Religion & Social Change

by Caleb Roberts

It was Durkheim who saw that primitive religions present a concept of divinity in which the divine is a “collective representation” of the structure of social life; so that what the members of a society worship is the ensemble of their own social relationships in disguised form.  One need not suppose that this is the whole truth about religion to see that in a society of which Durkheim’s thesis is true, the religious consciousness will be profoundly conservative.  It will at once express and reinforce the social, political, and moral status quo.  It is only insofar as religion ceases to be what Durkheim said it was that it can become an instrument of change.

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But religion is only able to have this latter transforming function because and insofar as it enables individuals to identify and to understand themselves independently of their position in the existing social structure.  It is in the contrast between what society tells a man he is and what religion tells him he is that he is able to find grounds both for criticizing the status quo and for believing that it is possible for him to act with others in changing it.  For the most part lacking a religious perspective, the members of modern industrial societies have also mostly lacked any alternative framework of beliefs which would enable them to criticize and transform society. (3-4)

Alasdair MacIntyre | Marxism and Christianity

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