The much-debated question of whether women are more religious than men is the focus of Pew Research Center’s recently released report “The Gender Gap in Religion Around the World.” The study finds that women are generally – but not universally – more religious than men in several ways. Indeed, data collected for the study show that in some religions and some contexts, men are as, or even more, religious than women.
Fact Tank discussed the report’s findings with David Voas, head of the Department of Social Science at University College London. A demographer and sociologist, Voas has written extensively about religion, spirituality and the transmission of beliefs and values from one generation to another.
What in your personal view are the most plausible explanations for the differences in religious commitment between men and women?
David Voas: Personally, I’m tempted to give the classic academic response that more research is needed. At the risk of seeming wishy-washy, I suspect that nature and nurture both play a part. Boys and girls are socialized differently and men and women are still channeled into different roles. When we look at the psychology of individual differences, though, particularly in personality, it’s not easy to attribute gender gaps in their entirety to social forces.
Can you explain in a little more detail what exactly you’re talking about when you suggest a possible biological basis for religious differences between men and women?
I’m not an expert in genetics, but there appears to be some fairly compelling evidence (for example from studies of twins) that genes do affect our disposition to be religious. And if that’s the case, it’s at least plausible that the gender gap in religiosity is partly a matter of biology. If true, though, I doubt that it’s because there’s a “God gene” and women are more likely to have it than men. It seems easier to believe that physiological or hormonal differences could influence personality, which may in turn be linked to variations in “spirituality” or religious thinking.
What do you see in our report on gender and religion that adds to the research on this subject?
The range of countries and the number of indicators of religious involvement used in the study make it possible to see the contrast between Christian and Muslim countries very clearly. In some ways the findings are counterintuitive. We’re used to thinking that the modernization of values, attitudes and behavior has made the West a land of comparative equality, while in the Muslim world large differences in the social and economic opportunities for men and women persist. Here’s an important case where the gender gap is much larger in Christian than in Muslim countries.
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