Understanding Gender Differences in Religiosity (Part I)

Reviewing current explanations as to why men are less religious than women

Posted Nov 07, 2014

One of the most robust findings in the scientific study of religion is that women are, on average, notably more religious than men. I happened to have a data set of about 800 JMU students and to see if the general finding would replicate, I compared men and women on how religious the participants classified themselves on a four-point scale ranging from very to not at all. Here are the data:


Data on ~800 JMU college students.

These data clearly replicate the finding, showing notably less religiosity in the men. For a much larger sample, see Gallup’s survey of religiosity and gender. The robustness of the finding is such that many researchers have noted it and there have been many different possible explanations. Indeed, it remains an area of controversy and debate. Here I list the major explanations that are in the literature and divide them up into evolutionary, personality, and social explanations.

Evolutionary Psychology Perspectives

Miller, Stark and colleagues have articulated an evolutionary view for human males being less religious that has received some attention, including an endorsement by a PT blogger. Their position is that nature has prepared men to be the “riskier” sex, and challenging religion is a more risky move. It is risky in the cognitive sense of the term (think here of Pascal’s wager), and it is risky in the since that it defies social convention. These researchers have looked at the tendency to take risks and shown a propensity for risk-taking is a key variable that relates to religiosity. In short, the evolutionary psychology position is that risk-taking males just say “no” to God.

Personality Theories

Traditional Freudian perspectives view religion as manifestation of an immature need for protection and deference to authority. (Freud called religion “patently infantile”). Freud also had very sexist ideas about women as being fundamentally less developed than men. So from a Freudian view, the gender differences are the result of a more primitive psychology among females.

Modern personality theory is dominated by trait theory and trait researchers have looked at religion through the lens of the Big Five. Although the results are not super consistent, in general conscientiousness and agreeableness are associated with being more religious. Women tend to be more agreeable, so that provides some possible explanation.

The concept of self-monitoring refers to the extent to which an individual is concerned about their impressions and monitor their actions in response to potential judgmental others. Recent research has found that self-monitoring relates to the relationship between the genders and their religiosity. Specifically, whereas high self-monitoring males and females were equally religious, low self-monitoring males were much lower on religiosity than low self-monitoring females. This research points to an interaction between self-monitoring and gender on religious beliefs, and focuses the question on why the interaction between maleness and low self-monitoring results in reducing religiosity.  

Socio-cultural Theories

Socio-cultural theories emphasize social and contextual forces in explaining the difference. There are three major approaches that overlap but focus on different elements and these are reviewed below.

One argument is that the majority of studies have been on Western-Christian folks and there have been some findings suggesting that the greater religiosity of females does not generalize outside of this context (e.g., see here). Although it almost certainly is the case that the content of religious beliefs does play a role, it is also the case that a broad look at the data does offer good support of the trend generalizing beyond the Judeo-Christian Western context—thus it does appear there is something to be explained apart from the specific social context or content of religious beliefs.

A second social argument can be called a “social structural argument”. Here the argument is that the reward structure of society is set up such that religious activities are more conducive to the lifestyles of women than men. For example, perhaps because they have historically been less involved in the work force, women have had more time to devote to religious activities. And churches are more family centered as women tend to be, and to the extent that women spend more time in church, make more friends and become more invested then a reinforcing cycle is formed.   

A third argument is gender role socialization (GRS). In academia, GRS exists in opposition to evolutionary psychology (see here for why this is silly from a unified view). GRS argues that there are masculine and feminine roles that have emerged as a function of social historical forces that reinforce certain attitudes and behavior patterns. The gender roles that males are reinforced in our culture are described as “agentic”, which means independent, powerful and self-focused. This also includes being defiant and challenging of the status quo. Females in contrasted are socialized to be “communal”, which is being nurturing, sensitive, and more deferential to conventional norms. Research has found that religiosity is associated with the gender ideology of the individual, with more masculine gender ideologies associated with lower levels of religiosity.

A more recent GRS approach, called the power-control theory has been articulated. In accordance with the claim the GRS approaches compete with evolutionary approaches, the power control theory was articulated as a directly competing explanation with the risk taking perspective of Miller, Stark and colleagues. Perhaps not surprisingly, a commentary criticized the authors of the Power-Control theory and claimed that the two explanations cannot easily be teased apart and that ‘Nature’ and ‘Nurture’ actually go together (somehow).


Such is the current state of affairs in psychology and the social sciences. Indeed, this chaotic swirl of competing and overlapping explanations is the norm. For example, if we replaced the question gender differences in religion with why are women more likely to vote democratic or get depressed, we would likely see the same clusterf@# of biological, psychological, and social explanations all competing against one another in a convoluted mass.

From the vantage point of the unified approach, all of this is painfully misguided. Researchers are going about the issue in the wrong way because they commit to "mid-level" theories that exist only at the biological, psychological, or social dimensions of existence and then they make hypotheses and empirically extract trends in aggregate data to claim support for their theories. The conclusions then are usually framed in contrast to the other mid-level theories and so folks on the sidelines have to decide which theory is most likely true, which they likely based on their own implicit or explicit version of reality.

Part II of this blog explains why the unified approach offers a holistic physical-bio-psycho-social view that harmonizes these perspectives rather than defines them against one another. By harmonizing them we can actually begin to understand the reasons men tend to be less religious than women in modern society.