Friday, December 28, 2012

Why are women typically more religious than men?

There are some really dodgy theories about sex chromosomes and their influence on human behaviour, but this one shocked me on account of the source and context. I was listening to the Christmas Eve edition of the Infinite Monkey Cage, which was a really good episode and had three guests I'd turn on the radio for - Mark Gatiss, Richard Wiseman and Steve Jones (of the snail fame). Their other guest was Victor Stock, the former Dean of Guildford Cathedral, who was rather brilliant. 

But the great Steve Jones was talking about the evolutionary psychology of religion and came out with the following;
"Universally, worldwide, it's always been the case that those who are crippled and afflicted by having a Y chromosome - that's all of us on this platform - are less religious, and less willing to accept religion that women who don't have a Y chromosome. It's very hard not to argue that there's not some kind of biology there. We may not know exactly what it is, but biology is in there somewhere."
He then goes on to explain that people on the autistic spectrum are much less likely to be religious, which must, he feels, have a biological explanation.  I'm sure someone else can clear that one up.

Of course, the important phrase is "in there somewhere", but does it have to be?  It may be that biology does play some role in religiosity, but before the end of the programme, I had thought of a number of reasons why women may exhibit greater religiosity than men.  And I think only someone living in the West could possibly assert that biology must play a role. So...

The Possible Reasons Why Women Would Be Typically More Religious Than Men 
as came into my head in the space of five minutes - okay, it took longer to write down!
  • Cis men typically possess an XY pair of sex chromosomes, cis women typically possess an XX. There may be something about the difference between these particular chromosomes which alters men and women's brains to make women more prone to religious feeling - however that may be defined - than men. 
  • Globally and locally, women are more likely to live in poverty. Across the world, there is a strong inverse correlation between wealth and religiosity.  There are many exceptions and complexities, but these trends are pretty crystal; women are more likely to be poor, poor people are more likely to be religious. 
  • Women are more likely to witness birth and death first-hand. Obviously, women are more likely to give birth but, although it's commonplace for fathers to be there in this country, across the world, women are more likely to attend births.  Women are more likely to care for the sick and dying, and to be with people in their last moments. Understanding, celebrating and coping with birth and death is one of the major themes of all religious and folk traditions. Religion often gives people the language to use and the stories to tell on such occasions. 
  • Women are more likely to live with chronic illness. Faith can help people cope psychologically with loss, pain and other difficulties, but organised religion is also good at combating social isolation and in many cultures, providing nursing care and assistance where state help is absent.
  • Women like dresses.  Although predominantly men, most religious leaders wear dresses, often with elaborate trims and accessories, depending on the occasion. Women may attend places of worship to see the dresses their leaders are wearing.
  • Across the world, women are much less likely to get very much school education. Women are less likely to be literate. Women are less likely to learn about other belief systems or acquire the intellectual tools and information which allow some people to doubt the messages they've been taught all their lives.
  • Women are more likely to be widowed and/ or to live alone for significant periods of their lives.  Organised religion is often excellent at combating social isolation. There ought to be, but there is no organised humanist system for holding communities together and looking out for people on their own.  
  • Women are more likely to find themselves in situations of abject helplessness; rape, slavery and domestic abuse. Faith gives some folk something to hold onto when everything else is out of their control. This isn't necessary faith in God or gods, but it often is. 
  • Kate Middleton got married in a really big church. All women are interested in the life of Kate Middleton and so are more likely to go to church in an attempt to emulate their idol. 
  • Women are more likely to be responsible for the moral and intellectual education of their children. In many parts of the world, organised religion is at the centre of all available education - even in the UK, many better state schools are church schools.  One big reason some religious institutions spend so much energy trying to subjugate and control women is because mothers are seen as the key to their children's religiosity; control the women and you control the next generation.
  • Because certain religious institutions do spend so much energy trying to control and subjugate women, that tends to keep women hooked.  You're nothing, you're a spare rib, you're weakness, you're a temptress and a slut who brings violence upon yourself, but come here every Sunday and you will be forgiven.  Men can feel tremendous religious guilt, of course, but often having less laid on their heads, it may be easier to walk away. If you have grown up believing that your very physical being is responsible for not only your sin but the sin of those around you, it's really difficult to finally stop apologising. 
  • Women are less likely to have opportunities for fulfillment in paid work. Religious institutions are very good at organising and valuing unpaid volunteers who care for the sick, provide childcare and other social services, produce and distribute clothes and food for the poor, make crafts, raise-money and so forth.  
  • The major religious festivals almost always involve a lot of baking (with and without yeast). Women are really good at baking. Women become involved in religion so that they can show off how good they are at baking.

I think there are probably other ways that religions allow women, who often live in circumstances of very little power, to have some power, even if they're very rarely the ones in charge.  Even in ancient Athens, which was an extraordinarily sexist place, the city cult was headed by a massively powerful priestess.

None of this means that biology has nothing to do with religiosity, but as is almost always the case with the claims of evolutionary biology around gender, there are other more obvious explanations that need exploring first.


Anonymous said...

I doubt this has anything to do with gender or sex, not everything is biology, I'm sure like most things about social roles defined by gender it's more about society than biology.

I'm autistic and religious, I don't think we are less or more religious than non-autistic, I have seen this connected to theories that I dislike about autism, that we have a male-brain and are highly logical so we must be unable to be spiritual, nothing about that is true.

Anonymous said...

I forgot to say, sorry about commenting as anonymous but blogger doesn't like my iPad, I can only comment as anonymous.

AutistLiam said...

I'd also like to see some proof for the assertion that autistic people are less likely to be religious. In my experience, autistic people can be just as religious or areligious as anyone else but we often have different *motivations* - for example many autistic Jews and Muslims like the comfort of familiar daily rituals, many otherwise nonverbal autistics can recite prayers or sing hymms, some autistic people find older people easier to talk to and religious institutions are a place where intergenerational mixing is possible, many organised religions provide oppurtunities for learning and practicing new skills and for volunteer work that is quiet and repetitive, meditation is practised by many autistics some I know subsequently became Buddhists etc etc

I suspect the idea that autistic people are more likely to be atheists comes from the idea that we are super-rational and the idea that theism is always irrational.

Your post is great and I share your suspicision of leaping from "more women have this trait than men!" to "Clearly it has something to do with chromosomes / biology!" but I keep encountering the "all autistics are athiests" trope and it's massively inaccurate and annoying.

AutistLiam said...

My girlfriend has just pointed out that men are more likely to be autistic and if men are also less likely to be religious then it will just follow that autistic people are less likely to be religious than nonautistic people simply *because* most autistic people are male.

The Goldfish said...

Thanks Matthew and Liam,

As far as I know, the only studies into autism and religiosity have taken place using subjects in the US and Canada, where Christianity (in particular) tends to be a much more extroverted business. Worship often involves spontaneous public professions of faith, religion is talked about all the time and so forth, and many neurotypical folks who are just a bit introverted, who may have religious passions but wish to keep such things to themselves or reserved for quiet discussion and contemplation, feel completely out of place.

(Honestly, there's a American evangelical church at the end of my folks' garden that serves the nearby US airbase, and I would not survive one of their Sunday services - I have no idea how typical it is, but from the other side of a thick wall, I know it involves a very great deal of shouting (really aggressive shouting), folks randomly calling out, many rounds of applause (like every few minutes) as well as the singing. Way too much stimulation!)

There's also the fact that lots of disabled people in the West are put off religion by the "Pray and be healed" mentality held by some religious people (a very small minority, but they tend to be a noisy bunch!).

And there's the fact that autistic people tend - not always, but often - to find their interests in nerdy subjects, and nerdy communities tend to be religiously skeptical (if not sometimes tyrannically atheistic).

So honestly, I think that, on the face of it, there are many possible non-biological explanations for the trend of autistic people not to be so religious. It would be far more interesting if they'd studied this globally, but they haven't yet.

The idea that autistic people can't be spiritual is ridiculous. But I think maybe it's a bit like if the folk from the evangelical church attended a service at the Church of England village church - they might not recognise what they saw as something just as sincere and spiritual as their own service, but much quieter, more orderly and less dramatic. People sometimes look at difference and instead see absence.

Louna said...

I like your thoughts (the dresses, Kate Middleton and baking arguments are jokes, aren't they?). I'm just wondering about the chronic illness thing. Is it true that chronic illness is more prevalent in women?

Matthew Smith said...

In my own experience it's impossible to generalise about autistic people and religion. Yes, there are some people with Asperger-type autism who are convinced atheists, but many (more) non-autistic people as well. Many people with autism are religious, and many do find the ritual comforting but that is not the only reason people are religious.

I'm not sure why women are more likely to be religious, but I'm guessing this is Jones's way of invalidating it by making it part of people's biology - that people believe because they are programmed to, so it's only to be expected. It doesn't explain why people believe very different things depending on which environment they were brought up in, or why people choose to believe differently or not at all. My opinion is that Jones's kind of scientific atheism is a belief system in itself, not a rational (and therefore more valid) answer to belief. The presumption "if we can't see or measure it, we can assume it's not there", is not the matter of certainty they believe it is.

As for chronic illness, there are a number of them that women are much more prone to than men, but there is a substantial minority of male sufferers (MS, ME, lupus, EDS to name a few). I know people with several of these who are religious, and some who are atheists, male and female.

The Goldfish said...

Louna - yes, they're jokes. And yes, women are more likely to suffer from chronic illnesses. As well as the conditions Matthew mentions (and others) which are more prevalent among women, women are more physically vulnerable to contracting HIV and in the developing world, there are many chronic conditions relating to the event and aftermath of childbirth (particularly when girls give birth before they are fully developed) which are either prevented or easily fixed in the developed world.

So in the UK, women are somewhat more likely to have chronic illness, but elsewhere in the world, although there are men with chronic illnesses (and some chronic illnesses are almost exclusive to men), women are much more likely to be in this position.

Anonymous said...

Did I read the article correctly? It sounds like they made the argument that autistic people are inferior because they are more like men, which sounds both extremely sexist and ableist. Men aren't inferior and autistic people aren't inferior.

This reminds me of an article wherein the author explained that the reason why all feminists are ugly and stupid is because they're autistic. I'm having trouble figuring out whether that's more offensive to feminists or to people with autism.

The Goldfish said...


I don't think Prof. Jones was arguing that autistic folk were inferior, because he was trying to reduce religion to something biological. So in a back-to-front way, he was almost suggesting that autistic people are more rational, not having this biological quirk that makes them prone to irrational religious belief, and men are generally more rational than women.

I think he talked about the Y chromosome as an affliction in order to tone down the implication that men were more sensible than women. But frankly, I think he made a mess of it in every conceivable direction!

Anonymous said...

I too heard that edition of The Infinite Monkey Cage and I too was, surprisingly for me, rather taken with the Dean.

I thought that the suggestion that women were biologically more religious than men a bit odd. Perhaps it was, as they said, they were all men and men find logical thought difficult.

In my opinion the reason that more women than men in our society are religious is that it is still the case that there are less welcoming opportunities for women, especially lone women, to socialise outside the home. We don't pop into pubs on our own much, are less interested in football. It's quite socially acceptable for women to go to church on their own.

(Some people may need to be reminded that just because it's not illegal for us to go to pubs alone etc, we still don't feel so welcome there.)


The Goldfish said...

Thanks Janet,

This is a good point. It's still quite remarkable how many places and activities where it is rare to see women on their own. I remember a few months back reading about a sort of on-line dating service where business women could meet other women to eat with whilst in new cities and so forth. And yes, in seems remarkable, but even in 2013, a woman walking alone into a pub is going to attract attention and quite possibly harassment...