Change in religion

Change in religion

Weber's general approach to sociology is known as 'verstehen' sociology; that human action is directed by meaning and that action can only be understood by appreciating the world-view of the social actor concerned. Since religion is an important component of the social actors' world-view, religious beliefs can direct social action, and hence bring about social change. In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Weber explores the relationship between religious ideas and social change, attempting to show how the ideas and beliefs of Protestantism were particularly conducive to capitalist development.

In explaining why capitalism developed first in Northern Europe Weber argues that there was an affinity between religious belief (ascetic Protestantism) and the ethos of capitalism - most notably in the notion of accumulation. While other societies, such as India, had the technology and monetary systems, their belief systems made the development of rational capitalism unlikely.

Certain facets of Calvinistic doctrine actively promoted capitalist development. Of particular importance was the doctrine of predestination and its accompanying salvation panic.

How was the believer to know that they were one of the saved?

The key factor here was intense worldly activity since success was regarded as a sign of election.

Surely God would not allow the ungodly to prosper?


Factors such as the emphasis on hard work, thrift, modesty and the avoidance of idleness and self-indulgence, the emphasis on investment and frugality were all aspects of God's grace, a sign that the individual was one of the chosen. Another factor, more emphasised by Troeltsch was the rejection of the canonical veto on usury. These characteristics were also important factors in the development of business. The Protestant Ethic matched the Spirit of Capitalism. Thus, the religious beliefs of Protestantism coupled with the presence of the necessary economic conditions resulted in the development of the capitalist system.

The importance of Weber's work is its recognition of the importance of ideas and beliefs in the process of social change. He is not saying that religion always causes change, simply that it can be an important factor. This is a position that will be developed further, and in terms of a rounded position of the role of religion, is the most tenable - the answer about the role is most likely to always be; it depends!

Weber's theory has been subject to considerable criticism, indeed it is a classic dispute in sociology. The main criticisms are that Weber mislocated capitalism (historically); misinterpreted protestantism; misunderstood catholicism and misplaced causality.

What it is important to remember however is that the criticisms apply to the example that Weber uses - protestant belief/capitalism. There are numerous other examples that can demonstrate the usefulness of his idea.

It would seem clear that there can be no absolute answer to the question of the role of religion in preventing or furthering change in society. There is however clear evidence that it can be both, it depends on the circumstances. An important point concerning change, however, is that religion can promote two main types of change: radical - a new direction in society, or conservative - a return to the social arrangements of the past.

Thompson (1986), outlines a range of factors affecting the relationship between religion and social change:

  1. Charismatic leaders.
  2. Beliefs end practices.
  3. Relationship to society.
  4. The social status of religious membership.
  5. The presence of alternative avenues to change.
  6. Organisational structure.

Charismatic leaders

Weber outlined the power of charisma in producing social change arguing that it was: the specifically creative revolutionary force of history (Weber, Economy and society).

It is suggested that charismatic leaders who are often religious leaders, may provide a focus for discontent and a view of a better world.

Examples of such leaders are:

Looking for a better future.

1. Martin Luther King - 'l have a dream'.

Martin Luther King

2. Gandhi.

3. John Wesley - exhorted his followers to grow rich.

4. Bishop Tutu.

Looking back to a better past.

5. Ayatolla Khomeini.

However, not all religious leaders, however charismatic, promote social change-some reaffirm the existing social order. For example, the Pope as regards women priests and contraception.

Beliefs and practices

The main distinction here is between this worldly and other worldly beliefs. Other worldly beliefs, stressing the powerlessness of humans and the inevitability of misery in this world, but salvation in the world to come, provide little motivation to change society. In contrast, these worldly beliefs encourage the individual to try and change the world for the better glorification of god.


Other Worldly beliefs:

  • Hinduism - reincarnation and caste.
  • Rastafarianism - reject Babylon (this world) look to Africa.

This World's beliefs:

  • The Moonies - begin the process of establishing the kingdom of God on earth - ready for second coming.
  • Black Muslims - establish rightful place of black people in US society.

Relationship to society

This is concerned with the extent to which the church is linked to the state. The closer the links, the more likely it is that a church will support the state. Additionally, of course, within the same society over a period of time the relationship between church and state may differ, and thus the pressures for change or continuity.


  • Church of England - linked to state.
  • RC Church in Lithuania (l990) - demanded independence.
  • Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia - church bells signalled demonstrations.

Similarly, social change is likely to be promoted by denominations and sects that are on the fringes of society and whose membership is primarily made up of the poor and disadvantaged.


  • Coptics (Egypt).
  • Maronites (Lebanon).
  • Sikhs (lndia).
  • Pakistan, Indonesia, Phillipines (Islam).
  • Moslems (UK).

Social status of religious membership

This is linked to the last point - that there is a tendency for established churches to draw their membership from upper status groups while sectarian movements tend to attract less privileged groups. Thus sectarian movements may be seen by their members as a vehicle for the promotion of social change. Leland Robinson, When will revolutionary movements use religion (1987), argues that revolutionary movements will harness the potential of religion if they can make a link between the class with revolutionary potential and an appropriate religious world view. For example, Liberation Theology in Latin America, and the early Christian sects under Roman rule.

However, a problem with this approach, apart from the fact that some sects draw their membership from the upper classes, is the problem of causality.

Do sectarian movements promote social change or do sectarian movements simply develop in times of social change?

The presence of alternative avenues to change

The idea, here, is that in the absence of political avenues for achieving social change, religion may be the only organised institution available that can provide the organisational tools for achieving change.

However, Thompson (1968) argues, for example, that the working class only turned to Methodism when their hopes of political reform failed to materialize and that religion damped down the claims for change. Similar arguments have been put forward to account for the growth of evangelical movements among the poor and black sections of US and British society.

Organisational structure

A religion with a centralised priesthood, hierarchy of paid officials and bureaucratic structure has a considerable influence on the group's direction and purpose. Such organisational structures, associated with established churches, often inhibit change. In communist societies, and to some extent in Latin America, the organisational support the church receives from outside the country is an important factor in its ability to resist the authorities and criticise existing social and political arrangements. A movement without a large external organisational structure is more susceptible to repression. However, the larger organisation may attempt to control its clergy and suppress any initiatives for change. Similarly, some would argue that religious organisations with a less obviously hierarchical structure are better equipped to frustrate state control through removal or imprisonment of their leadership.

Gary Marx (no relation), also suggests that religion can be both change inhibiting and change promoting. He claims, as regards 'race' protest that it depends on the nature of the religious belief:

'The effect of religiosity on race depends on the type of religiosity involved. Past literature is rich in suggestions that the religiosity of fundamentalist sects is an alternative to the development of political radicalism. This seems true in the case of race protest as well... among sect members and religious people with another-worldly orientation, religion and race protest appear to be, if not mutually exclusive, then certainly what one observer has referred to as 'mutually corrosive kinds of commitments'... religious involvement may be seen as an important factor working against the widespread radicalization of the Negro public.
'However, it has also been noted that many militant people are nevertheless religious. When a distinction is made among the religious between the 'otherworldly' and the 'temporal', for many or the latter group, religion seems to facilitate or at least not inhibit protest. For these people religion and race protest may be mutually supportive.' (G. Marx, Religion: Opiate, or Inspiration of Civil rights militancy among Negroes)

Nelson (1971), argues, like G. Marx, that whether a denomination is church-like or sect-like has an influence on the political activity of its members. Sect-like organisations tend to encourage a 'withdrawal' from the world. Church like organisations encourage civil rights militancy.

Neo-Marxists have also started to take a fresh look at the role of religion in society, and the traditional approach has been considerably modified right at the centre of traditional Marxism - the base - superstructure distinction. Although, having said that, right from the beginning, some Marxists emphasised the revolutionary potential of religion. For example, Roger O'Toole, Religion: Classic Sociological Approaches (l984) argues:

'Beginning with the work of Engels, Marxists have undoubtedly recognised the active role that may be played by religion in effecting revolutionary social change.'
Roger O'Toole

The Neo-Marxists have tried to re-theorize the traditional Marxist assumption that the superstructure of a society (including its religion) merely reflects that society's economic base - that base determines structure. This reformulation takes the form of an argument in favour of relative autonomy.

Antonio Gramsci, is perhaps the most important theorist to have presented the relative autonomy argument. For him, beliefs were no less real or important than economic forces (like Weber). Gramsci argued that action must be guided by theoretical ideas. Gramsci noted the ideological control that the church exercised over Italians, this ideological central he termed 'hegemony'. Although aware that at the time he was writing that the church was supporting ruling class interests he did not believe this to be inevitable. He argued that religious beliefs and practices could develop which would support and guide popular challenges to the dominant class.

Otto Maduro, Religion and Social conflicts (1982) also argues for the relative autonomy of religion:

Religion is not necessarily a functional, reproductive or conservative factor in society: It often is one of the main (and sometimes the only) available channels to bring about a social revolution.

Maduro argues that in a situation where there is no other outlet for grievances, such as Latin America, the clergy become a variety of Gramsci's proletarian intellectuals and provide guidance for the oppressed in their struggle with dominant groups.