The Scientific Fundamentalist

A look at the hard truths about human nature.

Why Are Women More Religious Than Men? II

It is safer and less risky to believe in God

Women in virtually every society and culture are more religious than men, and the empirical evidence suggests that the reason is not gender socialization.  So what explains the higher level of religiosity among women?

The sex difference in religiosity follows directly from the evolutionary psychological theory of the origin of religious beliefs that I present in earlier posts (Part I, Part II) and the sex difference in risk-taking, which I also explain in earlier posts (Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV).  You’ll recall that the evolutionary origins of religiosity are in risk management; it is less risky to overinfer agency and hence be susceptible to religious beliefs than to underinfer agency and get killed by enemies and predators when you least expect them.  It is an error-management strategy to minimize the total costs of errors by predisposing the human brain to commit more false-positive errors of inference than false-negative errors when the former has less costly consequences than the latter.

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You’ll also recall that women are inherently more risk-averse than men, both because women benefit far less from taking risks (given that there is a limit to how many children women can have and that all women are more or less guaranteed to have some children in their lifetime) and because their offspring suffer if women are risk-seeking (and get injured or die as a result) .  This is why men are much more criminal and violent than women.  If men are more risk-seeking than women, and if religion is an evolutionary means to minimize risk, then it naturally follows that women are more religious than men.

Consistent with this explanation, studies show that an individual’s risk preference is strongly related to his or her religiosity both across and within the sexes.  Not only are women more risk-averse and more religious than men, but more risk-averse men are more religious than more risk-seeking men, and more risk-averse women are more religious than more risk-seeking women.  Further, consistent with this explanation, the sex difference in religiosity is larger in societies where being nonreligious is considered risky (such as in fundamentalist Christian or Muslim societies) than in societies with greater religious freedom, where individuals can freely choose to be religious or not.  The sex difference is also smaller in societies where there is no widespread belief that nonbelievers go to hell, such as Buddhist societies.

In earlier posts (Part I, Part II), I present the intriguing possibility that humans may believe in God and the supernatural for the same reasons of error management that men overinfer women’s sexual interest in them and women underinfer men’s sexual interest in them.  Now, in connection with the universal sex difference in religiosity, my suggestion is that women are uniformly more religious than men for the same reason of risk preference that men are more criminal and violent in every society.  The sex differences in risk preference, religiosity, and criminality are all direct consequences of the sex differences in reproductive strategy.  In all areas of life, it pays for men to take risks because avoiding risks has the disastrous consequence of ending up a total reproductive loser.  Religion is just another area where men are more risk-seeking than women.

Satoshi Kanazawa is an evolutionary psychologist at LSE and the coauthor (with the late Alan S. Miller) of Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters.

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