Is religion a conservative force?

For the purposes of A-level sociology, ‘conservative’ usually has two meanings:

  • Preventing social change
  • Supporting traditional values.
  • We might also add a third: modest, reserved, austere, not showy.

On important analytical point is that some Fundamentalist groups want to reverse some social changes that have undermined the role of religion in society, taking society back to a more ‘traditional era’.

A second analytical point is to distinguish between the extent to which different religions promote conservative views and how successful they are in actually translating those views into actions.

Arguments and evidence for the view that religion acts as a conservative force

  • Various functionalist thinkers have argued that religion prevents rapid, radical social change and that it supports traditional values
  • Marx certainly argued that religion was a conservative force – through acting as the ‘opium of the masses’
  • Simone deBeauvoir argued that religion propped up Patriarchy by compensating women for their second class status.
  • Churches tend to have traditional values and be supported by more conservative elements in society. They also tend to support existing power structures (e.g. links to royalty and the House of Lords in the U.K.)
  • Islamic Fundamentalist movements, such as the Islamic State, aim to take society back to a more religious era
  • The New Christian Right in America support conservative values: traditional family structures, for example.

Arguments and evidence against the view that religion acts as a conservative force

  • Liberation Theology – a movement for the oppressed in Latin America stood against the powerful elites. However, it didn’t seem to have much success in changing anything.
  • The Baptist Church and the Civil Rights movement in the USA, much more successful.
  • The Nation of Islam promoted radical social change in the USA in the 1960s.
  • The New Age Movement promotes acceptance and diversity, so is not ‘conservative’ – in the sense that the New Right tend to support family values, for example.
  • Feminist forms of spirituality are not conservative.

More ambiguous arguments and evidence and analytical points

  • Max Weber’s ‘Protestant Ethic’ – Calvinism was a religion which was very ‘conservative’ and yet it unintentionally brought about Capitalism which ultimately undermined the role of religion in society.
  • As a general rule, churches and denominations tend to be more conservative.

 

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