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Exploring Religion

Session 6: Overview

Religion and Gender

Learning objectives

  • Understand the competing explanations for why men and women tend to have different levels of religiosity
  • Understand how the institutions of religion and gender affect each other simultaneously

One of the most interesting social phenomena when it comes to religion in the United States is that women tend to be more religious than men. This pattern holds for both young and old individuals and has existed for decades. Even if this pattern predominantly exists within Christian traditions, as some have argued, it is still important to ask: why? Especially since religions tend to be patriarchal – that is, they tend to have male leadership (and sometimes explicitly prohibit women from leadership) and offer men more advantages than women – why would women be more attracted to religion than men?

Module 6 Image 1Click here to see even more comparisons from the Religious Landscape Study (2014)

 There are numerous explanations for this. Of course, these explanations are not necessarily in conflict, and sometimes they support each other. One explanation can be referred to as differential sex role socialization. The key idea here is that parents socialize their male and female children differently, such that the characteristics most promotive of religious behavior (e.g., submissiveness or obedience) tend to be emphasized among females more than males.

Another explanation is risk preference theory. The argument here is that males and females have different proclivities for taking risks, with males being more risk-prone and females being more risk-averse. Now, if we grant that being religious is a “safer” and less risky choice than being irreligious (e.g., in light of eternal punishments or worse karma for being irreligious), it makes sense that more risk-averse people would be more likely to be religious. Accordingly, accounting for differences in risk preferences should explain male-female differences in religiosity.

To counter and extend risk preference theory, some scholars have argued that risk preferences may be socialized (that is, internalized through social relationships). Specifically, in advancing a power-control theory, some scholars have argued that youth raised within patriarchal households would be more likely to develop the expected male/female differences in risk preference; however, in egalitarian (more equal) households, male and females would be socialized in ways to equalize their risk preferences and thus create similar probabilities for being religious. (Think, for example, that in egalitarian households, females might be encouraged to do the same kinds of activities as males, and thus develop the same preferences).

All of these explanations have had at least some empirical support in research. However, just like measuring religiosity is difficult, it is often difficult to measure risk preference. Part of the reason why is that risk preferences are partially genetic and partially socialized, and studies that capture both genetic and social influences simultaneously are still in their infancy. Importantly, though, it is acceptable to leave this matter unresolved and to be open to new discoveries and explanations as research unfolds.

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In addition to simply documenting and explaining gender differences in religion, much of the research on religion and gender focuses on how the two interact. That is, how does religion affect the experiences of gender, and how does gender affect the experiences of religion? There are countless examples of how religion and gender interact in everyday life. For example, have you seen Jewish men wear a kippah (also called yarmulke)? Have you noticed that Jewish women do not wear them? (Though, we will read about women who do!) Similarly, have you seen a Muslim woman wearing a hijab or burka (burqa)? Have you noticed that Muslim men do not wear them?

More examples abound. In some Jewish traditions, men and women worship on separate sides of the temple or in separate spaces completely. In many Christian traditions, women cannot hold advanced leadership roles, like that of the pastor. If you have grown up around religious organizations, you also may have seen retreats, conferences, prayer groups and/or discipleship groups separated for men and women. That is, many organizations offer sex-segregated programming, even if they have men and women together during most worship services or religious events.

In this module, you will read three papers that attempt to document, theorize and/or explain the factors that lead to gender differences in religion. Then, you will read a recent article that touches on our last point from above — that gender and religion are intertwined and that they both affect each other. Therefore, as the author (Darwin) will argue, to make changes in one domain is often to make changes in the other. This will be illustrated through a case study of Jewish women who choose to wear the Kippah (yarmulke), which is traditionally reserved for men.

Photo provided by Christopher Scheitle and Roger Finke. For more information on the photos, see Places of Faith: A Road Trip Across America’s Religious Landscape (Oxford University Press, 2012).

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