The Guardian newspaper in the UK recently reported on a Pew Research Center study on religious devotion around the world (according to surveys carried out in 84 countries) and throughout different religions but broken down between the sexes. According to the report, “The Gender Gap in Religion Around the World”, overall women are more devout than men by no small margin: worldwide 83.4% of women identify with a faith group, but only 79.9% of men do. These numbers are fairly consistent throughout the world’s major religions:
“Women made up more than half of those identifying as Christians (53%), Jews (52%) and Buddhists (54%); and slightly less than half of Hindus (49%). Muslims were split 50/50 on gender. The biggest gender divide was among the religiously unaffiliated, with 55% men and 45% women.”
This last category, the “religiously unaffiliated” is made up of self-identified agnostics, atheists and “nothing in particular”. The biggest gender divide in this group was in the USA, where it was over two-thirds male: 68% men and 32% women. The similar figures in the UK were 56%-44% and in Australia were 55%-45%.
Turning to those who identified with a religion, when it comes to attending religious services, Christian women were more likely than men to attend. However among Muslims and orthodox Jews, men were more likely than women to go to the mosque or synagogue, mainly due to religious norms. Women are also more likely to pray once a day than men. Indeed, throughout the 84 countries in which the survey was carried out, only in Israel did a high percentage of men than women say that they prayed daily. The USA surveys revealed that in that country 64% of women and 47% of men said that they prayed every day, while in France the corresponding numbers were only 15% and 9%! One can see why in the USA politicians so often invoke the Almighty and why so many in other countries are bemused and surprised when they see American politicians doing so. The religious culture in the US is so different!
The report notes that there is an apparent disconnect in the fact that women are generally more devout despite the fact that religious leaders have tended to be male and that many religious groups allow only men to officiate. The writers of the report perhaps cannot grasp that people aren’t devout as a means to become religious leaders or officials, and that many people are devout because they believe that their religion is the true answer to life’s most-important questions. Perhaps many women are not interested in religion as a means to earthly power and influence and do not see that their religion should engage in affirmative action simply to please the readers of the Guardian? The report seeks to explain the greater religious devotion of women in the following terms:
“Biology, psychology, genetics, family environment, social status, workforce participation and a lack of ‘existential security’ felt by many women because they generally are more afflicted than men by poverty, illness, old age and violence.”
This list is so all-encompassing as to be virtually useless as an explanation. The report also notes “social and cultural factors, such as religious traditions and workforce participation” as explaining the religious “gender gap”. This seems to be saying that women are more religiously devout because traditionally women were more religiously devout and they don’t work as much as men. Again, this explanation does not seem to explain much.
I have one thought on the reasons why women might be more devout than men. As a female colleague of mine noted after a family member of hers passed away recently, generally death and birth were women’s roles. That is, women gave birth, administered to the women giving birth and then, at the end of life, sat the death-watch and prepared the body for burial. If true, then women were traditionally more exposed to the existential, “big” moments of life – when we enter this world and when we leave it. Perhaps this leads women to ponder these existential questions more than men and thus become more religious than men (who can get away with ignoring such questions most of their lives…) What do you think?