Religion & Social Change Research Paper Starter

Religion & Social Change

Religions and society influence each other. Religious organizations can be affected as they gradually adopt the worldview of society through the process of secularization, while society can be affected as religious adherents act out their religious belief systems in the world. Many religions teach about human rights, social justice, and social responsibility, and their adherents are likely to go out into the world and put their faith into practice. There are two major sociological approaches to viewing the role of religion in causing social change: Weber's Protestant ethic and liberation theology. Both of these views have strengths and weaknesses and neither well explains well the differences that can be observed in the real world. Although the analysis of historical data and current trends shows that religion does indeed influence social change, the mechanisms for this are complex and are still not well articulated.

Keywords Catholic; Liberation Theology; Protestant; Protestant Ethic; Religion; Social Change; Social Justice

Sociology of Religion: Religion


There is a great deal of discussion in both sociological and theological circles about secularization, the process by which the worldview of society influences religion. Through secularization, it is said, religion is changed from a thing of faith and spirituality to one of philosophy and reason. Through the process of secularization, religious groups and activities can lose their religious significance. However, the relationship between religious and secular cultures is not a one-way thing. Religion, too, can influence society to right what it perceives as social injustices in the secular world and help bring them in line with the teachings of religion.

As illustrated in the daily newspaper, there is a great need for social change across the globe. Genocide in Africa, religious persecution in China, torture and terrorism in the Middle East, and issues of equality and the rights of women and gays in the United States can all be addressed by the moral codes of many religions. In some cases, these shortfalls can be addressed by acts of justice and mercy by individuals or religious groups giving spiritual, emotional, or physical aid to those in need. In other cases, religious groups act to affect the politics of a society either to change laws that are more in keeping with their religious views or to work together to elect politicians who will do this for them in the political arena. Goals could include helping to shape the country to better reflect the standards of social justice, human rights, or other religious beliefs, or to bring the nation's power and influence to bear internationally so as to bring about change in other nations and societies that are not living by the same principles.

Religious Belief

Most religions teach not only about spiritual things, but also about one's life and actions in the world through encouraging ethical decisions and actions according to the moral principles of the religion. Although these are sometimes unique to a given religion, there are frequently more areas of overlap than there are dissimilarities. Many religions, for example, teach about doing what is right and just towards both individuals and society, the basic birthright of all humans to be free and equal in dignity and rights, and to treat others as one would like to be treated oneself. In particular, the three major monotheistic religions of the world — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — each subscribe to a similar moral code that stresses concepts of human dignity, equality, social justice, and human rights. However, it is not only these three major monotheistic religions that are concerned with social change. The Bahá'ís, for example, believe that human beings were created to promote the continual advancement of civilization and to undertake social and economic development efforts around the world in support of this belief. In fact, one of the basic tenets of the Bahá'í religion is the recognition that there is a deep and inseparable connection between the practical and spiritual. Based on this belief, Bahá'ís attempt to create a desire for social change and instill a concomitant confidence that social change can be accomplished through an awakening of the human spirit. This is accomplished not only through the acquisition of technical skills, but also through the development of attitudes and actions that encourage cooperation and creativity in human interaction.

Sociological Study of Religion

Weber's Protestant Ethic

There are two major sociological approaches to viewing the interaction between religion and social change. Max Weber undertook an analysis of the connection between religious allegiance and the development of capitalism. The results of this analysis were published in 1904 in "The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism." Examining the societies in European nations with both Roman Catholic and Protestant citizens, Weber found that the vast majority of business leaders, owners of capital, and skilled workers were Protestant rather than Catholic. Examining in particular the actions and habits of the followers of John Calvin (a sixteenth century leader of the Protestant Reformation), Weber developed a definition of the Protestant ethic: An emphasis on disciplined work ethic, concerns over at the needs of this world, and rational orientation towards life. Also associated with this cluster of attitudes was the tendency to accumulate savings that could be used for future investment, which Weber referred to as the spirit of capitalism. Weber further contrasted the Protestant ethic with what he believed to be the more common ethics of the times: Moderate work hours, bad work habits, and lack of ambition.

Weber's theory on religion and social change in general and the Protestant ethic in particular has met with both acclaim and criticism. In some sectors, Weber's work on the Protestant ethic and capitalism has been hailed as the most important theoretical work in the field. Specifically within the discipline of the sociology of religion, Weber demonstrated that although religion is a matter of personal beliefs, it is also much more than that. Weber stressed that religion also is collective in nature, and religious beliefs have social consequences not only for its adherents but for society as a whole. However, Weber's theory is not without its flaws. Although his observations from the data of the early beginnings of capitalism may be valid, the capitalist economic system has subsequently been adopted by many non-Calvinist Protestants since that time and is no longer the sole product of Calvinist theology. Contemporary studies typically show little or no difference in the achievement orientation of Protestants and Catholics in the United States. This has led many sociologists to theorize that the spirit of capitalism has, in fact, become a cultural trait rather than one specifically associated with a particular religion. Further, those viewing capitalism from a conflict perspective caution that Weber's analysis does not adequately reflect the reality of mature capitalism as exhibited in modern multinational corporations. Marxists also disagree with the Weber and his theories on capitalism, projecting that capitalism cannot endure as an economic system into the indefinite future.

Liberation Theology

The second approach to viewing the interaction between social change and religion is that of liberation theology. In its essence, liberation theology is the use of the power and influence of the church to affect politics in an attempt reduce or eliminate poverty, discrimination, and work towards social justice in secular society. Liberation theology is primarily a process within the Roman Catholic Church in Latin America. Liberation theology views salvation in terms of the here-and-now as the liberation from injustice. It combines this theology with an often Marxist social philosophy of action in the world.

Liberation theology is based on the belief that organized religion has a moral responsibility in keeping with the tenets of its faith to stand out and work against the oppression of the poor, racial and ethnic minorities, and women. The term liberation theology originated in 1973 from a book by Gustavo Gutierrez, a Peruvian priest, called the "A Theology of Liberation." Gutierrez lived in the slums of Lima during the early 1960s and came to the conclusion that the church needed to move into the arena of political action in order to truly serve the poor. In addition, a number of Latin American theologians were strongly influenced by social scientists who believed that capitalism and multinational corporations were the source of many of the problems in South America....

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