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.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, seems to be firmly against corporate greed and Tory neoliberal policies which allow Corporations the freedom to exploit workers.
His explicitly political stance against mainstream political and economic institutions seems to be a good example of a religious leader getting involved in political conflict.
At the Trade’s Union conference Just last week Welby described zero hours contracts as ‘the reincarnation of an ancient evil’ and accused Amazon of avoiding tax and ‘leaching’ off the public.
The Archbishop seems to be firmly in the ‘Jeremy Corbyn camp’: he has been speaking out against Tory austerity policies since he took up office in 2013. He has consistently criticized modern capitalism and tory welfare cuts; and has previously stated that he wanted to see the payday loan company Wonga put out of business (so at least he’s got something to be happy about!).
Welby probably has a lot of direct experience to draw on: all over the country Church of England churches have been setting up food banks and acting as night shelters for the homeless, effectively playing a role in filling the Tory’s welfare gap.
Relevance to A-level sociology…
This seems to be a great example of a major religious leader standing up for the poor, in the tradition of Liberation Theology.
Potentially this is religion acting as a source of conflict… here Welby is railing explicitly against mainstream political and economic institutions.
This is most definitely NOT an example of religion acting as a conservative force: this is a religious leader demanding radical change.
There is possibly an element of hypocrisy to Welby’s views: The Church of England itself has shares in Amazon, and even uses zero hours contracts.
This further suggests that Welby’s views might be out of step with the rest of the Church of England. Maybe the views of this one individual are genuine, but maybe he actually has any real power to really bring about any kind of far reaching, radical social change?
According to Roy Walllis, World Affirming New Religious Movements aim to help individuals achieve success within mainstream society by unleashing their spiritual potential.
This is the third type of movement in Wallis three fold typology of New Religious Movement, and is most closely related to Bruce’s concept of ‘the cult’.
Examples of World Affirming NRMs…
The Human Potential Movement
Key features of World Affirming New Religious Movements
They aim to help members achieve their full potential in terms of the dominant values of mainstream society.
These groups claim to access to spiritual or supernatural powers, and aim to help members access these powers so that they can be successful in life, by unleashing their full potential.
Besides the above, they tend to lack any formal religious doctrine, and are the ‘least religious’ of Wallis’ three NRMS, at least in the conventional or traditional sense of what organised religion is about.
They are extremely individualistic: success is seen as a matter of individual effort.
There is little attempt to control members lives, low commitment. Turnover of membership tends to be quite high.
Membership tends to be ‘tiered’.
Membership is highly inclusive – World Affirming NRMs want as larger membership base as possible. Membership of such groups may be limited to a client base consumer style relationship…. members ‘buy spiritual services’ from the group.
The World Accommodating New Religious Movement (NRM) is one of Roy Wallis’ three types of New Religious Movement. As the name suggests, their orientation to wider society is one of ‘accommodating’ the world rather than rejecting or affirming it.
These type of religious movement have normally broken off from an already existing mainstream church or religious organisation, and they are thus very close to Niebuhr’s category of the denomination.
Key features of World Accommodating New Religious Movements
They are typically offshoots of an already existing religion. For example, neo-Pentecostal groups developed from Protestantism or Catholicism.
These movements tend to aim to restore the ‘spiritual purity’ which they believe has been lost in the larger institutions they have broken away from.
The main aim of World Accommodating NRMs tends to be to provide members with ‘spiritual solace’ and a way of coping with their ordinary lives.
They tend to focus on helping individual members develop their own interior sense of spirituality and commitment to God.
Unlike world rejecting movements, they do not reject mainstream society, in fact most members of world accommodating groups tend to be actively involved with mainstream society – they have jobs and the like.
Unlike World Affirming Movements, World Accommodating Movements are not obsessed with ‘maxing out personal spiritual growth’, they are more about helping members cope with their ordinary lives, improving their quality of life within in society.
The World Rejecting New Religious Movement (NRM) is one of Roy Wallis’ three types of New Religious Movement. As the name suggests, their orientation to wider society is one of rejecting most of what that society stands for.
Wallis’ World Rejecting NRMs are closely related to Troeltsch’s category of the sect.
Examples of World Rejecting NRMs…
The People’s Temple
The Manson Family
Key features of World Rejecting New Religious Movements
Their religious ideology tends to be highly critical of mainstream society (and possible mainstream religions within that society).
World Rejecting Movements typically demand high levels of commitment from members. They often expect members to withdraw from mainstream society and devote much of their lives to the movement. Some of them may act as ‘total institutions’, controlling every aspects of members’ lives.
While regular members’ lives are tightly controlled, those higher up the hierarchy will typically have more ties and more interactions with the outside world.
Seeking radical individual transformation or even radical social change is often the main goal of World Rejecting NRMs.
They tend to have been founded by a charismatic leader, and membership tends to demand loyalty to that leader.
World Rejecting NRMs vary size: from small, ‘one location’ organisations such as The People’s Temple to global NRMs such as the Moonies.
Many NRMs have conservative religious beliefs, especially where sex and marriage are concerned.
There are wide variety of opinions with Feminist thought as to the relationship between religion and social change. Some Feminists tend to side with the view that religion prevents social change. Other Feminists recognise the potential for religion to bring about social change.
This post considers some of the arguments and evidence against the view that religion prevents social change.
Arguments and evidence for the view that religion prevents social change
Functionalist thinkers Malinowski and Parsons both argued that religion prevents social change by helping individuals and society cope with disruptive events that might threaten the existing social order. Most obviously, religion provides a series of ceremonies which help individuals and societies cope with the death of individual members.
Marx believed that religion helped to preserve the existing class structure. According to Marx religious beliefs serve to justify the existing, unequal social order and prevent social change by making a virtue out of poverty and suffering. Religion also teaches people that it is pointless striving for a revolution to bring about social change in this life. Rather, it is better to focus on ‘being a good Christian’ (for example) and then you will receive your just rewards in heaven.
Neo-Marxist Otto Maduro argued that historically the Catholic Church in Latin America tended to prevent social change. It did so by supporting existing economic and political elites, thus justifying the unequal social order. However, he also recongised that religion had the potential to be a force for social change (see below)
Arguments and evidence for the view that religion causes social change
Max Weber’s ‘Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism’ is one of the best loved accounts of how religion can bring about social change. Weber pointed out that Capitalism developed first in England and Holland, taking off in the early 17th century (early 1600s). Just previous to Capitalism taking off, Protestantism was the main religion in these two countries, unlike most other countries in Europe at that time which were Catholic. To cut a very long winded theory short, Max Weber argued that the social norms instilled by Protestantism laid the foundations for modern capitalism.
Neo-Marxist Otto Maduro pointed to the example of Liberation Theology in Latin America to demonstrate that religion can act as a force for social change. He further suggested that this is especially the case where the marginalized have no other outlet for their grievances than religious institutions.
Reverend Martin Luther King and the broader Baptist Church in the Southern United States played a major role in the Civil Rights movement in 1960s America. This movement effectively helped to end racial segregation in America and secure more equal political rights for non-whites.
Martin Luther King was very much inspired by Gandhi’s religiously inspired practice of Non Violent Direct Action. This involved the use of peaceful protest and resisting of violence in order to bring about social change.
The Arab Spring which swept across the Middle East and North Africa between 2010-2014 offers a more contemporary example of the role of religion in social change. Islamic groups were very active in using social media to highlight the political injustices in countries such as Tunisia and Egypt.
This post is a work in progress, further details to be added in due course…!
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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
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.
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