Women, Gender and Atheism
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, 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).
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.