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Melissa Braithwaite

Assess the extent to which religion produces social change


(33 marks)
Religion does not always uphold traditional beliefs, according to
some sociologists. In turn, religion may not always be functional for
society. Different sociologists have their own perspective on the
effect religion can have on society, for example some believe that
religion is a force for change and others think of it as a conserving
force, maintaining the status quo.
Weber identified a change, which led to a dramatic change in
society, he argued against the Marxist view that religion is shaped
by the economic base of society but agreed with the fact religion is
sometimes shaped by the economy. Weber (1905) did a study of The
Protestant Ethnic and the spirit of Capitalism, in this he found that
religious beliefs of Calvinism helped to bring about major social
change, especially in the emergence of modern capitalism. Past
societies had capitalism but in the sense of a lust for money, where
it was mostly spent on luxury consumption. Modern capitalism is
entirely different; Weber argues it is based on the systematic,
efficient, rational pursuit of profit for its own sake, rather than for
consumption, this is referred to as the sprit of capitalism.
Some of the Calvinist beliefs led to them leading an ascetic lifestyle
shunning all luxury but working long hours and practicing selfdiscipline. Predestination is the idea that God predetermined which
souls would be saved, this is also known as the elect. Even though
Calvinists believed going on pilgrimages, praying and working hard
would change this, nothing would or could. God was so far above
and beyond this world and greater than any mortal so know human
could claim to know his will, including priests and the Church, this
left Calvinists feeling an unprecedented inner loneliness, when
combined with predestination this left a salvation panic as they did
not know if they had been chosen or saved. Before Calvinism was
introduced people used to give their lives up to work in a monastery
or church, which was known as a religious vocation. Weber refers to
this as otherworldly asceticism; this differs from Calvinism, as it is
this worldly asceticism where they work hard now to get rewards in
this life rather than the next.
The ascetic lifestyle the Calvinists lived and hard work they did had
various repercussions. They wealth and success performed a
psychological function for them as it allowed them to deal with their
salvation panic. As their wealth increased, they saw it as a sign from
God about their salvation. Secondly, they systematically and
methodically multiplied their wealth by the most efficient and
rational means possibly as the Calvinist work ethic drove them to do
so. Even though they were wealthy they did not see this as a means
to squander it on luxuries, instead they reinvested it into their

Melissa Braithwaite

businesses, which grew and prospered, which in time produced


further profit again they reinvested. In Webers opinion this is the
sprit of modern capitalism where the object is simply the
acquisition of more and more money as an end in itself. Calvinism
thus brought about capitalism, as we now know it into the world.
Weber argued that Calvinist beliefs were only one of capitalist
causes. Certain material or economic factors were necessary, for
example natural resources, trade and a money economy. There have
been other societies with some of these factors, but where
capitalism did not take off, due to the lack of a religious belief
system like Calvinism. In ancient India, Hinduism was an ascetic
religion, but was otherworldly, directing the followers to another
world rather than this one. Also, in ancient China, Confucianism was
a worldly religion directing its followers to this life rather than
another life; this was not an ascetic religion. Both of these lacked
the drive to systematically accumulate wealth unlike Calvinists.
However some scholars argue that there are more factors than just
material ones. Marx argues that Weber underestimates the role of
ideas and underestimates economic factors in bringing capitalism
into being. Kautsky (1953) claims that capitalism predated and
therefore caused Protestantism but it was argued that reinvestment
and the pursuit of profit, the key features of capitalism only came
after Protestantism. In addition, some parts of the world including
Scotland, Switzerland, Hungary and parts of the Netherlands were
strongly Calvinist but were not amongst the first areas to become
capitalist. Marshall (1982) argues that these countries lacked the
economic conditions necessary for capitalism to develop. Sombart
(1907) argued that Calvinism attacked greed and making money for
its own sake, to argue with this Weber said it was not the beliefs but
the indirect effects of the belief in predestination that led to the
Protestant work ethic.
The view that religion acts as a conservative force stems from the
structuralist theories of Functionalism and Marxism. Functionalists
oppose Webers view, as they believe religion is a conservative force
and therefore not a force for change. Functionalists argue that
religion is functional for society and acts in a similar way to our
body, where we need essential substances to survive. Durkheim
(1915) argues that religious institutions play a central part in
creating and maintain value consensus, order and solidarity.
Durkheim establishes a difference between the sacred and profane.
The sacred evoke feelings of awe, as they are symbols that
represent something powerful and the profane is something
mundane that has no special significance. Durkheim believes when
they are worshipping a sacred symbol, they are worshipping society
itself.

Melissa Braithwaite

Durkheim believed the essence of all religion could be found by


studying religion in the simplest form so he looked at studies done
on the Arunta clan, an Aboriginal Australian tribe with a clan system.
Among the Arunta, band of kin come together to perform ritual
worship of a sacred totem. The totem is the clans emblem, which
can take the form of an animal or a plant, which to them symbolizes
the clans identity. The totemic rituals venerating it reinforce the
groups solidarity and sense of belonging. For Durkhiem, where clan
member worship their totem, they are in reality worshipping society
the totem inspires awe in the clans member precisely because it
represents the power of the group.
However, Durkheim did not do this research himself, he used
secondary sources to obtain his information. Furthermore, religion in
the simplest society may not be the same as religion in other
societies.