“Religion can be both a conservative force and an initiator of social change”. To what extent to sociological arguments/evidence support this view.
There is great debate concerning the role of religion in society, and whereas some claim that religion acts as a conservative force (that is, it inhibits change), others argue that religion is a major contributor to social change. As would be expected, many sociologists have took the middle ground, and argue that religion can act as both as conservative force, and an initiator of change.
The view that religion acts as a conservative force stems from the structuralist theories of Functionalism and Marxism. Both see religion as facilitating the existence of society in its current form, although their views do differ substantially. For the Functionalist Emile Durkheim, religion, like many other social institutions, acts in the same way as one of the body’s vital organs, in that it “keeps society alive”. In other words, religion has a number of functions that serve the purpose of maintaining social stability and harmony. For example, functionalists believe that through the act of collective worship in the form of religious practices, religion helps bond and unite individuals; it acts as a “social glue” that promotes value consensus and social solidarity. Functionalists see religion as a conservative force in that it helps to integrate individuals and allows them to realise the “collective conscience” (a set of moral codes and values). In contrast, Marxists see religion as acting as a conservative force by preventing revolutionary change. In Marx’s words, “religion dampens the flames of working class revolution”; acting as an “opiate” which makes a life of ruling class oppression more bearable. For example, Engels claimed that the appeal of Christianity lies in the hope of “salvation from bondage and misery”. Those who suffer are promised an afterlife of eternal bliss, and this reduces their desire to change society.
Indeed, there are many examples which show religion acting as a conservative force, thus adding testimony to the claims of these theories. The stance of successive popes against contraception for example, has limited the use of artificial birth control in many catholic countries. In this case, religion created a value consensus that contraception should not be used. In support of Marxist views of religion, the caste system of India was justified by Hindu religious beliefs. As well as this, in the medieval England, Kings ruled by “divine right”, and as a result, no one questioned their power. Such examples are strong support for the view that religion is a conservative force, although these theories completely reject the notion that religion can cause social change, and therefore do not support the statement concerned entirely.
Although both Functionalism and Marxism offer a plausible account of religion’s role in society, many are critical of such narrow views, arguing that religion does not act as a conservative force, and actually has the completely opposite purpose (i.e. it acts as a radical force, an impetus for change). Neo Marxism, a subset of Marxism, holds such a view. In particular, Neo-Marxist Otto Maduro comments on how religion has the power to spark revolutionary change. He points to the example in Latin America, a predominantly catholic country. During the Somoza regime, many priests began to break away from the Catholic Church, claiming that it was their God-given duty to help and liberate those who are oppressed. They began collaborating with Marxists, and started to preach “liberation theology”. These religious views challenged the status quo, and led to a revolution in Nicaragua.
This example highlights how religion can acts as a force for social change, and there are many other examples which support the claims of advocates of this view. Parkin for example, comments on how the Christian Churches of southern America provided an organisational structure for the black “civil rights movement” during the age of apartheid. Nelson mentions a number of examples of when religion has undermined authority or promoted change; such as when the Catholic Church in Poland opposed Communism, and how Archbishop Desmond Tutu was a strong opponent of apartheid. Perhaps the most influential sociologist that advocates the view that religion can cause changes in society is Max Weber, whose book, “The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism” examines how Protestantism played a role in changing society into a capitalist state. He proposes that the beliefs of ascetic Calvinist Protestantism created a work ethic which was conducive to the development of capitalism. Calvinists held a belief in “predestination”, that is, God allocates your place in either heaven or hell before you are born. This created a psychological problem for Calvinists, as they could not be sure as to whether they were amongst the “elect”. To solve this problem, they developed a set of values that embodied hard work, thrift and the accumulation of wealth, as surely God would not let the ungodly to prosper. These values naturally lend themselves to the “spirit of capitalism”, and Weber claims that this is why Capitalism first developed in Northern Europe, where Calvinism was most prominent.
There have been many criticisms of Weber’s work however. Many claim that he misinterpreted Calvinism, and in fact, ascetic Protestants are against greed and the pursuit of money for its own sake. Many also argue that Weber misplaced causality, and many countries where Calvinism was strong (such as Switzerland) did not develop a Capitalist state. However, in defending Weber, Gordon Marshall argues that such criticisms show a lack of understanding of Weber’s work; Weber did not claim a causal relationship exists between Capitalism and Calvinism, he merely comments upon how the two are related, and how in some circumstances, religion can play an important part in promoting social change. What is important about Weber’s work, is that it highlights the power religion has in causing changes in society. However, this view ignores the fact that religion can sometimes act conservatively and therefore does not fully support the statement in question.
As previously mentioned, many sociologists take the middle ground in this debate, acknowledging that in some situations, religion can be a conservative force, whilst in others, can act as a radical force that provokes change. Many argue that it depends on the circumstances of the country and the religion in question. Supporting this view, Thompson identifies a number of factors which shape the role religion plays in changing society. He suggests for example, that if there is an absence of other avenues for change (i.e. the political system) religion can play an important role in changing society. If however, there are a number of different avenues for social change (i.e. through culture, the economy, secular institutions), then religion plays a lesser role and may act in a conservative way. McGuire holds similar views, arguing that if a religion’s beliefs are central to society, and are a dominant part of the culture of the country, then religion has greater power to change society. Also, she proposes that the belief system held by a religion will shape its role in society. If for example, a religion emphasises adherence to strict moral codes, it is more likely to produce individuals that are critical of society and wish to change it.
In conclusion, the claim that “religion can be both a conservative force and an initiator of social change” appears to be a valid one, and the plethora of evidence that highlights the two contrasting views of religion strengthens this proposition. It seems that depending of the society in question, and the type of religion being examined (as well as its relationship with society) religion can take a number of roles, both conservative and radical. Although both sides of the argument have their support, it is perhaps best to take a broad view of this social institution.
- Religious Pluralism
- The Secularisation of religious institutions
- New Religious Movements
- Religion - a conservative force and an initiator of social change?