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Religious Observance

Religious Observance

Measures and indexes

Variations in religious observance

Sociological variables

Psychological variables


Religious observance includes all overt kinds of religious behavior. This article will consider the main sociological and psychological sources of variation in religious observance. Sociological factors include historical trends, social class, and membership of minority groups. Psychological factors include age, sex, and personality traits. We shall consider studies carried out between 1900 and the present day in Great Britain, the United States, and western Europe. Research in this area shows the extent and patterning of religious activities in the population and makes it possible to test theories about the causes of religious behavior.

Measures and indexes

Frequency of church attendance is the most widely used index of religious observance. It can be assessed by actual observation, but questioning is the more usual method. If “How often do you go to church?” is asked, there is often some inflation of the true figure. “What did you do last Sunday?” is a better way of introducing the issue and gives a more accurate estimate of the behavior of a large group of people. This index is open to the further difficulties that some denominations exert greater pressure for attendance and that some people go to church for nonreligious reasons. Supplementation by other measures is therefore valuable.

One of the most important of these is the amount of private religious activity, such as saying prayers or reading the Bible. This needs to be assessed by very precisely worded questions, or again there will be exaggerations of the true amount. The profile of religious activities of different kinds may be very informative; for example, the ratio of private observance to church attendance is greater for Protestants than for Roman Catholics, and the same is true for women as compared with men. Church membership is useful for making historical comparisons, but the criteria for membership are different for different denominations, Roman Catholics and Jews being the most lenient. Furthermore, these criteria change with time: the apparent American Protestant revival in the first quarter of this century was due to changes in the definition of membership, with the result that more members were counted (National Council …). Other sociological indexes include contributions to church funds (in relation to average income) and numbers of publications on religious topics, both of which can be used to study historical changes. Attitude scales, measuring attitudes toward the church or toward religion, correlate well with church attendance. Indeed, factor analyses of various indexes and measures suggest that frequency of attendance is the most representative single measure; it is also the one most often used in research.

Variations in religious observance

Variations in religious observance raise questions of the type, Why does A go to church while B does not? The answer may take three possible forms.

Social learning and group pressures

If a person is brought up in an isolated community where everyone takes part in the same religious practices, there is no difficulty in predicting his religious activities. In general a person will be greatly influenced by his family, especially if he has a close relationship with them and lives at home: correlations between attitudes of parents and children who are at student age are in the range of .40 to .60. People are also influenced by the social norms of groups to which they belong outside the home. If family and friends conflict, the influence of each is weakened, oscillation between them may be the basis for conversions and reconversions, and the final outcome will depend on which attachment is the stronger as well as on how far the orientation of each fits the individual’s personality.

Individual differences in personality

Every ideology and its associated practices meet some needs and fail to meet others. For example, a very aggressive person is more likely to support capital punishment than pacifism. The same is true of religion, though the needs and personality mechanisms involved are many and complex (Argyle 1958; 1964). These can be deduced from findings about the religious practices and beliefs of people with different personalities.

Socioeconomic categories

Pressures to conformity exist within all social groups, although personality may cause some individual variations in behavior. But statistical differences in religious observance are also found to exist according to social class, region, and other socioeconomic categories. Such differences can often be accounted for by the different psychological situations of people in these groupings, for whom religious practices will have a very varied appeal. In other cases there may be a historical explanation.

Sociological variables

Denominational differences

For our purposes a fourfold classification of religious observance is most useful. First, conservative religion includes Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and some Episcopalians and Anglicans. Members of this group, as well as having certain characteristic beliefs, have a high rate of public worship combined with a low rate of private worship. The clergy have considerable power and are held in high regard; services are formal and ritualistic. Second, the main Protestant churches, such as the Presbyterians and Methodists, have less ritual and formality of worship, place more emphasis on sin and guilt, and are more active in evangelism. Individual clergymen have their followers, but they have less formal power. The level of church attendance of Protestants is much lower than that of Roman Catholics in most countries, but when Protestants are in a minority, as in France, they actually have higher attendance rates than Roman Catholics (Fogarty 1957). Third, sects are at the furthest end of a dimension that has Roman Catholics at one extreme and Protestants in the middle; services are informal and highly emotional, and there is little church organization. Finally, liberal religion includes Unitarians, most Jews, Quakers, and some people of no religious affiliation at all. Church attendance is low in this group and is neither ritualistic nor emotional, just as the religious attitudes of this group are more cognitive than emotional.

It is impossible to provide any brief explanation of these differences. It could be said that each type of religion has arisen under specific social conditions and attracts a particular type of person. There is also a developmental relation between them. Sects represent the primitive form that emerges spontaneously under the influence of a leader; they gradually become more formal and develop into churches. Both sects and Protestant churches are splinter groups from established churches.

An example of the differences between religious bodies is provided by nationwide surveys of public and private observance in Great Britain (Table 1).

Table 1 — Public and private religious observance in Great Britain, by denomination, in per cent
 Weekly church attendance
Regular private prayer
Source: Adapted from Argyle 1958, p. 159.
Roman Catholics5268
Church of England848

Historical factors

Fairly extensive data on religious observance in the United States and Great Britain since 1900 are available from records and social surveys. In Great Britain weekly church attendance dropped from 11.5 per cent of the population to 3.5 per cent over the period from 1900 to mid-century. Membership and proportion of average income donated fell 50 per cent. This decline was, however, largely confined to the Protestant churches; the Roman Catholics showed little change. Analysis of membership and Easter communicants shows a continuous decline to 1950, followed by an increase to 1957; it has subsequently leveled off (Argyle 1958). In the United States there was a slow drop in membership (corrected to allow for changing definition) from 1900 to 1943, and analysis of donations during this same period shows a 50 per cent drop in percentage of income donated. However, both donations and church attendances started rising in 1943 and have continued to do so. The proportion of Roman Catholics in the United States has increased from 16 per cent to 22 per cent of the population since 1900, and there has been a great expansion in a number of small sects, although many of these sects have become more like Protestant churches during this period (Thomas 1963). In France there has been a slow but steady decline in religious observance since 1850, especially in the urban areas that have become most heavily industrialized. This trend has resulted in the very great differences between town and country reported below. About 94 per cent of the population are baptized Roman Catholics, but only about 40 per cent of them attend Sunday Mass regularly (Boulard 1954).

What is the explanation of these historical changes—that is, a general decline since the second half of the nineteenth century and a temporary recovery in the 1950s? The growth of cities, industrialization, and the development of a culture that is primarily materialistic and scientific are probably some of the factors. There has been considerable variation in economic prosperity since 1900, but contrary to the expectation of some people, this appears to have no regular relationship with religious observance. There was no increase in religious observance during the depression (Kincheloe 1937); on the other hand, there has been an increase during postwar prosperity. It is true that the American sects expanded during the depression, but they also expanded before and after it. It has been alleged that the postwar increase in religious activity is due to prosperity, but the increase in Great Britain stopped in 1957, despite continuing prosperity; in any case, stronger evidence is needed to support this theory. Does war affect religious observance? There is no clear evidence of nationwide changes owing to war. On the other hand, men involved in military action often pray when in danger, and many become more religious later—though sometimes in a non-institutional manner—while others become less religious.

The decline in religious observance from 1900 to midcentury may well be due to changes in child rearing (Bronfenbrenner 1958). Protestantism has an appeal to personalities with strong superego and guilt feelings, while Catholicism appeals to people who are dependent on authority. Trends in child rearing have made both types of personality less common. However, the increase in religious activity in the United States and Great Britain since mid-century is more difficult to explain. It is noteworthy that this increase has been in the more liberal type of religion and that other religious bodies have also moved in this direction. One factor may be the greater emphasis the churches have put on social activities, with a corresponding appeal to the emergent teen-age group, but at present there is no accepted explanation.

Social class

There are excellent social survey data concerning class differences. In Great Britain it is consistently found that the higher the social class, the more frequent is religious observance. According to a survey taken by Odham’s Press in 1947, weekly church attendance was reported by 13.4 per cent of the working-class respondents, 16.3 per cent of lower middle-class, and 19.4 per cent of upper-class and upper middle-class respondents (cited by Gorer 1955). Similar results, though with smaller differences, are found for private observance and affiliation. In the United States there is a similar relationship between religious activity and social class: in one recent survey 34 per cent of the Protestant, semiskilled workers were regular church attenders, compared with 47 per cent of professional people; the corresponding figures for Roman Catholics were 66 per cent and 81 per cent (Lazarwitz 1961). In France rather greater differences are found in the same direction; about 10 per cent of manual workers are regular attenders at Mass as compared with about 50 per cent of managerial and professional workers (Pin 1956).

There are also class differences in denomination. In Great Britain the Church of England draws more members from higher up the social scale, while the reverse is true of the Roman Catholic and Nonconformist churches. In general, the sects appeal to the most underprivileged, although this is not true of Christian Science. The differences are not great: 55 per cent of upper middle-class people claim to be Anglican versus 48 per cent of working-class people. There are also differences between members of individual churches in a given denomination. In the United States, while over-all class differences in observance are smaller than in England, class differences in denomination are greater. There is a definite hierarchy, with Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Methodists at the top, followed by Lutherans, Baptists, and Roman Catholics, and certain sects at the bottom of the socioeconomic system. There is also a spread within each church; Roman Catholics and Methodists, in particular, are drawn from all classes. In a particular town or area the class segregation may be fairly sharp: a survey of part of California found that the percentage of unskilled laborers was 84 per cent among Pentecostalists, 19 per cent among members of the Assembly of God, 15 per cent among Baptists, and 1 per cent among Congregationalists (Goldschmidt 1944). In European countries, such as Germany, the Protestant minority are of higher social status than the Catholics (Fogarty 1957).

These findings can be summed up by saying that the upper and middle classes are more orthodox and formalistic, while the working classes are more emotional in their religion. Such differences can also be found within the same denominational groups (Vernon 1962).

It has been shown in the United States (Pope 1942) and observed in other parts of the world that small sects usually start among the very poor. As the members become more prosperous, the church changes its character to become more like an established Protestant church. The less prosperous members then break away to form another sect, which goes through the same cycle again. Social mobility of a whole group of people may thus result in a change in the character of their church. Mobility of an individual, however, especially upwards, may lead to his changing to another denomination.

The single most important fact here is that poor people are not, in general, more religious than others. This clearly contradicts the many theories, of which those of Marx and Freud are the best known, according to which religious belief is the outcome of social frustration. However, such theories might help to explain the sect type of religion, in which tension-discharging meetings and beliefs with a strong element of compensatory fantasy are typically accompanied by the expectation of an imminent end of the world and consequent improvement in the lot of the members. The explanation of the changes in churches as their members move up the social scale is simply that as people become more prosperous and settled their need for tension-reducing services and compensatory fantasies declines. Thus it may be that the Church of England has consistently alienated the industrial working classes of Great Britain by its middle-class and generally conservative outlook; this, at any rate, would partly account for its relatively small working-class membership.

The higher social class of the members of the major Protestant churches may be explained by Max Weber’s theory that Protestantism develops certain attitudes conducive to capitalism, perhaps through Protestant child rearing, which engenders greater achievement motivation.

Minority groups

Minority groups are often underprivileged and show an above-average level of religious activity, especially in sect religion, as in the instance of the American Negroes. African Negroes also have a taste for emotionally expressive types of religion. Another sociological factor here may be that of being uprooted from the rural or tribal community: new arrivals at the outskirts of large towns are found to be active in sect religions in Europe and Canada as well as in Africa (Mann 1955). Finally, immigrant minority groups may import their previous religious practices, which are retained and encouraged in order to bind the group together: indeed, the church may act as a kind of community center.

Turning to otherworldly matters on the part of underprivileged minority groups has been criticized on the grounds that it does not help to solve their real grievances and indeed distracts attention from them (Myrdal 1944). In some cases, however, churches and their leaders have taken part in nonviolent resistance and other political activities designed to advance the interests of minority groups. A further explanatory principle that should be mentioned in this connection is the theory of the quest for ego identity. Erikson (1956) has postulated a need for a clear and satisfactory picture of the self; and this picture is partly based on the reactions of others. Thus uprooted migrants, who have no place in society, can be greatly helped by sect membership, where up to 15 per cent of the members can be officeholders (Mann 1955).

Town and country

Surveys from several countries show a clear difference between town and country: the larger the community, the lower the level of religious observance. This tendency is strong enough to counteract another factor in the United States—that is, the tendency of Roman Catholics to be concentrated in the cities. In Great Britain the weekly attenders vary from 12 per cent in large cities to 17 per cent in small towns (Gorer 1955). In France there is a rather greater difference between town and country; in country areas about 60 per cent are regular attenders of Mass, compared with 25 per cent or less in the cities (Boulard 1954; Pin 1956). The most probable explanation is simply cultural lag: the slow decline in religion in the first half of the century has not yet affected rural areas. A further probability is that the churches are still maintaining a rural world picture and have not yet come to terms with the modern industrial world; this is particularly true of the Roman Catholic church in France.

The mass media and evangelism

Public meetings are the traditional means of evangelism. They have not wholly been replaced by radio and television and are not likely to be. Their great advantage over less direct means of communication is their ability to arouse emotional excitement; there is considerable psychological evidence to suggest that for the change of deep-rooted attitudes and beliefs, emotional arousal is very effective—especially when combined with a persuasive message and social pressure (Sargant 1957). Studies of evangelical meetings show that the higher the emotional temperature, the greater the percentage of people converted. At Billy Graham’s campaigns in Great Britain, 5.3 per cent made decisions at the larger meetings, compared with 2.3 per cent at smaller ones and with 0.8 per cent at overflow meetings. However, when people are converted by highly emotional methods, the proportion of those who are permanently converted is less. About one-half of Graham’s converts (excluding those who were church attenders already) were still active a year later. The comparable figure for the nineteenth-century revivals was one in six or less (Star-buck 1899).

The conditions for conversion at a public meeting are as follows: large, crowded meetings; a highly prestigious preacher, skilled at arousing emotional states; a message showing how a change of behavior or belief will reduce the anxiety or guilt aroused; and pressure exerted by assistant evangelists. Those most likely to be converted are females between 13 and 21 years of age who have strong guilt feelings and no background of religious instruction.

The explanation of religious conversion takes two forms, depending on whether it is “gradual” or “sudden.” Gradual conversions are nowadays the more common and can be interpreted in terms of social influence and social learning: for example, exposure to the religious ideas of an educational institution or peer group. Sudden conversions usually occur during adolescence and usually among people with strong guilt feelings. What probably happens is that young people’s guilt feelings are heightened by the preacher; they are then especially receptive to Protestant doctrines of salvation that promise relief of guilt feelings.

It is not known to what extent religious behavior and beliefs can be affected by radio or television. The experience with political and other attitudes is that actual conversion is rare, though there can be minor changes and the creation of beliefs on new topics, while exposure over a long period can bring about a slow erosion of attitudes that previously flourished unchallenged.

Psychological variables

Sex differences

Women are more active in religion than men, but the extent of the difference varies with the level of activity, the denomination, and the type of observance. In the United States, where there is a high level of observance, about 50 per cent of all women and 42 per cent of all men attend some place of worship every week, giving an attendance ratio of 1.19 women for every man. In Great Britain there is a lower level; the corresponding percentages are about 17 for women and 11 for men, giving a ratio of 1.55 women per man. One possible explanation of this difference in ratios is that when there is more observance, conformity pressures are greater, so that individual differences are reduced.

The sex ratio also varies with denomination. In the United States the ratio of female to male members varies from about 1.10 for Roman Catholics and Lutherans to 1.35-1.55 for the main Protestant denominations to 1.55-2.10 for the sects. This can be explained partly in terms of the conformity pressures mentioned above: when the clergy are more powerful, the rate of attendance is greater and individual differences less.

The sex ratio varies with types of observance. The ratio is least for the public aspects of worship, greatest for the more private. In the United States the ratio of women to men for saying private prayers is about 1.65, compared with 1.19 for church attendance. Again, this is what would be predicted by the conformity theory.

It has not yet been explained why there should be a differential sex ratio at all. There are two possible lines of explanation. First, women have stronger consciences and stronger guilt feelings and therefore respond more strongly to Protestantism. One study finds a strong correlation between guilt and frequency of church attendance among Protestant women (Argyle 1964). Second, when God is presented as like a father, he should have a greater appeal for women, if the Oedipus theory is true. The smaller sex ratio for Roman Catholics would be expected, since they are provided with a mother figure as well as a father figure. Thus both of these theories may account for the greater sex ratio among Protestants.

Age differences

Religious observances and beliefs are different at each stage of life. In childhood (3-10) there is considerable activity, including praying for the gratification of immediate needs, holding fairy-tale religious beliefs, and sharing the religious activities of the family. In adolescence (10-18) there is often a good deal of conflict, as a result of exposure to differing influences and ideas. It is not so much a period of religious activity as a period of decision. Although most conversions to religion occur during this period, it is probable that there is an equal number of reconversions, since there is no over-all increase in religious observance. Religious observance at this age, however, is marked by rather greater emotional fervor than at other ages, and young people will readily take part in the conversion of others.

During young adulthood (18-30) there is a slow decline in religious observance: 25-35 per cent of those religiously active at 18 are inactive at 30. On the other hand, a few people have their first conversion during this period. During later adulthood (30 onward), there is a steady increase in religious activity, so that virtually 100 per cent of people of 90 and over are religiously active (Cavan et al. 1949). This increase has not been found in some recent American surveys, probably because the increase in observance since 1943 has masked aging factors as deduced from cross-sectional surveys. However, the increase with age has been shown by surveys at other times and places, as has the definite reversal in trend at 30-35. Among older people both the emotional and intellectual aspects of religion are feeble, and observances have long become habitual. They often take an active part in the organizational aspects of church life [seeAging, article onsocial aspects].

The explanation of the religion of later adulthood is the easiest: older people become anxious about death, and religion helps to reduce this anxiety. There is extensive support for this view: old people who are religious are better adjusted, and as people become older they increasingly give reassurance of immortality as their reason for church attendance. The observance of adolescents is differently motivated: by the relief of guilt mechanism; by the projection of the superego onto God or onto the clergy; and by cognitive needs to understand basic problems of life, for which only religion provides answers. The relatively low rate of religious observance of the 30-35 age group is due to the relative absence of these motivations, combined with a preoccupation with earthly problems involving occupation, family, and money. The decline in observance among Roman Catholics in the 30-40 age group has been attributed to a further factor—conflicts about birth control.

Personality factors

Although the findings on the subject of personality factors as related to religious activity are rather scattered and inconsistent, certain generalizations can be put forward. First, Protestants may be more guilt-ridden and intrapunitive than Roman Catholics. This is supported by the finding that Protestants have a higher suicide rate than Catholics (Dublin & Bunzel 1933); although this difference is related to the fact that suicide is forbidden by the Roman Catholic church, this fact itself needs to be explained. Moreover, Protestants have lower crime rates, especially for aggressive crimes, as compared with Roman Catholics; their mental patients are more often depressed (Farr & Howe 1932) and their converts are preoccupied with guilt before the event (Starbuck 1899). Second, in general, churchgoers are more conformist, suggestible, authoritarian, and right-wing in politics than others. This is particularly true of the members of the larger established churches; it is least true of Quakers, members of other churches of the liberal type, and sect members (Adorno et al. 1950). Third, young religious people are somewhat more neurotic than others, while old religious people are rather better adjusted. Finally, among psychotic patients, about one in seven is preoccupied with religious ideas or practices (Farr & Howe 1932), and many religious leaders and innovators have been found to have psychotic symptoms.

My own investigations of religious activity indicate that two psychological mechanisms may account for a number of these findings. The first of these two mechanisms has been introduced already: the relief of guilt feelings by the acceptance of Protestant doctrines of salvation. Frequency of church attendance has been found to correlate with strength of guilt feelings for women only (Argyle 1964). It seems likely that this mechanism operates for female Protestants, especially between the ages of 14 and 30, and that this accounts for the findings on neurosis and suicide.

The second theory states that internal conflict between the self and the superego results in the latter becoming projected or externalized onto clergy, saints, or God. In one study Roman Catholics were found to have a greater conflict between self and superego than others, and it has been shown that they make greater use of projection as a defense mechanism (Dreger 1952). This may account for the greater power of the Roman Catholic clergy, the relatively greater amount of Roman Catholic public observance, and the more severe Roman Catholic image of God.

Michael Argyle

[See alsoReligion; Sects and cults.]


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