What is the prevalence of religion among modern student communities in the UK?

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To what extent can patterns of religiosity in this social context be said to differ from other and previous contexts?


The past half century has seen dramatic social change in which changes in religiosity are only a small part. Modern British society is multi-cultural and multi-ethnic; women routinely work outside the home; education is freely available and most forms of discrimination, including discrimination on religious grounds, have been outlawed. From the 21st century standpoint, it seems incredible that women were once denied the right to a university education,that third-level access was almost exclusively the preserve of the elite or, indeed, that universities ever demanded conformity to the Established Church.

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In light of such social development, it is unsurprising that the UK’s student community has a markedly different attitude towards religion than its predecessors. This brief essay has a great deal of material vying for space. Consequently, there are inevitable omissions, such as an assessment of religions such as Islam which are bucking the secularisation trend. However, it will examine the function of religion as observed by Durkheim, Parsons and Marx before reflecting on Weber’s insights to place discussions in a sociological context. The essay will also outline and engage with the concept of ‘community’ and explore how Tonnies’ (1887) observations are relevant when considering the motivations and affiliations of a transient student cohort. This essay will seek to establish the facts about religious affiliation and observance as revealed in historical and contemporary studies. Finally, it will assess the extent of changing societal norms on religious observance – not only among students, but also among the wider British community.

Religion and Sociology

Christians view God as omnipotent, eternal, and assert that God must be worshipped. In contrast, the Dugum Dai of New Guinea believe the spirits of the dead cause sickness and death and must be placated by ritual. The Sioux invoke benevolent powers to make rain fall and crops grow. What is evident from these few examples is that defining religion is challenging. However, sociologists have offered two possible approaches: a functional perspective and a substantive viewpoint (Haralambos and Holborn, 2004). The substantive viewpoint examines what is believed and, as such, is beyond the scope of this essay although it is worth noting that Durkheim (1961) argued that all societies divide the world between the sacred and the profane, and, by attaching mystic symbolism to certain things, set them apart. However, he also took a functionalist standpoint, positing that the shared beliefs and values thus created form the collective conscience which enforces social order, while emphasising the importance of group ritual to enhance societal bonds (Durkheim, 1961). Functionalists, therefore, analyse religion in terms of how it contributes to meeting societal need (Haralambos and Holborn,

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