Religion and social groups

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  • Created on: 31-05-13 15:29

Gender and religion

Most religious leaders and clergy are male. However, the majority of followers are female.

Women are more likely to hold religious beliefs such as God, sin, evil and life after death. Furthermore, women are more likely to attend a place of worship. These trends are true regardless of age, religion or religious organisation.

Males and females also hold different views of God: males see God as controlling and powerful; females see God as loving and forgiving.


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Explanations for gender differences

Miller and Hoffman argue that women are socialised to be passive, caring, obedient and submissive to authority. These are qualities traditionally valued by religion, meaning women are more likely to be religious. These traits may reflect early socialisation of women where they are encouraged to accept authority and care for others.

Women are more likely to be in part-time work or be full-time carers, be it for their family or in a range of caring professions. This may mean women have more time to participate in religion. Religion may also provide women with a sense of personal identity that may be denied them within the family or part-time work; religion allows women to gain status by, for example, taking on roles such as a reader, churchwarden, or other position within the church community.

Davie argues that women’s roles means they are closer than men to birth and death. For example, women are closer to birth because they are child-bearers and often are involved in occupations such as midwifery, nursing or childcare. Similarly, women are more likely to care for elderly relatives. This means women are closer to the ‘ultimate’ questions of the meaning of life and the existence of an afterlife. Women may turn to religion to provide answers. 

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Women and the New Age

The New Age may attract women because of the emphasis on healing and nature. Heelas and Woodhead found that women made up 80% of those involved in the holistic milieu. The emphasis on the natural and healing may give women a higher status and sense of self-worth.

Bruce develops this by suggesting women are socialised to be caring and passive, and where men wish to achieve, women feel: characteristics of the New Age.

Furthermore, many of those who participated were employed in ‘expressive’ professions such as teaching, social work, nursing and counselling; traditionally female dominated occupations. The emphasis on the natural may give women higher status within the New Age because they are supposedly more attuned to the natural rhythms of life. Consequently, NAM practices such as crystal healing, massage and aromatherapy may appeal to women more than men.

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Women and Sects

Bruce notes that women are twice as likely as men to belong to sects. Glock and Stark identify three types of deprivation that women may experience:

  • Social deprivation: women are more likely to be marginalized due to part-time work or poverty. Sects provide a theodicy of disprivilege, offering an explanation of suffering and promise things will improve. 
  • Ethical deprivation: women tend to hold very established morals and may be more likely to see society in moral decline. Sects may appeal because they too are critical of society.
  • Organismic deprivation: women are more likely to experience physical and mental illness, so may seek alternative forms of spiritual healing.
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Ethnicity and religion

The biggest religion in the UK is Christianity. However, there has been a significant increase of non-Christian religions such as Hinduism, Islam and Sikhism. Followers of these religions are usually from ethnic minority groups.

Ethnic minority groups – regardless of their religion – generally have higher than average levels of religious participation and more likely to hold religious beliefs than the majority population. There are several reasons for these differences. 

Modood identified different approaches to religious practice between Asian and African-Caribbeans. Religion was an important element of identity for Asians and a part of their status as an ethnic minority group. However, African-Caribbeans did not see religion as an essential part of ethnic difference, even if religion was important to them.

Some ethnic minority groups may be attracted to sects in response to marginalisation and relative deprivation caused by racism in wider society

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Religion as cultural defence

Religion may act as a means of cultural defence and identity for a group who feel threatened by a hostile wider culture. Religion then creates a sense of solidarity amongst the ethnic minority groups, maintains their culture and helps deal with an oppressive and racist wider society.

For example, many black African and Caribbean Christians found it difficult to access traditional Christian organisations in the 1950s and 1960s due to racism within the church, its members and wider society. Therefore, they established black-led Christian churches, particularly Pentecostal churches, which helped defend their culture against the racism in wider society.

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Religion and cultural transition

Bruce recognised the role of religion in providing support and community for immigrants moving into a new culture. In particular first generation Irish, African-Caribbean, Muslim and Hindu used religion as a   focal point to ease the transition into a new culture. 

However, Modood found religion was less significant for second and third generations. This could suggest that religion acted as a means of cultural defence or transition for the first generation that arrived in the UK but, once settled, the need for religion declined.   

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Age and religion

Generally speaking, religious participation is greater amongst older age groups. However, there is high participation amongst under-15s, because they are taken to church by their parents.

15-19 year olds have one of the lowest levels of religious participation, suggesting that religion declines among young people when they have the choice whether to participate.

Attendance declines for over-65s; this may be because there may be people too sick or infirm to attend.  

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Explaining age differences

Voas and Crockett suggest two explanations for age differences in religious participation.

Firstly, the ageing effect suggests people become more religious as they get older. This may reflect an increasing interest in the afterlife as one gets closer to, or more aware of, death.

Secondly, the generational effect suggests that each generation is half as religious as the previous one. Older people are more likely to participate in religion because they grew up during a time when participation was more common. If the generational effect continues the average age of those participating in religion will increase. 

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Age and the New Age

Heelas and Woodhead found that 83% of those participating in the holistic milieu were over 40, possibly because they had been through a lengthy period in education and employment and have begun to reflect on their selves. 

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Age and NRMs

The 35 – 49 age group is also more likely to participate in world affirming NRMs. Their commitment to their careers has, according to Wallis, led to a repression of their inner selves. World affirming NRMs allow them to release this repression and seek new sources of identity.

Barker found that the Moonies – a world rejecting NRM/sect - appealed to the young, well educated middle class whose parents were involved in public service occupations, such as teaching and nursing. Sect membership offered a surrogate family where members could find support outside the family whilst serving their community in a similar way to that which their parents did in wider society.

NRMs have high drop out rates, suggesting the need they provide for their followers is only short-term.

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Class and religion

Churches tend to attract more middle class participants, possibly because churches tend to be ideologically conservative and closely linked to the state.

Sects, on the other hand, are more likely to attract poorer and lower class followers, due to marginalisation and relative deprivation (see topic 5).

However, Beckford, in his study of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Barker, in her study of the Moonies, both found a significant number of middle-class followers who were neither marginalized nor relatively deprived. They joined because they had become disillusioned with the materialism of modern life and felt mainstream religion no longer met their spiritual needs. This created a sense of relative deprivation meaning they looked for fulfilment from sect membership. 

Wallis recognised that many middle class, well-educated young people were attracted to world rejecting NRMs to use them as a means to change the world (see topic 5). 

NAMs often appeal to those in middle class professions such as teaching, nursing and social work. These occupations encourage an interest in personal development and potential, which are both aspects of NAMs.  

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