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Religious Practices and Meaning Essay

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Updated: Dec 16th, 2019


Religious practices and meaning are constructed in relation to other social institutions like economics and politics. From the anthropological perspective, religion may alter economic and political structures or the latter may change religion, as well.

Relationship between social institutions and religion

Religion plays a vital role in political change. Most religions take conservative stances about social matters. Many of these social issues are subject to political change. Consequently religion affects the overall direction that political change follows. For instance, Muslims have always had a conservative stance about women’s place in society.

Some feminists in the Middle East have tried to oppose this view by advocating for better protection of women’s rights by the Quran. Strong Islamic believers have responded to these efforts by making religious decrees against such reformers. A number of them have even called for their death (Andreatta & Ferraro 364).

Therefore, religion and politics are intertwined because sometimes religion stalls major political changes. Muslims have always opposed different political values, as these are viewed as western and foreign. The same thing has taken place in predominantly Catholic states. This church has always taken a conservative stance against major political initiatives like abortion or gay rights (Andreatta & Ferraro 149).

On the other hand, religion may be a source of revolutionary change within a certain community. This happens when religious leaders take on reformist or revolutionary roles. A case in point was one by the Buddhist priests in Vietnam. A number of them burnt themselves to death in order to protest against the US-led war.

This prompted US authorities to reconsider their position in Vietnam, and eventually led to their withdrawal. Another scenario occurred in South American during the 1970s. Catholic followers created a militant version of their faith in order to fight for the rights of the poor and the oppressed. Many of them lost their lives since they clashed with political authorities. Similarly, African American religious leaders have speared political change through mobilization and stimulation of the masses.

Martin Luther King Jr. was first a religious leader before he became a political one (Andreatta & Ferraro 364). His revolutionary stances led to substantial changes in civil rights movements and the liberation of black people. Furthermore, the Nation of Islam, which was an African American version of Islam, sensitized many blacks about marginalization in the American state.

These sentiments led to radical civil reforms, albeit through other reform vehicles. As such, religious institutions have been a platform for political change from time immemorial. They have fought against injustice and inequality, and thus taken on a political dimension. Therefore, religion can alter political environments if members of a certain faith feel threatened.

Conversely, social institutions such as economics can also alter religious practices or movements. In this regard, a dramatic change in the economic fate of a particular group may cause a religious revival of the affected group. This stems from the devastation and sense of hopelessness that the changes create.

One such example was the case of a Native American group. These individuals were attacked by the Europeans and lost their land in the sixteenth century (Andreatta & Ferraro 365). They could no longer carry out their traditional economic practices. Therefore the hunters, traders and warriors in this community lost their only means of survival.

Many of them felt dehumanized and defeated. A series of antisocial behavior started developing, such as alcoholism. In response to this disorganization, a prophet emerged known as Handsome Lake. He created a new Native American religious movement that merged old practices with new concepts. For instance, it completely prohibited alcoholism. Furthermore, it embraced the western view of family institutions.

The prophet advised men and women to participate in economic activities equally. It also encouraged members of the faith to adopt a series of agricultural practices from the Europeans. As such, an external economic change caused religious changes in the community owing to the devastation that the economic alterations created (Andreatta & Ferraro 365).

Another illustration of how economics affects religion is through the lives of Indonesians in the 1990s. In the previous decades Indonesians had been economically prosperous, with most of their investments emanating from the central government or foreign investors. However, in the late nineteen nineties, the economy of the country collapsed. Banks went bankrupt, foreign investors existed and unemployment levels reached massive proportions.

As such, most people were disillusioned and extremely stressed. The Muhammadiyah Islamic organization arose in response to this situation. It claimed to be the ultimate solution to Indonesia’s problem (Andreatta & Ferraro 365). Its followers were approximately 30 million in number.

This movement emphasized the importance of getting back to Islam’s moral values. Most Indonesians had abandoned their religious principles during the previous decades of economic prosperity. They were corrupt and cared little about religious teachings. However, in this period of crisis, the teachings of the Islamic organization seemed quite relevant to them, so there was a revival of traditional values.

The movement also initiated a number of local economic projects such as job programs, health services and schools. Religious authorities in this group wanted to create some sort of economic independence in order to place economic control in the hands of locals rather than government bodies or foreign investors. Religion and economics are interrelated because failures in economics can lead to religious revivals that intend on fixing the economic problem.

When discussing the relationship between religion and politics, one must look at the question of separation of church/ religion from state. The latter has been the subject of controversy in some western nations like the United States. Many citizens argue that religious expression in public institutions ought to be restricted. They also claim that religion should not interfere with public policies. However, other individuals do not share these same sentiments.

Conservatives and Republicans tend to vote for people with strong Christian values. A number of them use Christian values in order to guide their policy stances. On the other hand, a certain block of voters also vote for leaders who hold similar religious stances as their own. Consequently, religion affects politics as a social institution because political representatives need to epitomize the overall religious values of majority of the population (Moro & Myers 9).

Religious nationalism is also another way of looking at the relationship between religion and politics. Many nations of the Middle East merge their political institutions with their faith. In fact, Arabic identity has become synonymous to Islam. Religious nationalism causes members of such nations to abandon ideas about tolerance and democracy as these are seen as contradictory to their principles (Andreatta & Ferraro 368).

As a matter of fact, many fundamentalist Islamic nations reject the concept of individual freedom. They believe that followers must sacrifice their selfish interests in order to propagate the true way. They treat western states as enemies and sources of retrogression in their nations. As a result, most of them have used their foreign policies in order to eliminate western influences from their society. Others have tried to cut ties with western nations in order to preserve their religious principles.

Economic concerns have been thrown into this equation. Some western nations, such as the US, have invaded fundamentalist nations in order to fight for freedom and democracy in those nations. However, other analysts believe that the US simply uses this excuse to protect its economic interests in those oil-rich nations. Therefore, religion, which causes these nations to scorn democracy and personal freedom, gives some western nations excuses to invade their land.

However, economic reasons underlie these invasions. A typical scenario was the September eleventh attacks. It was asserted that the US was conducting a war against terror when it decided to invade Iraq (which may have been partly true).

Therefore, a fundamentalist religious act of terror propelled this political decision to go to war with another nation. Nonetheless, because Iraq has oil reserves, the US government may also have intended to secure its own economic interests when entering this nation. Religious stances affected economic and political actions between these two nations.

In other circumstances, religious fundamentalists may impede economic and political development. Middle Eastern states initially banned books from western nations in order to protect their citizens from western influence. A number of these countries still censor particular books today.

They also control other forms of mass media, such as, television in order to minimize indoctrination of the Islamic people. These radical decisions have placed followers in a cocoon, and condemned them to economic stagnation. Furthermore, since concepts such as democracy are seen as foreign, then political development is also undermined (Andreatta & Ferraro 204).

Politics and economics are dependent on religion in order to function. Religion helps to make people obedient and responsible. The values taught in many religious institutions promote cooperation and cohesion. They make people perform good deeds and keep their promises. Such values tend to create a very conducive atmosphere for economic activities as trade depends on trust between the exchanging parties.

On the other hand, this purpose of religion also strengthens political institutions because religion encourages many people to respect others’ rights. Many people will do as they are expected to without law enforcement because of their knowledge of right and wrong. It would be much harder for politicians to pass certain policies if there was no respect for human rights. Religion is a predecessor to proper political laws and regulations.

The Ten Commandments are an example of how this interaction occurs. The commandments instruct followers on how they can interact with each other and with God. Most of them restrict the harm of other people through stealing, killing and coveting. If these religious teachings are obeyed, then good relationships will arise and social order will prevail. Because of this, religion plays a political role because it promotes order, which paves the way for political prosperity (Moro & Myers 44).

A number of economic premises tend to coincide with particular religious stances. Liberal capitalists tend to stay away from religious beliefs. Nations with many liberal capitalists will not consider religious values when making political decisions.

Conversely, economic conservatives tend to thrive in countries with highly religious persons. Economic conservatives as well as Christians believe that liberalism leads to social degeneracy. They claim that a return to traditional values would protect people from drug abuse, teenage pregnancy, gun violence and family disintegration.


Economics and politics can transform religion when frustrations arise in these social institutions. Here, religious leaders may become change agents in politics or economics. On the other hand, religious values may undermine economic and political development through views held.

Works Cited

Andreatta, Susan & Gary Ferraro. Cultural anthropology: An applied perspective. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2010. Print.

Moro, Pamela & James Myers. Magic, witchcraft and religion: a reader in the anthropology of religion. Boston: McGrawhill, 2010. Print.

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