Florida State University

College of Social Sciences & Public Policy

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Researchers find sexism limits the benefits of religious participation

by Mark Blackwell Thomas, University Communications

While a vibrant religious life is often linked to better health, Florida State University researchers find those benefits don’t extend to everyone.  

In their study, “When Religion Hurts: Structural Sexism and Health in Religious Congregations,” published in American Sociological Review, Patricia Homan, assistant professor of sociology, and Amy Burdette professor of sociology, find sexism in religious institutions can limit the health benefits of religious participation for women. 

“We were interested in understanding how being a church where women are not allowed to take on leadership positions like being a pastor, is related to individual physical health,” Burdette said. “We also thought that this relationship might be different for women and men. Additionally, we wanted to compare individuals in sexist churches to those in more inclusive religious organization as well as those who do not attend church.” 

Homan said the study found women who attend sexist religious institutions report significantly worse self-rated health than those attending more inclusive congregations.  

“Women experience a health benefit from religious participation relative to non-participants only when they attend institutions that are gender-inclusive and allow women to hold meaningful leadership roles within the congregation,” Homan said. “Women who attend sexist congregations have the same health as those who do not attend religious services at all and have worse health than women who attend inclusive churches.” 

Homan added: “These results suggest that the health benefits of religious participation do not extend to groups that are systematically excluded from power and status within their religious institutions.” 

The research, which drew from two nationally representative surveys — the General Social Survey and the National Congregations Study — found no significant effects upon men.  

“It is possible that exposure to congregational sexism benefits men in some way and harms them in other such that the net effect is zero,” Homan said. “What we found was that there was either no effect among men or a very small negative effect.” 

“Our study presents novel evidence regarding the relationship between structural sexism and health,” Homan said. “Even in religious congregations, where engagement has well-known health benefits, structural sexism can undermine women’s well-being.” 

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