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Evaluate the view that religious beliefs and organisations are barriers to social change (20)

The above question appears on the AQA’s 2016 Paper 2 Specimen Paper.

The Question and the Item (as on the paper)

Read Item B and answer the question that follows.

Item B

Many sociologists argue that religious beliefs and organisations act as conservative forces and barriers to social change. For example, religious doctrines such as the Hindu belief in reincarnation or Christian teachings on the family have given religious justification to existing social structures.

Similarly, it is argued that religious organisations such as churches are often extremely wealthy and closely linked to elite groups and power structures.

Applying material from Item B and your knowledge, evaluate the view that religious beliefs and organisations are barriers to social change (20)

Suggested essay plan

Decode

  • The question asks for beliefs and organization, so deal with both.
  • Remember you should look at this in global perspective (it’s on the spec).
  • Remember to use the item. NB all of the material in item is covered in the plan below, all you would need to do in an essay is reference it!
  • Stay mainly focused on the arguments in the first section below.

Arguments and evidence for the view that religion is a barrier to social change

Functionalism

Parsons argued religions maintains social order: it promotes value consensus as many legal systems are based on religious morals.

It also maintains stability in times of social change (when individuals die), and helps people make sense of changes within society, thus helping prevent anomie/ chaos and potentially more disruptive change.

Marxism

 Religion prevents change through ideological control and false consciousness. It teaches that inequality and injustice are God’s will and thus there is no point trying to change it.

 Religion also prevents change by being the ‘opium of the masses’. It makes a virtue out of suffering, making people think they will be rewarded in the afterlife and that if they just put up with their misery now, they’ll get reward later,.

Feminism

 Simone de Beauvoir – religion is used by men to justify their position of power, and to compensate women for their second-class status. It oppresses women in the same way Marx said it oppresses the proletariat.

The Church (typically a conservative force)

The church tends to be closely tied to existing political and economic power structures: the Church of England is closely tied to the state for example: the Queen is closely related and Bishops sit in the Lords. Also most members and attendees are middle class. It thus tends to resist radical social change.

World Accommodating and World Affirming NBMs

World Accommodating NRMs can help prevent change by helping members cope with their suffering in the day to day.

World Affirming Movements (such as TM) reinforce dominant values such as individualism and entrepeneurialism.

Arguments and evidence against the view that religion is a barrier to social change

Liberation Theology

Some Catholic priests in Latin America in the 70s took up the cause of landless peasants and criticized the inequalities in the region.

However, they were largely unsuccessful!

Max Weber

 The protestant ethic gave rise to the spirit of Capitalism (Calvinism and Entrepreneurialism etc.)

Feminism

El Saadawi – It’s Patriarchy, not Islam that has oppressed women… but it is possible for women to fight back against it (as she herself does)

Carol P Christ – believes there are diverse ways to ‘knowing the Goddess’ and criticizes dualistic thinking and the idea that any religion can have  a monopoly on truth

Some World Rejecting NRMs

E.G. The Nation of Islam have aimed to bring about radical social change

The New Age Movement

Encourages individualism and pick and mixing of different religions, so encourages diversity and hybrid religions to emerge.

Secularization

Means religion has less power in society, and thus is less able to act as a barrier to social change.

Thoughts on a conclusion

Make sure you distinguish between beliefs and organizations and types of social change

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Is Religion a Source of Consensus or Conflict?

Functionalism is the only perspective which has traditionally argued that religion is a source of value consensus, all other perspectives disagree with this in one way or another, but not all believe that religion is necessarily a cause of overt conflict in the world.

Functionalism

  • Functionalists generally argue that religion promotes value consensus in a society.
  • Durkheim argued that in traditional societies, religious symbols such as the totem represented society, and thus when people worshipped religion, they were really worshipping society.
  • Parsons and Malinowski both believed religious rituals helped people deal with life-crises, such as death, thus helping keep societies together during times of change.
  • Parsons further believed that religions form the moral basis of law in society, for example the 10 commandments in Christian societies.
  • Bellah argues that civil religions bind people together in contemporary societies.

Marxism

  • Marx believed that religion prevents revolution (or violent conflict) by pacifying people, through acting as the ‘opium of the masses’ and making think inequality is Gods will and that suffering in this life is a virtue. The message is to put up with suffering now and seek your reward in heaven.
  • However, in Marxist theory, the masses will eventually see through the mask of oppression and rise up bringing about a revolution and a communist society free of religion.

Neo-Marxism

  • Religion can be a source of conflict because it is autonomous from the economic base.
  • For example, religious leaders in Latin America took the side of peasant against the elite. However, attempts at social reform were ultimately repressed.

Feminism

  • Simone de Beauvoir argued that Religion oppresses women in the same way that Marx argued it oppressed people in general.
  • However, Feminism in general points out how traditional religion oppresses women and brings women into conflict with religion, especially right-wing versions of it.
  • Feminine forms of spirituality generally emphasis peacefulness, and so don’t really act as a source of conflict.

Secularisation theory

  • You can use this to argue that religion has lost its capacity to do anything, positive or negative in society.
  • It seems especially unlikely that postmodern forms of religion, such as the New Age Movement are going to be sources of conflict.

Huntington – the clash of civilisations

  • Religion has become more important as a source of identity in a postmodern global world where other sources of identity have faded.
  • As societies come into closer contact because of globalisation, they rub up against each other and people become more aware of their differences, and thus religion becomes a source of conflict.
  • Karen Armstrong criticises this, suggesting that politics and economics matter more than religion as sources of conflict in the world today.
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The Marxist Perspective on Religion

From Marx’s materialistic perspective, religion serves to mystify the real relations between men and inanimate objects.

In reality, according to Marx, nature is an impersonal force which imposes limitations on man’s capacity to act, but nature can be understood scientifically and manipulated rationally, via technology, potentially for the benefit of man-kind.

However, through religion, humans project personal characteristics onto nature: they invent gods which they believe have control over nature, and come to believe that the way to manipulate nature is to appeal to these gods through ritual or sacrifice.

The Marxist Perspective on Religion (1).png

Religion as the ‘Opium of the People’

In Marx’s own words:

‘Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the sentiment of a heartless world and the soul of soulless conditions. it is the opium of the people’.

marxist perspective religion

According to Marx, one of the main ‘functions’ of religion is to prevent people making demands for social change by dulling pain of oppression, as follows:

  1. The promise of an afterlife gives people something to look forwards to. It is easier to put up with misery now if you believe you have a life of ‘eternal bliss’ to look forward to after death.
  2. Religion makes a virtue out of suffering – making it appear as if the poor are more ‘Godly’ than the rich. One of the best illustrations of this is the line in the bible: ‘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.
  3. Religion can offer hope of supernatural intervention to solve problems on earth: this makes it pointless for humans to try to do anything significant to help improve their current conditions.
  4. Religion can justify the social order and people’s position within that order, as in the line in the Victorian hymn ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’:
  • The rich man in his castle
  • The poor man at his gate
  • God made them high and lowly
  • And ordered their estate.

Such lines make social inequalities seem as if they are ‘God’s will’ an thus unchangeable.

From the Marxist Perspective, religion does not only ameliorate the sufferings of life, it also effectively creates false consciousness.

Marx believed that the ‘objective’ truth was that the proletariat (i.e. most people) suffer deprivations because of their exploitation by the Bourgeois (namely the extraction of surplus value empowers the minority Bourgeois class and leaves the majority of the proletariat with insufficient money to lead a decent quality of life), however, people fail to realise this because religion teaches them that all of the misery in life is God’s will.

Or in Marx’s own words:

‘In religion people make their empirical world into an entity that is only conceived, imagined, that confronts them as something foreign’.

Religion and Social Control

Religion also acts as a tool of social control in a more direct sense: according to Marx and Engels:

‘The parson has ever gone hand in hand with the landlord’.

This was especially true in feudal England when the landed classes’ decisions were frequently legitimated be religious decree: as Marx and Engels saw it, the bourgeois and the church supported one another: the former generously funded the later, and church legitimated social inequality, thus maintaining the established social order.

The non-necessity of religion under communism

Religion is only necessary under exploitative systems where the majority of men do not control the conditions under which they labour, under systems where men work for someone else rather than for themselves: in such systems, religious doctrines which teach that ‘you are insignificant in the eyes of gods/ the supernatural’ make sense, and serve a useful function for those who are in control of and who benefit from said exploitation.

Under communism, where man controls the conditions of his labour, he is essentially ‘for himself’, and thus will have no need of religion. Under communism, where reality is ‘fair’ religion will not be required, and so will simply whither away.

religion opium masses
The original text where Marx’s ‘opium’ line first appeared in 1844.

Evidence to support Marxism

There is a considerable body of historical evidence which supports the Marxist view of the role of religion in society: for example the traditional caste system in India was supported by Hindu religious believes (in reincarnation for example); and in Medieval Europe Kings ruled by the ‘divine right of God’. Possibly the most ‘extreme’ example, however, is in ancient the ancient Egyptian belief which held that Pharaohs were both men and gods at the same time.

A more recent example, drawn from the USA, lies in the support that Republican politicians have enjoyed from the ‘New Christian Right’ who, according to Steve Bruce (1988), support ‘a more aggressive anti-communist foreign policy, more military spending, less welfare spending and fewer restraints on enterprise’.

The new Christian right have persistently supported more right wing (neo) liberal candidates – such as Ronald Regan in 1984 and George Bush in 2004 – when the later was elected, an exit poll found that two thirds of voters who attended church more than once a week had voted for him.

While it might be debatable how successful the religious right in the USA are in getting their candidates elected to political power, what does seem clear is that they do tend to support more economically powerful sectors of the political elite, suggesting support for the Marxist view of religion.

Criticisms of the Marxist perspective on religion

Firstly, it is clear that religion does not always prevent social change by creating false class consciousness. There are plenty of examples of where oppressed groups have used religion to attempt (whether successful or not is moot here) to bring about social change, as we will see in the neo-Marxist perspective on religion.

Secondly, religion still exists where there is (arguably) no oppression: the USSR communist state placed limits on the practice of religion, including banning religious instruction to children, however, religious belief remained stronger in the 20th century in Russia and Eastern Europe than it did in the capitalist west.

Thirdly, and building on the previous point: just because religion can be used as a tool of manipulation and oppression, this does not explain its existence: religion seems to be more or less universal in all societies, so it is likely that it fulfills other individual and social needs, possibly in a more positive way as suggested by Functionalist theorists such as Durkheim, Malinowski, and Parsons.

Sources

Adapted from Haralmabos and Holborn (2008) Sociology Themes and Perspectives, 7th Edition, Collins.

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Is religion ideological?

If sociologists refer to religion as being ‘ideological’, they typically mean the beliefs and practices of that religion support powerful groups in society, effectively keeping the existing ruling class, or elites, in power.

The idea that religion is ideological is usually associated with Marxist and Radical Feminist Perspectives.

This sub-topic overlaps with ‘religion as a conservative force’.

The Marxist View: religion performs ideological functions

  • Marx argued that religion creates false consciousness – it teaches that social inequality is God’s will and thus mystifies the real cause of inequality and misery which is exploitation by the Bourgeoise
  • Religion is the opium of the masses – religion prevents change and keeps the elite in power by providing spiritual comfort for the poor – by making a virtue out of poverty, and promising a better life after death if people obey the rules now, for example.
  • There are direct links between the church and the bourgeoisie – the bourgeoise fund the church, and the church support (ideologically) the bourgeoisie

Criticism

  • Neo Marxist Otto Maduro argued that the Catholic Church in Latin America was relatively autonomous from the state and the bourgeois – i.e. they were not directly controlled by them. Thus, there was some degree of freedom for some priests to interpret Christianity in a way that was pro-poor and anti-elite, and not ideological. As with the example of Liberation Theology.

The Feminist View: religion is ideological

  • Mary Daly argued that Christianity was as set of Patriarchal myths. She sees the Catholic Church as especially bad: it downplayed the role of women in the bible and legitimated sex role segregation for example.
  • Simone de Beauvoir argued that religion is used by men to compensate women for their second-class status – it provides them with spiritual rewards for accepting inferior social roles.

Criticisms

  • El Saadawi suggests that Islam itself has been hijacked by Patriarchy in many countries, but is not necessarily ideological: women can fight back.
  • Carol Christ’s work shows that religion does not have be ideological: her idea of ‘embodied spirituality and focus on women ‘finding their Goddess’ stands against monotheistic religions. It is empowering for women and challenges existing power structures.

Further examples and evidence for and against the view that  ‘religion is ideological’

Religion is ideological Religion is NOT ideological
·         Marxists and Feminists generally point to established churches as the most likely institutions to support elites.

·         The New Religions right in America tends to support white, male wealth – e.g. it supports the Republican Party.

·         Max Weber… over hundreds of years Calvinist believes lead to social changes which undermined religion.

·         Postmodernism – people are free to pick and choose which aspects of religion they like. Thus, it cannot be ideological.

·         Some sects challenge the existing order – e.g. The Nation of Islam.

 

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The Neo-Marxist Perspective on Religion

In contrast to Marx’s view that religion was a conservative force, neo-marxists recognize the role that religion can play in bringing about radical social change.

Otto Maduro’s Neo-Marxist Perspective on Religion (1)

One of the earliest Marxists to recognize this was Engels, who saw similarities between some of the early Christian sects that resisted Roman rule and late 19th century communist and socialist movements.

So from a neo-Marxist point of view, while Christianity may have originated as an oppressive force, it is possible for it to ‘evolve’ into a source of resistance which has the potential to bring about radical social change.

Otto Maduro – the relative autonomy of religion 

neo-marxism religion otto maduro.png

Otto Maduro was a neo-Marxist who argued that religious institutions have a degree of freedom from the economic base. Religious institutions do not always work for the benefits of powerful elites, they can act independently (with autonomy).

Going even further, Maduro argued that in some societies, religion might actually be the only institution through which people can organise for radical social change.

Writing about Latin America, Maduro does argue that Catholicism has traditionally tended to act as a conservative force. It has tended to support the political and economic elites, even if they are military dictatorships.

However, towards the middle of the 19th century, some catholic priests became increasingly critical of the radical inequalities in Latin America. These priests took up the cause of landless peasants and became supporters/leaders of movements for social justice. One example of this is the Liberation Theology Movement (forthcoming post). In the late 1970s especially, Liberation Theology was very critical of the wealth and power of The Bourgeoisie in Latin America, and were vocal supports of wealth redistribution.

Maduro argues that where oppressed and impoverished populations have no outlet for their grievances other than the church, the clergy are ‘forced’ to represent them.

Related posts:

You might also like to check out this post on Marxist/ neo-Marxist theory and methods.

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Evaluate the view that religion no longer acts as a ‘shared universe of meaning’ for people today

Item B

Berger (1990) argues that religion once provided a ‘shared universe of meaning’ and was used by people to make sense of the world, and to give their lives focus and order. He refers to religion as a ‘sacred canopy’, stretching over society and helping people to cope with the uncertainties of life.

Other sociologists disagree about the role that religion fulfils in society today. Marxists, for example, argue that religion acts to dull the pain of oppression experienced by the working class under capitalism and to conceal domination by the bourgeoisie. Some feminists argue that religion oppresses or disadvantages women.

Using material from Item A and elsewhere, assess the view that religion no longer acts as a ‘shared universe of meaning’ for people today.

Decode

  • This is a relatively straightforward question if you take it as a ‘consensus versus conflict’ essay.
  • You could also throw in elements of postmodernisation and secularization.
  • And counter criticize (kind of) from a globalist perspective.

Supporting evidence from Functionalism

  • Durkheim’s argued that religion reinforces the ‘collective conscience’ by representing the social order.
  • Malinowski argued religious rituals helped the Trobriand Islanders deal with risky situations with uncertain outcomes (such as deep sea rather than lagoon fishing)
  • He also argued religious rituals help people cope with social change, such as when people die.
  • Parsons seems to be the main man who agreed with Berger: the main function of religion was to help people make sense of contradictory events.
  • In one sense you could say that religion forms the basis of the law and this provides a shared universe of meaning.

Other supporting evidence drawn from across the syllabus

  • It’s unlikely that anything other than religion can provide a ‘sacred canopy’ (Science doesn’t provide all of the answers to ‘big questions’ for example)
  • Goddess religions could be interpreted as forming a ‘sacred canopy’ – one ‘divine reality, but many paths to it’.
  • This seems to be more the case for older rather than younger people (older people are more religious)
  • Some newer religions might be providing a more ‘general’ sacred canopy… for example ecumenicalism and The New Age movement.
  • Giddens argues that religion today provides a vital role in answering big questions and providing moral purpose

Marxism/ Feminism

  • Criticize the idea of a ‘shared universe of meaning’ because religion works in the interest of elite groups.
  • It’s the meaning of the elite that is taught through religion – such as the idea that inequality is God’s will and cannot be changed.
  • Neo-Marxism and Feminist resistance against elitist and patriarchal religions are evidence against this.

Postmodernisation/ Increasing diversity of religion means there is no sacred canopy

  • The increasing diversity of religion with postmodernity suggests there is no ‘shared universe of meaning’.
  • Religion has become more about ‘me’, less about aligning with society, e.g. the New Age Movement.
  • Religion has become more about entertainment, thus is arguably no ‘deeper’ than Disneyland.

Secularisation/ growth of science means there is no sacred canopy

  • Secularization is further evidence against – fewer people believe in God.
  • It’s more likely that belief in science, rather than religion provides a ‘sacred canopy’.

Examples of religious conflicts

  • Fundamentalism
  • World Rejecting NRMs

Thoughts on a conclusion

Pick up on the different ‘functions’ in the item to write a differentiated conclusion… maybe religion doesn’t provide a ‘shared universe of meaning’ any more, but maybe it’s still used selectively by people some of the time to deal with uncertainties.

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Reasons why Ethnic Minorities have Higher Levels of Religiosity

Ethnic minorities in Britain tend to see religion as more important than Whites. This post summarizes four theories which seek to explain this trend: cultural transition theory, cultural defense theory, neo-marxism, and Weberianism.

Cultural Transition Theory 

  • Cultural transition theory emphasizes the fact that most ethnic minorities in the UK originate from societies with higher levels of religiosity.
  • When the first waves of immigrants came to Britain from the West-Indies and Asia, religion helped immigrants deal with the stress of adjusting to a new culture.
  • Religious institutions, for example, provided a sense of community, and actually working together to build a ‘religious infrastructure’ promoted a sense of social solidarity.
  • Given that immigration is still a relatively recent phenomenon, it is not surprising that ethnic minorities are still more religious than White Britons.
  • Cultural transition theory holds that once a group has settled into a new culture, commitment to religion will gradually weaken.
  • This later seems to be the case as third and fourth generation immigrants tend to display lower levels of religiosity than first and second generation immigrants.

Cultural Defense Theory 

  • Cultural defense theory suggests that religion helps some ethnic minority groups preserve a sense of unique cultural identity in the face of an unwelcoming and hostile mainstream culture.
  • Religion can be a way to provide emotional support in the midst of racism and intolerance from mainstream society.
  • When Black Africans and Caribbean Christians first came to Britain, they were not generally welcomed by the congregations of mainstream churches. One of the ways they responded to this was to establish their own forms of Pentecostal Christianity.

Weberianism

  • Weberians suggest that there is a relationship between poverty and religiosity.
  • There does seem to be a correlation between religion, ethnicity and poverty…. African-Caribbeans in the UK experience higher levels of poverty and have higher levels of religion.
  • Weber (1920) theorised that certain denominations and sects appeal to the deprived because they can help people cope with their deprivation.
  • Ken Pryce’s (1979) research into the role of Pentacostalism among African-Caribbeans in the UK is a useful application of Weberianism. Pentecostalism emphasizes the importance of family and community, and values hard-work and thrift, all of which offer practical support for helping to cope with poverty as well as a sense of spiritual status.

Neo-Marxism

  • Neo-Marxist theory holds that religion has some degree of autonomy from the economic base, and that religious institutions can act as agents of revolutionary change for the oppressed.
  • Ethnic minority groups tend to suffer from higher levels of exploitation, especially when they are used as scapegoats for some of society’s problems (as Stuart Hall argues in ‘Policing the Crisis‘), and resistance has sometimes centered around religious institutions.
  • The Nation of Islam in America is probably the most obvious example of this.

Evaluating neo-marxism

  • This probably applies more to America than it does to the United Kingdom.
  • In the UK, this certainly does not explain the experience of every ethnic minority group… Sikhs and Hindus (mainly of Indian origin) for example, experience lower levels of deprivation than whites.

 

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Applying material from the item, analyse two criticisms of the view that religion is merely a tool of oppression

This is one possible example of a 10 mark ‘with item’ question which could come up in the AQA’s A level sociology paper 2: topics in sociology (section B: beliefs in society option). 

Read the item, and then answer the question below.

Item

Karl Marx famously argued that religion was the ‘opium of the masses’ and Simone de Beauvoir argued that religion compensated women for their second class status. Both theorists believed that religion was an ideological tool which pacified the oppressed.

These views have, however, been criticized:

Applying material from the item, analyse two criticisms of the view that religion is merely a tool of oppression (10)

Firstly, Marxist and Feminist views tend to downplay the positive functions of religion.

As Functionalists have pointed out, it is quite likely that some form of religious belief and organisation is functional (i.e. beneficial for the individual and society) given that religion is practically universal (i.e found in nearly all societies).

Functionalists have pointed to many positive functions of religion – such as helping people deal with death and societies deal with transition and times of uncertainty. Rather than this being about simply keeping inequality in place, it could be that religion benefits everyone by keeping society stable.

Furthermore, people still practiced religion in secret in communist countries when religion was banned, suggesting that they actively wanted religion for their own comfort, rather than it simply being something forced on them by elites.

You could argue that a similar thing is found with religion today in the form of ‘civil religion’ – where people find comfort in quasi-religious ceremonies such as Football matches and Royal Weddings… again this seems to be a matter of choice, and because attendance is optional, it’s hard to argue that these ‘shallower’ forms of religion have a  sinister social control function like Marxists and Feminists suggest!

Secondly, The above theories assume that people simply passively accept an elitist interpretation of religious doctrines. There is plenty of evidence that this is not always the case.

Liberation theology is a good example of this: where Catholic Church leaders in Latin America took the side of the landless peasants, and argued against the elitist interpretation that inequality was God’s will: instead helping the poor fight back against inequality and elite institutions and attempting to bring about a more equal society.

This is supporting evidence for the Neo-Marxist view that religion is not simply controlled by elites, but is relatively autonomous, thus meaning it can be a tool for social change.

From an Islamic Feminist point of view, Nawal el Sadawi argued that Islam was not inherently patriarchal, but rather that it had been interpreted in a patriarchal way in patriarchal societies (patriarchy comes first, if you like!). She further argued that it was perfectly possible for women to challenge Patriarchal interpretations of Islam, as she herself did, thus meaning it doesn’t have to be a tool of social control and pacification.

A postmodern analysis of religion further supports the ‘active intepretation’ criticisms of Marxism and Feminism – today people are much more likely to pick and mix their religious beliefs, and reject anything they don’t like, and use religion at selected times when they find it useful. This is hardly religion controlling and pacifying the population!

 

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Civil Religion

Robert Bellah introduced the concept of civil religion to sociological debates surrounding the role and function of religion in society in the early 1960s. One of his best known works is his 1967 journal article ‘Civil Religion in America‘.

Robert Bellah argued that ‘civil religions’ had become the main type of religions in the 20th century, as mainstream, traditional religions declined. Civil religions effectively performing many of the same functions of ‘traditional religions’, just without the concept of a god or higher power.

Bellah analyses the role of religion in much the same way as classical functionalists such as Durkheim, hence he has been labelled a neo-functionalist in many A-level sociology text books.

He defined ‘civil religion’ as any belief system which didn’t rely on a conception of a God, or gods, but which still inspired a passionate mass response with members displaying a high degree of commitment to that belief system.

Historical examples of belief systems which might be regarded as ‘civil religions’ include Nazism, and other forms of nationalism, and at a more international level, Marxism. Such movements provided their adherents with an idea of the ‘true path’ to a ‘better life’, to be achieved through obeying certain moral codes as well as a degree of commitment to charismatic leaders. These movements also had plentiful symbols and rituals to generate a sense of shared identity.

Bellah argues that ‘Americanism’ is the civil religion of America. The civil religion of Americanism stresses a commitment to the ‘American way’: a belief in the ‘free market’ and a drive to make the most of available opportunities. It also emphasizes a commitment to God, but that God is an American first, rather than a Catholic, Jew or Muslim, and he welcomes everyone from all backgrounds who are willing accept commitment to the American dream.

According to Bellah, the American Civil Religion unites people across all sexes, classes and ethnic backgrounds.

It is possible to see expressions of the American Civil Religion in many aspects of American life:

  • Most obviously is the daily ‘pledging allegiance to the flag of America that children do in schools.
  • We see it in yearly rituals such as Independence Day and Thanksgiving.
  • The national anthem being sung at the beginning of various sporting events, most notably the Super Bowl.
  • Numerous Presidential speeches and address praise America, with the phrase ‘God Bless America’ featuring frequently.

<iframe width=”560″ height=”315″ src=”https://www.youtube.com/embed/69ShK4TYHJk” frameborder=”0″ allow=”autoplay; encrypted-media” allowfullscreen></iframe>

Are national sporting events manifestations of a civil religion?

Bellah argues that civil religion developed especially strongly in America because it is a relatively new nation, based on immigration from multiple countries. A civil religion which emphasizes both a belief in God, but with that God coming second to the idea of America itself, has served to quickly unite people with diverse beliefs into one nation under God.

Criticisms of the concept of civil religion

  • It is quite a loose concept in that it is possible to interpret any nationalistic activity as being part of a ‘civil religion’.
  • It is unlikely that people taking part in watching sporting events, or even ‘pledging allegiance’ to the flag are as committed in their belief in America as traditionally religious people are to their religions.
  • To criticise Bellah’s concept of Americanism specifically it is clear that not all Americans have been united equally into the American nation. American Muslims have experienced particularly high levels of ostracism since September 11th for example.

 

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Theories of Secularization: Rationalization and the Disenchantment of Society

According to Weber, the rationalization of society led to the disenchantment of society and as a result religious motives for action were replaced by rational motives for action. This post considers arguments and evidence for and against this theory.

desacrilization religion.png

Max Weber argued that modern society was ‘characterized by rationalization and intellectualization, and, above all, ‘by the disenchantment of the world’ (1)

In traditional society, in which religious beliefs were strong, actions were primarily motivated by religious beliefs or superstitions. People were motivated to act out of a religiously motivated desire to go to heaven and avoid hell. (Or at least to avoid the social sanctions of those with religious power.)

However, with the Enlightenment and the Industrial revolution, the power of the of the church was increasingly questioned, and over a period of many years religious ways of thinking came to be replaced with more scientific or rational ways of thinking. Science and the scientific method became more central to social thought: knowledge was increasingly constructed through empirical, rational methods, rather than being dictated through religious channels.

From the Enlightenment onward, society went through a process of ‘disenchantment’ – the role of religion, magic, mystery, superstitions and faith became less prominent, and replaced by more rational motives for acting: rather than acting because faith leaders or religious tradition dictated that you should act in certain ways, without thinking about it, people were increasingly free to act for themselves. People en mass started to think more about how they should act, what they should do, and the best way to achieve their goals.

Four factors which encouraged rationalization and undermined religion

Following Weber, Bryan Wilson (1966) argued that the following four factors encouraged the development of rational thinking (2)

  1. Ascetic Protestantism. Largely following the theory outlined by Weber in his Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Wilson argued that protestant varieties of Christianity encouraged a rational approach to worshiping God – your ‘faith’ was essentially measured by your productivity.
  2. The rational organisation of society – the establishment of schools, workplaces, governments all imposed systematic ways of acting on people.
  3. A greater scientific knowledge of the social and natural world – Wilson argued that science provided more satisfactory explanations of many social and natural phenomenon than religions ones, and were better able to help people in tackling such problems.
  4. The development of rational ideologies – such as Marxism which offered more immediate solutions to our problems in this life further challenged and undermined religion.

Wilson argued that the rational world view fundamentally undermined the religious worldview, because it was based on the principle of systematic procedures to assess ‘truth claims’, whereas religious knowledge could not be tested and verified.

Criticisms of the idea that rationalization undermines religion

  • Steve Bruce has argued that although science and especially technology have challenged some religious beliefs, people may still turn to religion when technology fails.
  • Postmodernists point out that some people are skeptical of the promises of science. In some ways, science has made the world a riskier place.
  • The rise of the New Age Moveement and continued influence of the Christian Right in the USA show that religion is still important to many.

Sources

(1) Harlamabos and Holborn (2013) Sociology Themes and Perspectives

(2) Wilson –  ‘Religion in a Secular Society’ (1966)