Religious activities help minorities, but not Muslims, build friendships

University of Manchester PhD researcher presents findings to British Sociological Association’s annual conference today.

Being active in a church or other religious group is a good way for ethnic minorities to develop friendships with white people, research has found – but this does not work for Muslims.

Yinxuan Huang, of The University of Manchester, was due to tell the British Sociological Association’s annual conference in Glasgow today that the religious activities of Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and black Christians made it more likely that they had a close friend who was white.

An analysis of 29,016 survey responses from non-white people found that those who were active in their church, temple or synagogue were between 8% and 12% more likely to have a close white British friend than those who were not religious. The exception was active Muslims, whose religious activities did not bring them white friends. 

Mr Huang also found that second generation immigrants were up to 18% more likely to have a close white friend than others. However, this again did not apply to Muslims.

Giving the results of his PhD research to the conference, Mr Huang said that he found that active participation in religious activity, such as attending services, organising events or mentoring others, was necessary to have an effect – those who were spiritual without taking part were not more likely to have white friends.

Mr Huang found that only education made Muslims more likely to have a close white friend: those with degrees were 17% more likely, the largest rise among all the groups with degrees.

Mr Huang said: “For all non-white believers excepting Muslims, religious community participation is linked to greater connectedness with the white majority.”

He said that Muslims were “not succeeding in breaking through the barrier in bonding with the white majority. The inherent socioeconomic disadvantages and the emerging Islamophobia narrative in the public life tend to bind British Muslims closer to each other and to inhibit their with the white majority.”

He was due to tell the conference that “religion may create boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them’ in a multicultural society. In Western Europe, this narrative has come into vogue in the politics of migration with the emergence of Islamophobia, the increasing visibility of far-right politicians who appear hostile to immigrants, and shocking events such as the murder of Lee Rigby and recent shootings in France.

“Much of the focus has been on the dark side of religion in integration, whereas how religious engagement could contribute positively to a multicultural society has received little attention.

“For many ethnic minorities, religious groups and organisations are among the very few institutions that are easily accessed and trusted. Co-religionists who share similar norms and values are keen to help each other regardless of different cultural backgrounds, and entering a place of worship does not require the same experiences, language skills, or even social status, as joining many other types of civic organisation.

 “Religious involvement also provides the foundation for wider civic and economic participation, because participation in formal services and church activities effectively generates opportunities for participants to establish with other people both within and beyond their faith communities.”