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What is the role of religion in the formation of society?

Updated on August 7, 2014

Old Philosophy of Calvinism

Religion has always been in human societies dated back to earliest human history. From a sociological perspective, religion is one of the social institutions and has continued to play a crucial role in every society, particularly in U.S. The intended goal of sociologists in relation to religion was to study its dynamics in relation to society without delving into specifics of religious beliefs among different religions. The objective of this paper seeks to address the role of religion played in the formation of society and discuss how Max Weber, as a theorist, might utilize conflict perspective in explaining impact of religion.

One role of religion in the formation of society was to establish historical understanding of capitalism. Ferrante (2014) defines capitalism as “an economic system that involves the careful calculation of costs of production relative to profits, the borrowing and lending of money, the accumulation of capital, and the drawing of labor from around the world to make products” (p.441). Weber argued society was introduced to capitalistic thinking by a theologian named John Calvin. Calvin used his theological approach to lay an important foundation for capitalism. Calvin perceived the biblical doctrine of predestination to explain differences among people in relation to material prosperity. Predestination is defined as “the belief that God has foreordained all things, including the salvation or damnation of individual souls” (p.441). Weber believed that one way people validated their assurance of eternal salvation was to obtain as much material possession as possible because such successes guaranteed they would make it to heaven. This philosophy led to another role religion played in the formation of society.

Proponents of Calvinism established some beliefs of capitalistic society. In order to assure themselves of eternal life with God, people created characteristics that governed the ways of producing wealth and power. They utilized rationality, discipline and hard work. For Calvinists to increase profits and generate wealth, they sought to understand the use of scientific methods to govern decision-making. Weber termed this an “instrumental rational action.” Ferrante (2014) defines this concept as “result-oriented behavior that emphasizes the most efficient methods or means for achieving some value goal, without regard for the adverse consequences those methods may have” (p.136). Weber maintained that religious Calvinists advocated the importance of self-discipline and work ethic in different life contexts. They believed that God predestined them to generate capital and possessions; therefore, these blessings accentuated God’s desire for them to spend eternity with joy and happiness. Ferrante (2014) describes the thought process of John Calvin’s followers as “Calvinists glorified God when they accepted a task assigned to them, carried it out in an exemplary and disciplined fashion and did not indulge in the fruits of their labor: that is, they did not use money to eat, drink, or otherwise relax in excess” (p.441). They perceived individuals with limited resources as inferior and lacking God’s favor. By contrast, modern capitalists may not relate or attribute their wealth to God; rather, they are concerned with making profits at all cost with limited regard for their employees. The business owners often live lavish lifestyle with expensive vehicles, boats, private planes, etc.

Religion also contributed to the formation of society by enhancing people’s understanding by emphasizing the role of religious leaders. Authoritative leaders had capacities to encourage and influence members. John Calvin was able to take a biblical concept of predestination and interpret it to bring social change resulting in capitalism. For example, Weber described two types of prophet: one who was considered as a society role model for how to be extraordinary person and the other as a biblical leader sent by God to bring change to society. He seemed to argue that Calvin was one of those biblical prophets that revolutionized capitalism. Many people adhered to his philosophy and began to cultivate the attitude of working diligently and obtaining wealth. One biblical idea, predestination, by one man, created economic principles that impacted the world.

However, Weber recognized the conflict deriving from capitalism. Weber would use conflict perspective to describe the roles of religion in the formation of society. He argued that the root of conflict is social actions. Ferrante (2014) defines social action to mean “actions people take in response to others---with emphasis on the forces that motivate people to act” (p.20). The idea behind this concept was that an individual must consider the behavior or attitudes of social forces and make appropriate adjustments. For example, companies who make large profits need to be challenged by employees who are united in a collective mission to bring change to the work environment. In the U.S., the major element dominating the economy is capitalism. There are many people who are struggling economically and capitalists continue to make enormous amount of profits from the laborers by giving them low salary. Weber would encourage these laborers to join together and in solidarity pursue proactive actions to bring about change. Based on his theory, without a proactive response from collective workers, the successes of capitalism will continue to remain strong and profitable, providing a high level of living for some while workers struggle to meet the basic needs of life. As a result of Weber’s studies on John Calvin and history of Calvinism, the role of religion invariably made a significant impact in the world.


Ferrante, J. (2014). Seeing Sociology: An Introduction. Belmont: Wadsworth.



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    • michaelyobeng profile image

      Michael Obeng 3 years ago

      I was writing about how religion played a role in capitalism. John Calvin and followers contributed to ideas and work ethic of capitalism. thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    • livingit4real profile image

      livingit4real 3 years ago

      I certainly see how you could get this interpretation of the scripture in Luke 19:12-26, but I believe Jesus was using the parable to relay a spiritual message using worldly examples that people could relate to about the value of working for God until Jesus comes. See this conclusion of the message: "Luk 19:26 For I say unto you, That unto every one which hath shall be given; and from him that hath not, even that he hath shall be taken away from him." It was about the "Master," who is the Lord Jesus, finding us continuously working whenever He comes to examine our work for payment.

    • someonewhoknows profile image

      someonewhoknows 3 years ago from south and west of canada,north of ohio

      Religion was created to inspire and motivate men to think about their relationship towards each other within the Church as well as outside the Church towards other peoples religious beliefs. Both the similarities as well as the differences between themselves and their neighbors.

      Man has always had a hand in what they believe. This is why there are so many offshoots of many religious organizations .So,many differences in so many bibles concerning so many beliefs.

      Coming from a Catholic religious family I know there are passages in the King James version of the bibles new English version that speaks to capitalism. It's the story of a wealthy man in the material sense that could also be a highly regarded spiritual man which seems to be the intent by the writer to give the reader the impression that the two are not necessarily incompatible with one another.Yet,the passage is obviously slanted toward the material world rather than the spiritual world. The story is well known. It's about a man who is called the "master" who upon leaving to go abroad leaves varying amounts of money with each of his servants according to their ability to invest it for him wisely while he is away on business.Upon returning he asks each servant how well they did increasing his wealth.Starting with the one who was given the most to invest and ending with the one given the least.Each one told how much they made for their "master" . When the time came for the servant who was given the least to invest to speak he said he buried in the ground because he was afraid to lose it.He said he knew his "master" to be a hard man.Thereupon his "master" said you scoundrel ; you say you knew me to be a hard "master" so you buried my money. Why did you not deposit it or lend it with someone so that I could at least receive interest on my money?There upon he instructed that the money he gave this servant to invest to the servant who had made his " master" the most in returns.