For a while I’ve wondered if women being more religious than men has to do with something inherent to religion or more to do with religion being the dominant social signal for supporting your “in-group”; in the latter case it might also be responsible for the different moral intuitions men and women have. Though both morality and religion seem to have equal parts genetic and social basis.
With that said, here are a few of the both social and biological reasons why women are more religious than men:
- Loneliness: People who feel lonely are more likely to be religious than those who aren’t. Women report being lonely more than men.
- Economic Inequality: Nations with more income inequality are more religious than nations with less income inequality. Women make less money than men.
- Existential Threat: This might actually be an umbrella term that includes things like lack of access to healthcare, economic inequality, reminders of death, loneliness, etc. Thus, it seems like religiosity is correlated with cognitive overload i.e., stress. People who are stressed rely more on their System 1 thinking than their System 2 thinking. And System 1 thinking — “intuition” — is correlated with religiosity.
- Disgust: Level of disgust sensitivity is biological, and our sense of smell might have been partly evolved to detect diseases. People who have a better sense of smell and are more sensitive to disgust are both more likely to be conservative and female. Conservatism is correlated with religiosity.
- Testosterone/Oxytocin: Oxytocin levels are correlated with more in-group behavior/bias. Collectivism is correlated with religiosity. Higher testosterone levels are correlated with lower levels of empathy (apropos the last link, psychopaths have a worse sense of smell than the normal population to boot!). Less empathy is related to less religiosity. Testosterone levels are also correlated with less intuitive thinking and less cooperative behavior. As I referenced in the social part above, intuitive thinking and collectivism are correlated with religiosity. EDIT: Estrogen seems like it has — according to some evidence — a complimentary relationship with oxytocin, whereas testosterone has an antagonistic relationship with oxytocin.
This last point brings us to the latest hoopla in the atheistosphere. Recently, Sam Harris was called a sexist for suggesting that the reason that there are less women than men involved at atheist/skeptic events was due to biological reasons; an “estrogen vibe”. The problem, of course, and as I’ve just posted a multitude of links about, is that Harris was both right and wrong. Mostly wrong, but not entirely wrong. And this brings me back to the question I pondered at the beginning of this post.
Take a look at this data from the Pew survey of religion in the USA:
Notice anything weird? Yes, as usual, women are more religious than men. But not across all religions. Mainstream religions have more women than men, but minority religions (including “unaffiliated”, which would include atheists/skeptics) have more men than women. This is evidence that supports my idea of religion being used as a popular social signal of prosociality.
Another thing to note is at the intersection of biological and social — meaning, where the two effects compound — there is the largest disparity between men and women in regards to religiosity. Can you spot it?
Of course, there can be any number of other hypotheses that explain this data as well so I’m not resting any sort of firm conclusions on this (e.g., the Pew survey also notes that “Nearly half of Hindus in the U.S., one-third of Jews and a quarter of Buddhists have obtained post-graduate education, compared with only about one-in-ten of the adult population overall.“. Education level is negatively correlated with religiosity). I would need to see religiosity data parsed by gender in countries where those minority religions are the majority.
But what prompted me to even consider that hypothesis was an anecdote that I’ve notice almost everywhere: In both secular and religious gatherings, women seem to volunteer much more than men do. Some research confirms this, and further implies that women volunteer more in these groups due to implicit romantic primes. In other words, just like men show off by taking risks when they think there are attractive women around, women “show off” by volunteering when they think there are attractive men around (or more accurately, when they are primed to think of mate selection). So my guess about women’s relationship with religion might not have anything to do with religion per se, but with support groups or being prosocial. And I guess that if there were some country where atheism had better and more ostentatious support structures than the religious, we would see that more women would be less religious than men. For the both biological and social reasons I listed above.
But no country like this exists.
Back to Harris’ mostly wrong guess. It seems like it’s not estrogen that makes women more religious than men, but instead — if we are only looking at biological reasons — it’s testosterone that makes men less religious than women. The female template is the default of humanity, the male is a derivative (nipple check!). Of course, women have testosterone as well, but not nearly at the levels that men have. It should go without saying that hormones have a noticeable effect on human behavior. I also wonder if the sociological reasons above actually prompt underlying hormonal changes and it’s those underlying hormonal changes that are changing a person’s level of religiosity/prosociality. E.g., there’s evidence that stress increases, among other hormones, oxytocin levels, and of course, men being shown pictures of sexy women — as well as other behavior — increases their levels of testosterone. The social can affect the biological and vice versa.
So is Sam Harris a sexist? Well… this question actually beggars another question, one related to my previous post on truth vs. morality. What Sam Harris said is somewhat true: There are biological reasons why women are more religious (read: more prosocial) than men. But what he said is also immoral. Thus the eternal battle between truth and morality. Harris suggesting an “immoral” hypothesis completely depends on the time and place he says it. It would be equally “immoral” to suggest as a hypothesis 1,000 years ago that god didn’t exist. The ontological status of god’s existence 1,000 years ago or hormonal effects on behavior in the 21st century are orthogonal to the ethical status of questioning god’s existence 1,000 years ago or suggesting hormonal effects on behavior in the 21st century.
Truth vs. Morality.
A little backstory about the image I chose for this post. In the video game Dragon Age II, a mage named Anders has fused with a spirit that personifies the concept of justice. In the world of Dragon Age, mages are subjugated due to their potential to become what in the game is referred to as Abominations. In this world, there are various spirits that personify different human vices and virtues like rage, sloth, greed, justice, etc. but it is usually the vice-related spirits that are drawn to mages and try to fuse and take over their magic-gifted bodies becoming much more powerful than a normal mage. After the fusion they then begin carrying out their vice (sloth, greed, etc.). The virtue related spirits don’t seem to care about humans at all. Due to this subjugation, Anders — being born a mage — harbors a lot of resentment towards the current world order where mages are second-class citizens without their own freedom or autonomy, held in check by Templars.
Anders encounters the spirit of Justice and they agree to merge; they are technically an “Abomination” but with a “good” spirit instead of the vastly more common “bad” spirit. Usually the benevolent spirits have no concern over human affairs, but circumstances trapped Justice outside of the spirit world and in the normal world. The spirit of Justice, after fusing with Anders, recognizes the injustice that mages are subject to and they both work together in a sort of underground railroad sort of situation helping other mages escape. However, in time, Anders’ rage against his lifetime of injustice corrupts Justice and the spirit then becomes a spirit of Vengeance, taking over Anders at inopportune times and wreaking havoc almost indiscriminately among both the guilty and the innocent.
Internet social justice warriors remind me of Anders/Justice. The smallest whiff of perceived blasphemy (and yes, I’m using the word “blasphemy” on purpose) is met with unbridled aggression. What’s true doesn’t matter, lies are moral as long as they’re in the name of justice (or being done by Justice). Besides Harris, Richard Dawkins has also recently been put through the fires of Justice. As I wrote in a prior post:
Reading about how and why religion comes about, you inevitably stumble onto the conclusion that religion isn’t just some aberration of humanity. The only thing that separates tried and true “religion” from other types of groups — or to put it in its real meaning, tribes — that people identify with is belief in the supernatural. Even if you take away belief in the supernatural, there’s nothing stopping a secular grouping (say, feminism or Objectivism) from tapping into the same family of negative behavior that religious people engage in.
The problem isn’t the supernatural. The problem is in-group vs. out-group. And this in-group/out-group animosity becomes more pronounced when you have a group that has an either implicit or explicit charge of guarding the [moral] truth… Remember my little maxim that I made up: The more a group promotes prosociality, the less it cares about accurately modeling reality
Spoiler alert: At the end of Dragon Age II, the tension between mages and templars is coming to a head. Anders shows up and blows up an entire (in game version of) a church because any compromise between mages and templars is, to Anders/Justice, no justice. Cooler, more rational heads do not prevail. Anders/Justice’s act creates an all out war between mages and templars, and sets the stage for the next iteration of the Dragon Age saga, which comes out in November.
I almost always execute Anders due to his crime.