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Role of religion in Webers account of modernisation

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 1976 words Published: 3rd Aug 2021

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This assignment is going to discuss the role of religion in the contemporary society according to Weber and examine the views of two other classic theorists, like Karl Marx, and Emile Durkheim. Finally it will address other main views from some other sociologists who took different approaches to this area.

There are various definitions of religion, in writings of Weber (cited in Brubaker, 1989); he defines religion as a change promoting social change. Weber was much more concerned on world religion which he believes that it has attracted the majority of believers and certainly affected the cause of global history. In contrast Marx defines religion as an economic justice and material realities which cause problems in society. He also believes that religion stresses the society which appears as a symptom rather than a disease which is used by oppressors to treat those who are poor and exploited. Marx commented that “religion is opium of masses” which shows that he was more economic than religious theory. Marx did not look much into religion and he thought that everything was economics. Although, both Marx and Durkheim believed that religion is a change promoting social change but Durkheim also have his own views about it. He believes that religion is a social function with systems of rituals and believes with indication to the scared which bring society close into social groups Durkheim (1976, cited in Marshall, 1982). Despite, all these views Durkheim views religion as a nature of institutionalisation which has nothing to do with social inequalities or power in the modern society. In contrast to other two theorists, Durkheim from his survey in Australian Aboriginal society, he believes that the practice of totemism Aboriginal practice was a norm which was comparable to religion. He claims that norm is seen as an “object” or “symbol” which is scared as it present various ritual activities. In addition, Durkheim in this survey, he sees totemism as symbol or object which Aborigines used to exclude some other animals to be hunted. Durkheim used all these as reference which are derived in respect of some social values. Moreover, in view of all of these it absolutely mean that religion was taken as an object in relationship to worship in modern societies.

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Max Weber was a theorist who studied massive religious worldwide and it was on the centre of his heart (Giddens 2009). In Weber’s book “The Protestant work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, (1904) he identifies that a number of protestant religion which developed in the 16th century, Europe has created the ideas which were necessary for the growth of capitalism. He gave some examples that religion had promoted values such as condemnation of time-wasting, hard work, self -discipline and laziness which affect people in the modern society. According to Weber 1904, he argues that religion in some other cases shapes the entire economic systems and conveys some fundamental changes to the society. In contrast, Marx views religion as dominantly shaped by economic factors. Max Weber’s book “From History To modernity” p 8 cited in Turner (1992) argues that religion is a conservative force which can influence an individual’s behaviour and forces which are produced in a social context. Max Weber argues that religion is a conservative force but it can perform a radical force which leads to social change. For Max Weber to illustrate his point of view, he used the inspiration of protestant ethic as a hypothesis. Max Weber defines the meaning of this term as beliefs of religion which their main aspects are viewed as wasting time, food and resources, which is also measured as sin (Giddens, 2006). He also believes that in order for a society to live in a good life it has to fear God.

However, according to Weber all of those aspects were ideally the key catalysts in creation of industrialisation, which mean that if this concept is true this also applies to religion that it plays a major part in social change. Therefore, Marx claims that religion was an effective agent of social control and as an opiate of the masses. He went on to explain that religion is not a promoter of social change in the modern world but it only lead to the reduction of individual’s hostility towards to unequal and exploitation of the society. In contrast Marx argues that religion has a strong ideological influence due its values and religious beliefs which present justifications of inequalities of power and wealth (Sharrock et. al, 2003).In addition, Marx views religion as a traditional form with idealistic which has positive values guiding to improve a lot of humanity of earth. Weber argues

According to Hughes et .al (1995) they argued about Weber’s believes in the idea of the Calvinism that whether a person is born among the elect or not they all allowed to enter heaven. Weber claims that the challenge of sanctions and discipline of the protestant ethic encouraged men rationally to acquire wealth. Weber (1905, cited in Marsh et al, 1998) believes that religious beliefs of the Calvinism have leaded the growth of capitalism in the modern society. In his point of view, Weber claims that attitudes and beliefs overlap the religious behaviour of the Calvinism and the notion of capitalism. Weber believes that this relationship was only found in the Western Europe. Marx claims that Weber was to deny the idea that Calvinism has caused capitalism as Weber was fully aware that there was a strong interlinkage between beliefs and ideals of the Calvinism which their behaviours encourages the raise of capitalism,(Cuff et al,1998). Furthermore, (Giddens, 2009) Weber in his writings he claims protestant ethic as way of life which has been selected by the Calvinists with some guidance of rules and directions which a human being should behave. Weber claims that there are some duties and obligations which give roles to individual. Weber believes in the principles of the Calvinists which promote individualism in defined careers, which he sees himself a calling from God in life. From this point of view Weber defines a career as value determined single-minded fashion which God has commanded for individual to work in glory and succession in material things is a divine favour from God. In conclusive example of the Calvinists, Weber wanted to prove that Calvinists succession has contributed in the Western economic development as they have been promoted by the desire to serve god. From this idea of the Calvinism, Weber thought that making money was a tangible evidence from a succession calling from God.

From the idea of Calvinism, Marx argues about Weber’s idea of religion ideologies which dominant the society. He claims that such ideologies have some implications that save to justify the interest of the ruling groups at the expenses of others. For Weber, the dominant of religious values break a strong commitment in the economic development (Sharrock at el, 2003). To emphasis this point of view, Weber gave an example of countries like China, the most powerful developed cultural country which is dominate in religious values. In (Cuff at el, 1998) Weber claims that religion is a dominant significant which influence the development of urbanism, commerce and manufactures in the China and India in the 19th century which give a raise in capitalism rather the radical patterns of social change. Weber views religion as denomination which influences such an inhibiting change in these industrialised countries which lead to the development of capitalism. In contrast Feuerbach (1957) in his book called “The Essence of Christianity”, he claims that religion involves ideas of values which are primarily produced by human beings in the event of their cultural development in setting the structure and order of the society. He went on argue that values and norms of human beings are socially constructed and not created through the activities of God.

Max Weber

Like Marx, Weber subscribed to the idea that religion could be ideological in two ways;

  • It gave assurance to the most fortunate, .i.e. the powerful and wealthy, by stressing that their position was natural or god-given
  • It offered religious reasons for poverty and suffering in term s of themes such as wickedness, sins committed in former lives. Weber argued, like Marx, that both these themes legitimate status quo.

However Weber believed that some religious ideas specifically protestant beliefs, had initiated the economic and social conditions in which capitalism emerged.

From his comparative studies, Weber noted that while similar economic conditions prevailed in china, India and Europe, capitalism only developed in the latter. He noted that capitalism had developed in those parts of Europe where a particular set of protestant beliefs known as Calvinism were dominant. He concluded that Calvinism had brought about the right cultural climate for capitalist ideas practices to develop in two ways.

Weber noted that;

Calvinists believed in predestination =, i.e. that they were chosen by god for salvation. They were taught to believe that righteous living was all important and that their reward for sticking to such religious principles would be economic success.

Consequently Calvinism encouraged values such as self-discipline, hard work, thrift, modesty and the rejection of self-indulgence, pleasure, idleness and lavish spending; the protestant work ethic. The adoption of these ideas, Weber argues, led to the rapid accumulation of capital which was invested in industrialisation and the emergence of a Calvinist capitalist class at the end of feudal era.

Weber did not say Calvinism caused capitalism; he only suggested that it was the major contribute to a climate of change. Many other pre-conditions needed to be in place. For example, Calvinist beliefs had to be supplemented by a certain level of technology, a skilled and mobile workforce and rational modes of law and bureaucracy. These latter pre-conditions were also present in china and India but Weber claimed that eastern religions emphasised the spiritual rather than the rational or material – in other words, ideas which were not conductive to sustained economic activity.

Criticms of Weber

  • Sombart suggests that Weber was mistaken about the beliefs held by Calvinists. Calvinism was against greed and the pursuit of money for its own sake.
  • Some countries with large Calvinist populations did not industrialise and this is cited as evidence that Weber’s thesis is wrong. However marshal points out that Weber did not claim Calvinism was the sole pre-condition for the emergence of capitalism. For example, Scotland lacked a skilled technical labour force and capital investment.
  • Some commentators have suggested that slavery, colonialism and piracy were more influential than Calvinist beliefs in accumulating the capital required for industrialisation.
  • Marxists have also been critical of Weber. Kautsky suggested that capitalism pre-dated Calvinism. Bourgeoisie capitalists were attracted to it because it offered convenient justification for the pursuit of economic interests. Thus the protestant religion was an ideology used to legitimate capitalist interests.

Despite some empirical difficulties in testing Weber’s thesis, his ideas remain important because he highlighted the relationship between social structure (i.e. the economic and social system) and social action (i.e. interaction and interpretation). His point was that if certain structural factors are present, people may choose to act upon religious ideas and bring about change.


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