Religion and Social Change

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“Religion can be both a conservative force and an initiator of social change”. To what extent to sociological arguments/evidence support this view.

There is great debate concerning the role of religion in society, and whereas some claim that religion acts as a conservative force (that is, it inhibits change), others argue that religion is a major contributor to social change. As would be expected, many sociologists have took the middle ground, and argue that religion can act as both as conservative force, and an initiator of change.

The view that religion acts as a conservative force stems from the structuralist theories of Functionalism and Marxism. Both see religion as facilitating the existence of society in its current form,
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Perhaps the most influential sociologist that advocates the view that religion can cause changes in society is Max Weber, whose book, “The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism” examines how Protestantism played a role in changing society into a capitalist state. He proposes that the beliefs of ascetic Calvinist Protestantism created a work ethic which was conducive to the development of capitalism. Calvinists held a belief in “predestination”, that is, God allocates your place in either heaven or hell before you are born. This created a psychological problem for Calvinists, as they could not be sure as to whether they were amongst the “elect”. To solve this problem, they developed a set of values that embodied hard work, thrift and the accumulation of wealth, as surely God would not let the ungodly to prosper. These values naturally lend themselves to the “spirit of capitalism”, and Weber claims that this is why Capitalism first developed in Northern Europe, where Calvinism was most prominent.

There have been many criticisms of Weber’s work however. Many claim that he misinterpreted Calvinism, and in fact, ascetic Protestants are against greed and the pursuit of money for its own sake. Many also argue that Weber misplaced causality, and many countries where
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