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Religion can be both a conservative force and an initiator of social change- To what extent do sociological arguments and evidence support this view of religion?

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Religion Essay: "Religion can be both a conservative force and an initiator of social change"- To what extent do sociological arguments and evidence support this view of religion? (40 marks) This essay title addresses a major debate in sociology between the different schools of thought. Marxists, Functionalists and Feminists all believe religion is a conservative force, but for different reasons. Whereas, other schools of thought believe that religion can serve different purposes at different time, in some cases it can be a conservative force and at other times, it can be an initiator of change. The main debate is between Marx and Weber. A traditional Marxist view- advocated by Karl Marx- views religion as a conservative force, a force that discourages social change. They believe that religion is part of the ruling class apparatus which legitimises their position. An example of this is the monarchs in medieval Europe ruled by divine right- their position is God-given, which discourages attempts to change the situation. Marx states that religion is 'the opium of the people'- it provides consolation for the misery of their oppression by offering the false promise of eternal happiness in the next life. This illusion of happiness makes life appear bearable and therefore discourages attempts by the subject class to change their situation. ...read more.


Parsons also believes that religion gives meaning to life and makes sense of it. It helps people to accept their situation and not to question why some people do better than others. Religion promises that if they suffer in this life, then they will be rewarded in the next. Some have criticised Functionalists views on religion, claiming that they fail to address instances of religion as a force for social change. Max Weber presents an argument against Marx's view that religion is largely shaped by economic factors. Weber argues that in certain cases religion can help to shape entire economic systems and bring radical changes to society as a whole- the complete opposite! In his book, 'The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism', he claims that a number of Protestant religions which developed in 16th century Europe produced the ideas which were essential for the development of capitalism. For example these religions promoted values such as; hard work, self-discipline and a condemnation of time-wasting and laziness. If Weber is correct, then religion can sometimes be a significant force for social change. However, a number of researchers claim that Weber was wrong and that capitalism came first and helped to produce Protestantism. In recent years, there has been a rise in religious fundamentalism. ...read more.


Nelson argues that an example such as this indicates how religion can 'spearhead resistance and revolution'. Although, for every example of this, there is another which shows religion encouraging the opposite response. For example, in the USA, some Black religious groups discouraged civil rights protests. Nelson's point is that in certain times and places, religion can be either a conservative or a radical force. Another sociologist, Meredith McGuire asks the question, 'In what way and under what conditions does religion promote rather than inhibit change?' She says that religions with strong moral codes are more likely to be critical of the wider society and as a result, their members are more likely to demand change. She identifies that where religious beliefs are central to the culture of society, they are more likely to be used to justify or legitimate demands for stability or change. She also says that if religious institutions are closely integrated with other parts of the social structure- for example, the political and economic systems- they have greater power to produce stability or change. Finally, she states that, religious institutions with a strong, centralised authority will have more power to affect stability or change. In conclusion I believe that is impossible to delegate religion as a whole to being either a radical force or a conservative force. It can be either depending on the situation- time and place. This will continue to be a major debate throughout Sociology. ...read more.

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