Why Religion Is Natural and Science Is Not

A naturalist examines the cognitive and cultural foundations of religion, science, and more

Sex and Religiosity

Studies of religiosity may illuminate sources of sex differences.

The Minds of Female Accountants

In her absorbing new book, Brain Storm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex Differences, Rebecca Jordan-Young reports that the percentage of women in accountancy has increased steadily over the past few decades so that, by now, the majority of accountants in the United States are females.  Jordan-Young offers this as one among a number of pieces of evidence that it is cultural barriers, not putative natural predilections of mind, that have prevented large numbers of women from entering and succeeding in a variety of professions that call upon quantitative, analytic, and systemizing skills. 

Jordan-Young questions Simon Baron-Cohen’s proposal in his book, The Essential Difference:  Male and Female Brains and the Truth about Autism, that discrepancies in performance on tests of systemizing (and empathizing) abilities among populations of females, males, and people with autistic spectrum disorders (ASD) turn primarily, let alone solely, on any biological differences that are, in fact, essential. The findings on these tests show that with systemizing on average across populations people with ASD perform somewhat better than males, who, in turn, perform somewhat better than females. By contrast, with empathizing and other theory-of-mind related abilities, the findings go in just the opposite direction. Again on average across populations, females perform somewhat better than males, who perform somewhat better than people with ASD. 

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Surprisingly, perhaps, findings about the comparative religiosity of these groups may provide some support for Jordan-Young’s view that cultural factors, instead of putatively essential differences between male and female brains, may substantially inform such patterns.

Patterns of Comparative Religiosity

As I reported in my previous blog, University of British Columbia psychologist Ara Norenzayan and his colleagues have carried out experimental studies, which indicate that, even after controlling for nearly a dozen alternative explanatory variables, people with ASD exhibited significantly less religiosity on average than other people, as indexed by a variety of measures including stated belief in God. Their experiments, however, also replicated a well-known finding in the sociology of religion.  As has been true in many studies before, females on average manifested significantly higher levels of religiosity on these studies’ measures than either males or people with ASD. Across their studies, males on average showed about half the levels of religiosity that females did, even after controlling for ASD, which males exhibit roughly nine times more frequently than females do. 

The crucial question is how to explain this recurring pattern about differences in religiosity between the sexes. 

Although they replicated the patterns with regard to systemizing that Baron-Cohen stresses, Norenzayan and his colleagues’ findings provide no support for any notion that contrasts in systemizing capacities play a role in the different levels of religiosity that they found among the populations that they studied. Consistent with my predictions and those of other cognitive scientists of religion, they did find that differences in “mentalizing” abilities explained the divergences in religiosity both between the people with ASD and others and between the males and females that they studied.

Case Closed?

Case closed? Not hardly—for at least two reasons. First, Norenzayan and his colleagues emphasize correctly that though impaired theory-of-mind abilities probably contribute to the explanations of comparatively diminished religiosity in populations of males and people with ASD, many other routes may lead to unbelief. They are, by no means, the only researchers to advance such a proposal.  Intellectual, economic, political, and cultural factors may also influence humans’ inclinations to believe or not believe in gods. 

The second reason brings us back to Jordan-Young’s suggestion that cultural factors may shape these patterns more than most researchers have suspected. Disparities in mentalizing and empathizing capacities surely bear some of the explanatory burden where such variations occur in average religiosity between populations of males and females, and plenty of studies, including Norenzayan and his colleagues’ research, show that pattern. But not every study does. In an intriguing paper the sociologist, D. Paul Sullins, notes that findings of the World Values Survey from the 1990s indicate that substantial discrepancies in religiosity between the sexes do not arise in about one third of the nations surveyed. Moreover, among Jews and Muslims overall, it appears that males report higher levels of religiosity than females.   

I will set aside the interesting questions about how these variations between nations and religions with regard to divergences between levels of male and female religiosity should be explained and how they have mostly been missed. The point for now is that such circumstances provide at least indirect support for Jordan-Young’s contention that culture can have considerable influence on how the minds of males and females turn out. 

Robert N. McCauley, Ph.D., is the author of Why Religion Is Natural and Science Is Not. He is William Rand Kenan Jr. University Professor of Philosophy at Emory University.

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