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

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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. In more complex societies such as our own where people have many different ideas and beliefs and where only a small proportion attend church it seems impossible to generalise that religion is responsible for strengthening our own society. Another criticism would be that conflicts in religion can cause the opposite to happen – religion can weaken a society. The current situation in areas such as the Middle East and historically in Northern Ireland are prime examples of how religion sometimes weakens the collective conscience. Anthropologists have also criticised Durkheim for describing totemism as being a religion. Durkheim gives insufficient insight into the nature of how this relationship between society and religion works.

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Marx also thought that religion prevents social change but for different reasons to Durkheim. Marx thought that any religion is a form of ideological control. He felt that religion provides people with a sense of 'false class consciousness'. For example, religious ideas such as "Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth" give the working class the idea that they will be rewarded in heaven. As a result, these people never become fully class conscious, they never question their status and they never threaten to overturn the status quo. As a result of this Marx felt that religion ...

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