Democratizing access to the best data on religion since 1997

Exploring Religion

Session 10: Overview

Religion and Social Movements

Learning objectives

  • Become aware of the many ways religion motivates social action
  • Understand how religion enables and constrains movements for social change

Religion’s impact on society is not limited to religious change. From the European wars of religion in the 16-18th centuries to religious restrictions on women’s education and mobility, religion has been a segregating force in society. Religion also has been an integrative force, influencing the spread of democracy in the 19th century through religious missionaries. Religion has long motivated efforts at reform, and even revolution (for example, the Iranian Revolution of 1979), leading to both positive and negative change. From movements against slavery in the Americas in the 16th and 17th centuries to later efforts to curb alcoholism, welcome immigrants, secure the vote for women, advocate for civil rights, oppose abortion and push for environmental issues, religiously motivated individuals have often banded together to change society to reflect religious values.

Religion motivates social action primarily in two ways. First, religious communities, when shaped by a leader or group of leaders who embody an especially “pure” or intense form of religion, act as incubators for different ways of doing life together and different ways of envisioning society. These types of leaders have been called religious “virtuosos,” and the communities they foster have been described as “critical communities.”

Second, these religious communities develop ways of engaging society’s problems that prove effective and tend to catch on with people outside of the group. The most famous example of this is how the Quakers developed ways of advocating for the abolition of slavery in the 18th century that became the standard practice for abolitionists throughout the West on through the 19th century. Another example is how civil rights advocates within the Black church in the U.S. South developed tactics of mutual support and nonviolent resistance that helped expand civil rights and which many other movements have modeled.

In this module, you will explore several religiously motivated social movements, including those mentioned here. Be on the lookout for evidence of religious “virtuosos” and “critical communities,” and take note of the way that religious visions of a different way of doing life together in society shapes their advocacy.

Our Sponsors

Our Affiliates

© 2023 The Association of Religion Data Archives. All rights reserved.