There are two primary views on the issue of whether religion is a force for social change in society. Certain theorists adopt the view that religion is a conservative force, maintaining the status quo, whereas other theorists have the belief that religion is a force for social change, bringing about revolutions in society. With all views, the lack of a universal definition of religion remains a problem. Marx for example would argue that religion inhibits social change as it legitimises and justifies the status quo, whereas this contrasts Weber’s belief would be that religion can cause social change as it helped the development of capitalism.
Functionalists and Marxists are the theorists who claim that religion is a conservative force, functionalists believe that religion promotes a stable society with no disruptions. Marxists on the other hand believe that the Bourgeoisie use religion to maintain their position of power in society, therefore keeping things as they are. Marx claimed that religion was an effective aget of social control, referring to religion as the ‘Opium of the masses’, pumping perception-distorting drugs into the proletariat like a hypodermic needle.
For him it was a mechanism of social control, regulating the behaviour of the working class and preventing them from seeing their true situation in society. Functionalists claim that religion acts as a conservative force by promoting integration and social solidarity. Durkheim states that religion does this by totem worship; worship of a sacred object which symbolises the group itself, who by worshipping their totem are worshipping their society. Most religions have collective worship with rituals which lead to social solidarity being heightened.
Durkheim proposes that Gods are society’s expression of their collective conscience which are the shared beliefs, values and traditions which make a society work. This collective conscience has remained similar throughout religion as many societies hold the same core norms and values. By maintaining this social solidarity religion acts as a conservative force so therefore not producing any social change. However 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 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.
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