordinate. Armstrong identifies that in early religions women were central in the beliefs, being the mother of goodness and nature. It wasn’t until Patriarchy began that women lost their godly statuses.
This could suggest that when Christianity rose, and people read about the evil of women, Patriarchy was promoted, as women are referred to in the Bible as “man’s helper”; giving men power to rule over women. Therefore, a feminist may argue that religion does create social change but in a negative way, as it inspired men to take control of women and oppress them, as punishment for their “sins”. In conclusion, Functionalism and Marxism have strong arguments which describe how religions help to maintain social order and counteract social change.
A Marxist may also say social change does not occur through religion, as the ruling class want it to stay the same. Juxtaposing this view, history has revealed that in some extreme cases such as the “Liberation theology” religion has been a positive force for social change. Whereas, a feminist could say religion has been a negative force for social change as seen throughout the history of women’s oppression. For that reason, I would say religion is a force for social change, but only in extreme conditions where the change happens on a considerable scale.

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