Some of my favorite atheists are women: Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Greta Christina, Jennifer Michael Hecht, Nella Larsen, and above all, my wife. And some of my least favorite theists are men: Rick Santorum, the Ayatollahs of Iran, Fred Phelps – oh, well, the list on this front is too long. You get the idea.
Anyway, despite the obvious reality that many women are secular and many men are religious, the fact still remains that the former gender is consistently more likely to be religious than the latter.
Indeed, countless studies have shown that women are more likely to be religious than men. Now, that doesn’t mean that every study shows such a difference, or that the difference is always significant. Nor does it mean that the difference is discernable on every measure of religiosity/secularity -- for example, orthodox Jewish men are more likely to regularly attend synagogue than orthodox Jewish women.
But when we take in the existing corpus of social science from the past sixty years, there is clear empirical support for the claim that women are more likely to be religious than men. As Marta Trzebiatowska and Steve Bruce note in their book Why Are Women More Religious Than Men? (Oxford, 2012), “since 1945 the Gallup polling organization has consistently found that, on every index used, American women are more religious than men, and not by small margins.”
Consider, for example, that according to the American Religious Identification Survey, men currently make up 58% of Americans who claim “no religion,” 70% of Americans who self-identify as atheist, and 75% of those who self identify as agnostic. Or consider the Pew Forum’s Religious Landscape national survey, which found that 86% of American women claim to be religious affiliated, but only 79% of American men claim as much; 77% of women believe in God with absolute certainly, but only 65% of men do; 66% of women pray daily, but only 49% of men do; 63% of women say that religion is very important in their lives, but only 49% of men say as much; 44% of women attend religious services on a weekly basis, but only 34% of men do. The differences may or may not be significant – social science gets fuzzy here -- but they are consistent.
In short, on just about whatever measures one uses to assess religiosity – frequency of prayer, belief in God, church attendance, or self-identification – women are more likely than men in the United States to be religious.
OK, but are these averages and percentages universal? Do we find similar differences in other countries around the world?
According to data analyzed by Ariela Keysar and Juhem Navarro-Rivera (see “A World of Atheism: Global Demographics” in the Oxford Handbook of Atheism, 2013), 77% of self-designated atheists in the Ukraine are male, 76% in Portugal, 70% in Uruguay, 67% in Japan, 65% in Israel, 65% in Mexico, 61% in Sweden, 60% in the Netherlands, and so on. True, there are some exceptions – for example, men make up only 47% of self-designated agnostics in Belgium. And only 48% of agnostics in Japan. But these are exceptions; the overall pattern of men being more atheist or agnostic than women the world over is clear and strong, leading these authors to conclude that “atheists, both positive and negative…are predominantly males” and “global comparisons reveal a wide spectrum of male dominance within the positive atheist sub-population.”
I could go on and on, and cite countless other studies and surveys – both national and international – that illustrate the same gendered pattern. But rather than trot these all out, I’ll let the words of professor Tiina Mahlamäki sum them all up: “Statistics conducted in countries all over the world, for as long as statistics on religion have been collected, confirm that women are more religious than men. This concerns every dimension of religion. Women participate in religious ceremonies more often than men; women pray more often than men; they more likely than men believe in God, a Spirit, or Life Force; they hold matters of faith and religion more important than men do. Women are more committed than men to their religious communities and are less willing to resign from them. Although older women are more religious than young ones, women of all ages are more religious than coeval men are. Women are members of both traditional religious communities and new religious movements more often than men. Young, urban men are the least religious of all groups.” (see her article “Religion and Atheism From a Gender Perspective,” in Approaching Religion, 2012).
Of course, none of the above means that this gendered difference is fated and eternal. In five years, or twenty-five years, we could find different results. But for now, the data is clear and consistent: women are more likely to be religious than men.
So how do we explain this?
Here are some leading possibilities:
* It could have to do with power and privilege, and the lack thereof. In most societies, men control more money, wealth, and assets than women and tend to have more economic, political, and social power than women. As such, women are more easily excluded, exploited, and discriminated against. Perhaps, as a result of this, they are more likely to turn to the consolation of religion.
* It could have to do with agency, and the lack thereof; men generally have more freedom and agency than women in most societies; they have a greater ability to decide what work to do, where to live, how to get and manage money, etc. In most societies, women are thus more vulnerable than men – financially, legally, domestically, etc. Indeed, poverty adversely affects women much more than men, the world over. This could make the psychological comfort and institutional support of religion more appealing to women than men.
* It could have to do with socialization: perhaps boys are socialized to be assertive, independent, and rebellious, while girls are socialized to be acquiescent, relational, and obedient, which then manifests itself later in life with women being more open to religion than men.
* It could have to do with the patterned roles for men and women in society; women tend to be expected to take up roles as caregivers and nurtures, raising children and tending to the sick and elderly, while men tend to be exempt from such roles; this again could make religion more appealing to women than men, for various reasons.
* It could have to do with who traditionally works inside/outside the home. While men traditionally work outside the home, women the world over are more likely to work within the home, and this might make religious involvement more interesting and appealing to women; indeed, we know that women who work outside the home tend to be less religious than those who work within the home, and those nations with the highest rates of women working outside the home -- for example, Scandinavia -- tend to be among the most secular.
* Of course, it could also have something to do with innate differences between the sexes, be they genetic, neurological, physiological, or hormonal.
If I had to place a bet, I’d say it is a complex combination of all of the above, in varying degrees. But as far as which is more determinant – biological factors or social forces -- I can’t say.
And I’m not sure who can.