Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Church. It's not for guys.

Fewer and fewer blokes are going to church, so worried God-botherers are desperately looking for ways to make churches more guy-friendly:
... or maybe we should lose the gay pin-up look and try for something a bit more Jeremy Clarkson?
There's an interesting paradox here. Wider society at least pays lip-service to the notion of gender equality and, although we're not there yet, secular society has moved measurably further in that direction than most churches. The ostensibly liberal, inclusive, plural Church of England is still only just coming round to the idea of women bishops amid much anguished debate, compromise and furious huffing from outraged conservatives.

There might not be many female cabinet ministers or CEOs, but anywhere outside a church, any commentator who suggested that women shouldn't even be allowed to assume such senior positions in an organisation would get a well-deserved monstering. And if you think the C of E is only just coming to terms with the brave new world of the 1950s, the Roman Catholic hierarchy looks like a living fossil from a time when female suffrage was considered a dangerously radical idea.

And those are just some modern, watered-down iterations of a religion that's spent centuries upholding the idea of a natural, God-given male ascendancy and of female submission and obedience (God the father versus Eve the disobedient corrupter of Adam, one male saviour appointing twelve male apostles and so on). Isn't it odd that women are keeping a vessel designed and captained by men afloat, while the guys themselves are leaping overboard, like rats from a sinking ship?

I don't know the solution to this paradox, although I think that this may be along the right lines:
Perhaps religious rituals are a form of precaution analogous to wearing a seat belt. If so, women’s greater religiosity is a side effect of their risk aversion. 
I suspect that the 'risk aversion' identified here is a symptom of something deeper; unequal power relations. It seems reasonable to assume that power, status and autonomy correlate with confidence and that a relative lack of these things leads to well-founded caution, along with a desire to turn to the safe and familiar for solace.

I also wonder whether the religious 'seat belt' takes two distinct forms, rational and irrational.

In rational terms, the church is a community, a good place to build up networks of friends and allies. According to Clare Allen, fairness and friendship are the foundations for good mental health at any age. Church hierarchies might offer little in the way of fairness, but church pews might offer a lot in the way of friendship, along with all the emotional and practical benefits that a robust network of friends can offer.

In less rational terms, superstition seems to go with powerlessness. Sailors who regularly risked life and limb out on the untamed, unpredictable sea were said to be notoriously superstitious. You can't calm a raging storm, but you can calm your fear of the raging storm with rituals.The less status and power you have, the more exposed you are to the storms of life, to the point where the famous opiate of ritual or a supernatural belief system may be your only solace:
Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. 
This sort of pattern (with some qualifications) seems to emerge when looking at the relationship between national wealth and religion:
The survey finds a strong relationship between a country's religiosity and its economic status. In poorer nations, religion remains central to the lives of individuals, while secular perspectives are more common in richer nations. This relationship generally is consistent across regions and countries, although there are some exceptions, including most notably the United States, which is a much more religious country than its level of prosperity would indicate. Other nations deviate from the pattern as well, including the oil-rich, predominantly Muslim -- and very religious -- kingdom of Kuwait. 
That might explain why the women are staying, but it doesn't explain why men are going. As a man, you'd think I might have some specific insights on this one, but as somebody who's never found religion remotely convincing in the first place, I don't have any special explanation, beyond the observation that men have, on average, more autonomy and power, which is just the inverse of the argument I've already made. I suppose that there may be a subsidiary effect going on - lack of status differentially attracts more women than men to congregations, leading to what one of the worried evangelicals called 'a common church culture (which often feels quite feminine)', but I'll leave that one for the God-heads to figure out.

Maybe there are broader political implications here, about the congruence between PR and religion and the way that both can lead to people giving allegiance to irrational beliefs and to power structures that don't even give them a fair go.