Gender and Religious Belief
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Last updated 17 Jul 2018
Women are significantly more likely to attend church than men and are also much more likely to self-report as being religious
Women are significantly more likely to attend church than men and are also much more likely to self-report as being religious. For example, Church census records show that in 2005 congregations were divided 57% women and 43% men (and this gender division had remained quite consistent for some years). A 1990 opinion poll for that 84% of women believed in God compared with 64% of men.
There are a number of reasons for this. A traditional view is that women’s expressive role (nurturing and caring) is a good match with religious faith. Raising children in their religion and taking them to church was seen as part of that role. Also women’s proximity to childbirth, childrearing, caring for the sick and caring for the elderly all, it is suggested, gives them reason to pray and seek spiritual support and guidance. Furthermore, women traditionally having been marginalised in domestic roles gave them more time to devote to religion whereas men had little time away from work and therefore were more likely to spend it on leisure pursuits.
However, there are other possible explanations for this pattern.
First, women live longer than men. Older people are significantly more religious than young adults, and there are simply more older women.
Second, men and women are socialised differently and women are socialised to be more compliant and passive. Religion – particularly traditional, established religions – expects compliance, conformity and passivity from its congregation. Men are socialised to be more dominant and therefore, while they take leadership positions in churches (indeed in many churches and religions they are the only ones permitted to take leadership positions) they are less happy to simply accept what they are told from the pulpit.
Some feminists, such as Simone De Beauvoir, argue that women are sold a false ideology by religious teachings which encourages them to believe that they will get their reward in heaven and should therefore be committed and devoted to their faith.
Women are also more likely than men to get involved in religious sects. Glock and Stark (1965) put this down to women experiencing more deprivation – material, spiritual and relative – than men, because of patriarchy. As such, this is a similar explanation for why working-class and minority-ethnic groups are more likely to join sects as well.
In more recent times, sociologists like Linda Woodhead have noted that women are more likely to get involved in cults and New Age movements than men are. Men have drifted away from the main established religions at a faster rate than women, but they tend not to have replaced this with alternative spiritual beliefs, whereas women are attracted to what Woodhead and Heelas call the holistic milieu. This is particularly so for middle-class women. It might be that women who have lost faith in traditional religions turn to such belief systems for the same reasons women have traditionally been more religious. It might be that some New Age beliefs are consciously and deliberately female-orientated, or it might be that women do not see such practices as religious at all, but instead in terms of therapy, weight-loss and exercise and are more attracted to such activities than men are.
Miller and Hoffman suggest that attitudes to risk between genders is a key factor. Their research suggests that men are more willing to take risks than women and higher levels of religiosity are evident among the risk averse (both men and women). They argue this is because lack of religion is risky: it risks not going to heaven. However, convinced atheists may not really consider that to be a risk at all.
Woodhead (2005) has suggested that churches have become feminised. She argues that secularisation has had a bigger impact on men than women. This is echoed by Bruce, who suggests that as religion becomes more a private matter than a public one, it appeals more to women, particularly women who perform a domestic role and look after children.
Evaluating the view that women are more religious than men
- Of course, as with all patterns and trends relating to religiosity, the data that these conclusions are based on can be questioned. Women would appear to attend church more than men, but that does not necessarily mean that they are more likely to believe in their chosen faith. Women may attend church for other reasons (form and keep friendships, support with their families, etc.) and men who do not attend church may still have a religious faith.
- Similarly, there might be other reasons why women are more likely to respond to surveys that they have a religious belief and affiliation than men. Perhaps, because of the historic association between faith and women, they see it is as socially desirable and therefore answer surveys accordingly. Young men, in particular, may have the opposite response and worry that religious faith is not socially desirable or might be seen as “uncool”.
- Some sects are very male-dominated and can have quite extreme and conservative views about the role of women in society. As such, one might expect fewer women to be attracted to such sects. An example of this would be New Christian Right churches in the USA which often have uncompromising positions on the role of women and also on issues such as abortion.