As I explain in earlier posts (Part I, Part II), religion – belief in supernatural higher power – is culturally universal because it is part of human nature. There is something else about religion that is culturally universal. In virtually every society, women are more religious than men.
A worldwide survey asked more 100,000 people from 70 different countries and regions the following two questions: “Do you believe in God?” and “Independent of whether you go to church or not, would you say you are a religious person, not a religious person, or a convinced atheist?” By these measures, with only a couple of minor exceptions, women in all nations and regions are more religious than men.
The sex differences in religiosity are greater in some countries (Russia) than in others (US). It is present in societies with very high levels of religiosity (Ghana, Poland, Nigeria) and in those with very low levels of religiosity (China, Japan, Estonia). It is present in all six populated continents, regardless of the particular religion involved (Catholicism in Italy and Spain, Protestantism in Germany and Sweden, Russian Orthodox in Russia and Belarus, Islam in Turkey and Azerbaijan, Shintoism in Japan, indigenous religions in Ghana, and even official atheism in China). Women are more religious than men in virtually every society surveyed. Nor is this a contemporary phenomenon. Historical records show that the sex differences in religiosity existed throughout human history.
Why is this? Why are women more religious than men in virtually all cultures and throughout history? What explains the universal sex difference in religiosity?
As with all other sex differences, social scientists offer a blanket explanation of “gender socialization.” They contend that women are socialized to be nurturing and submissive, qualities that make religious acceptance and commitment more likely. Similarly, social scientists argue that the role of the mother subsumes religiousness, since it involves such activities as teaching the children morality and caring for the physical and spiritual welfare of other family members. Some even argue that women are more religious than men because they do not traditionally work outside the home and therefore have more free time to pursue and practice religion.
Unfortunately for the social scientists, however, it turns out that there is not much empirical support for these explanations for the sex difference in religiosity. (As a general rule, “gender socialization” is never the true cause of observed sex differences.) Women are more religious than men both in traditional societies, where women receive strict gender socialization, and in modern societies, where women are not subject to such strict gender socialization. The experience of childrearing appears unrelated to a woman’s religiosity. Career women are just as religious as housewives, and both are far more religious than men. The preponderance of empirical evidence is therefore contrary to the social scientific explanation for the sex difference in religiosity in terms of gender socialization.
So how can we explain why women in virtually every society are more religious than men? How can evolutionary psychology explain it? I will discuss it in my next post (although, if you have been keeping score at home, you should know the answer by now).