Ethnicity and Religious Belief
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Last updated 17 Jul 2018
Almost all minority ethnic groups in the UK are more religious and show higher levels of religiosity than the white British majority.
This was found by Tariq Modood et al (1997) in the results of a social survey conducted in the mid-1990s. Trends since then suggest that his findings are not outdated and, if anything, the differences are more apparent today.
There are number of interesting trends within the data, such as Pakistani and Bangladeshi Muslims in the UK seeing Muslim as their primary identity (as opposed to Pakistani, Bangladeshi, British, English, Asian, etc.) Relating to age, there was also evidence to suggest that young Muslims in the UK had a greater knowledge of their religion than their parents did. However, Modood did find some evidence of declining religiosity among some Asian men (e.g. younger Sikhs were less likely to wear a turban than their fathers were).
Sociologists suggest a number of reasons for the greater religiosity among minority-ethnic groups:
- Bruce (2002) writes about cultural transition. This is the idea that minority-ethnic groups could use religion and religious institutions to assist the process of immigration. When people came to a new country, with very different belief systems and unfamiliar traditions, building religious communities helped to support them and to reduce the shock of the transition from one way of life to another. So Hindu communities built temples, Muslim communities mosques, Sikh communities gurdwaras, in order to ease their way into their new home. If Bruce was right about this, you would expect to see second and third generation immigrants having less need for religion and therefore see a secularisation process in such communities. As we have seen, there is a little evidence of that, but often (for example with Muslims) the opposite is apparent.
- Bruce suggests an alternative – cultural defence. This is where immigrant communities or other minorities use religion to defend themselves from the hostility of the majority population. It is not a case of bringing something from a country of origin in order to ease transition, but instead building a safe community away from racism. An example of this would be African Caribbean immigrants who were predominantly Christian. The cultural transition should have been easier for these immigrants in the post-war period than for Muslims and Sikhs at the same time, as their religious institutions were firmly established. However, in response to racism in the congregations, they increasingly set up or their own or joined existing black churches as a form of cultural defence. (e.g. 7th Day Adventists). This could go some way to explaining why young Muslims are becoming more religious: in response to increasing Islamophobia in British society.
- Johal (1998) has suggested that religious identity is increasingly important in a multi-cultural and multi-faith society. This ties in with Modood’s findings about British Muslims and is supported by Grace Davie (1994) who suggests that religious identity provides a sense of belonging and cultural identity.
John Bird suggested five reasons for this pattern.
- 1) Greater levels of religiosity in countries of origin. New immigrants to the UK often come from countries which are less secular than the UK and bring their religious faith with them. Similarly, with more established minority-ethnic communities, people often maintain connections with their country of origin, perhaps through family, and keeping hold of their religious faith can be a key part of that connection and association.
- 2) Membership of a religious group providing a sense of community and identity (as suggested above).
- 3) Maintaining cultural identity and tradition.
- 4 )Religious socialisation: children come under pressure to maintain the religious traditions of their parents.
- 5) A way to deal with oppression (cultural defence).
George Chryssides suggests that new immigrants can choose:
- Apostasy – abandoning their beliefs in order to try and fit into a hostile environment
- Accommodation – adapting their beliefs to make them more in tune with the values of the new environment Renewed vigour – Increased religiosity and observance in response to a hostile environment (this can include, but does not have to, the adoption of fundamentalist beliefs).
Evaluating the view that minority ethnic groups are more religious than the white majority in the UK
- The statistical data on this is quiet convincing, but all such data must be questioned. They represent a social construction rather than a social fact. Religiosity is seen as very important in some minority-ethnic groups and therefore lack of religious faith would be a highly deviant viewpoint to admit to. This might disguise levels of atheism or agnosticism. Similarly, religious organisations carry a greater social significance in some minority-ethnic communities, as a community hub and service provider, rather than purely as a place to pray.
- Bruce’s explanations – cultural transition and cultural defence – suggest high levels of religiosity are not down to high levels of religious belief, but other social factors.
- If asked about this, do not neglect much more recent migrant communities such as predominantly Roman Catholic EU migrants. Areas which have seen high levels of Polish immigration, for instance, have seen an increase in the congregations in their Catholic churches.