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Women, Gender and Atheism

Updated on January 30, 2015

Women, religion and atheism

Women and girls lose the most in religion. Every major religion, and most minor ones, oppress, constrain, disrespect, demean, dehumanize or harm women in a variety of ways. Yet the disproportionate majority of atheists and agnostics are men. Why is this? Why do women dominate religious traditions, why are they more religious than men, and why do they not embrace atheism or agnosticism nearly to the degree that men do?

Why women are more religious than men

A number of explanations have been proposed for why women are more religious than men.

Some evolutionary psychologists suggest that it stems from sex differences in risk aversion. In general, the theory goes, men are programmed to have a greater appetite for risk than women because taking risks benefits men, especially reproductively, far more than women. Women on average are more risk averse.

Religion, it is said, is a way of reducing risk. If religion is true, then, inline with Pascal's Wager, it behooves a person to believe in religion and risk being wrong (nothing terrible happens), rather than to not believe and risk being wrong (you go to hell).

Religion often confers far more social benefits to women than to men. In many cultures (although this is less common in more modernized societies) a woman who does not subscribe to the lifestyle and values of the dominant religion may pay dearly in her social standing, honor and respectability. Men tend to enjoy more leeway. Thus there is a much greater incentive for women to embrace religion out of social necessity. This also relates to the aforementioned differences in risk aversion.

Other scholars believe that religion, whatever its other qualities, serves to minimize or control the vulnerability of the physical body. Insofar as women are more physically vulnerable than men, they will be more attracted to religion.

In addition, women place a greater emphasis on an empirical, as opposed to rational, basis for faith. "Empirical" refers to experience and observation. Perhaps women are more interested in how religious ceremonies and practices make them feel, and their observed effects in their communities, as opposed to whether the underlying doctrine actually makes sense.

Science has indicated that women have a greater ability to inhibit their impulses than men. Accordingly, men are more likely to engage in risky, dangerous, lawless or otherwise illicit behavior and to pursue immediate gratification. All of these things are inimical to the discipline, dedication and concentrated devotion that is demanded by most religions.

Women also tend to be more in tune with social norms and standards. The stereotypical loner or independent spirit is, among other things, a male. Since religion is typically interwoven with tradition and social values, women will be more likely to participate in religion, as a function of socialization, distinct from participation for its own sake.

Women, men and religion

Women are more religious than men across all indicators (2009)
Women are more religious than men across all indicators (2009) | Source

Women, men and religion: the statistics

Women are the majority in all American religious traditions according to the American Religious Identification Survey of 2008, with the exception of eastern religions, Islam and new religious movements. The greatest proportion of men is in the category of no religious affiliation (including atheists and agnostics), where 60% are male, the highest of any of the belief groups.

The majority of men in eastern religions and Islam is largely a function of the greater number of male immigrants from regions where these faiths are practiced. Both new religious movements and nonbelief constitute unusual, antiestablishment, counter-traditional or otherwise socially and culturally risky positions.

In a recent Pew study of American religions similar results are seen, with the exception that Judaism is one of the groups with a majority of men. After Hinduism (61%), the "unaffiliated" category is the most masculine of the categories, at 59%. The most feminine groups are historically black churches and Jehovah's Witnesses (both 60% female).

Atheist Women

A number of women have played an influential role in advancing or advocating for atheism, secularism and humanism in recent years. Over time, as non-belief becomes more established and normalized in society, it is possible that women will join the ranks of nonbelievers in greater numbers, and a greater equalization in the gender ratio will result.

In addition, as non-belief evolves in society, it will necessarily come to encompass deeper and more rewarding emotional experiences, potentially enabling it to compete more effectively with established religions for female attention. The social interaction components of religion are some of its most powerful and most valuable influences in followers' lives, and this is often enjoyed by women more than men.


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    • secularist10 profile image

      secularist10 4 years ago from New York City

      Religion is certainly a result of misguided thoughts and ignorance. But "stupid people"? That is far too simplistic.

      Were Martin Luther King, Isaac Newton, Galileo, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and George Washington stupid? I don't think so, although all believed in religion to one degree or another.

    • profile image

      umm 4 years ago

      believing in religions is what stupid creatures do

    • secularist10 profile image

      secularist10 5 years ago from New York City

      Indeed he is, Excelsiora.

      Yes, I think the social pressure is a major factor in women's greater religiosity. They stand to lose more, across all cultures it seems, by being irreligious. Luckily that is changing though.

    • profile image

      Excelsiora 5 years ago

      My Fiancé is Atheist and I am Agnostic. Given the percentages of 'outed' Atheist/Agnostic/Skeptic/Humanists there are and given the gender percentages, he is a lucky guy. I think that it might also be the 'outed' factor. In my small community it may not be as safe to admit a differing religious viewpoint thus even admit it to oneself that something simply makes no sense.

    • secularist10 profile image

      secularist10 6 years ago from New York City

      Thanks a lot, Clark

      There certainly seem to be a lot of factors at play. There were even more explanations and hypotheses that I didn't include in this article.

      As far as emotions are concerned, the good news for us on the secular side is that the real natural world offers plenty of wonderful emotional experiences (in fact, ALL emotional experiences are naturally-based, but that's another topic), so there is no reason that women should not be attracted to atheism/ agnosticism on that count.

    • clark farley profile image

      clark farley 6 years ago

      I'll agree with previous Commentators...excellent/original Hub!

      The risk-aversive element is certainly suggestive, plus the greater level of 'being in touch with emotional side of oneself' that also tends to be commonly associated with women of the female-persuasion!

    • Austinstar profile image

      Lela 6 years ago from Somewhere in the universe

      Then there's always Bill Maher!

    • Beverly Stevens profile image

      Beverly Stevens 6 years ago from College Station

      The Houston Atheists (1200 active members) started about 7-8 years ago with a few old men. I remember attending and being the only woman. Now, the leader is a young woman and the group has grown tremendously, and about 1/3 are women (also, mostly young now). Women role models, like this, are needed to bring more women out.

    • Beverly Stevens profile image

      Beverly Stevens 6 years ago from College Station

      f_hruz, Try FFRF,

      Dan Barker, author of Godless, is one of the main people, and they do debates with famous people (high profile) and legal issues. They are very active, and I think the best at this out there. I highly recommend them.

    • Austinstar profile image

      Lela 6 years ago from Somewhere in the universe

      (2) atheists and agnostics are often stereotypically considered to have nothing to offer.

      Not only do we not have anything to offer, we are doing the devil's work on Earth.

    • secularist10 profile image

      secularist10 6 years ago from New York City

      Thanks, f_hruz! I appreciate that.

      I'm not sure. Off the top of my head, you have Richard Dawkins' organization which is pretty well-known. You also have a number of organizations within countries like the US working for the separation of church and state, or similar issues. Internationally though, I'd have to look into that.

      I would be interested in explicitly secular organizations doing some good for people, since that is an area where (1) religion has traditionally dominated, and (2) atheists and agnostics are often stereotypically considered to have nothing to offer.

    • secularist10 profile image

      secularist10 6 years ago from New York City

      Actually, Austinstar, I was just talking with someone on another hub about men's and women's IQs. They are essentially the same on average, given the same environment and schooling and whatnot. His position was that women are clearly inferior because their IQ is 2 to 5 points lower. Wow! 2 to 5 points! Big deal. Another study would have it the other way around.

      I do know that nonreligious people are often more intelligent/ educated across a number of measures such as level of schooling.

    • f_hruz profile image

      f_hruz 6 years ago from Toronto, Ontario, Canada

      Very well done! What a great job ... all these hubs of yours will make a best selling book!

      Question: Which international organization does the best job working for freedom from religion on a global scale?

      I'd like to put them into my Will ... not a joke!

    • Austinstar profile image

      Lela 6 years ago from Somewhere in the universe

      From a woman's perspective, I understand all you have said here. I wonder if you could also do a correlation between the IQ's of believers versus non-believers. I'm sure there are extremes on either end, but I do notice that women (as a group) tend to have lower IQ scores for some reason.

      Being that some religions do not even allow women to go to school (other than religious indoctrination), it stands to reason that many would never learn advanced reasoning skills.

      It's strange though that it's mostly men who are fanatics and "leaders" in the religions.

    • secularist10 profile image

      secularist10 6 years ago from New York City

      Thanks a lot, Jared. Plenty more to come.

    • secularist10 profile image

      secularist10 6 years ago from New York City

      Qudsia, yes I think environmental influences are a huge part of all religious belief. People tend to follow whatever the tradition and tendencies are in the place they are born. Thank you.

    • secularist10 profile image

      secularist10 6 years ago from New York City

      Stump Parish, well said. Peer pressure and social pressures in general, such as the cultural expectations I mentioned, can be very powerful for one person, regardless of the inner pain or turmoil they experience in the community.

    • Jared Peace profile image

      Jared Peace 6 years ago from the deepest pits of boredom

      wow, very well researched with a fresh take on an old topic. Keep it coming!

    • QudsiaP1 profile image

      QudsiaP1 6 years ago

      Very interesting, though it is possible that women feel more obligated at times to do the 'perceived' right thing. Or maybe that they are just religious because of their environment and belief.

    • Stump Parrish profile image

      Stump Parrish 6 years ago from Don't have a clue, I'm lost.

      Interesting hub, I can't recall paying any attention to the sexual make up of religions. These results do take me by surprise.

      A recent hub I read dealt with the harm the church did to a woman living in an abusive relationship. It was her women friends in the church that told her she needed to stay and give her man another chance, and another, and another. I wonder if this is the same reason so many women remain in the church. Peer pressure and a need to belong to something would go along way in making a weaker person more tolerant of abusive treatment, I suppose.

      I saw the same thing growing up in a southern baptist town. The women never talked about all the crap that went on in their homes. They didn't even publically discuss when the preacher ran off with my buddies mother.

      The good old days weren't all that good unless you were male, white and christian. The rest of society had it a little rougher.