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WiS Conference – Why are women so religious May 31, 2012

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Events, Uncategorized.
Tags: , ,

I spent the weekend of May 18-20 at the Women in Secularism conference, and it was certainly a great and thought-provoking event. All the speakers and panels were terrific, and CFI expects to have the talks on their YouTube channel, so I won’t try to summarize any of them here.

But there were a few points made at the conference that I wanted to respond to. There was an afternoon panel called “Why Women Need Freedom From Religion”, and the panelists were Greta Christina, Wafa Sultan, Annie Laurie Gaylor, and R. Elisabeth Cornwell. One of the points they started out with was the fact that women do seem to be more religious than men. Statistics show that, in the US, among those people who identify as having no religious preference, the gender ratio for male/female is 60/40. Further, among those identifying as “atheist” the situation is worse, with the male-female ratio at 70/30.  So the natural follow-up question is “why are women more religious than men?”.  There was some good discussion on it, and one of the points that Elisabeth Cornwell made is that a woman must consider the costs of staying in a religion versus the benefits of staying.  So in answer to the question, “So what are the benefits women get from staying in religion?” Annie Laurie Gaylor immediately suggested “not getting killed”.

The panel went off on another track, discussing what direct benefits women get from religion, things like social support, daycare, etc., that they would have to give up if they left. But I think Annie Laurie was spot on, and I wish they had elaborated more on what she said.

A while ago, there was a wonderful set of articles on Ex-Christian.net about how religions have immune systems (I think it was Valerie Tarico writing, not sure).  Religions evolve by Darwinian natural selection just like organisms do.  They compete for a limited set of resources (believers), propagate  themselves (from brain to brain), reproduce with variation, and the variations that survive and reproduce the best are the ones that thrive and grow.  To propagate, they have to be good at infecting new hosts, they have to encourage those hosts to transmit the infection, and they have to do something to prevent people from shaking off the infections.  There are lots of things that religions do to keep people from leaving.  The ones I see talked about the most are things like apologetics, condemnations of doubt, accusations of interference by “the devil”, threats of hell, or chalking everything up to “god’s mysterious and perfect plan”.  But equally important is what Annie Laurie brought up: “not getting killed”.  Many religions have active penalties for leaving, such as social ostracism, family rejection, physical punishment, and, yes, being killed.  Doubt is dangerous to a believer because of what happens to those who dare to voice their doubt, not in the next world, but in this one.

That still leaves the question of why women are more religious.   As childbearers, and primary child-rearers, we need social stability.  And being typically physically smaller and less muscular, violent retaliations are much more of a threat to us.  Is the answer simply that we are more vulnerable to the kind of harm that religion dishes out to those who leave?

So women might be more religious because of the benefits they get, and/or they might be more religious because of fear of reprisal, or is there another reason in there as well?  I think this subject needs a lot more thought. (And research.  Always research, once we figure out the right questions to ask.)




1. rowanwphillips - June 1, 2012

I think it may have to do with the way that many women are brought up to feel less able to make decisions like that for themselves, this is obviously changing for the better with time but many people still feel traditional gender roles are correct, leaving men making decisions on their family’s behalf. It may also be connected with the strength of religion in countries suffering under oppressive governmental systems with little chance of material wealth or freedom in this earthly life. Equally it may simply be down to the same reasons that scientific study is still more popular (although changing slowly for the better) among men than among women.


2. mkb - June 1, 2012

I’m sure that there are lots and lots of reasons but one would be that many churches have given women opportunities to express themselves and use their gifts in ways that the outside world has not. Yes, most churches are patriarchal but that often just applies to the top. Women may have not been permitted in the pulpit until recently but they were permitted to run educational, charitable, musical and social functions within the church and that might have been the only such outlet in their lives. For women without a lot of education the church may still be one of the best venues for using and being respected for their gifts.


3. Paul Sunstone - July 23, 2012

I do not know why women are more likely to be religious than men, but it seems to be an universal or nearly universal thing. That is, it is not limited to any one culture or set of cultures. Because it is cross-cultural, there is some possibility — however slight — that there could be a genetic reason for it.


ubi dubium - July 23, 2012

I’d love to see some research on this subject, I really don’t know of any so far. Makes me wish I were a researcher and could tackle it.


Paul Sunstone - July 23, 2012

You and I seem to have had the same thought: I wish I were a researcher too. It’s a fascinating question and it has the potential of shedding light on any number of things. I’m surprised no one seems to have already looked into it.


4. Tim - January 9, 2014

I wonder if it is the social aspect of the church that appeals to them – that and the fact that women, in my experience, tend to be able to turn a blind eye to offences against them so as to keep the peace, or to see only the best in things, etc.
So, even though the church is loaded with nonsense, they overlook it (cognitive dissonance response) in order to hope for the best in things including their church. In my experience, the boys tend to smell the intellectually bulls*** nature of religion,but since they do not crave the same socialization as the girls, they tend to stay away in greater numbers.

Just my thoughts



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