Mark Wingfield


Could there be a biological reason why women are more religious than men?

Sociologist Rodney Stark is convinced there is, and he's urging his colleagues to track it down. "This is a big can of worms, and I think it's time we open it," said the University of Washington professor known among his colleagues as someone who pushes traditional boundaries and sparks innovative research.

The evidence of this gender disparity can be seen in most any church across the nation, Stark said in an address during the annual convention of the Religion Research Association in Houston Oct. 21. Churches are filled with more women than men--and always have been, he noted.

This trend is found not only in the United States but in nearly every other country he has studied, Stark said, handing out multiple charts to support his research.

Women expressing greater religious involvement than men is an "enormously common phenomenon," he said, noting evidence even from the first century Christian church.

Various non-biological reasons for this disparity have been put forward in the past, Stark said. For example, some have suggested the gender gap was created because of fewer women than men working outside the home or because of women taking more responsibility in childcare.

However, no significant difference can be found between the religiosity of working women and stay-at-home women, Stark reported. Likewise, no difference is seen when comparing the religiosity of women who are mothers and women who are not.

In his quest to solve this puzzle, Stark found surprising help from criminologists. The other major social behavior in which there is a significant gap between men and women is the commission of violent crime.

Criminologists are increasingly finding evidence that men are more inclined than women to commit violent crimes because of biological differences specifically linked to hormone levels, Stark said. For example, elevated testosterone levels have been linked to men engaging in more risky behaviors

The gender gap in crime relates mainly to violent crimes--what Stark called "stand-up" crimes--but fades when examining what he called "sit-down crimes." For example, women are not likely to bludgeon someone, but they might poison someone. And women are just as likely as men to embezzle, he reported.

The difference, some criminologists contend, is in short-sighted risk taking. Men are far more likely than women to be extreme risk-takers.

The connection between this risk-taking and testosterone has been confirmed in other studies over the last two decades, including analysis of athletes using steroids and extensive research on Vietnam veterans.

Stark thinks these findings may be the missing link to the gender gap in religious behavior.

If women are more likely to avoid risk-taking, they naturally would be more likely than men not to take chances on the hereafter, Stark reasoned. He pointed to the famous philosophical tool known as Pascal's Wager, which says believing in God is the most logical option available, because even if God doesn't exist and doesn't promise eternal life, the believer loses nothing in the end. But if a person gambles on the belief that God does not exist, there's much more to lose if in fact it turns out God does exist.

The bottom line, Stark said, is that "being irreligious is risky." So if women are genetically inclined to take less severe risks than men, it stands to reason women would be more likely than men to avoid the risk of eternal damnation, he suggested.

This theory gets further support, Stark said, by looking at variations in the gender gap in different types of religions. For example, Judaism offers less emphasis on the afterlife than Christianity, and there's virtually no gender gap in religiosity among Jews, whereas there's a significant gap among Christians. Further, the gender gap widens in Christian denominations that place a greater emphasis on heaven and hell, he added.

Stark's hypothesis drew mixed reactions from respondents and participants in the conference. Two women, one a self-described feminist, gave formal responses to the paper.

"As a feminist, I am uneasy with biological arguments" to explain the gender gap in religiosity, said Paula Nesbitt of the University of Denver. "Biology is too often used as an explanation of convenience."

At the same time, though, "I cannot stand here and tell you hormonal levels don't have an effect," Nesbitt added.

Biological factors could prove to be a contributing factor to religious behavior, but ultimately will not be found to be the primary factor, she predicted.

Marion Goldman of the University of Oregon found more promise in Stark's ideas, but she too expressed caution. "We should think of Rod Stark as a sociological alarm clock," she suggested. "You may want to throw him against the wall, but you have to listen to him."

Towarzystwo Humanistyczne
Humanist Assciation