"Religion may encourage rather than inhibit social change." Critically discuss this statement with some reference to contemporary society.

Religion is an ambiguous term in sociology. It suffers from inclusive and exclusive terminology. An inclusive view of religion can be any belief system that has, for example, the functional impact of religion: in binding norms, values and beliefs that bring a community together. A definition of an organised collectivity of individuals, with a shared system of beliefs and a set of approved activities and practices (Taylor, Richardson, et al, 1995, 493) might apply to football clubs, birdwatching or a pop star as well as something more recognisably religious. Set against this there may be insistence on a more exclusive view of religion where the sacred or even belief in God is involved, or that recognised religion is the object of study. Recognised religion can be seen as a conservative force or force capable of producing social change.
For Marxism, religion is an ideological product of the economic base and class power. Its purpose is to reflect the necessities, beliefs and aims of the power elite. The power elite would be the individuals of similar privileged background and educational experience who share capitalistic values and occupy positions of key decision making across multinational corporations, governments, transnational governmental bodies and the military. These are the modern equivalent of the bourgeoisie written about by Marx who were then the owners of the means of production, distribution and exchange and extracted a capital surplus from wage labour and the working class. Today corporations are far larger and have a share owning system, so the power elite is managerial (as well as share owning). Part of the superstructure is the ideology of the market and work, producing a false consciousness over the mass of people serving the economy, and this involves religion.
A religion to service false consciousness over the mass to inhibit social change must reflect the values of the elite. In the feudal system, this would be a one Church hierarchy that supported the monarchy and aristocracy. In the nineteenth century it would produce a competition of churches and denominations and under the Protestant revolution preach a work ethic to the masses. Today it would give vocal support to the power elite. The religion of the New Right does this especially, as presented over satellite and cable television, by the likes of Pat Robertson. It promotes individualist, American, capitalist values. Some suggest the success of the Republican Party in American politics is due to the influence of the New Right. Steve Bruce argues against this view that New Right religion is influential, suggesting that its leaders cannot achieve its agenda over political leaders (in terms of abortion, for example) and that exposure on a plural media is not the same as influence. His argument that much modern Pentecostal religion is a relaxing of religious dogma and a form of secularisation suggests that religion is not a major part of false consciousness today.
False consciousness should either pacify people from liberation or misdirected conflict (such as in Northern Ireland where Protestant fight Catholic rather than the mass fight the elite). Sometimes, however, false consciousness seems ineffective. Liberation theology provides a revision for Marxism. Whilst accepting the basic Marxist structural analysis, it allows for religion to be used for encouraging revolutionary change. Otto Maduro analysed that the ruling elite could block off through law and supportive violence conventional routes to change and leave religion as the only route by which social and political change was available to the oppressed. Leonardo Boff is a key figure for liberation theology, who used an international Marxist analysis with his own Franciscan Catholic faith to build up the self esteem of the Latin American oppressed for political action. Base communities were set up. Paulo Freire developed education theories around this view of liberation. Father Camilo Torres of Columbia was probably unaware of Liberation Theology but analysed the crushing inequality between the elite and the oppressed and took up arms. A more limited form of liberation theology included the Civil Rights Movement in the United States led by Martin Luther King. In Hinduism, Mahatma Gandhi opposed caste and went on the Salt March (a key commodity during British rule) and practised civil disobedience against the British rule. None of these people were constrained by false consciousness (neither was Marx, after all) but then elites may be able to give and take some challenges. The British did leave India, but Gandhi was shot by a fellow Hindu because he was inclusive of Muslims and the subcontinent became divided; the Civil Rights Movement achieved legal equality but black people in the United States remained the most likely to suffer poverty and lack of prospects, as shown in New Orleans with the effects of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
The sociology of liberation theology can be seen as a movement from classical Marxism back towards a Weberian perspective. Weber definitely allowed for religious belief to encourage a change in social structure. This is the social action approach that connects with interpretive sociology, where the interpretation of beliefs leads on to action. The Protestant Ethic and Spirit of Capitalism showed that the belief of Calvinists regarding their lifestyle and attitude for work was equivlent to the need for capitalism in a stage of dynamic early growth. These Protestants believed in predestination, that the sovereign all-knowing God had decided each individual's salvation or damnation in advance. The Calvinist man (usually was a man) wanted to know the divine decision upon his life. To find out he did not rely on feeling but upon some concrete sign. In a situation of common human poverty and desperate need, one means of knowing was self-reliance and personal favour in terms of wealth - combined with a godly lifestyle. Thus the Calvinist would invest his money and not indulge in over consumption. He and his dutiful family lived the simple life, and invested the money made back into the business. Some Calvinists, such as Leonard Chamberlain of Hull (he died in 1716), became incredibly wealthy and set up Trusts that helped the poor. His Trust money continues to fund social, educational and religious causes to this day. As a result of such religious beliefs and consequent action, it is argued that there was a direct effect on capitalist growth. However, in this country, the Calvinists were earlier than Capitalism: by the time capitalism was underway (from about 1760) Calvinist beliefs had often diluted in later generations: and Kautsky stated that Calvinism predated capitalism. Many in later generations living a comfortable life moderated their beliefs towards Arminianism and their chapels showed development from sectarian purity towards denominationalism. Still, Max Weber had a Calvinist mother and a once Calvinist aunt who continued to show Calvinist piety.
Weber's academic position was a response to Marx and his pure economic determinism. Weber was keen to respect the independent source of religious ideas (such as held within his family) and not simply propose that they were the product of a bourgeoisie seeking control over others through a manufactured ideology. Weber studied religions around the world, such as Hinduism, Buddhism and Ancient Judaism. He saw the roots of capitalism in Ancient Judaism, but not in Hinduism or Buddhism, and nor in Roman Catholicism where people could over consume "sinfully" and receive forgivenness. This repetitive attitude that showed no ecnomic dynamism would not have suited the Calvinist, who was actively righteous.
Nevetheless it has to be asked whether Calvinists already needed money and to be in trade to be able to invest and become wealthier. In terms of whole countries, an absence of a financial surplus must have made growth difficult. Samuelson looked at Switzerland which was the heart of Calvinism but did not see capitalism encouraged. Furthermore, in Britain colonialism (including slavery), piracy and international trade created wealth for investors in a financial market and this facilitated industrialisation. Marshall supports Weber in that Calvinist Protestantism was only one factor in growth and Weber was sophisticated in his approach and historical. Finding a Calvinist exception does not dismiss Weber's approach because Weber did recognise the importance of available economic factors.
Weber is trying to show where a change of attitude and action might come from, from a continuing traditional stance to one of change and investment. Unlike functionalists, Weber can explain social change. Nevertheless, Calvinism could well have been seen as attractive to a new class of industrialists to further their financial interests. The mercantilists of the declining feudal period agitated for reform against the old regime and legislation introduced religious tolerance and voting reform at about the same time. A key date is the 1832 Reform Act. They also broke free of the merchant system. The old feudal regime was replaced by a liberal capitalist regime.
Weber is looking at forms of rationality going into modern society. A traditional rationality (such as the Catholic, Hindu and Buddhist) gives way to much more purposeful rationalities, either with an irrational end carried out by rational means, which would be that of the Calvinist, or a rational end carried out by rational means. Each of these represents a transition between a capitalism that is motivated by religion (rational motivated by the irrational, or Wertrational) to a developed capitalism that no longer needs a religious spirit - it acquires its own dynamic and rationality (purely rational action, or Zwekrational). This is the triumph of bureaucracy, a depressing, rational organisation of work, and Weber saw this as disenchantment, meaning lacking in human spirit. Thus, whereas Marx believed that a final revolution could liberate somone from alienation under capitalism, Weber proposed that rationality meant people would always suffer anomie whether in socialism or capitalism. It also meant that as society continued to modernise this way, religion would have no further relevant social function. In this he agreed with Marx, although for Weber religion would have no social function even under a developed capitalism. Nevertheless religion does seem to retain some social role, such as observance in state occasions, and perhaps this is to keep a level of enchantment at state level. Religion also continues at a personal level. Perhaps some of this religion is of the more inclusive type. Whatever, religion is itself part of the social change.
Emile Durkheim saw religion as a glue of society being overtly the worship of the sacred but, in full effect, the worship of society. As such it was against social change and in favour of stability, social solidarity and the status quo, inhibiting social change, in the manner of all functionalism. The sacred meant something special, set apart and forbidden, and it was this quality that gave worship of the sacred extra power and all the more effect to functionalism as the glue of social solidarity. The sacred added psychic power to collective consciousness, described as the highest form of psychic life, the consciousness of consciousness (Durkheim, 1954, 444). Malinowski saw religion as functional because rituals that countered the psychological fear of danger allowed society to function more smoothly. Both Durkheim and Malinowski took their analyses from premodern societies and it has to be asked how relevant their theories are today in the West. Durkheim himself charecterised society into mechanistic and organic. Mechanistic society was a simple society as in his understanding of the strong functional role or religion. Organic society is more like modern society, complex and with the division of labour where people are interdependent through specialised roles. Weber saw collective conscience in modern organic society as weaker; indeed he proposed that religion might become not the worship of society but of individuals, making individuals sacred. Therefore religion would have moved from a conservative social role inhibiting social change to none. Durkheim simply did not consider that groups might have a variable impact on the social order; he considered the social order as one unity and an entity in itself. Again like Marx, he can be accused of being systemic but not particularly historical. Both of them are top-down sociologists, whereas Weber began among social groups and only had a partial systemic view.
It can be argued then that conflict based structuralism such as Marxism sees religion as conservative and inhibiting social change, which is undesirable; that later Marxists would see that religion can be turned around as a route towards liberation; that Durkheim and his consensual structuralism sees religion as conservative and inhibiting social change, which is desirable (because it is functional); and that Weber sees religion as encouraging social change, depending upon the theology, and that religion adds enchantment into society which is desirable but nevertheless likely to be lost. All these theorists assume loss of social role for religion, and its fading away into the realm of the private fancy or an upholder of an individualist ideology.
Yet religion does continue to have some social impact. Religion has become an important identifier of ethnicity and nationality. In the United States and Britain minorities identify themselves and their communities through some form of generally shared religious commitment. In the United States this covers large numbers of the population (it is a nation of immigrants) and accounts for continued high chuchgoing numbers (about 40%). In Poland, Trade Unionism allied with Catholicism (with its an anti-communist and anti-liberation theology Pope John Paul II) undermined Communist power and rippled through eastern Europe turning these countries into Western capitalist countries. Since then Catholicism has declined in importance - Solidarity lost power. Before this Shi'ite Islam was able to take power in Iran in a revolution in 1979, its clerics being better organised than the various liberal and socialist groups also participating in the removal of the Shah. The clerics proved ruthless in taking power and installing their rule. The puritanical version of Islam that is the Wahabi in Saudi Arabia has exported its ideology to Madrassas around the world, including especially Pakistan and Afghanistan, and indeed to mosques in the West using Saudi money. From this source came an Islamic revolutionary anti-Western terrorism, especially since the events of September 2001 in the United States. Islam under the stress of the Middle East conflict identifies with a legacy of colonialism and a second class relationship to the West since the Renaissance; it once was the leading civilisation when the West was in the sacred Dark Ages. Despite the findings of Steve Bruce, satellite TV and the Internet continue today to promote a fundamentalist Christianity with the intention of altering minds and influencing people. Religion was important in defining the Serbs (Orthodox), Bosnians (Muslim - a moderate version) and Crotatians (Catholic) in the Yugoslav war of the 1990s. In Northern Ireland, instead of there being a united woking class, Belfast and Londonderry in particular are divided into Protestant Unionist British and Catholic Nationalist Irish, and these loyalties occur throughout the north of Ireland especially among the working class. In South Africa, the struggle for the end of Apartheid involved that part of Christianity outside the Afrikaaner Protestant churches, and led in particular by Bishop Desmond Tutu. G. K. Nelson has written on some of these areas as where religion undermines social stability (American Civil Rights, liberation theology, Iran, Poland and South Africa).
Therefore religion seems to offer identity to international and national groups undergoing some form of stress or perceived discrimination. Meanwhile, whilst in the West it is said that civil religion operates as an echo of diluted religion providing values in a functional manner, there was a strong proposal and resistance about whether the European Union should have a religious identity in the process towards a failed constitution, and there is an argument about allowing a secularised but Muslim Turkey into a Union of nominally Christian countries. Religion matters still.
The social function of religion, therefore, seems to be one of identity. However, for many people, the choice of religions (after the end of one dominant religion and sacred canopy) and ideologies has led to the Homeless Mind (Berger, Kellner, 1974) of alienation and lack of personal direction. This plurality of modernity leads on to a breakdown of meaning and any sense of truth in postmodernity. Interested individuals are even able to create their own religious or ideological beliefs from maybe several sources, with eclectic uses of ancient beliefs and superstitions. The New Age gains appeal in a pluralistic setting. Such religion is a part of social change and religious pluralism may have led towards ideological postmodernity.
Major theorists have seen religion as socially conservative or motivating towards social change. Whilst they all seem to agree that religion should decline in social impact in contemporary society, whether conservative or progressive, religion still seems to participate in the move towards choice, plurality and postmodernity, and provides identity to groups and nationalities under stress.

Berger, P. L., Berger, B., Kellner, H. (1974), The Homeless Mind: Modernization and Consciousness, London: Penguin.

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Durkheim, E. (1954), The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, New York: The Free Press.

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Marx, K. (1971), 'On the Future of Religion' in Thompson, K., Tunstall, J. (1971), 439-440, from Marx, K., Engels, F. (1955), On Religion, Moscow: Foreign Language Publishing House, 41-2, first published in 1844.

Nelson, G. K. (1986), 'Religion', in Haralambos, M. (ed.) (1986), Developments in Sociology, Ormskirk: Causeway Press.

Taylor, P., Richardson, J., Yeo, A., Marsh, I., Trobe, K., Pilkington, A. (1995), Sociology in Focus, Ormskirk: Causeway Press.

Thompson, K., Tunstall, J. (eds.) (1971), Sociological Perspectives, London: Penguin Educational.

Weber, M. (1971), 'The Definitions of Sociology, Social Action and Social Relationship' in Thompson, K., Tunstall, J. (1971), 128-143, from Weber, M. (1964) (trans. Henderson, A. M., Parsons, T.), The Theory of Social and Economic Organisation, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 88-120, first published in German (1922).

Weber, M. (1971), 'The Protestant Ethic' in Thompson, K., Tunstall, J. (1971), 408-417, from Miller, S. M. (ed.) (1963), Max Weber, Crowell, published in English in Weber, M. (1930) (trans. Parsons, T.), The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, London: Allen and Unwin, first published in German (1904).

Worsfold, A. J. (1995), Leonard Chamberlain: Change and Continuation, Sermon at Hull Unitarian Church, 24th September 1995 [Online], Available World Wide Web, URL: http://www,change.freeuk.com/learning/relthink/chamberlain.html [Accessed November 4th, 2005, 20:33].


Adrian Worsfold

Pluralist - Liberal and Thoughtful