This post presents an examination of the relationship between religious belief, religious participation and age.
Younger people tend to be less religious than older people
Recent (2018) research by PEW compared the religious beliefs and practices of 18-39 year olds with those aged 40 and over. They found that younger people are less religious than old people in 41 countries, but there are only 2 countries in which younger people are more religious. There is no difference in 60 countries.
According to the 2011 UK census, young people are much more likely to report that they have no religion
People aged under 25 made up 31% of the population as a whole, but 39% of those reporting they had no religion
Those aged 65+ made up 16.5% of the population as a whole, but just 5.6% of those reporting they had no religion.
Also according to the UK National Census, ethnic minority religions tend to have a much younger age profile than Christianity or No religion. For example, 85% of Muslims are aged under 50, compared to around 55% of Christians.
Age and participation in New Religious Movements and the New Age Movement
Eileen Barker’s research into The Moonies (a world rejecting sect) found that the membership base was relatively young, with most members being aged between 18-30.
The New Age Movement tends to be made up of middle aged people, especially those in their late 30s and 40s.
The relationship between social class and religion is not straightforward: the middle classes are, in general, more likely to attend church, but they are also less likely to believe in God and more likely to be atheists and join both world affirming and world rejecting NRMs.
The working classes are less likely to attend church, yet more likely to believe in God than the middle classes. There are also certain denominations and even sects which might appeal specifically to the working classes: such as Methodism, for example.
Church attendance and social class
The ‘middle classes’ have higher rates of church attendance than the ‘working classes’
A 2015 YouGov survey of 7000 adults found that 62% of regular church goers were middle class and 38% working class.
The same 2015 survey found that twice as many married working class men had never attended church compared to middle class men (17% compared to 9%).
Voas and Watt (2014) conducted research on behalf of the Church of England and made three observations not directly about social class, but relevant to it. Firstly, church attendance is higher in rural areas compared to urban areas. Secondly, church attendance is higher in the South of England compared to the North. Thirdly, they noted growth in church attendance in areas which had high performing church primary and secondary schools. All of these indicators suggest higher church attendance in middle class compared to working class areas.
Ashworth and Farthing (2007) found that, for both sexes, those in middle class jobs had above average levels of church attendance. Conversely, those in skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled working class jobs had below average church attendance. Welfare recipients had the lowest levels of church attendance.
Religious belief and social class
A 2016 YouGov Survey revealed that 48% of those in social grades ABC1 described themselves as ‘Atheist’ compared to 42% of those in social grades C2ED.
A 2013 review of >60 research studies on the relationship between IQ and religiosity found that people with higher IQs are more likely to be atheists. (High IQs are correlated with higher levels of education and higher social class).
Lawes (2009) found that ‘lifelong theists’ disproportionately come from unskilled and semi-skilled manual backgrounds, and were less likely to have academic qualifications. Conversely, lifelong atheists disproportionately come from higher professional and managerial backgrounds, and are more likely to have experienced higher education.
NB – It’s worth noting how this contradicts what’s above in terms of church attendance
Social class, religion and deprivation
There is some evidence that those suffering deprivation (the lower social classes) are more likely to turn to religion…..
Churches in deprived inner city areas tend to have higher rates of attendance.
Methodist, Pentacostal and Baptist denominations tend to be more working class.
Catholic Churches are more likely to attract Irish, Polish and African immigrants who have typically experienced higher levels of deprivation.
New Religious Movements and social class
As a general rule, the middle classes are more attracted to both World Affirming NRMs (and the New Age Movement), and World Rejecting NRMs, at least according to Eileen Barker’s classic study of ‘The Moonies’.
Problems with identifying the relationship between religion and social class
Andrew Mckinnon notes that there has been a ‘dearth’ of research on the relationship between religion and social class, meaning there is something of a data gap.
Because of the above, we are often stuck with relying on indicators which might not actually measure social class.
Even if the data suggests that church attendance and belief are higher among the middle classes, this doesn’t necessarily mean the middle classes are actually more religious. They may just be attending church to keep up appearances or to get their children into the local church school (which tend to have high academic performance); or they may feel under more social pressure to state they are religious than the working classes
Chapman et al, as well as the good ole’ t’internet.
Secularization is the declining social significance of religion in society.
The extent of secularization is usually ascertained (for the purposes of A-level sociology) by using three broad indicators: belonging, behaving, and belief, and there are numerous specific measures associated with each indicator.
This post aims to provide brief revision notes on some of the contemporary evidence for secularization.
Evidence for secularization: statistics on religious belonging
According to a recent British Social Attitudes Survey (1) based on a sample of just under 3000 respondents (conducted 2016, published 2017):
Only 15% of UK adults describe themselves as ‘Anglican’, compared to around 33% of the population at the turn of the century and more than 60% in the early 1960s (1)
Just 3% of those aged 18-24 described themselves as Anglican, compared to 40% of those aged 75 and over (1).
53% of UK adults describe themselves as having ‘no religion’, up from 31% in 1983 (1)
71% of 18-24 year olds describe themselves as having ‘no religion’ up from
According to the United Kingdom Census of 2011 (3), which is based on a near 100% sample of the UK population:
59.3% of the population reported to be Christian, down from 71.7 per cent in 2001 to 59.3 per cent in 2011, and
25.1% of the population reported having ‘no religion’, up from 14.8 per cent of the population in 2001.
There was an increase in all other main religions. The number of Muslims increased the most from 3.0 per cent in 2001 to 4.8 per cent in 2011.
NB – This final piece of evidence: the increasing reported popularity of all other religions besides Christianity cannot really be taken as evidence against secularization because the overall increase of all these other religions is smaller than the increase in the number of people reporting ‘no religion’ in the same period. It does, however, suggest increasing religious diversity.
Evidence for secularization: statistics on religious behaviour
According to the Church of England’s own data (4), both church attendance and attendance at ‘hatching, matching and dispatching’ (baptism/ marriage/ funeral) ceremonies are falling.
The 2016 figures show:
Usual Sunday attendance at Church of England churches in 2016 was 740,000 people (86% adults, 14% children under 16).
There were 120,000 Church of England baptisms and services of thanksgiving for the gift of a child – representing 10% of live births.
There were 45,000 Church of England marriages and services of prayer and dedication after civil marriages – just 20% of marriages.
There were 139,000 Church of England-led funerals during 2016, 57% of which took place in churches and 43% at crematoria/cemeteries – 28% of funerals. The higher percentage probably reflects the greater proclivity for people near death to ‘find’ ‘comfort’ in ‘religion’.
The church of England notes that most of its headline indicators show a decline of 10-15% over the last decade, since 2006.
Evidence for Secularization: Statistics on Religious Belief
Religious belief is a notoriously subjective concept: while the statistics in the first section above suggest secularization is taking place, it is possible to declare that you belong to ‘no religion’ while still having religious beliefs, so we need to dig a little deeper into the exact nature of individuals’ spiritual beliefs in order to properly assess whether secularization is taking place.
When we do this, most of the evidence suggests that secularization is occurring, although possibly not as quickly as the decline in support for traditional religion would suggests.
A 2015 YouGov poll revealed that 33% of Britons ‘do not believe in God or a higher spiritual power’, up from 29% in 2012.
The same poll revealed that younger people are more likely to not believe in any type of higher power compared to older people – only 25% of 18-24 year olds believe in God or some other kind of higher power compared to over 40% of over 60 year olds.
Before reading this post, you might like to refresh your knowledge of what they key features of science are by reading this post: Is sociology a science?
Science limits itself to the empirical, religion concerns itself with the supernatural
Science tends to concern itself with the natural or physical world – that which can be observed and measured. If it cannot be observed or measured empirically, then it is not scientific.
Scientific knowledge is gained primarily through the experimental method: a hypothesis is formulated and then experiments designed to test the hypothesis. Experiments use standardized procedures of data collection, so that other scientists can repeat the exact same experiment in the same way and verify the data and test the findings for themselves.
In contrast religion tends to concern itself with the spiritual world, many aspects of which cannot necessarily be observed and measured in a scientific extent. For example, knowledge in many religions comes ultimately from God, and belief in the existence of God cannot be verified empirically. Belief in God is a matter of faith.
Any knowledge claims made by religions which are not verifiable by empirical observations cannot be regarded as ‘scientific’.
‘Open’ verses ‘closed belief systems
Science is an ‘open belief system’ – the data collected by scientists are open to testing by others. Research findings can thus be criticized.
According to Popper, the process of scientists critically scrutinizing findings of other scientists is fundamental to the scientific method. He argued that scientists should attempt to ‘falsify’ already existing hypotheses by designing experiments deliberately to disprove them. It is this process which ensures that scientific knowledge is valid: its ability to withstand the critical scrutiny of peers.
In contrast, religions tend to have ‘closed belief systems’ – religious knowledge is generally regarded as sacred, and should be accepted as is, rather than challenged.
Evolving versus absolute knowledge systems
Scientific knowledge is cumulative…. it evolves through a process of scientists learning about, criticizing, and improving upon the experimental work of previous scientists.
Religious belief systems, at least those based firmly on religious texts or an idea of an absolute truth are not open to change or growth. Those who challenge such religious belief systems may well be subject to sanctions.
Objectivity and value-freedom versus subjectivity
Subjective, personal feelings should be kept out the scientific process. Scientific knowledge should not be influenced by the personal opinions or biases of the researchers who conduct the experiments which provide the data to generate scientific knowledge.
In contrast, knowledge in many religious traditions is a matter of personal faith and intimate spiritual experience. Many religious experiences, prayer, for example, are highly personal, and not meant to be replicated by others.