Canada
4 min

Churches have bigger problems than TV’s Buffy

Study blames show for exodus of female worshippers

A new academic study claims the reason that churches are losing high numbers of female worshippers is… Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Dr Kristin Aune, a sociologist at the University of Derby in Britain and author of the study, told The Daily Telegraph that the show was responsible for the mass exodus.

“In short, women are abandoning the church. Because of its focus on female empowerment, young women are attracted by Wicca, popularized by the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

“Young women tend to express egalitarian values and dislike the traditionalism and hierarchies they imagine are integral to the church.”

Aune’s research cites a census that shows that more than a million women have left English churches since 1989.

Now I love — love — Buffy and I certainly agree that young women have reason to be turned off by churches’ “traditionalism and hierarchies.” But I think this study might give a little too much credit to the show, and overemphasize its promotion of Wicca.

Obviously Willow was a witch, but the show’s portrayal of Wicca as a religion is far from unreservedly positive. The Wicca group Willow joins at college are a bunch of hippy dipshits — except for Tara, of course. And when Dark Willow is set to destroy the world, it isn’t Wicca that prevents her, it’s the love of her friends, especially Xander. And while Willow does spend time with a coven in England, in the end it’s her friends and her own strength and independence that’s seen as the most important factors.

That was the essence of Buffy. The show did have a focus on spirituality. The Hellmouth, the constant presence of demons — including, of course, Anya — and evil suggests the presence of a countervailing good. And, in fact, when Buffy is resurrected, she admits that she thought she was in heaven when she was brought back to life. But the show does not claim the existence of a capital-g God. Indeed, at one point, the heroes are forced to kill a god: the evil Glory.

The show stressed female strength and empowerment and a belief in love, justice, equality and friendship. That was the basis of spirituality on Buffy. And that’s why studies like this go too easy on organized religion.

Young women aren’t leaving Christianity because of what they saw on a fictional TV show, however good that show might have been. They’re leaving because of the prevalent sexism and, not incidentally, homophobia. The Anglican church is splitting apart because of battles over the ordination of gays and women as bishops.

Is it any wonder young women are fleeing religions that tell them they’re not equal to men. And academic studies that think that those women only follow the dictates of TV shows — rather than their own real-life experiences with religion — merely continue the condescending and patriarchal attitudes.

As Buffy said, “Note to self: religion: freaky.”

Incidentally, in the Buffy comic book being written by series creator Joss Whedon, the vampire slayer has become, at least temporarily, a lesbian. Let’s see what effect that has on thousands of young women.

***

On a related note, a coalition of more than 50 dissident Catholic groups recently sent a letter to Pope Benedict asking him to end the church’s ban on birth control and contraception.

The coalition was led by Catholics for Choice, a Washington, DC-based group, but the letter was signed by groups from across North and South America and Europe. The group published the letter in a half-page ad in the Italian daily newspaper Corriere della Sera on the 40th anniversary of the 1968 encyclical by Pope Paul VI that prohibited Catholics from using contraception.

The letter stated that the ban “has had catastrophic effects on the poor and weak of the whole world, putting in danger the lives of women and exposing millions of people to the risk of contracting HIV.”

Something tells me it may be having old men want to control their sexuality and expose them to sexually transmitted diseases that’s driving young women, gays and others away from religion, not Buffy.

***

A report from the right-wing CD Howe Institute found that when items like income, parents’ education, mother tongue, neighbourhood and immigration are taken into account, Catholic school boards in Ontario do a better job of teaching than public ones, based on standardized tests in Grades 3 and 6.

The result, suggests the institute, stems from the fact that Catholic schools try harder because they have parents who can move their children to public schools. In other words, the improved results stem from choice — leading the report to push, once again, for funding of all religious schools.

“We went through an election where we decided we were not going to fund faith-based independent schools without ever really having a serious debate about whether opening active competition between schools would produce better outcomes,” study author David Johnson told the Toronto Star.

Now don’t worry, I’m not going to get into my opposition to funding religious schools again. I’m sick of that, and I think the voters of Ontario showed pretty emphatically they’re opposed to funding religious schools in the province.

But I will point out just one thing that’s true in Toronto, albeit admittedly for high school students and not primary schools. Unlike the Catholic school board, the public school board has set up a separate program for queer students — the Triangle Program — and is in the process of setting up a separate Afrocentric school.

In other words, the public school board is trying to help two of the groups most likely to face prejudice and bullying, and thus have trouble with their marks. The Howe report didn’t look at race or sexual orientation as factors, or how those groups fare in the Catholic system.

But if I were a queer student or a parent who wanted my child to learn about diversity, I would be thankful for the public school system.