The Human Beast

Why we do what we do

Why Women Are More Religious Than Men

It's all about risk management

Women are more religious than men. They see religion as more important in their lives and go to church more often according to surveys (1). Why? Perhaps religious rituals are a form of precaution analogous to wearing a seat belt. If so, women’s greater religiosity is a side effect of their risk aversion.

Health researchers know that women take better care of themselves (2). They avoid unnecessary risk taking, and are much less likely to die in car accidents because they drive more safely. Low female risk-taking was favored by natural selection because women taking fewer risks were more likely to survive and therefore more likely to raise children to maturity.

On the other hand, male risk-taking was favored because riskier men acquired higher social status by not backing down from confrontation with peers, for instance. This is why men are most fearless, risk-taking, and violent, in young adulthood, an age that is critical for establishing a pecking order amongst peers. If a country wanted to get rid of most of the violent crime, it could do so by locking up all young men between the ages of 15-35 years!

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One feature of risk-taking is neglecting to take precautions in matters of personal safety, such as wearing a seatbelt. Religious rituals and prayer are also precautions of a sort. Through prayer, a person might relieve their anxiety about any number of potential threats to personal well-being, from harsh weather, or doing poorly in an exam, to violence, or illness. 

Women may be more religious because they are more interested in being safe in other respects. They are more likely to receive medical checkups when they are well, less likely to abuse alcohol, or smoke, and more likely to take regular exercise to control their weight (2).

Interestingly, as more women join the fulltime workforce, and compete over high-status jobs, their risk-taking profile increases. For many categories of risky behavior, such as abuse of alcohol and reckless driving, young women are now more similar to young men. Yet, this phenomenon is an anomaly not seen in other societies throughout history. 

The majority of women remain somewhat more religious than men and this mirrors the greater cautiousness of feminine behavior. It is a good idea to minimize risk if you want to live a long healthy life. Yet, there is a cost. That cost is increased anxiety.

Anxiety is a protective emotion that keeps us away from threats to life and limb, whether that is working on top of roofs, or sawing down large trees. There are very few female roofers or lumberjacks (2). Indeed, every dangerous occupation, from fishing to mining is dominated by males who are overwhelmingly the gender that dies in industrial accidents such as boats being lost in a storm or mine shafts caving in.

These gender differences in risk-taking are declining in the modern world as women become more involved in all areas of employment but women are still lower on risk-taking, on average. The evolved gender difference is alive and well at the level of emotional predispositions. Women are more anxious than men, and that anxiety means they take fewer risks which is why they are less likely to die in accidents.

Chronic anxiety has one major cost, however. It causes depression. This helps explain why women are twice as likely to be diagnosed with clinical depression compared to men (Of course, they are also more likely to seek help for emotional problems whereas many depressed men go untreated). 

So women’s higher religiosity is most likely a side effect of their risk aversion. Religion functions to reduce anxiety and helps people to feel protected against threatening events (1). That is why many passengers are seen to pray when their plane takes off but almost no one prays when driving to work. Although driving is objectively more dangerous, commuters feel more in control than airline passengers.

Women are more religious than men because religion is a source of emotional security rather like a child’s security blanket. Being generally more anxious than men, women have more need for religion to allay their fears.

1. Barber, N. (2012). Why atheism will replace religion: The triumph of earthly pleasures over pie in the sky. E-book, available at: http://www.amazon.com/Atheism-Will-Replace-Religion-ebook/dp/B008...

2. Courtenay, W. H. (2000). Behavioral factors associated with disease, injury, and death, among men: Evidence and implications for prevention. Journal of Men’s Studies 9, 81-142.

Nigel Barber, Ph.D., is an evolutionary psychologist as well as the author of Why Parents Matter and The Science of Romance, among other books.

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