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Religion and Social Change

Does religion cause social change, or prevent it?

Functionalists and Traditional Marxists have generally argued that religion prevents social change. Neo-Marxists and the Social Action theorist Max Weber have argued that religion can be a force for social change.

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…!

Image Source 

http://ipost.christianpost.com/post/10-powerful-quotes-from-rev-dr-martin-luther-king-jr-on-faith

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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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Ethnicity and Crime: Neo-Marxist Approaches

Neo-Marxism draws on aspects of Marxist and Interactionist theory in order to explain the criminalisation of ethnic minorities by the media and the state.

The classic study from this perspective is Stuart Hall’s Policing the Crisis (1979) in which he examined the moral panic that developed over the crime of mugging in the 1970s. Despite sensationalist newspaper reports that claimed there was an increase in mugging, particularly among young black men in London, Hall’s own research showed that it was actually growing more slowly than in the previous decade.

Hall argued that a moral panic over black criminality at the time created a diversion away from the wider economic crisis – ‘black youths out of control’ being the headlines rather than ‘Capitalism in Crisis’ – hence the title of the book ‘Policing the Crisis’ (of Capitalism).

Hall broke his analysis down into several stages – focusing firstly on how Capitalism caused crime, and then on how the media, state and the police responded to this, and finally on the further reaction of the criminalised black youth:

  1. A major economic recession in the mid-1970s increased unemployment and lead to wider civil unrest – such as mass strikes.
  1. Capitalism faced a ‘legitimation crisis’ – it appeared not to be working – government needed a scapegoat to divert attention away from the failing Capitalist system.
  1. Fortunately (for the Capitalist Class and the government) the recession also lead to further social and economic marginalization of black youth which lead to an increase in street robbery.
  1. The media picked up on these street robberies, creating a ‘moral panic’.
  1. The government responded to this by putting more police in areas with increasing crime rates.
  1. This lead to higher arrest rates which the media of course reported.
  1. The end consequence of all of this is that the public’s attention is firmly focused on the problem of black criminality, rather than the deeper problems of the capitalist system which both causes crime in the first place and then further criminalises certain people (young, black and working class).

Evaluations

  • Stuart Hall seems to contradict himself – On one hand he claims that black crime is exaggerated; on the other hand he states that crime is bound to rise because of factors such as unemployment. If crime rates do rise, then it isn’t a moral panic but a real event.
  • The association between criminality and black youth has continued since the economic crisis of the 1970s, so it’s not clear that this is the ultimate cause of the ‘moral panic’.