Women Are More Religious Than Men

09 Aug
This is a fact, and has been well known for some time. That, as a population, women are more religious and into the paranormal than the population of men.
Now I have to get this caveat out of the way: Since so many people misunderstand statistics, they take a description of a population that they happen to be included in as a description of themselves as an individual. This is incorrect. Statistics can never accurately describe an individual when the entire premise behind most statistics is to describe populations and other groups of data. It might describe the probability of an individual in that population being so-and-so, but once we actually know what that individual is, then that probability no longer applies.
For example, I'm black. While I was under 30, there was some statistic going around that 25% of black males under the age of 30 have a criminal record. As an individual, I don't have a criminal record, but before finding that out, if you took a random selection of black males in the US under 30, there was a 25% chance that I would have a criminal record. Once I've been selected from that pot, we are looking at me as an individual. The fact that I don't have a criminal record says nothing about that statistic, and that statistic only assigns a probability to my status before being singled out as an individual – after being singled out that probability no longer applies.
Think of it this way. While a coin is flipping in the air, assuming it is a fair coin, there's a 50% chance it will land heads. Once it lands tails, then there is a 0% “chance” that it is heads and a 100% “chance” that it is tails. So if you are a woman who is reading this, and happen to not be religious… the fact that you as an individual are not religious says absolutely nothing about the fact that as a population, women are more religious than men as a population. Hell, if you don't believe the data, just take a look at your average women's magazine or online magazine and compare it to your average men's. There's a higher percentage of women's magazines that have a very visible link to spirituality/religiosity on the cover/splash page than on the splash page of men's magazines. Money has no reason to lie in this case; marketers want to catch the attention of their target demographic.
Finally, as I am wont to do with this blog of mine focusing on early Christianity, Christianity seemed to have (had) its greatest success at conversion among women (if we take Celsus' description of 2nd century Christianity as something other than hateful polemic).
Now that I've gotten that caveat out of the way, and have hopefully extinguished any fires of indignation, I'll get to the meat of my post.
In the links that I provided above, the answer that most scientists come up with is that in an evolutionary psychology framework, women's religiosity being higher than men's is completely understandable. Religion itself, as EvoPsych hypothesizes, is a misfiring of our brain's sort of “agency detection” module. That is, we have a module in our brain that determines whether something we see is alive or inanimate. It is a lot better to err on the side of something having agency than to err on the side that it doesn't; if that thing that we sort of see is a predator, it benefits our genes to assume that it's alive than to assume that it's inanimate. Of course, those who look at some object that kinda sorta a little bit looks alive and assume that it's not would probably get killed (and thus not pass on their genes) moreso than those who assumed it was alive.
So women's religiosity is a subset of how much more risk-averse women are than men. As they should be; from an evolutionary standpoint, women are more “important” than men for reproductive success (i.e. with 100 women and one man left on the planet, in one generation we will have close to 100 more humans. 100 men and one woman left on the planet, and we possibly only have one more human in one generation). Not being religious is more “risky” than being religious. A sort of evolutionary Pascal's Wager.
But if that were the case, then how does it explain posts like this on Less Wrong (courtesy of Luke's latest post at Common Sense Atheism)? Not only are women “over”represented in religious communities, they are underrepresented in scientific/rationalist circles:
Among all self-identified “rationalist” communities that I know of, and Less Wrong in particular, there is an obvious gender imbalance – a male/female ratio tilted strongly toward males.

Yet surely epistemic and instrumental rationality have no gender signature. There is no such thing as masculine probability theory or feminine decision theory.

There could be some entirely innocuous explanation for this imbalance. Perhaps, by sheer historical contingency, aspiring rationalists are recruited primarily from the atheist/libertarian/technophile cluster, which has a gender imbalance for its own reasons – having nothing to do with rationality or rationalists; and this is the entire explanation.

Uh huh. Sure.

And then there are the less innocuous explanations – those that point an accusing finger at the rationalist community, or at womankind.

If possible, let's try not to make things worse in the course of having this discussion. Remember that to name two parts of a community is to split that community – see the Robbers Cave experiment: Two labels → two groups. Let us try not to make some of our fellow rationalists feel singled-out as objects of scrutiny, here. But in the long run especially, it is not a good thing if half the potential audience is being actively filtered out; whatever the cause, the effect is noticeable, and we can't afford to ignore the question.

There has to be something going on here other than hyperactive agency detection. And of course, there is a pretty strong correlation between being a scientist and/or rationalist and not being religious… so there are three separate populations that are related in some way. Dr. Tom Rees (and others) shows that “risk aversion” (the evolutionary psychology argument) doesn't actually seem to be the explanation. Rightly so, since Pascal's Wager itself is fallacious. And the only reason I bring this up is because I think there is a link between women being more religious and less involved in rationalist communities (and no, it is not because women are “innately” more irrational and thus more religious/into astrology/tarot cards, etc.).
So, I think that Rees actually discovered this reason while delving into why women are more religious than men. Here is his possible explanation:
[I]t still seems likely that there is a real gender difference that needs explaining. So Sullins next takes the GSS gender differences at face value, and looks at how can they be explained.
Here are the potential factors that he looks at:

  • Demographic (age, education, and traditionalist values were important)
  • Structural (hours worked, since long-working hours could crowd out religion)
  • Socialization (parent's church attendance when the respondent was a child)
  • Network (percent of friends in a congregation)
  • Personality (independence, self-esteem, tender feeling, soft-hearted were the personality factors available)
  • Fear (fear of walking down a dark street alone). Sullins calls this a measure of risk tolerance, but it really is no such thing. The additional fear that women have in this circumstance has nothing to do with risk tolerance, and everything to do with a genuinely higher risk!
When all these factors are bundled in, gender differences in church attendance completely disappear, differences in prayer frequency drop by two thirds (compared with a model that only looked at demographic factors), and differences in the most problematic measure, self-reported religiousness, drop by 40%.
What factors were most important? Well, the personality factors were about as important as structural, social, and network factors put together. Fear had a small effect on affective religion, but not on attendance. In other words, a small part of the reason that women pray more often is that they have greater fears for their personal security.
But the most important single factor was the number of friends you have that are in a congregation. This is the social factor shining through. For both men and women, what your friends do has a powerful influence on what you do and how you think. It seems that one important reason that men are less religious is simply that they have fewer religious friends.
So this could be the reason. Why we see less women in scientific/rationalist circles is becaue none of their friends are in any of those circles. Science and rationality improvement – as hobbies – are really individualistic pursuits. Religion, on the other hand, is a lot like alcohol. It is a social lubricant. Rees also has a subsequent post that looks at it more in depth to smooth out all of the edges/be thorough, which is related to a previous post of my own. That post of my own might also explain why women are less represented in scientific/rationalist circles than men.
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Posted by on August 9, 2011 in cognitive science, economics/sociology


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