Study: Intimacy with God is driving the gender difference in biblical literalism

A new study sheds light on why women are more likely than men to believe the Bible is literally true. The research, which appears in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, found evidence that intimacy with God explained the gender gap in biblical literalism.

“There has been a steady stream of research trying to understand why women appear more religious than men, at least in the Western, Christian context,” said study author Blake Victor Kent, a research fellow at the Harvard/MGH Center on Genomics, Vulnerable Populations, and Health Disparities.

“Some have suggested men might be more willing to risk damnation than women, that there may be some kind of physiological difference between them, or perhaps that women are uniquely compensated in terms of security or community stature when they deeply embrace religion. I have written before on attachment to God, which measures how emotionally connected people feel to God, and I suspected attachment might be able to offer some new insights to this debate.”

The researchers analyzed data from 1,394 respondents in the national Baylor Religion Survey’s third wave. They found that attachment to God and seeking to establish a stronger connection with God were both associated with more literal views of the Bible.

In other words, both men and women who took the Bible more literally were more likely to say they had “a warm relationship with God” and reported spending more time alone praying and reading the Bible. But women tended to report both stronger attachments to God and spending more time attempting to connect with God, which explained their higher rates of biblical literalism.

“We found that while it’s true women take the Bible more literally than men, once attachment to God is accounted for that relationship disappears. So it’s really intimacy with God driving this difference, not gender per se,” Kent told PsyPost.

“Our study indicates that those who feel closer emotionally to God tend to take the Bible more literally. We think this has to do with religious narratives in which God is thought of as a person you can talk to, a God who talks right back. That’s the tradition of the Hebrew scriptures, in which God speaks to prophets as they recorded his words, and in the New Testament where people interact with Jesus or receive insight from the Holy Spirit.

“A lot of religious believers still think of God in these terms,” Kent explained. “Those that don’t often see God as more of a universal force or presence, and our study highlights differences with these groups. Those who think of God more personally are more likely to take the Bible literally (which we argue legitimizes God as a person you can talk to), and those who are less emotionally connected to God tend to back away from literalism.”

The study — like all research — includes some limitations. The cross-sectional methodology, for instance, prevents the researchers from determining the direction of causality.

“We really need to understand better the social and religious context for developing views of the Bible or joining a specific church/denomination that holds a particular view of the Bible. It would be easy to assume that emotional attachments to God and Bible views are mostly related to the kind of church people grow up in, but it’s not uncommon for religious believers to switch denominations as they age,” Kent explained.

“Do those from literalist backgrounds leave for less literal churches when their spirituality doesn’t engage God in such a personal way? Do people from less literal backgrounds switch to literalist and conservative churches as they feel a desire to relate to God more personally? There is some research out there to indicate these types of dynamics are going on, but the picture is still a little fuzzy.”

The study, “To Know and Be Known: An Intimacy‐Based Explanation for the Gender Gap in Biblical Literalism“, was authored by Blake Victor Kent and Christopher M. Pieper.