Happy to see my piece at Alternet about sexism in atheism is getting lots of great responses. (Sadly, also the predictable stream of men trying to game out when it’s okay to rape someone you always get when you touch on the subject, even in passing.) In writing it, I had to go over, yet again, Sam Harris’s mind-numbingly dumb comments about gender. And it reminded me that I need to issue a correction. I linked Greta Christina’s post about the breakdown of gender in non-belief, a post that said that the genders are pretty equal in this. Turns out she was wrong, for which she has apologized and corrected the record. I too, would like to retract that argument, though the rest of my points—that Sam Harris is a nozzle—stand. But no, men around the world disbelieve in God more than women.
While some might immediately go for a biological explanation for this, possibly because they frequently forget that there are brain cells sitting somewhere in the vicinity above vaginas, Zuckerman has listed out many other possibilities:
Here are some leading possibilities:
It could have to do with power and privilege, and the lack thereof. In most societies, men control more wealth than women and tend to have more political and social power than women. As such, women are more easily excluded, exploited, and discriminated against. Perhaps, as a result of this, they are more likely to turn to the consolation of religion.
It could have to do with agency, and the lack thereof; men generally have more freedom than women in most societies; they have a greater ability to decide what work to do, where to live, how to get and manage money, etc. In most societies, women are thus more vulnerable than men — financially, legally, domestically, etc. This could make the psychological comfort and institutional support of religion more appealing to women than men.
It could have to do with socialization: perhaps boys are socialized to be assertive, independent, and rebellious, while girls are socialized to acquiescent, relational, and obedient, which then manifests itself later in life with women being more open to religion than men.
It could have to do with the patterned roles for men and women in society; women tend to be expected to take up roles as caregivers and nurturers, raising children and tending to the sick and elderly, while men tend to be exempt from such roles; this again could make religion more appealing to women than men, for various reasons.
It could have to do with who traditionally works inside/outside the home. While men traditionally work outside the home, women the world over are more likely to work within the home, and this might make religious involvement more interesting and appealing to women; indeed, we know that women who work outside the home tend to be less religious than those who work within the home, and those nations with the highest rates of women working outside the home — for example, Scandinavia — tend to be among the most secular.
And finally, it could have something to do with innate differences between the sexes, be they genetic, neurological, physiological, or hormonal.
He adds, “And while, as a sociologist, I tend to emphasize social and cultural forces in explaining human behavior, I’m not going to totally, utterly discount or disregard biology outright.” Sure. We can’t rule out any possibilities here. But I will say that, given what we know about social conditioning of gender roles, odds are pretty low that it’s biology. There’s just too much variety between societies in terms of how religious the people are and it’s hard to imagine how the hormonal differences between men and women could really account for something as complex and abstract as religious belief. It’s possible, but I think strong skepticism is warranted. Using it as your go-to position, as Harris did, and then misusing statistics to bolster a claim you literally have no evidence for is certainly unwarranted.
I think the points Zuckerman makes about women’s roles and socialization are far likelier to be true, especially since they have some predictive power, such as the argument that the more closely a woman is tied to her domestic roles, the more religious she is likely to be. But there’s one additional factor he overlooked that I’d like to add: The explanatory power of religion.
Basically, being a woman means being faced with what is just an irrational, unfair system of sexism. You have more rules governing your behavior, fewer opportunities, and are treated with less respect. In many cases, you are expected to live your life as if it weren’t your own, but for others, mostly men. And, most importantly, there’s nothing you can do about it. If you fight back against sexism, you will discover that sexism wins. If an individual woman speaking out was enough to defeat sexism, we would have had this problem licked eons ago. That’s why feminism has to be a collective movement. That’s why, also, women who adopt feminism must accept that sexism will not be defeated in our lifetimes, but that the best we can hope for, for ourselves, incremental improvement and a vague hope that one day, after countless hours of hard work by millions of people, sexism will finally end.
Those are basically your two choices as a woman: Become a feminist and accept the bleak fact that your hard work can only improve but never really fix things in your lifetime or decide you’re going to accept the status quo, which is less work but means accepting a definition of yourself as inherently inferior. I’m not judging, in this post anyway. It is an impossible, unfair choice that men don’t have to make.
Enter religion. If you make the latter choice, religion, I suspect, can help you cope a lot. Because religion gives you an explanation. Most religions have some form of the women-are-inferior-because-God-said-so kind of story in them. In Christianity, the religion with which I’m most familiar, women are often told that their inferior status is actually a responsibility of sorts, that women exist to do the scut work that makes the world go round. Being given an explanation for a seeming injustice, in my experience, tends to take the sting out of it. For instance, if someone cuts ahead of me in line but says, “Ah, I’m sorry, but I am in a hurry because of X,” my anger towards them diminishes considerably. Granted, the explanation religion offers women is a lie, but if you believe it, then it must be very comforting. For those who are told that it’s a responsibility, it might even feel a bit empowering. We all like feeling there’s a purpose to our lives.
So while I think there’s a lot of reasons women tend to be more religious on average, this one seems like it could be a biggie. It certainly has predictive power, in terms of examining if there’s a correlation between religiosity and conservative views on women’s roles. (There is, I will bet a lot of money. WINK.) But it’s also the kind of thing that might occur to you if you actually bother to think of women as people who have human motivations, something sorely lacking in any of Harris’s verbose outpourings on this subject.