When Religion Hurts: Structural Sexism and Health in Religious Congregations

An emerging line of research has begun to document the relationship between structural
sexism and health. This work shows that structural sexism—defined as systematic gender
inequality in power and resources—within U.S. state-level institutions and within marriages
can shape individuals’ physical health. In the present study, we use a novel dataset created
by linking two nationally representative surveys (the General Social Survey and the National
Congregations Study) to explore the health consequences of structural sexism within another
setting: religious institutions. Although religious participation is generally associated with
positive health outcomes, many religious institutions create and reinforce a high degree
of structural sexism, which is harmful for health. Prior research has not reconciled these
seemingly conflicting patterns. We find that among religious participants, women who attend
sexist religious institutions report significantly worse self-rated health than do those who
attend more inclusive congregations. Furthermore, only women who attend inclusive religious
institutions exhibit a health advantage relative to non-participants. We observe marginal to no
statistically significant effects among men. Our results suggest the health benefits of religious
participation do not extend to groups that are systematically excluded from power and status
within their religious institutions.

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No wonder. We are a social species. The primary benefit of religious belief is it’s promotion of this feeling that you are part of a community. A group. A sense of belonging. To the extent religions foster group coherence and social mingling it should not be surprising that it has positive follow-on effects on things both mental and physical health.

But those who feel excluded and ostracized probably experience increased stress and anxiety, so compared to those on the outside (unless they are part of some other group that fosters the same sense of belonging and social mingling) religious practitioners are likely to exhibit lower overall levels of stress and anxiety, with all the implications this has for physical and mental health.


Yes, and the greater their commitment to their religion, the greater the stress and anxiety at being excluded is likely to be. The fact that they will likely to have been taught that this exclusion is divinely ordained, and that they will feel compelled to deny (even to themselves) any discomfit due to it, will likely make the situation even worse.

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