Social Class and Religion

Did you know that working-class people are more likely to believe in God?

Social Class and Religion Social Class and Religion

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Table of contents

    Glock (1964) claimed that people from poorer backgrounds found 'spiritual compensation' and a sense of community in smaller religious sects. The organisations helped them cope with the difficulties connected to social and economic deprivation.

    To understand why this may be the case, let us look at social class and religion.

    • We will start by looking at the issues in studying social class and religion and refresh ourselves on the social classes in the UK.
    • Next, will look at the trends and relationships between social class and religion.
    • We will discuss the ideas of Max Weber on religion and poverty and his beliefs on religion's role in the oppression and exploitation of the working class.

    Issues in studying social class and religion

    Andrew McKinnon has pointed out that there has not been much research conducted on social class and religion, and that the data that exists is often misleading. Church attendance, for example, does not necessarily indicate how religious a person is. Sometimes people go to church to please their families or keep up appearances.

    Sociologists make a distinction between religious belief and religiosity.

    • Religious belief refers to people's faith and whether they believe in a God and the dogmas of a certain religion.
    • Religiosity, on the other hand, refers to the person's involvement with religious activities, such as attending church.

    Attempts have been made to measure church attendance and religious belief through the church census and surveys. Still, both methods have proven quite inaccurate and only helpful in gaining a rough idea of the situation.

    Examples of social class

    It may help to clarify exactly what social class is, and examples of occupations that may determine social class. The three main social classes in the UK are:

    • upper class
    • middle class
    • working-class

    Let's go through each in turn.

    Upper class in the UK

    The upper class includes people with inherited wealth and land, but also those who have gained prosperity and 'upgraded' social classes (referred to as social mobility). Typical occupations may include businessperson, landlord/lady or aristocrat.

    Middle class in the UK

    The middle class comprises the majority of the population, as it includes professional, managerial and entrepreneurial positions. Typical occupations may include business owners, lawyers and doctors.

    Working-class in the UK

    Lastly, the working-class is made up of those with typically manual or unskilled positions, such as factory workers, drivers and cashiers. The working-class can also be known as the lower class

    Other social classes in the UK

    Social classes are not fixed in the UK, and many believe there to be further social classes within the main three outlined above. For example, many in the upper class consider themselves to be part of the 'elite', and many believe in overlaps between social classes, such as 'upper middle class' or 'lower middle class'.

    Trends in social class and religion

    We will look at three trends concerning social class and religion: affiliation with the Church of England, sects and denominations, New Age movements, and atheism.

    The Church of England, social class and religion

    Voas and Watt found that the middle class attends church more than working-class people in the UK (2014). They based this conclusion on their findings on the Church of England:

    • More people go to church in rural areas of England.
    • People attend church in higher numbers in South England than in North England.
    • Areas with good religious schools have higher church attendance.

    Social Class and Religion, Photograph of church service, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Middle-class people attend church in higher numbers than working-class people in England.

    Working-class people showed lower levels of church attendance. However, welfare recipients went to church the least.

    The head of the Church of England is King Charles III, which means the church is closely linked to the monarchy. Furthermore, the prime minister is responsible for appointing bishops, many of whom will become members of the House of Lords in the parliament. The close connection to the state and the monarchy makes the Church of England seem elitist to the working class and makes it popular more among middle-class people.

    Ahern (1987) found that working-class Londoners distrusted the Church of England and found its ministers boring and patronising. Instead, they turned towards denominations like Methodism or the Roman Catholic Church.

    The Roman Catholic Church is especially popular in poorer areas of England, populated by Irish and Eastern European immigrants, who brought the dominant religion of their countries with them. Thus, the North of England is predominantly Catholic. While in other countries, the Roman Catholic Church is a very traditional, conservative institution, Catholics are more likely to vote for Labour than Anglicans in the UK.

    Class differences in sects and denominations

    Even though churchgoing rates are lower among working-class people, Ashworth and Farthing (2007) claim that working-class people are more likely to believe in God than the middle class.

    Glock (1964) claimed that people from poorer backgrounds found 'spiritual compensation' and a sense of community in smaller religious sects. The organisations helped them cope with the difficulties connected to social and economic deprivation.

    Roy Wallis (1984) pointed out that denominations such as Methodism spread values and moral teachings that were especially useful for working-class people. These were hard work and determination, to mention the most important. As a result, Methodism has a predominantly working-class membership in the UK.

    Andrew Holden (2002) researched the Jehovah's Witnesses and found that its members had lower-class status at work. He argued that they joined the organisation to find compensation for their lack of prestige in their work-life.

    Class differences in New Religious Movements and New Age Movements

    Roy Wallis found that New Religious Movements (NRMs) and New Age Movements were most popular among the middle class. Educated, middle-class people joined organisations, such as the Unification Church and Krishna Consciousness, to find alternative ways of spirituality instead of traditional religions, churches and capitalism.

    Social Class and Religion, Woman meditating on side of lake, StudySmarterFig. 2 - New Age Movements like meditation are popular among the middle-class.

    Class differences in atheism

    Lawes (2009) researched atheism and found that lifelong atheists usually have high academic qualifications and successful professional backgrounds. On the other hand, lifelong theists were usually unskilled or semi-skilled working-class people.

    The relationship between religion and social class

    Max Weber claimed that there is a connection between religiosity and poverty (1920). He called it the 'Theodicy of Disprivilege' and said that certain sects and religious movements appeal to people of the lower classes because they offer support and comfort for the financial troubles and social deprivation that people from these classes often suffer from.

    Following Weber, Ken Pryce claimed that the core values of Pentecostalism, e.g. the importance of community, family and hard work, are all useful guidance in coping with poverty and emotional deprivation, which the working classes and ethnic minorities often suffer from. No wonder, he says, that British Pentecostalism is more popular among ethnic minorities and the lower classes, which often overlap (1979).

    The middle class often uses religion to find comfort from psychological and social deprivation. They also look at religious activities as opportunities for social networking.

    Social class and religion: evaluation

    Finally, we will carry out an evaluation on the connection between social class and religion from other sociological perspectives.

    Marxism, social class and religion

    Karl Marx argued that religion was the source of oppression and deceit in society (1843). It benefits the bourgeoisie by deceiving the working class into thinking that the social setup, built on their exploitation, is God's will.

    According to Marx, the claim that there is an all-powerful God that has created and controlled the world prevents the working class from rising against their oppression. The Bible even preaches that being poor is a direct path to Heaven, where all work and suffering will be rewarded. Marx believed that the proletariat must wake up from the false consciousness religion has injected them with and take the fight against their oppression into their own hands.

    He did not think religion could generate social change, but that only the people could do this through a revolution.

    Feminism, social class and religion

    Feminists also believe in the Marxist idea of religion as a creator of false consciousness in the oppressed. However, they argue the primary target is women rather than the working class.

    Social Class and Religion - Key takeaways

    • There has not been much research on social class and religion, and the data is often misleading.
    • The middle class attends church in higher numbers in the UK than lower-class people. However, working-class people are more likely to believe in God.
    • Close connections to the state and the monarchy make the Church of England seem elitist to the working class and make it popular more among middle-class people.
    • Denominations such as Methodism spread values and moral teachings that are especially useful for working-class people. They, therefore, have higher levels of working-class membership.
    • Max Weber (1920) claims that there is a connection between religiosity and poverty - religion appeals to working-class people because it offers support and comfort from the daily struggles and deprivation they suffer.
    Social Class and Religion Social Class and Religion
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    Frequently Asked Questions about Social Class and Religion

    How does social class affect religion?

    Max Weber claimed that there is a connection between religiosity and poverty (1920). He called it the 'Theodicy of Disprivilege' and said that certain sects and religious movements appeal to people of the lower classes because they offer support and comfort for the financial troubles and social deprivation that people from these classes often suffer from.

    Is religion stratified by social class?

    Voas and Watt found that the middle class attends church in higher numbers than working-class people in the UK (2014). Working-class people showed lower levels of church attendance. However, welfare recipients went the least.

    Which religion is correlated with the lower social class?

    Ahern (1987) found that working-class Londoners distrusted the Church of England and found its ministers boring and patronising. Instead, they turned towards denominations like Methodism or the Roman Catholic Church.

    How do different social classes use religion differently?

    The middle class often use religion to find comfort from psychological and social deprivation. They also look at religious activities as opportunities for social networking.


    Ken Pryce claimed that the core values of Pentecostalism, e.g. the importance of community, family and hard work, are all useful guidance in coping with poverty and emotional deprivation, which the working classes and ethnic minorities often suffer from.

    Is there a correlation between religion and social class?

    Andrew McKinnon has pointed out that there has not been much research conducted on social class and religion and that the data that exists is often misleading. Attempts have been made to measure church attendance and religious belief through the church census and surveys. Still, both methods have proven to be quite inaccurate and only helpful in gaining a rough idea of the situation.

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