Religion can play a major role in many people’s lives, but it often benefits men over women. A new study published in Proceedings of the Royal Society suggests that men are less religious in countries with higher levels of gender equality.
Globally, there are significant sex differences in religiousness, with women generally being more prone toward stronger religious beliefs. This is thought to be due in part to women’s greater capacity for empathy and ability to mentalize. Despite this, organized religion often involves practices that are advantageous to men but detrimental to women.
Cultural context and norms on sexism may play an important role in religious beliefs. The authors of the new study hypothesized that in societies with lower levels of gender equality, religion may be a useful social influential tool for men, while in countries with higher levels of gender equality, religion may be less appealing.
“One of my interests is how people use religion to advance their goals, and often these goals are related to mating,” explained study author Jordan Moon, a PhD candidate at Arizona State University. “For example, attitudes about family and sexuality (e.g., opposition to sexual promiscuity) are pretty consistent predictors of religiousness across cultures, and some evidence suggests that people are drawn to religion, in part, because it advances their goals in this way.”
“From that perspective, it’s interesting to think about how and why religious belief and behavior differ across cultures. One consistent finding in the study of religion is that women tend to be more religious than men, although the size of this difference varies and there are some cultures where this isn’t the case. Yet religions often have patriarchal features, rituals or norms that restrict or punish women more than men, so it’s kind of strange that women are so consistently more religious. My coauthors and I thought it would be interesting to consider how these effects differ across contexts.”
“We chose gender equality as the contextual influence because of several recent findings called the ‘gender equality paradox’ — sometimes differences between men and women are greater in countries with greater gender equality, which is the opposite of what many would expect,” Moon told PsyPost. “Our logic in this research was that, if the patriarchal aspects of religion are part of what draws men to religion (or how they use religion to help achieve their goals), and if gender equality makes it more difficult to enforce these rituals or norms, religion might be less appealing to men (relative to women) in societies with greater gender equality.”
Moon and his colleagues utilized data from the World Values Survey and the European Values Survey. This produced very large sample sizes of up to 125,593 participants across 74 countries. They measured religious attendance, frequency of prayer, religious affiliation, and attitudes toward casual and premarital sex. Additionally, they employed a measure that assesses four components of gender equality for different countries: economic participation, education, political empowerment, and health/survival.
Results showed that increased gender equality was associated with less religious beliefs and behaviors in men. In women, this effect was smaller and not as consistent cross-culturally. While increased gender equality was associated with lower religious attendance in men, this outcome was not seen for women. This means that in countries with higher levels of gender equality, the gap between men and women’s religious practices is greatest.
“The results were particularly strong with religious attendance as an outcome; in all such models there was a consistent negative relationship between gender equality and religious attendance for men, but no effect for women,” the researchers wrote in their study. “Overt religious participation may allow men to more easily monitor women, police sexual behavior or to signal their value as a mate via religious commitment.”
“I think the main point of the paper is to highlight that context matters,” Moon explained. “Religion isn’t just some symbolic thing, but actually has a lot of mundane functions — it’s sensitive to ‘facts on the ground.’ So it shouldn’t be surprising that people turn to religion when they have certain needs, or that when they have to fulfill their needs in other ways they might find religion less appealing.”
This study shows the negative relationship between gender equality and religiousness in men, but it cannot speak to the mechanisms that cause this relationship. The authors hypothesize that this could be due to men in more religious society’s using religion as a virtue signal or that countries with higher gender equality face fewer threats. Addressing the underlying causes of this pattern would require further research.
“The biggest caveat is that these data are correlational, so we can’t make causal claims,” Moon said. “Our perspective is based on the notion that people are more likely to engage in religion when it is consistent with their goals, and that these different contexts (i.e., different levels of gender equality) might make religion more or less appealing for people with these goals.”
“However, I’m sure many people will think it’s more plausible that the effect goes the other way, with religion reducing (or slowing) gender equality,” the researcher said. “This is certainly possible, and in reality I would bet the effects go both ways — people make decisions about their beliefs within these different cultural contexts and the actions of citizens also influence a country’s gender equality. However, religions are often constrained by the broader cultural context (especially in places with religious diversity). Beliefs and rituals must be palatable to enough people to thrive, so I suspect that religions will often make changes to remain appealing to as many people as possible.”
The study, “Men are less religious in more gender-equal countries“, was authored by Jordan W. Moon, Adam E. Tratner, and Melissa M. McDonald.