Assess the extent to which different types of religious theory can encourage or inhibit social change Essay

Different religious theories have suggested their own concepts into explaining how religion functions within the society.

Some have stated how it can encourage a social change and other theories have suggested how it is a conservative force and preserving the status quo. All the religious theories have their evidence explaining how religion encourages or prevents social change. One theory is functionalism. The functionalists approach to religion state that it has a positive effect in society.What they imply by this is that religion reinforces the societies norms and values so that everyone is socialised in the correct manner. A functionalist named Durkheim believed religion was a ‘collective conscience’ meaning that everyone in society shared and abided by the same norms and values and these for them were seen as sacred. Durkheim believed that religion was a means of maintaining the norms and values of the society. For functionalists religion promotes social integration and social solidarity, which is preserved and cannot be a subject to change.

Durkheim also stated that through collective worship the members in the society expressed, communicated and understood the moral bonds that united them, this therefore inhibited social change as religion was seen as a positive aspect. Talcott Parsons states that religion provides guidelines for human action and answers their questions relating to the world, so by doing this it helps to make sense of all the experiences and why events occur.This for him was seen as a conservative force and could not bring about social change, because people would still look at religion as a means for answers to life and situations, which will not bring about social change. The criticisms they faced were from Marxism that stated, that functionalists focused too much on the positive aspects of religion and saw it as a positive social agent, however they ignored the negative aspects. However Marxism thought that religion acted as a negative social agent in society.Marxism in general believed that religion acted as an illusionary myth that hid the economic reality of society and kept the working class oppressed. For Karl Marx, religion was used as an illusion that eased the pains produced through economic exploitation. These illusions were created by the powerful and ruling class, they legitimised their beliefs and power through religion by stating that ‘it is god’s will’.

Marx described this as the ‘opium of people’, it acted as a drug, which relieved the pain for the working class but did not cure the disease, which was capitalism.This therefore inhibits social change as the only way for their to be social change is to bring in communism and demolition of capitalism within society, but however this seems unlikely from the Marxist approach as the upper class are using their ideology and creating a false class consciousness so that the working class are not aware of their exploitation, this point links in with what feminists have said about patriarchy and how religion tells women that they should do as they are told and justice will be given to them in heaven.For Karl Marx religion also keeps social control, and keeps the people within it in their positions, by offering them an illusion of hope in hopeless situations as well as prevents thoughts of overthrowing the capitalist system.

The evidence that Marxism use is that of caste systems in countries such as India, where the upper caste creates and rules the society. Also another concept they use to justify their evidence is the ‘divine right of kings’ and that kings were appointed by God, and if someone went against this then they were challenging god’s authority.Therefore they used ideology to keep the working class oppressed by telling them that they would get justice and a place in heaven. Therefore this inhibits social change as the control is kept by the rich and powerful and can only bring about change if the working class become aware of their exploitation and have a voice to aid them. For the feminists they agree with what Marxists say about religion being an instrument of domination and depression, however the only difference is that they believe it is through the patriarchal system in place, where the men benefit from religion and oppress the women.A feminist writer Armstrong pointed out that women occupy marginal position in most major religions; their gains in religion have been very limited. Women tend to be excluded from the main key roles in religion, even though evidence has shown that women attend and participate in religion more then men, for example the church attendance shows that 63% frequent attendance were women whereas in comparison to men only 37%.

The feminists see religion inhibiting social change as it will only benefit men and keep the women oppressed however some evidence has shown that women are beginning to gain more rights, such as women allowed to be priests in the church and in Islam, the wearing of Veil, indicates that men can communicate to women in a intellectual way and not just see them as sex objects. Mainly functionalists and Marxists believe that religion cannot cause any social change in society and it acts as a conservative force and that it changes in society that shape religion.The functionalists claim that it is conservative because it promotes social cohesion and integration. In this way it facilitates the society from one generation to another. Marxism has a similar view but they believe that religion is seen as maintaining the status quo in the interests of the ruling class and keep the working class oppressed through ideology on order to maintain the capitalist society. However there are examples and studies that show how religion can act as a means of social change.

Both functionalists and Marxists emphasize that the role of religion is a conservative force and does not bring about any social however the study by Weber of the ‘protestant ethic’, is an example of how religion can act as an agent of social change. In this he examines the relationship between the rise of a certain group of Protestants known as Calvinism, as well as the development of the western industrial capitalism. Calvinists believed that god rewarded hard work and this was known as ‘work ethic’, by working hard they were abiding by what god was telling them as well as helping the economic society to progress.They also believed that if they worked hard then god would ‘elect’ the chosen people and they would get a place in heaven, so this motivated them to work even harder in order to get a place in heaven and escape from salvation anxiety. However they also believed it was wrong to spend money on themselves and their desires so they invested back into their business, this created more wealth, this therefore encouraged social change. The protestant ethic enabled the Calvinists to convince themselves that they were among the elect, this encouraged them to change their lifestyles and promote simple living and self-discipline.

Making money was a concrete indication of success in one’s calling and that meant that individuals did not lose grace in god’s sight. Weber argued that this promoted the ‘spirit of capitalism’, which was basically the set of ideas, ethics and values promoted through capitalism. Therefore this accumulation of capital produced early businesses that expanded due to the aid of religion, which indicates that religion encourages social change.Another religion theory that helps to encourage social change is through the studies of a neo Marxist named Maduro. His work challenged the Marxist and functionalist view of religion being a conservative force. Maduro claimed that religion could be revolutionary. In societies where religion remains a dominant and conservative institution, social liberation for the oppressed can only be achieved if changes occur within the churches. Religion can therefore become revolutionary and bring freedom for those oppressed via the ruling class.

There are examples of where these events have occurred such as in South Africa Desmond Tutu, fought against apartheid and brought freedom for the oppressed group. Another example of how religion encouraged social change was through father Torres who brought freedom for the working class group through educating them and telling them about the reality and their exploitation. The other examples of religion acting as an agent of social change is in Irish Republic where there is an association of the Catholic Church with the republicanism.Also in Poland the Catholic Church supported the solidarity movement in the 1980’s, which eventually led to the over, throw of the communist regime.

The revolutionary groups often tend to have close contacts with religious leaders that share similar ideals, making use of religion in their attempts to overthrow the existing social structure. Another big movement for social change was the Rastafarianism movement. This movement was towards the independent nationalism for Jamaica, the Rastafarians showed great resistance to the beliefs and ideas that were bough in.Marcus Garvey challenged the ‘white Babylon’ and he promised to deliver the black members freedom from this society. Therefore to resist this the Rastafarians made their own set of cultures and beliefs that challenged the mainstreams societies values and beliefs, such as smoking marijuana, then wearing the big colourful hats and growing of the hair to form dreadlocks.

They formed their own identities and blocked out the racist society forming social change through religion. Another movement that encouraged social change was the Islamic revolution.This occurred in the 1980, when a new Iran leader named shah Mohammed Reza, who was funded by America, adopted western ideas into Iran. Later he was replaced by Ayatollah, who wanted to maintain traditions and bring the old culture back. This was then later done with the support from the country and Iran remains a religious country that makes laws abiding by the Qur’ran to block out the westernised and capitalist ideas.

This shows how religion acted as a source of agent that encouraged social change for the Islamic group in Iran.Rastafarianism, liberation theology, Islamic Revolution serve to suggest that far from being the ‘opium of the people’ religion can often be used as a force for radical and political social action and social change. Therefore social change can be radical as well as conservative. Overall the question remains, whether or not religion encourages or inhibits social change. However it can be said that people now accept that religion can be a force for change, due to the many examples of how oppressed groups have used the religion to aid them to bring a change in society or to simply resist of another culture and religion overtaking.So it can be said that religion does not act as a barrier that prevents social change from occurring, however this can only be achieved if the group are aware of what is happening to them and they are able to voice their opinions and make changes within the society, also the aid of someone leading them can also assist them to gain freedom, e. g. Martin Luther King.

So overall religion can be used to bring about social change within the society and it does not inhibit it.


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