Religion can be powerful under the right certain circumstances for social change. However it can be argued that religion can be a conservative force. Weber argues that religious beliefs contributed to major social change- specifically the emergence of modern capitalism in Northern Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. Modern capitalism differs from capitalism as it is based on systematic, efficient and a rational pursuit of profit and profit for its own sake rather than consumption. Weber calls this the spirit of capitalism. Calvinism is a form of protestant that was formed during the reformation.
Weber argues that it is the Calvinist’s beliefs that helped bring about social change and modern capitalism. For example one of Calvinists beliefs is the idea of predestination; that God has predetermined which souls would be saved. The saved ones are called the elect and individuals could do nothing whatsoever to change whether they were part of the elect. Weber sees that this causes followers to have salvation panic; it was out of their control and knowledge whether they were saved or not, they could do nothing to earn their salvation.
Another belief of Calvinists which they introduced is ‘other worldly asceticism’. The only thing Calvinist’s knew of God’s plan for humanity came from the Bible which revealed to them that they are on earth to glorify God’s name by working. Calvinists interpreted this as constant, methodical work in an occupation not in a monastery (other worldly asceticism). Due to Calvinist’s having a this worldly asceticism they worked hard long hours and practised rigorous self-discipline.
This worked well as it rewarded them wealth and their success performed a psychological function for followers to cope with their salvation panic. Also due to their driven work force they accumulated wealth efficiently but did not allow themselves to spend it on luxuries. Instead they reinvested into their businesses which grew more and gained more profit which was again reinvested and so on. In Weber’s view this is the very spirit of modern capitalism – where the object is simply the acquisition of more and more money as an end in itself.
Calvinism thus brought capitalism into the world. Weber claims that religion does contribute to social change and uses Calvinism as an example. In contrast Marx puts forward an argument that economic and material factors were the driving force of change, not religion. Kautsky, who is a Marxist, argues that Weber underestimates economic factors in bringing capitalism into being. He argues that in fact capitalism preceded rather than followed Calvinism. Similarly Tawney sees that technological change, not religious ideas, caused the birth of capitalism.
It was only after capitalism that the bourgeoisie adopted Calvinist beliefs to legitimate their pursuit of economic gain. Furthermore Weber clearly points out that he doesn’t argue Calvinism were the cause of modern capitalism, but was one of its causes. A number of material and economic factors were necessary, such as natural resources, a money economy and a system of law. Weber also notes that other societies with higher level of economic development than Northern Europe had in the 16th and 17th century yet still failed to develop modern capitalism.
For example China and India were materially more advanced than Europe but it didn’t take off, he argues that this is due to the lack of religious belief systems, such as Calvinism, that would of meant development occurred. Critics argue that capitalism did not develop in every country where there were Calvinists. For example in Scotland there was a large number of Calvinist followers yet was slow to develop capitalism. Weberians point out that this was due to the lack of investment capital and skilled labour- which supports Webers point that religion simply contributes to social change- does not entirely cause it.
Moreover it must be noted that Weber uses secondary data for his argument as he was not alive in this period- this can make his argument invalid as it probably will differ in some way of the truth. Another example of religion being a force for change is the American civil rights movement. Bruce argues that religion was the back bone of this being a success, he believes this due to support that black clergy gave the people. For example the churches provided meeting places and a sanctuary from the threat of white violence, and rituals such as prayer meetings and hymn singing were a source of unity in the face of oppression.
In this context Bruce sees religion as an ideological resource – it provided beliefs and practises that protestors could draw on for motivation or support. The civil rights movement becoming involved in secular struggle and helping to bring about change. It achieved this by taking the moral high ground by black clergy pointing out hypocrisy of white clergy who preached ‘love thy neighbour’ yet supported racial segregation. Also the movement had the moral majority which was beneficial as it was motivating for all followers.
Bruce also points out an example of the new Christian right which is a protestant fundamentalist movement which aims were extremely ambitious seeking nothing less than to take America ‘back to God’. They wish to make abortion, divorce and homosexuality illegal. This movement was largely unsuccessful in achieving its aims. Bruce suggests this is because; the movement was never a majority (15% of the population at the most) meaning that it lacks widespread support and had strong opposition from groups who believed in freedom of choice.
Critics can point out here that religion can fail to bring about social change. However Weber points out that religion can contribute to bring about social change but for change to occur other resources are needed, such as technology. To conclude, Marxists argue that religion is more of a conservative force rather than a contribution to social change. Marx argues that religion allows the bourgeoisie to maintain power over the proletariat in order for a capitalist society to be maintained.
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