Feminism and Religion

Women have historically scored more highly than men on most indicators of religious belief and practice, but there have been signs in recent years that the situation may be changing, as females succumb to secularization, and apparently nowhere is this truer than for feminists.

This is the inescapable conclusion from a new article by Kristin Aune, ‘Much Less Religious, a Little More Spiritual: the Religious and Spiritual Views of Third-Wave Feminists in the UK’, Feminist Review, Vol. 97, No. 1, March 2011, pp. 32-55.

Together with Catherine Redfern, Aune surveyed the religious and spiritual attitudes of 1,265 ‘third-wave feminists’ in the UK by means of online and paper questionnaires. The fieldwork date is not cited but can be inferred to be circa 2008. Details of response rates are not given.

Two-thirds of respondents were members of feminist groups and initiatives established since the new millennium, thus representing the third wave of feminism in the UK, and one-third were attenders at four feminist conferences and festivals.

91% of the sample comprised women and 7% men. Three-quarters were in their twenties or thirties, with a mean age of 31 and a median of 27. They were mostly highly educated, 90% possessing or studying for an undergraduate or postgraduate degree.

Interviewees were asked to ‘describe your religious or spiritual views (including none/atheist/agnostic)’. Over 200 different self-designations were used, making aggregation and classification of the replies somewhat problematical.

The broadest categorization employed by Aune suggested that only 11% of the feminists subscribed to a major world religion, with 39% describing themselves as atheists, 16% as agnostics, 15% as of no religion, and 9% as spiritual rather than religious.

Aune compared these figures with data about women’s religious affiliation from the 2001 census and survey evidence and concluded that, relative to the wider population, feminists ‘are significantly less supportive of traditional religion and somewhat more supportive of alternative and non-institutional spiritualities’.

This comparison is rather deceptive since these general sources mostly used closed questions with pre-set response codes, rather than Aune’s open-ended approach.

It would also have been desirable to factor in age as well as gender in analysing the census and surveys, to produce a ‘control group’ that would have been a better match in age terms with the feminist profile.

Such comparisons do appear to bear out that ‘religion and spirituality are areas of only limited interest or concern’ for feminists. Whereas in the 2008 British Social Attitudes Survey, 47% of British women aged 18-44 said they had no religion, the equivalent figure in Aune’s study seems to be around 82%.

Neither the census nor national sample surveys are especially helpful routes for quantifying alternative and non-institutional spiritualities, and Aune’s comparative comments here seem to draw mainly on the classic study of religion and spirituality in Kendal in 2000-02 by Paul Heelas and Linda Woodhead, whose statistical methods have been questioned (see http://www.brin.ac.uk/sources/1405 for details of this research).

Aune suggests three possible explanations for her finding that feminists are less drawn to traditional religion than the norm and rather more to alternative and non-institutional spiritualities. These are: ‘feminism’s alignment with secularism, secularization and feminism’s role within it, and feminism’s association with alternative spiritualities’.

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