Sociology Essay 2

Religion is essentially a conservative force. Discuss.

Religion is considered by many to be one of the major institutions in a society. Whilst there are differing paradigms in sociology which view the roles of institutions differently, Marxist and functionalist sociologists see religion as a conservative force, i.e. a non-radical force which seeks to maintain the status quo and wellbeing of a society. On the other hand, there have been various incidences in history where religion has played a part in promoting change in a society, and the incidence of this in advanced western societies is less than in developing countries.

The functionalist view of religion concentrates on how religion maintains some of society;s basic needs, including harmony, stability and integration. Durkheim, in “Elementary forms of Religious Life” looked at worship in religion. He felt that whilst worship was a most important facet of religious ceremonies, it was not an appraisal of God, but of society, as man cannot live without society. Religion was constructed as a physical totem which could represent the non physical status of society. Durkheim also noted the power of religion to encourage solidarity and common feelings in society, although it has been felt that some of his work is more relevant to technologically primitive societies.

Malinowski adopted a different view to Durkheim by looking at society’s effects for the individual. He noted that religion helps the individual cope with distress, unease and anxiety, feelings which are potentially threatening to society. Similarly, he shows how a belief that religion controls fate helps the individual to cope with bad luck and other acts of fate. He notes the Trobiand Islanders, a small seafaring society where religious rituals are enacted before setting off on dangerous fishing trips.

Talcott Parsons shows how religion can dictate behaviour. Religion provides society with a set of guidelines (in the case of Christianity for example the ten commandments and parables). These form the basis for values, which develop norms which dictate behaviour. The widespread popularity of religion means that a common feeling on issues promotes social order and the pressures of mass disbelief discourage non-conformity. He also notes religion’s effects on the individual, as a promoter of help in troubled times and a force of good over evil.

These views show much support for the conservative functions of religion in a society. However, functionalists have come under criticism on some issues. For example, they fail to acknowledge religious pluralism in societies such as India where there are Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists. One issue arising from religious pluralism is the dysfunction caused by this (quite contrary to functionalist ideas), apparent in Israel and the middle east where Jews are fighting Muslims and vice-versa. Another issue which functionalists fail to account for is the dysfunction caused by sects, (for example Sikhs versus Hindus) and secular ideas (such as they idea of multiple marriages occurring in the UK or the Salman Rushdie affair, a conflict of religious ideals).

Marxists view religion as a conservative force in a society but see it as an oppressor rather than an aid to society. Marx’s famous comment, “Religion is the opium of the people” sums up his feeling of religion as a painkiller which eases the pain of oppression and exploitation. He sees religion doing this in four ways. It provides a goal in life which legitimates suffering; the promise of an afterlife gives the oppressed a rationale for their position. Similarly religion places praise on poverty and hardship, displayed in biblical passages such as “it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven”. Religion defuses any kind of social action by promising security through supernatural intervention. A disaster or incident which affects an individual can be resolved by prayer rather than direct action. Religion legitimates the idea of a social class system by placing the allocation of individuals in a hierarchy in God’s hands. This idea is most prevalent in the divine right of kings but is apparent in religious services and hymns, for example “All Things Bright And Beautiful”. Marx felt that religion, being shaped by the infra structure, was a tool of oppression for the bourgeoisie and was a major contributor to false class consciousness.

Weber saw religion as having potential for change, noting the incidence of ascetic protestantism and capitalism’s rise. The fundamental principles of ascetic protestantism are based around hard work, the pursuit of production and laziness and rest as being sinful. The immediate precedence of ascetic protestantism to capitalism meant that the ideas of hard work were already there and they fitted the spirit of capitalism which was a pursuit of profit. Weber saw religion in this case a force for change, although it was not solely responsible for the rise of capitalism.

Incidents in history also show religion as a force for change, such as the peasant’s revolts and levellers and diggers, groups of church men interested in a more equal society. Religion has had a part in racial affairs such as the repeal of slavery laws and the civil rights movement in the US under Martin Luther King. Latin America and South East Asia have also shown how religion can promote change, for example liberation theology and Buddhist protests against the US in Vietnam.

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