Women in religion

Posted by mouthyb | Posted in | Posted on 10:48 PM


According to the most recent Pew Report, 82.4% of the female population of the US claims some sort of Christian affiliation, and 4.2% claim that they are Jewish, Muslim, Hindu or other. Only 12.8% of us are atheist, agnostic or unaffiliated, and .9% of us are atheists.

Sadly, some people will conclude from this a handful of things which have nothing to do with an actual analysis of the statistics, and everything to do with well-known lurking variables and confirmation bias.

For instance, the often-floated thesis that women are religious because we're stupider, on average, than men, or less inclined to be analytic. I would assume I don't have to go into why that represents a rather elephantine bias, but I will go into why women less often express their analytic tendencies.

Part of this is a series of well-known phenomena in the social sciences: it turns out that telling people they have stereotypical characteristics which limit their perception of their own abilities will actually cause them to have trouble not limiting those characteristics in the ways suggested by the stereotype. It's called the stereotype threat. It affects any population which is strongly stereotyped in social interactions: studies show that black students under-perform when reminded of racial stereotypes and rate themselves as less capable. A similar effect was observed in women, when reminded of stereotypes about themselves as less able to perform on math tests. The same effect was observed in poor kids. Further, it has also been observed that stereotype threat actually interferes with the ability to encode memory. It does so by causing high levels of anxiety, which interfere with the ability to encode, recall and reproduce items from memory.

Keep in mind that standardized tests are how analytic ability is often measured. Performance on those tests becomes the way the student learns to measure and express their own ability. Since school is mandatory (less homeschooling), chances are quite high that the woman in question has been repeatedly exposed to the message that she is not a good analyst, cannot analyze and has no business attempting to reason. Those qualities are highly tied, through gender stereotypes, to masculinity. While the groups studied are those negatively affected by these stereotypes, the object of study was the nature of how broad stereotypes affect these groups, which included male students in the PoC studies. It's relatively safe, due to the thousands of studies on this phenomena, to conclude that there are, in fact, stereotypes.

Interestingly enough, the same stereotypes which favor the performance of men on analytic and math-based tasks also favor the performance of women on language assembly and communications tasks. The study I cited above, linked to 'masculinity,' discusses the coding of math as male, and the association of math and masculinity such that women were evaluated negatively if they were presented as having math skills. This study talks about how fluent men and women are perceived at communication. The tl;dr version is that women are perceived to be more fluent, more capable, more empathetic and more willing to engage in back and forth during communication. Men were rated as interrupting, neurotic and aggressive.

What do these have to do with religion? An important correlate of church attendance, as it turns out, is the perception of being a Christian as doing the right thing, and as a part of being loving, or compassionate. This study specifically names "having love and compassion for one's fellow man." Women tend to outperform men in tests of empathy, because of the same set of stereotypes which cause women to believe they can't analyze. This makes religious participation a social requirement for performing femininity; if one is to be properly female, one must be compassionate and empathetic. In order to be seen as compassionate and empathetic, one must perform actions seen to be compassionate and empathetic. Religion is seen as compassionate and empathetic, ergo women must participate or be seen as deviant.

There's another phenomena in the social sciences which can explain some of the volume of women who participate in religion: benevolent sexism in American churches (in this case, Catholic.) Sexism is a destructive system of relations between genders which, among other things, ascribes the perceived need for certain 'corrective' actions to keep people in the positions ascribed to their roles. Benevolent sexism emphasizes the positive affect of participation in those gender roles: women are compassionate because they are all prospective mothers, for instance (and especially in the case of the Catholic church.) Benevolent sexism is essentially the other side of the more hostile versions of sexism; emphasizing the positive does not cause women to 'not know' the negative, it merely gives some incentive for participation. Benevolent sexism also contributes to justification of the system. When people are primed by exposure to these stereotypes (and specifically that men and women are complimentary in their roles), they tend to respond to scenarios by giving justification of society and its roles the way they are, because they perceive society to be more fair, whether or not the scenario is.

But the threat is always there; both hostile and benevolent sexism are factors in rape and blaming rape victims, respectively. And in the case of religion, religious involvement can be correlated with sexism and/or domestic violence. Moreover, clergy members may actually make the situation worse.

What all this means is that there are several mechanics involved in explaining women's participation in religion: pervasive gender stereotyping, social pressures which limit analytic tendencies and expression in women and the threat of violence for nonconformity. The thesis I mentioned at the beginning, that women are just stupider, on average, or more gullible, is lazy and just as much a product of stereotyping as any of the assertions made about women.

A better question would involve looking at the volume of women involved in religion and asking how many would like to get out, if they knew they could. An even better question would be what any of the rest of us are doing about it.

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