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Evaluate the sociological arguments for and against the idea that religion is essentially a conservative force in society.

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Introduction

Suzanne Bembridge Evaluate the sociological arguments for and against the idea that religion is essentially a conservative force in society For religion to be considered a conservative force it would need to be the case that religion prevents social change and maintains the existing order of society. Some sociologists would agree with this and others would argue against such a claim. As a result, one side would argue that religion prevents change and the other would argue that it could cause social change. One sociologist who believed that religion prevents social change was Durkheim. He believed that religion acts as a conservative force. He thought that religious worship is like worshipping society and that religious beliefs strengthen the values of that society. Durkheim's justification for this view was expressed in the practice of totemism among Australian aborigines. The totem pole was considered to be a sacred object with each clan having an individual symbol on the totem. The carvings on the pole are meaningful to that society and everything from the group's history to its very existence is invested in the pole. Durkheim saw religion in this case as a means of reaffirming the collective conscience. However, there can be criticisms made of this view. One criticism is that the theory doesn't seem to be particularly relevant in modern societies. Durkheim's view is more relevant to small pre-industrial societies. ...read more.

Middle

Weber thought that the sanctions and discipline of the Protestant ethic encouraged men rationally to achieve wealth. These aspects were, according to Weber, a major factor in industrialisation. If this were the case then it would be true that religion can play a part in social change. Weber also considered the idea of Calvinism. This held the view that people are either born among the 'elect' or not and only these 'elect' would be allowed into heaven. Wealth was considered a sign of being one of the 'elect' and therefore people would try to acquire wealth. It would appear that striving to become wealthy to fulfil religious aspirations would involve a social change among those who attempted to improve their fortune. This would seem to be a clear indication of religion as a con-conservative or radical force. In response to Marx' ideas that religion merely reaffirms communism, Weber studied non-western societies and found that other pre-industrial societies had the preconditions to begin capitalism but lacked the motives to abandon traditional ways. What makes Weber's ideas different from the structuralist views of Durkheim and Marx is that although Weber acknowledges that social forces can influence an individual's behaviour, he believes that the forces are socially produced. He describes it as being a two way process in that the individual can shape society as well as be influenced by it. ...read more.

Conclusion

This is particularly relevant in today's society with religious fundamentalism as seen in Afghanistan with the Taliban, Palestinian fundamentalists in Israel and Muslim fundamentalists in Iraq who the west would call terrorists, whilst they would refer to themselves as freedom fighters. In all these cases their fundamentalism stems from traditionally conservative forms of religion, but involves radical methods in an attempt to control the people, overthrow regimes or resist occupying forces. So is religion always conservative, always radical, or both in different circumstances? Marx and Durkheim are both associated with analyses that see religion as conservative whilst Weber is more clearly associated with the idea that in certain circumstances, especially the development of capitalism in Western Europe, religious beliefs can contribute to social change. On the other hand, the treatment of women within many religious groups can be seen as fundamentally conservative and failing to keep up with social change in the secular world. In conclusion, although the likes of Durkheim and Marx provide very good evidence of how religion may act as a conservative force, once you consider modern examples such as Islamic fundamentalism, the state of Israel and Ireland and the apparent process of secularisation, it seems that religion is not necessarily as conservative as Durkheim or Marx believe. If religion were responsible for anything, then it would seem less likely to be preserving the status quo and the social norm. If anything it would seem that religion is often a source of great conflict and surely this cannot be viewed as a conservative force. ...read more.

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