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Relationship between Social Groups and Religious Beliefs

Assess sociological explanations of the relationship between social groups, religious beliefs and religious organisations

Different social groups, all show different trends in relation to religious beliefs and religious organistions. This essay will only very briefly touch on the difficulty of defining religious organisations, as this is not its focus. It shall split the social groups into three major categories, age, ethnicity and gender; and attempt to distinguish reasons behind varying levels of religiosity.

Religious organisations are difficult to define. Many sociologists, from Troeltsch to Wilson, attempt to define into four different categories, churches, denominations, sects and cults. There however is the problem when there are components which fit many different categories, this can arise when religions change current form (e.g Christianity started off as a small sect eventually becoming a church with its own denominations) as well as times when religions have properties of multiple categories (the church of Jesus Christ of latter day saints, sect or denomination?). Different social groups are generally attracted to different religious organisations, in the class system there is evidence that people of lower classes tend to lean towards world-rejecting sects whilst higher classes choose world-accepting churches and cults.

There are clear differences in religious beliefs and participation between genders. Whilst there is a large majority of men in priesthood running churches (some changes in recent times in the Anglican denomination however only last month, October 21st, numerous news outlets reported how conservatives within the church were rebelling against such changes are leaving to join Catholicism) the majority of people who practice inside religions are female. This is shown by in 2005 1.8 million women in England were churchgoers, as against 1.36 million men. This supported Miller and Hoffman (1995) thesis that women express greater interest in religion and attend church more often. Other sociologists put forward similar theories with Bruce (1996) estimated that twice as many women were in sects then men. In attempt to explain these differences the Davie analyses the differences between women and men’s proximity to birth and death, she assumes that men do not have as close connection to these life processes meaning women are closer to the ultimate questions. This can be criticised as using the term closer to the ultimate questions is ambiguous, it could mean either closer to pondering about the question or closer to the answer; and even without the ambiguity it seems to overlook the men who work in professions where these life processes frequently occur and levels of non-belief among them, such as Doctors.

Another explanation put forward for levels of female participation is that religion serves as a compensator for deprivation. Glock and Stark (1969) and Stark and Bainbridge (1985) argue that three main types of deprivation exist which are common among women explaining their high levels of sect membership. These include organismic deprivation, stems from physical and mental health problems, ethical deprivation, stems from evidence that women tend to be more morally conservative and social deprivation exists from evidence that women tend to be poorer. Assuming, without evidence, that Stark and Bainbridge carried out extensive research before coming up with their compensation for deprivation thesis it should be analysed to its validity in contemporary society. There have been many changes in society, such as wealth of women becoming higher, wages becoming more equal and receiving higher promotions than previously available; also there is evidence that women tend to vote, what would be generally be considered, more progressive or liberal could challenge Glock, Stark and Bainbridges thesis.

In other social groups within society there is also evidence of varying levels of religiosity depending on ethnicity. According to policy studies institute (1997) the majority religions associate themselves with Christianity (around 72%) however different ethnicities make up this figure, ranging from white British members to those of black African or Caribbean origin. Other religions exist consisting of Muslims, Hindu and Sikhs make with almost all members coming from ethnic backgrounds originating in the Indian subcontinent. The Policy Studies Institute (1997) showed how white Anglicans where least likely to find their religion as important in their lives comparatively with African Caribbean Protestants who rated their religion as very important in their lives. Muslims were also found to have high levels of belief with Hindus and white Catholics being more in the middle of the table.

Bruce (2002) attempts to explain these ethnic differences, he argues that religion is used as a cultural defense factor, becoming something to be unified under in an uncertain or hostile environment. This explains why migrants are more likely to be religious in a new country and explains why the native population inside a country has falling levels of church attendance. Bird (1999) supports this finding; he found religion as a unifying power within minorities. He also found that religion can aid with coping with oppression in a racist society, this is shown by the white churches in the UK not actively welcoming black Africans or Caribbean Christians. These both seem logical and explain how when migrants are integrated into society they start to leave the church.

Will Herberg (1955) gives the reason, which isn’t very different than Bruce of Cultural transition, instead of a means in which religion is used to defend culture; it is used as an integrator into new societies instead. This is also supported by the diminishing levels of religiosity among integrated social groups. It is most probable that both are equally relevant to ethnicity and religiosity, this, in fact, was shown by Ken Pyrce’s (1979) study of the African Caribbean community.

There are big differences between the age of people and their religiosity. The general pattern is the older a person is the more likely they are to attend religious services. The English Church Census, however, found two exceptions to this rule. The under 15s are more likely to attend then other age groups because they are forced to do so by their parents, over 65s were more likely to be sick or injured to attend religious worship. It should be remembered that attendance at church, just as the levels of under 15s show, does not reflect accurately levels of belief. Other age groups could attend church for other elements, such as the social offering of religion, rather than the religious doctrine.

Voas and Crockett (2005) attempt to explain these differences, they use the concept of the ageing effect, which is the view that people turn to religion as they get older. There is also the generational effect this is where each new generation becomes less religious than the one before. The latter being the imperative as it’s claimed that each generation is half as religious as previous generations. To evaluate this claim, the ageing effect, people starting to face their own mortality and turning to spirituality is in a sense logical. The church offers faith-based answers and provides a world in which death is only the beginning. It seems obvious that people facing the own demise would be attracted by this; it could also be supported by the evidence, English Church Census does support the idea that there is a higher number of older people than young in religion. The Kendal project showed people turn to spirituality when they get older therefore making them more likely to attend church. This supports the Ageing factor. The generational effect is supported by the English church census; the levels of the 15-19 year olds fell very sharply since 1979, showing how the new generation had a lower level of religiosity.

Religiosity varies among lots of different social groups, the people who choose different religions generally all have different reasons for doing so. Ethnicity, gender, class and age are all different reasons why someone would want to join a particular religious organisation and have varying levels of religiosity. What is not explained however is what is the most important element, it is quite possible for a person to fit into all four categories, be a member of an ethnic minority; female; working class and young, what would, to this young female, be the most important part of her religiosity and her religious participation.

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