The relationship between religion and social change had been strongly debated in the past years, as more and more individuals have to a certain extent ‘broken’ away from the more traditional values shared in a once united society. Writers on religion tend to fall into on of two sides, ‘ those who see religion as a conservative force and those who see religion as a force for social change. This essay will examine, analyse and evaluate the two arguments. Durkheim, relates religion to the overall structure of the society, seeing it as acting as a conservative force.
He based his work on a study of “Totemism,” Australian Aborigines. A totem being an object, i. e. plant, animal or something with a deep symbolic meaning. He argued that it was these totems that presented the most basic form of religion. Durkheim then defined religion in terms of the sacred and the profane, the sacred being holy and spiritual and the profane the meaning directly the opposite. He argued that religion was only rarely a matter of individual belief, as most religions involved collective worship, holding rituals and ceremonies.
He claimed that the individual when worshiping collectively recognised the divine influences of the Gods. It was this influence that attributed and provided the moral guidance for the particular social group concerned. He ended this by claiming that the continual act of group worship and celebration through rituals and ceremonies served to forge group identity and create cohesion and solidarity, and that god is a recognition that society is more important than the individual.
As a result of this study, I am drawn to conclude that Durkheim being a functionalist believed that if groups were to worship collectively, then there would be no need for social change, as there is group solidarity and social cohesion, therefore individuals need not to change, people will accept and learn from one another, therefore religion will act as a conservative force, not allowing changes. On the other hand, in modern societies the major function of religion is to socialise societies members into a ‘value consensus’ by informing values with sacred qualities.
These values then becoming moral codes, as a result these codes control our social behaviour, for example the ‘Ten Commandments’ being a good example of a set of moral codes. These moral codes have also influenced laws, ‘Thou shall not kill/steal… etc. ‘ Collective worship enables individuals to express their shared values and then it strengthens group unity and promotes the development of a collective conscience, restraining deviant behaviour and social change being controlled.
There fore religion can also be seen as a manner in which the individual is controlled, setting codes, for positive social change. Functionalists, Malinowski (1954) and Parsons (1965), view religion as functioning to relieve stress and anxieties created through everyday life, such as birth, puberty, marriage and death. Such events can undermine people’s commitment to the wider society and as a result social order. Religion gives these events a meaning, helping people to come to terms with the change.
Societies have ‘evolved’ religious ‘rites of passage’ ceremonies in order to minimise social disruption. For example at a death, families feel torn, angry and upset, however the funeral service gives them hope and makes them adjust to this new situation, be comforting them. Also the fact that mourning is then done in groups, it re affirms the fact that the group outlives the passing of particular individuals and is there to support its members.
Marx, like Durkheim argued that religion was a conservative force in society, however he did not agree that this force was beneficial to society. He argued that the primary function of religion was to reproduce, maintain and legitimate class inequality. He saw religion as an ‘Ideological apparatus,’ which served to reflect ruling class ideas and interests. He described religion as the ‘opium of the people’ because it made the working class into a state of false class-consciousness, by making their state invincible and their exploitation invincible.
Marx claimed that religion serves as a means of controlling the population, by promoting the idea the existing hierarchy was God given and therefore is unchangeable, this was seen in the feudal system, in which it was believed that the kings and queens had the divine right to rule. The working class were kept passive and resigned to their fate, as some religions presented suffering, poverty and hardship to be accepted as a virtue and welcomed as normal. They believed they would be rewarded by heaven if they did not question their places.
Therefore religion produces passive and fatalistic people who instead of trying to change the world for the better are simply content to accept spiritual alternatives. Religion, therefore was not acting as a form of social change, but as a form of social control, keeping individuals oppressed and manipulating their poor working class status. Interactionists, suggest that religion gives people’s lives a meaning. It answers fundamental questions for them. Weber suggests that religion deals with the problems of theodicy (how to make sense of and explain a world of contradictions, problems, unfairness, inequality etc).
All religions see their Gods as good. Being poor and living through poverty has a reward, ‘salvation. ‘ Such views promote the idea that there is no point in changing anything; there is no need for social change. Some revolutionaries, however have used religion in an attempt to change society, fore example in many Central and South American countries such as Guatemala, Chile and El Salvador where the police and military have been used to crush opposition, religion is the only remaining vent for opposition. This fusion is known as ‘liberation theology. ‘
Weber illustrates how religion, rather than being a conservative force, can initiate social change. Charismatic authority occurs when people are attracted by the ideas of a person who has a powerful personality and they then do what that person wants them to do. This brings about social change. For example, Adolf Hitler, who changed the world’s political landscape. Religion has also had its share of charismatic leaders, such as Jesus Christ and Mohammed. Such charismatic leaders, who have had the power to influence others, causeing significant social change, have founded many religious sects.