Just Sociology

Religion as a Barrier or Catalyst for Social Change: Debating Theories

The role of religion in social change has always been a topic of debate among scholars. Some observers argue that religion is a barrier to social change, while others contend that it can be a catalyst for progressive transformation.

This article examines both sides of the argument and explores the complex theories surrounding the effect of religion on social change. In doing so, this article will discuss functionalism,

Marxism, feminism, and other theoretical approaches that provide evidence in favor of the view that religion is a barrier to social change.

It will also discuss liberation theology,

Max Weber’s theories, and other theoretical frameworks that contradict this viewpoint.


Functionalism argues that all parts of a society contribute to its stability and maintenance, including religion. According to functionalists, religion establishes value consensus and social order, which ensures stability within society.

Functionalists believe that religion helps maintain a sense of community and shared values among individuals. However, they also argue that too much change can lead to anomie, a state of normlessness that results from a breakdown of social order.

Thus, they believe that religion can serve as a barrier to social change by preserving the status quo and preventing anomie.


Marxist theory asserts that religion is a tool for ideological control that serves the interests of the ruling class. According to

Marxism, religion promotes false consciousness, a form of thinking that prevents the oppressed from recognizing and resisting their exploitation.

This creates inequality, injustice, and suffering, which leads to a resistance against change. In capitalist societies, religion reinforces the economic power structures and maintains the status quo for the ruling class.

Thus, religion can act as a barrier to social change by reinforcing the existing power structures.


Feminists argue that religion serves as a tool of oppression and maintains women’s second-class status. They contend that religion has been patriarchal throughout history, promoting male domination and exclusion of women from leadership positions.

Feminists advocate the rejection of traditional religious practices and call for the creation of alternative spiritualities that promote gender equality. Thus, religion can be a barrier to social change by consolidating patriarchy and perpetuating the marginalization of women.

The Church

The church has been viewed as a barrier to social change, especially in conservative societies. Religious institutions are often associated with political and economic power structures and are reluctant to endorse any challenges to the established order.

The church has frequently opposed movements advocating for social change, such as civil rights and feminism. Thus, it can be argued that religion generally serves as a conservative force and a barrier to social change.

World Accommodating and World Affirming NBMs

World Accommodating and World Affirming New Religious Movements (NRMs) are seen as conservative in their approach to social change. They focus on coping mechanisms, such as adapting to dominant cultural values or creating their own individualistic coping mechanisms.

World Affirming NRMs aspire to achieve personal fulfillment and well-being, while World Accommodating NRMs work within existing social structures to achieve their goals. Both types of NRMs are inwardly focused and do not advocate for radical social change.

Liberation Theology

Liberation theology originated in Latin America, where Catholic priests supported the peasants’ struggles to resist the inequality and poverty perpetuated by the ruling elite. The clergy used religion to promote social change by advocating for the rights of landless peasants, challenging the power structures that held them in subjugation.

However, this movement was unsuccessful, and some argue that it was due to the church’s ties to the ruling class.

Max Weber

Max Weber’s theory posits that religion can be a positive force for social change. His work famously explored the Protestant work ethic, which argued that Protestants’ religious values encouraged entrepreneurship and business success.

According to Weber, religion could provide the impetus for progress and the desire to achieve success, leading to economic development and social change.


Feminist scholars promote diverse approaches to social change, emphasizing the importance of recognizing women’s agency and calling for an end to patriarchy.

Feminism calls for a rejection of traditional religious beliefs that sustain patriarchal gender roles and promote exclusion. The movement calls for alternative spiritualities and the embracing of the feminine divine, promoting gender equality and social change.

Some World Rejecting NRMs

Some World Rejecting NRMs reject mainstream society and advocate for radical social change. This approach is evident in movements like the Nation of Islam, which calls for black nationalism and separatism.

These NRMs reject the existing social order and work towards creating a new society based on freedom and justice.

The New Age Movement

The New Age movement emphasizes individualism and emphasizes the importance of finding one’s personal spiritual path. It rejects the idea of a single, all-encompassing religion and instead integrates diverse spiritual and religious practices.

Its adherents also promote ecological and social justice causes. The New Age movement presents a hybridized spirituality that promotes individual empowerment and social change through diverse approaches.


Secularization holds that religion holds less power in society and is less of a barrier to social change. In the contemporary world, religion’s role in politics and society has decreased, allowing for greater freedom and diversity in beliefs and practices.

However, some evidence suggests that religion still plays a significant role in shaping political and social beliefs.


Is religion a barrier to social change? The answer is complex and cannot be answered by a single theoretical framework.

Some functionalists and Marxists consider religion a conservative force, impeding progress and perpetuating the status quo. Feminists criticize religious traditions for reinforcing patriarchy and oppressing women.

Others, however, argue that religion can promote social change, as

Max Weber’s work suggests. The overall verdict appears to be one of ambiguity – while religion can play a conservative role, its impact is multifaceted, and its interaction with broader social, economic, and political forces is a topic for continued investigation.

In conclusion, the relationship between religion and social change remains a complex and multifaceted topic, with scholars taking different sides on the issue. This article has explored various theoretical frameworks, including functionalism,

Marxism, feminism, and others, to shed light on the debate.

While some view religion as a conservative force that impedes progress, others argue that it can facilitate social change. Ultimately, understanding the interplay between religion and social change requires a nuanced and interdisciplinary approach.


Q: What is functionalism and how does it view religion’s role in social change? A:

Functionalism argues that religion acts to maintain social order and stability, thereby serving as a barrier to social change.

Q: What is

Marxism, and how does it view religion’s role in social change? A:

Marxism holds that religion serves the interests of the ruling class and reinforces inequality, promoting false consciousness that prevents the oppressed from challenging power structures.

Q: How does feminism view religion’s role in social change? A: Feminists criticize religion for perpetuating patriarchy and women’s second-class status, calling for alternative spiritual practices that promote gender equality.

Q: Can religion be a catalyst for social change? A: Yes, religion can promote social change, as evidenced by

Max Weber’s Protestant work ethic and some World Rejecting NRMs that advocate for radical social change.

Q: Does religion’s role in society hinder social change? A: The answer is complex, with some arguing that religion acts as a conservative force while others insisting it can be a catalyst for progressive transformation.

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