Deborah Orr


You could argue that women are more aware of the wonder of life, and more relaxed about embracing its wonder … but that would annoy a lot of people. Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty professor David Voas seems wise indeed. The population studies expert has analysed responses to a survey of 9,000 British people and found a humongous gender gap in attitudes to God, religion and life after death. A chunky 54% of men say they are atheists or agnostics, while only 34% of women hold similar views. An even greater number of men – 63% – believe there is no life after death, compared to 36% of women.

Professor Voas sensibly remarks that, as in many matters of religion, there’s no obvious explanation as to why this should be. I do admire the way the Prof expresses his reluctance to stray into the minefield of gender speculation – somehow, it’s simply all religion’s fault. A lesser man might have been tempted to point out that it’s odd that women, much more so than men, are drawn to capricious, unfathomable things. Sadly, I’m not as wise as he is, and I can’t resisting picking at this news, in much the same way I’d pick at a scab.

Of course, a great deal depends on whether you see religious belief as a good thing or a bad thing. If you see it as a good thing, you could argue that the study illustrates that women are more likely to be happy to see themselves as part of some much bigger plan, rather than standing alone at the centre of the universe. You could argue that women are simply more open-minded, more imaginative, less likely to think that anything beyond their own understanding can’t have any value. Youcould argue that women are more aware of the wonder of life, and more relaxed about embracing its wonder, rather than feeling compelled to reduce it to the rational.

Except that, oh God, that would annoy a lot of people. It’s been a while since anyone could expect to declare women to be inherently less rational than men without a monstrous regiment of women offering reasons why they’re talking rubbish in icily rational terms. Those same people tend to explain gender gaps within a framework that offers the long history of female oppression as a driver on inequality.

I suppose you could put that view to service here, too. Women are more likely to believe that someone else is pulling the strings because they certainly aren’t pulling any strings in this life. Women are more likely to believe that they will get their reward in heaven because they are more likely to be putting the needs of others above their own in the here and now. Men are less likely to believe in life after death because they get more out of life before death. And so on.

Except that this doesn’t quite work. The gods and prophets of the monotheistic religions are all men. So, too, until recently, were all their representatives on earth. Why would women want to believe that a celestial patriarchy would be any more fair-minded and soothing than an earthly patriarchy? One of a number of basic reasons for concluding that religion was invented by men is that it favours men so heavily and discriminates against women so blatantly.

Professor Voas suggests that one practical use for these findings might lie in the furthering of female advancement within the clergy. You don’t have to have read too many Barbara Pym novels to suspect that nice, gentle men in dresses might actually be part of religion’s attraction for certain women (the women in Barbara Pym novels, at the very least), and also part of its lack of attraction for men.

I suppose the person most likely to find succour in these findings would be a militantly sexist atheist man, who could merrily conclude that women are more likely to believe in God because women are more likely to be idiots. For obvious reasons, I don’t find that perspective appealing.

In the end, I think religion is more appealing to women because, at a community level, it has more social benefit to women. I’ve known a lot of women from my mother’s and my grandmother’s generations who would have been lonely without a church to provide a focus and a purpose in their lives, to offer company and a place to go once the children had left home and their husbands had gone (as they so often do, since women live longer).

I imagine that, in the past, constricted by the laws of respectability, women often looked forward to a Sunday-morning outing as a welcome change to the daily routine – a chance to dress up, sing, listen and talk. So, in the end, what I choose to believe is that this religious belief gap can be explained by sheer pragmatism. Women are more likely to believe in God because they’re more likely to reckon that it can’t do much harm, and maybe one day a structured social focus might come in handy. Women believe in God, essentially, because they can’t believe in football.

Towarzystwo Humanistyczne
Humanist Assciation