Women Around the World More Religious Than Men

Nov 04, 2002 03:00 AM EST

Most women have it. More men are trying to get it.

Yet not all the Promise Keepers or Iron Johns or any other men's movements can seem to put a dent in a fact of life: Women are more religious than men.

Women attend worship services more often, participate more in churches, mosques and synagogues and are more likely to say religion is important in their lives.

And not only in the United States. Research recently published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion and the American Journal of Sociology shows that women are more religious than men throughout the world.

All of which makes University of Washington sociologist Rodney Stark, who compiled the international research, wonder why. His answer: It is apparently biological. Men are hard-wired to riskier behavior, and less likely to embrace the religious concepts of delayed self-gratification.

The old assumptions that gender differences were more a matter of nurture than nature—that the culture gave women responsibility for faith and family—just don't measure up over the last generations, he says.

With more women entering the workplace and more men embracing nontraditional roles, there was an assumption there would be a leveling off of religious differences. But the differences are unchanged.

Even direct efforts such as Promise Keepers, which recruited millions to stadium events and Christian men's groups in churches, have failed to balance the scales of religious participation.

"The biological difference sure does stand there and look you in the eye," Stark said.

Not all scholars buy this argument.

Michael Kimmel, author of "Manhood in America: A Cultural History," said the gender differences have less to do with genetics than with how religion is perceived in different cultures. In the United States, for example, religious teachings to turn the other cheek and be nice do not fit with some models of male behavior, said Kimmel, a sociologist at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

"Real men don't rely on a crutch. Real men are men of action. Real men fight," Kimmel said in describing some popular ideas of masculinity. "Basically, church life is seen as sissifying."

There is not a lot of evidence on gender differences in ancient worship, but what is available indicates women have always been more likely to search for the divine. Early Greek and Roman writers portrayed women as particularly susceptible to new religious movements, Stark says.

Rosemary Skinner Keller, dean and professor of church history at Union Theological Seminary in New York, said the gender difference was a part of early American life. In Colonial days, the role of women, supported by some biblical passages, was to be in the home, with the responsibilities of caring for children and providing for their religious education.

The movement from an agricultural to an industrial society, with more men working outside the family farm, and the fundamentalist movement of the early 20th century further reinforced the perceived division of responsibilities among men and women, some scholars say.

Research over the last 50 years consistently shows women consider themselves more religious than men. Stark's article in the recent Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion looks at data from 49 nations from Australia to Switzerland in World Values Surveys. In every country, a higher percentage of women than men said they consider themselves religious. The same pattern persisted in research in seven non-Christian nations.

For many years, researchers operated under the assumption that women are culturally programmed to be more religious than men. But Stark, co-author with Roger Finke of "Acts of Faith: Explaining the Human Side of Religion," says the evidence fails to support those theories.In an article in the latest American Journal of Sociology, Stark and Alan S. Miller of Hokkaido University in Japan point out studies have consistently shown that there is no relationship between religiousness and child-rearing and that women who work outside the home are just as religious as women who work in the home. Both are far more religious than men.

"In the U.S., if it's socialization, it sure ought to have declined," Stark said of the gender differences.

Stark and Miller say there is mounting evidence that physiological reasons may explain some of the differences. Religion, they say, involves risk, and men have been programmed to be aggressive, and not as willing to postpone immediate gratification for eternal goals. Some studies show testosterone levels are strongly related to impulsive, risky behavior.

In practice, Stark and Miller say, this means some men may be less likely to be deterred by the consequences of hell or other punishments involved in religious proscriptions against certain behaviors. Also, some men may be less likely to make religious commitments in the hope of gaining eternal rewards.

"People who are willing to risk the secular costs of seeking immediate gratification also are prone to risk the religious costs of misbehavior. Whatever it is that makes some men risk-takers also makes them irreligious," Stark writes in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.

David Gray Hackett, associate professor of religion at the University of Florida, says Stark is a respected sociologist whose work needs to be taken seriously. But he disagrees that there have been fundamental changes in American culture.

Traditional sex roles are still around, he said."The '50s mind-set of the family persists, even if we are not living it now," he said. "It loiters around at some deeper level of our existence."

By David Briggs