Social Change And Religion

For a long time, religion has served as the catalyst for social change, good or bad. Adapting sacred texts into everyday life enabled people to build upon and practice their religion.

Social Change And Religion Social Change And Religion

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Table of contents

    Disagreement, tension or conflict between religious groups have led to wars and genocides. However, religion has also given way to new, positive changes.

    We will be looking at the relationship between social change and religion.

    • We will start by discussing the relationship between religion and social change.
    • We will discuss the argument that religion prevents social change.
    • We will look at functionalism, religion and social change.
    • We will then move on to look at the theories of Marxists and feminists on why the fact that religion prevents social change is a negative thing.
    • We will discuss the views of neo-Marxists and Max Weber, religion and social change.
    • Finally, we will mention religion and social change examples.

    Relationship between religion and social change in sociology

    Sociologists are divided over the relationship between religion and social change. Some argue that religion prevents social change, while others believe that religion generates social change.

    Religion prevents social change

    Sociologists who believe that religion prevents social change believe religion is a conservative force. Depending on the sociological perspective, it may be positive or negative that religion is a conservative force.

    We will be going through various sociological arguments that believe religion prevents social change.

    Functionalism, religion, and social change

    Functionalists like Émile Durkheim, Bronisław Malinowski, and Talcott Parsons offer key ideas supporting the idea that religion is a conservative force used to reinforce social norms and stimulate social solidarity. They do not think religion causes social change as that is not religion's function in society.

    Émile Durkheim on religion as a tool for social solidarity

    Émile Durkheim argues that religions split the world into two groups: profane and sacred. The profane refers to daily mundane life, such as the routine of waking up in the morning, going to work, doing household chores, etc.

    The sacred refers to things that surpass the monotony of everyday life. These are things regarded as extraordinary and inspiring reverence and are set apart from society; spiritual places, such as temples, churches, or mosques.

    According to Durkheim, religion is the mainstream practice of adjoining the sacred and profane. Rituals associated with daily activities can be distinguished from occasional practices.

    Washing dishes is a part of ordinary, mundane life, but visiting the church or praying is an occasional ritual.

    Sacred things bring people together as a community, as they inspire feelings of awe and closeness.

    Social Change And Religion, Hands on a Bible, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Some sociologists view religion as a conservative force used to stimulate social solidarity.

    Durkheim's totemism study

    Durkheim (1912) studied the totemic religion of native Australians to enhance his theory on religion. The society was split into many clans, and their members had certain commitments that needed to be met. For example, to seek revenge if a clan member was wronged by an ‘outsider’.

    Every clan owned a totem: a plant or animal, usually represented by wood or stone carvings and drawings. The totem was a symbol of the origin of a particular clan and had distinguishing features representing each clan. The clan members treated the totem as something sacred, equivalent to God.

    Durkheim concluded that clan members worshipping the totem actually implies that they are worshipping the society. Since individuals are dependent on society, they value society as a whole more than the individuals.

    Simply put, he believed that the clan members (individuals) collectively worshipped the clan’s totem (society) because the totem, a religious or sacred symbol, is simply an easier entity to conceptualise and worship.

    According to Durkheim, religion acts as a root of solidarity and is a crucial part of the social system. It fosters social control and interrelatedness and gives a purpose to gather or interact, reaffirming social norms and values.

    Due to this, people do not want to move away from their collective social norms and values; thus, religion prevents social change and is a conservative force.

    Bronisław Malinowski on religion as a tool for dealing with stress

    Bronisław Malinowski agrees that religion is a root of solidarity; however, he adds that religion performs important psychological functions. He suggests that religion helps people cope with emotional stresses such as during birth, puberty and death. Let’s take the example of death.

    The death of an individual is not only about the removal of society’s members, but it is a source of stress, especially for those close to the deceased. They may find it difficult to efficiently for a while as they cope with their loss.

    Religion helps with dealing with these types of issues through rituals, practices and beliefs. People present at a funeral ceremony comfort the bereaved through their presence, gestures and words of condolences. Also, a funeral is a way to reintegrate society as it is an expression of social solidarity.

    For Malinowski, another function of religion is to help people deal with unpredictable situations or circumstances that cannot be controlled. Such situations may usually threaten or waver social order; religion helps maintain social order.

    The Trobriand Islanders

    Malinowski highlights the contrast between two different ways of fishing on the Trobriand Islanders.

    Inland Lagoon-based fishing, a relaxing activity, was a day-to-day affair and had a high level of certainty attached - fish would be caught using the regular, time-tested methods. No religious rituals were performed during this type of fishing.

    On the contrary, fishing in the ocean had high levels of uncertainty attached - neither was there any assurance on catching a fish, nor was it safe to go out to sea. It was simply a matter of luck and special skills. To ensure favourable results, the Trobriand Islanders prayed and performed religious ceremonies or rituals.

    Based on this, Malinowski theorised that people do not need religion to depend on when they can rely on their own skill and knowledge and when the situation is predictable.

    However, whenever there is uncertainty, unpredictability or danger, people will engage in religious ceremonies to ensure the desired outcome, which gives them a sense of stability to deal with tension or anxiety caused by the unpredictable situation.

    Talcott Parsons on religion as a tool for maintaining social order

    Talcott Parsons argued that religion helps people and wider society through disruptive events that are a possible threat to the existing social order. Thus, this preserves social norms and prevents social change.

    According to Parsons, religion performs crucial but specific functions to maintain social order. It provides a specific guideline or set of values and principles based on which people should act.

    The ten commandments form the basic guidelines for human behaviour in Christian societies.

    So for Parsons, the set of values provided by religious beliefs form the basis of value consensus, which is reinforced using concrete ways through other institutions.

    In Parsons opinion, one of the religion’s primary functions is to help individuals cope with problems that disrupt social life. His ideas mirror Malinowski’s thoughts in two ways.

    • Firstly, in unexpected circumstances that have a negative impact on people (for example, infant death), religion may help people logically evaluate the events and restore normal ways of living. Belief in the afterlife offers the bereaved hope that their loved one is ‘waiting for them in heaven' and they have not left them alone forever.
    • Secondly, in the routine aspects of life where people invest time and effort to attain the desired outcome but are still associated with uncertainty, prayers or rituals help people cope with the hardships and instil faith in their efforts. For example, in agriculture where even after several weeks or months of hard work, harvest depends on the weather.

    Like Malinowski, Parsons suggests that religion helps maintain social stability by relieving stress accumulated during unpredictable situations. Parsons also states that religion allows people to attach meanings or justifications to various experiences of inequality or injustice and maintain harmony.

    In Christianity, it is believed that people with immoral or unjust behaviour will reap their punishment in the afterlife by going to hell. Those who suffer in poverty will go to heaven and reap the rewards.

    Social Change And Religion, People holding white coffin with flowers, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Parsons and Malinowski believe religion maintains social order during difficult times such as death.

    Marxism, religion, and social change

    Traditional Marxism also believes that religion prevents social change. However, unlike functionalists, Marx does not see this positively.

    According to Karl Marx, religion contributes to preserving the class structure. For him, religious beliefs and values are accountable for unequal social order and prevent social change by benefitting from poverty and suffering.

    From a religious point of view, it is better to be a good Christian and receive rewards in heaven than strive for revolution.

    Marx suggests one of the major roles of religion is to stop people from making demands to bring about social change in the following ways:

    • Belief in the afterlife gives people the hope to look forward to something. It is easier to deal with hardships now if one believes that they have a life of ‘eternal bliss’ awaiting after death.
    • Religion benefits from suffering because it shows that the poor are more ‘godly’ than rich people. A suitable illustration of this excerpt from the Bible is, 'It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven'.
    • Belief in supernatural intervention gives hope that supernatural power can solve problems on earth.
    • Religion essentially creates false consciousness. Marx believed the ‘objective’ truth was that the proletariat (working class) is exploited by the bourgeoisie (ruling capitalist class). However, the proletariat fails to realise this, as religion claims that all the misery in life is God’s will. Therefore, the proletariat does not realise its exploitation.

    Feminism, religion, and social change

    Like Marxism, feminism also believes that religion prevents social change, especially for women. Therefore, it is not a positive thing.

    Feminists focus on the patriarchal nature of mainstream religions like Catholicism and Islam. They emphasise that these religions have emerged in patriarchal societies and are ‘hijacked’ by men.

    Men draw interpretations of these religions to justify and impose their authority and power. According to feminists, religion often provides compensation to women; giving them psychological rewards provided that they:

    • accept their role as wives and mothers
    • fulfil the responsibilities associated with their second class status within religion and society

    Most religions portray men as Gods - all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving divine beings. The belief in such Gods is often used to justify women's subjugation.

    Simone de Beauvoir on religion as tool for the oppression of women

    De Beauvoir found similarities between how religion oppresses the proletariat and how it oppresses women in traditional societies. According to de Beauvoir men, who have control over most institutions in society, use the concept of God to justify their control over religious beliefs and practices.

    In the same way, religion gives false beliefs to the working class. De Beauvoir claims religion tells women to 'put up' with suffering for equality in the afterlife. This false belief acts as compensation for subjugation.

    De Beauvoir further adds that in modern societies, religion is not used to control women but to deceive them into thinking that they are equal to or superior to men, despite their inferior status in practice.

    Motherhood is given divine status in many religions, encouraging women to accept the religiously sanctioned roles beneficial for religious institutes. However, women remain oppressed in society.

    On this basis, she argues that religion is used to keep women in their place and prevent social change. Religion is a conservative force.

    Religion causes social change

    The second perspective is that religion, in fact, causes social change. We will be looking at neo-Marxist and Weberian views on why religion is a force for social change.

    Neo-Marxism, religion, and social change

    Neo-Marxists argue that religion acts as a force for social change.

    Otto Maduro, a neo-Marxist, highlighted the example of Liberation Theory in Latin America to show that religion can drive social change. He further added this is most common with the marginalised groups, as religion is their only place to vent their grievances.

    Max Weber, religion, and social change

    Weber suggests that the beliefs and values of the Protestant religion gave rise to Capitalism around the 17th century in Western Europe.

    Protestantism

    Protestantism inspired individuals to ‘find God for themselves’. Protestantism taught that introspection, soul-searching and prayer are ideal ways to ‘find God’. This further influenced Protestants to adopt an ‘individualistic’ approach to their religion by pursuing their own interpretation of Christianity.

    In comparison, Catholicism encouraged more conservative norms and values and was consequently resistant to such an approach. The Catholic Church has a hierarchical structure: God ranked above all, followed by the Pope, the Senior Bishops and then the people with the Pope and his closest advisers. These were the most powerful entities to form the interpretation of Catholic doctrine.

    Catholics are expected to act in accordance with such interpretations and are not encouraged to form individual interpretations. Additionally, they are expected to attend mass, strengthening the concept that the Church controls religious matters, rather than the idea that spirituality is a personal matter like Protestantism.

    Social Change And Religion, Inside of cathedral with chairs, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Weber distinguished between Catholicism and Protestantism; he believed the Protestant work ethic led to capitalism in the seventeenth century.

    Calvinism and capitalism

    Weber suggests that a particular branch of Protestantism called Calvinism played a crucial role in causing the social change of capitalism in Western Europe in the seventeenth century.

    Calvinism advocates the principle of predestination; God has already decided who is going to heaven and who is going to hell even before birth.

    It further explains the deciding factors for God’s decision - the harder one works and the more productive one is, the more likely they’ll be chosen for heaven. The one idling or being unproductive will be sent to hell. Simply put, according to Calvinism, God values a life built out of hard work and ‘purity’.

    As a result, Calvinist communities were encouraged to work hard for the glory of God and stay motivated to stick to the ethical codes out of fear of hell. Nonetheless, if we take a long-term approach, the Protestant work ethic unintentionally led to the emergence of Capitalism.

    Weber uses this example to show that religion can and has brought about social change.

    Religion and social change: examples

    We will look at some examples of how religion, religious beliefs and/or religious organisations have caused a social change.

    Civil Rights movement

    Think about the contribution of Reverend Martin Luther King and the Baptist Church to the Civil Rights movement in America during the 1960s. The movement essentially helped to end racial segregation and establish more political rights for non-whites. He also cited Christian values such as 'love thy neighbour' to bring social integration and equality.

    Since Martin Luther King was highly inspired by Gandhi’s ‘non-violent' movement, influenced by religious beliefs, King used peaceful methods in his protests.

    Steve Bruce argues that this movement, although headed by Martin Luther King, was moved forward by Black clergymen who also supported the rest of the Black population during this time. Although the Civil Rights Movement was not inherently a movement for religious issues, Bruce claims that religion helped bring about social change as it performed ideological functions; namely, it provided national support through Christian beliefs and practices.

    Arab Spring

    The Arab Spring movement from 2010 to 2012 demonstrates how religion can be used for social change, as several religious groups advocate for change against corruption, injustices and undemocratic practices.

    Social Change And Religion - Key takeaways

    • While Functionalists and Traditional Marxists mostly insist that religion prevents social change, Neo-Marxists and Weber argue that religion acts as a force for social change.
    • Durkheim argued that religion acts as a root of solidarity and is a crucial part of the social system. Therefore, it prevents social change. Malinowski suggests that religion helps people cope with emotional stresses. This also prevents social change. According to Parsons, religion performs crucial but specific functions to maintain social order.
    • Marx claims that religion keeps people from revolting, as they are told they will be rewarded in the afterlife.

    • Feminists believe religion by men to keep women subjugated; therefore, religion prevents social change.

    • Weber suggests that the beliefs and values of the Protestant religion gave rise to capitalism. Thus, Weber believes religion promotes social change.

    Social Change And Religion Social Change And Religion
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    Frequently Asked Questions about Social Change And Religion

    How are religion and social change intertwined?

    For a long time, religion has served as the catalyst for social change. Adapting sacred texts into everyday life allowed people to build and structure religion. 


    While functionalists, traditional Marxists, and feminists mostly insist that religion prevents social change, neo-Marxists argue that religion acts as a force for social change.

    How can religion be a force for social change?

    Otto Maduro, a neo-Marxist, highlighted the example of Liberation Theory in Latin America - religion can drive social change. He further added this is most common with the marginalised groups as religion is their only place to vent out grievances. Weber also noted that the principles and work ethic of Protestantism helped to bring capitalism to Europe.

    What is the relationship between religion and social change?

    For a long time, religion has served as the catalyst for social change, good or bad. While Functionalists and Traditional Marxists mostly insist that religion prevents social change, Neo-Marxists and Weber argue that religion acts as a force for social change.

    How is religion a barrier to social change?

    According to Karl Marx, religion contributes to preserving the class structure. For him, religious beliefs and values are accountable for unequal social order and prevent social change by benefitting from poverty and suffering.

    What are the social effects of religion?

    Otto Maduro, a neo-Marxist, highlighted the example of Liberation Theory in Latin America to show that religion can drive social change. He further added this is most common with the marginalised groups, as religion is their only place to vent their grievances.

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