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Religion and Social Change
Mar 1, 2015

he debate over religion’s role in social change has been raging for centuries.

The interpretation and perception of even just a single social action is multi-layered, multi-faceted, complex, and sophisticated. It almost seems impossible to explain a social action entirely through any of our sciences; in fact, it seems unlikely that any science will be developed that fully encompasses all of humanity’s problems.

As human beings our needs, conscious or unconscious, stretch from a tiny atomic particle to nearly the whole universe. It sometimes seems that the whole universe and all that within it are not good enough to satisfy even the smallest need of our unlimited desire. Some have asserted that one day human beings are going to play the role of God. They do this because of their strong and persistent belief that we are merely the product of material existence and it is therefore the material realm that makes us who we are. As such, they believe we will eventually rule over the things that created us.

Others would undoubtedly take a whole different direction and argue that our nature is a complex, interwoven tapestry of the material and immaterial realms; it is imprecise to contend that it is only economic conditions or conditioning that beget all the other elements of our social and individual lives, which includes things such as literature, the fine arts, religion, and the like. Hence, I intend to examine the notions of two influential intellectuals of the recent past: Karl Marx and Max Weber, particularly their notions as to religion.

To begin with, the history of humanity has seen a lot of wars, but the intellectual war that we have experienced over the past two centuries, which split the entire world into two blocks of countries (until recently they were communist and capitalist), should be of the greatest interest to almost everyone; it has been a one-of-a-kind struggle.

Marx, a reductionist, framed his argument as such:

“…the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a single word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in revolutionary re-constitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.”

He wrote this about the sorry state of the working class, especially in the nineteenth century, when workers were treated almost like machines or animals. This was particularly true in Western Europe. Even from just these few lines, one could easily grasp the sympathy of Marx for the working class of his time, what he called the oppressed, and his animosity and utter disgust toward the elite class, what he called the oppressor. It is no surprise then to see him portray a system in which the rights of the oppressed to a happy life could not be realized as needing to be overthrown through a social upheaval or revolution against the oppressors. For Marx, everything was crystal clear: it was the economic system which made the elites oppress their workers (please see “Karl Marx: the Prophet of Materialism” article in this issue).

Marx frequently turned to the then recent revolutions occurring in Western Europe: the English Civil War of the 1600s and the French Revolution. These struggles cost many lives and were for him just a new chapter in the ever-repeating class struggle between the oppressor and the oppressed.

On the surface, the apparent causes of the infamous conflict could be identified as politics and religion, which were quite intertwined then. A thorough analysis of Marx’s society enabled him to discover the subtle connection between the social class divisions and the stages of economic development, and allowed him to postulate his version of human salvation: communism, in which the superstructure, with all its elements including religion, would perish eternally in the name of a utopian, classless society. He prophesied a future in which the communal life of people would be shaped by a new idealized economic system that negated all private ownership of property, monopolized the political structure, and left no room for religion in social and individual life. As a matter of fact, most of his writings reflect his reactive response to the perceived evils or fatal flaws of capitalism. For instance, while some people enjoyed luxurious lives because of the fact that they were born to a rich family, many others endured the severest conditions just to survive. Witnessing this, one cannot help but wonder, “Is the economic system to be blamed for this?” Or even, “Are the ill-perception, misuse, and exploitation of the system the culprit?” I am completely sure that every sensible human being would appreciate the diagnosis of the diseases of class struggle and the oppression of the poor, but I also think it is hasty to reflexively blame the system – capitalism – as being solely to blame for the wretched conditions of the oppressed. According to Marx, religion was the opiate fed by the oppressors to the oppressed to keep them in line. To realize the revolution that Marx felt was necessary, this opiate had to be eliminated.

His approach to religion was always contemptuous and very similar to the functional and reductionist theories of Freud and Durkheim. In his view, religion is nothing more than a pure illusion – in other words, an entity that has no real existence. Therefore, he did not heed what religious beliefs or holy books taught; rather, he emphasized the function that religion and its fundamental elements played in social life. Even though his portrayal of religion was reduced to a social function, he still maintained that we should discover why people insist on this illusion, arguably since the beginning of human life.

As depicted above, Marx left no room for religion in his imagined world after the envisaged revolution against the oppressor. He saw it as an effect, an expression or a symptom of a deeper reality: material facts of the class struggle and alienation. Religion was the culprit to be annihilated in the name of real human bliss.

On the other hand, almost a half century later, a young and bright social scientist would dare to hold a completely different account of religion and argue that though the economic conditions of an individual or a society could determine the tone of some religious beliefs or practices, history would bear witness otherwise. He stated:

“…the side of the problem which is generally most difficult to grasp: the influence of certain religious ideas on the development of an economic spirit, or the ethos of an economic system. In this case we are dealing with the connection of the spirit of the modern economic life with the rational ethics of ascetic Protestantism. Thus we treat here only one side of the causal chain.”

In “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,” Max Weber diligently outlined a delicate connection between an attitudinal and doctrinal change in the framework of a religious group of Protestantism and the economic development that followed. Throughout his scholarly treatise, he gave an exquisitely drawn picture of the early Protestants, particularly the pioneers of Protestantism: Martin Luther and John Calvin. In fact, he claimed that the self-constraining ethic of Protestantism that stemmed from the inner-worldly asceticism fostered with frugality, personal discipline, solemnity, thrift, self-denial, hard work, investment, and making the best use of one’s time and resources was the spirit of capitalism. There was, he explained, a sharp difference between the adherents of the then Catholic Church, which regarded the daily chores and business enterprises as petty issues compared to the religious works of monks, nuns, and priests (other-worldly asceticism), and the followers of early Protestantism, who praised any effort to please God, including daily chores and especially the acquisition of wealth (inner-world asceticism).

He aptly placed this sharp change of attitude in the disciples of Calvin towards the acquisition of wealth at the very center of the eventual rise of the capitalist economy and the birth of a new civilization. Some monumental maxims like, “A penny saved is a penny earned…”, “Time is money; sloth is sin...”; “Even the humblest tasks are solemn duties assigned by God Himself…”; “All work, not just religious work, was a calling from God; it should not be done but done well, as a faithful service carried out under the great Taskmaster’s eye…” reflect this spirit of capitalism in Protestant countries like the United States and England. For Weber, “an idea in the mind of one human agent (or shared by a group of agents) is as much a real cause of human action as the application of heat to water is the real cause of steam.” Therefore, the backbone of the current capitalism originates in the very change in the belief system of a group of religious people. Such a claim is a consistent proof for social scientists like Weber to argue against the extremely reductionist notions of religion like that of Marx.

The two contrasting views of religion are significantly worth studying. While Marx, with his infamous animosity towards religion, divorced it from his utopian communist society and sentenced it to death forever, he adamantly upheld the necessities of human nature and pointed out the fact that negligence of the material aspect of life would result in absurdities in the name of human salvation. Moreover, his emphasis that history had become an arena of social class struggle urged humans to find lasting resolutions in order to establish projections of heavenly bliss on earth. Humanity undoubtedly owes him a round of applause due to his incessant efforts to vocalize the rights of the oppressed to life, dignity, and freedom. However, it is truly heartbreaking to see that he could not apprehend the real core of religion, which is pure devotion, compassion, self-denial, and other humble traits. If only he had chosen a different path that appreciated the diverse nature of humanity, of which religion is a distinguished component. I have never understood why Marx negated the fact that as material conditions shape ideas, ideas also cause material beings to change. Hence, unlike Marx, Weber approved of the fact that the key cause of the capitalist revolution was not some material circumstance, but a new form of economic behavior that followed logically from a new religious idea: “the self-constraining ethic of Protestantism was the animating spirit of capitalism.”

Has the battle come to an end yet? Honestly, I would assert it is an ongoing process. As we progress in light of the more inspiring notions of contemporary social scientists, we come to realize how wrong it is to reduce a very deeply embedded part of human social and individual life -religion- to something superficial or hypothetical. It is rather to be understood as something “sui generis" and a multi-faceted realitya reality in and of itself. It is unquestionably inspiring to see several people search for an answer to what religion is and at the same time quite overwhelming to know that a great number of things in religion need an unbiased, pure, and sophisticated mind supported with the sublime emotions or faculties of the (metaphorical) heart. Furthermore, it is absolutely necessary to devise a new, multicolored approach to religious studies that embrace not only the fine-tuned minds but also the purified hearts. It would be wise to heed Kant’s argument against pure reason: “The ultimate truth can never be known through the theoretical mind. Only then can it be perceived partially via the practical mind. Finally, it wouldn't be a mere exaggeration to assert that what religion is or what role it plays in social and individual lives is a question of life and death to a certain degree. Hence, is religion a cause, an effect – or both? While many would say it is just an effect, several others would sail to the shore of “a cause”; still others, like me, agree that religion is both, and that every thought or emotion should get the benefit of the doubt.


  1. Anatomy of the Sacred, an introduction to religion, 5th Ed. by James C. Livingston
  2. Introducing Religion, readings from the classic theorist, by Daniel L. Pals
  3. Eight Theories of Religion, 2nd Ed., by Daniel L. Pals
  4. Gale Encyclopedia of Religion, 2nd Ed.
  5. Encyclopedia of Quran by Jane Dammen McAuliffe