Practice Question – In what important ways can religion be a force both for social stability and social change? Discuss. [UPSC 2008]

Approach – Introduction, List religious functions and elaborate on its function of maintaining social stability and accelerating social change. Give examples for both, Add opinions of thinkers, Conclusion.



Religion is a belief in God. In other words religion is the human response to the apprehension of something of power, which is supernatural and super sensory. It is the expression of the manner and type of adjustment effected by the people with their conception of the supernatural. Belief and rituals are two main component parts of religion. Beliefs are a charter for rituals. Rituals consist in the observance according to a prescribed manner of certain actions designed to establish liaison between the performing individual and the supernatural power. Religion involves a set of symbols invoking feelings of reverences or awe are linked to rituals practiced by a community of believers.



 According to Maclver, “Religion as we understand the term implies a relationship not merely between man and man but also between man and some higher power.”


According to Emile Durkheim, “Religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relating to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden.”

According to Ogburn, “Religion is attitudes towards superhuman powers.”

According to J.M. Frazer, “Religion is a belief in powers superior to man which are believed to direct and control the course of nature of human life.”

According to A.W. Green, “Religion is a system of beliefs and symbolic practices and objects, governed by faith rather than by knowledge which relates man to an unseen supernatural realm beyond the known and beyond the controllable.”



First, religion gives meaning and purpose to life. Many things in life are difficult to understand. That was certainly true, as we have seen, in prehistoric times, but even in today’s highly scientific age, much of life and death remains a mystery, and religious faith and belief help many people make sense of the things science cannot tell us.

Second, religion reinforces social unity and stability. This was one of Durkheim’s most important insights. Religion strengthens social stability in at least two ways. First, it gives people a common set of beliefs and thus is an important agent of socialization. Second, the communal practice of religion, as in houses of worship, brings people together physically, facilitates their communication and other social interaction, and thus strengthens their social bonds.

A third function of religion is related to the one just discussed. Religion is an agent of social control and thus strengthens social order. Religion teaches people moral behavior and thus helps them learn how to be good members of society.

A fourth function of religion is greater psychological and physical well-being. Religious faith and practice can enhance psychological well-being by being a source of comfort to people in times of distress and by enhancing their social interaction with others in places of worship.

A final function of religion is that it may motivate people to work for positive social change. Religion played a central role in the development of the Southern civil rights movement a few decades ago. Religious beliefs motivated Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights activists to risk their lives to desegregate the South. Black churches in the South also served as settings in which the civil rights movement held meetings, recruited new members, and raised money.



When religion and social order interact, two broad effects may result:

(i) Religion can change the social order or religion can stabilise the social order (ii) Social change can lead to changes in religion itself at various levels or existing social order can defend and justify the religion which at times is oppressive and atrocious.

Stabilisation and change are not the only likely fall-out of interaction between religion and social order.  Sometimes at certain specific places, even a continuity may result. In other words some of the features of the bygone era can be retained, changing few others. New emergent situations may necessitate the adaptation of some of the principles of the past.

Religion stabilises the existing social order by its explanations’ of human misery and social inequalities. It can stabilise the society by socialising individuals within a specific moral framework. A particular religion explains doctrines which explain inequalities as natural and God-given. Some religions revolve around the concept of personal salvation so much that, they explain human misery in terms of ‘sin’ or the ‘fallen state of humankind7.



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. 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.

Examples for the argument  that religion can bring Social Change

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.



Religion is still a major force in Western society, it is within a backdrop of societies becoming more and more secularized. Secularization as a social and historical process has been outlined by the sociologist Jose Casanova as three interrelated trends, all open to debate: 1) the decline of religious beliefs and practices in modern societies, 2) the privatization of religion, and 3) the differentiation of the secular spheres (state, economy, science), usually understood as “emancipation” from religious institutions and norms .

Historical sociologists Émile Durkheim, Max Weber, and Karl Marx and psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud anticipated secularization, claiming that the modernization of society would bring about a decrease in the influence of religion. Weber believed membership in distinguished clubs would outpace membership in Protestant sects as a way for people to gain authority or respect. Conversely, some people contend that secularization is a root cause of many social problems, such as divorce, drug use, and educational downturn. U.S. presidential contender Michele Bachmann even linked Hurricane Irene and the 2011 earthquake felt in Washington D.C. to politicians’ failure to listen to God .








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