Are women more likely to be stupid/gullible? That seems to be the assumption that the ungenerous of us might make when considering the 7% gap between men and women when it comes to religious affiliation. 81% of men and 88% of women have a religious affiliation of some sort, women are slightly more likely to stick by a religious upbringing, and women are slightly more likely to adopt a religion if they didn’t have one growing up than men. These are the sorts of statistics that grab public attention, because we’re so hungry for constant reinforcement of the largely fallacious idea that men and women are opposite in every way. Already, I can feel the pull of examining the 7% gap instead of pointing to the statistically more relevant point, which is that men and women have more in common than not. Most men and women are religious, and the number of women that are non-religious is still bigger than the gap between men and women. What these statistics have found is basically that men and women come to the same conclusions at close to the same rates.
Still, being human beings, our attention is hyper-focused on difference, and so this gap of 7 percentage points begs for an explanation. Why are women slightly more likely than men to be religious on average? Are women more gullible? Are they more emotionally needy? Are they under greater pressure to conform? Do women’s roles point them into a position where they can’t say no to religion? Why does religion have a slightly tighter hold on women than on men?
Well, my hat is off to Stephanie Zvan, who decided to look at the question from a different angle, and discovered something illumination. Stephanie rightly realized that this survey was measuring affiliation more than individual spiritual beliefs, and that it should be understood in that context. So she asked, “What other affiliations might someone have that could be measured and separated by gender?” She decided that political party was a good place to look, and sure enough, more women than men align themselves with a political party. In fact, 59% of men and 65% of women claim a political party, which is a gap of 6 percentage points. So basically, the same.
Now, I personally would consider political party affiliation to be a different thing than religion from a rationalist perspective. Partisanship has a very straightforward rationalist argument for it, which is that it’s easier to secure and use power if you’re affiliated with a political party. Not that I think that’s why people join political parties. I think Stephanie’s right that people tend to join things mainly for identity and solidarity, whether it’s a church, a political party, or a trivia team. But that’s the point. By looking around a little, she realized that the easiest explanation that would dwell on essentialist arguments about how men and women are different in intelligence or emotional neediness was probably not right.
What I think she’s found is the more mundane explanation—women feel more obligation than men to be affiliated with groups that are about community. We are under more pressure than men to be the glue that holds society together—the volunteers, the organizers, the bake sale throwers. I’m actually mildly surprised, considering the difference in pressure on men and women, that the gap between them is small, though I suppose I shouldn’t be. Family, upbringing, and the desire to fit in influence men and women in roughly the same way.