Social Class and Religious Belief
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Last updated 17 Jul 2018
There are a number of key differences in relation to religious belief and social class, both in terms of overall religiosity and the membership and practice of particular religions, denominations, sects, etc.
There has been a traditional view that religiosity was stronger among the working class, tying into Weber’s idea of a theodicy of disprivilege and also the traditional Marxist idea that the purpose of religion was to act as an opiate or spiritual gin for the masses. Marxists argue that religion performs different functions for different classes, so for the ruling class it legitimates their position and their success, and for the working-class it offers hope for reward in the afterlife. However, there is some evidence to suggest that, in contemporary society, religiosity is in fact higher among the middle class. A survey from 2015 suggested that 62% of church goers are middle class. There are a range of possible explanations for this, but one is that religion offers opportunities for social networking which the middle class make use of, rather than that there is necessarily a greater amount of religious faith among the middle class.
Drill down further and the picture is more complex. In the UK, the Anglican Church is much more middle class than the Roman Catholic church or the Methodist church. Again the reasons for this are not straightforward. The Anglican church is the established church and is seen as the religion of the ruling class. (It was once described as “the Tory Party at prayer”). But the Anglican Church today often takes anti-establishment positions on social issues; also the Quaker religion is overwhelmingly middle class while being politically much more radical and anti-establishment.
The Roman Catholic church is much more working class in the UK. This might relate to its predominance in some well-established and newer migrant communities (e.g. Irish and Eastern European). Also areas that were traditionally popular with Irish immigrants were large industrial cities of the North, such as Liverpool. Interestingly, although Catholicism is often seen as a conservative religion, particularly in terms of social attitudes, in the UK catholics are significantly more likely to be Labour voters than Anglicans.
Methodism is also much more working class than Anglicanism. Again this has much to do with the geographical areas where the faith is well-established, such as industrial areas of the north of England, and also because of its history as a sect and the issues about sects’ appeal to working-class individuals discussed in the last section.
It has also been suggested that many New Age movements and cults have particularly appealed to the middle class. This might be down to a sense of spiritual deprivation. Bruce (1995) argued that spiritual needs seem more important to those who have few material needs. Others have pointed out that middle-class individuals can still feel relatively deprived and therefore seek answers for why they are not as successful as some of their peers.
Social Class: Working class
Reasons for Religiosity:
- Theodicy of Disprivilege. Religion offers “compensators” (such as rewards in the afterlife)
- Financial/social support and welfare
- Sense of belonging and community
Most likely religious activity
- Denominations and sects
Social Class: Middle Class
Reasons for Religiosity:
- Spiritual deprivation / relative deprivation
- Social networking
- Tradition and social desirability
Most likely religious activity:
- Cults and New Age movement
- Traditional churches