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Why are women more religious?

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanDecember 14, 2006 10:15 PM


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Bryan Caplan reviews a survey which suggests that women are more religious cross-culturally than men. If you've been involved in the Freethought movement this won't surprise you. Here's an important point:

Once people admit that this gender gap exists, the most popular explanation is that women are "socialized" to be more religious. Stark and Miller put this theory to the test. If the socialization hypothesis is true, they reason, then the gender gap should be larger in more traditional societies where socialization pressure is more intense. Make sense to me. Survey says: Dead wrong. In fact, the gender gap is smallest in the most traditional societies, and largest in the least traditional societies! In societies that approve of single motherhood, with a high abortion rate, low fertility, and high female labor force participation, the religiosity gap between women and men is especially large.

How to interpet this? Since I focus on genetics I think it is easy to conceptualize this as a norm of reaction, different environments result in different outcomes starting with the same biological material. In a traditional society it seems plausible that social constraints are strong. One can analogize this to the differential reaction of individuals to variation in resources (some individuals may respond more negatively toward deprivation, others more positively toward resource abundance). Genotypes which might react the same in environment x may respond very differently in environment y. My previous post on innate atheism is also applicable insofar as one ca view religiosity as threshold trait, and particular environments may simply result in saturation of religiousness (e.g., Saudi Arabia). So what are the roots of male vs. female difference? I know the general paradigm used by researchers who presented the original results, they're economically oriented rational choice types. I think a problem with this paradigm is that they too often view these issues rationally, as if minds are not bounded and biased by arational incoherences and illusions. These researchers operate from intuitions derived a priori instead of availing themselves of the psychological literature which draws upon empirical research which outlines how people really think. Caplan says something which I find interesting:

Men and women have different cognitive orientations - a difference that is in large part genetic. As the Myers-Briggs personality test powerfully confirms, men are more Thinking, and women are more Feeling. (Or if you prefer the Five Factor Model, men are less Agreeable). On a deep level, then, men are more inclined to want some hard proof that religious claims are true, while women are more willing to take religious teachings on faith because they sound nice. Burn me at the stake if you must, but it's true.

I think there is a serious problem here: Caplan seems to assume that religious beliefs emerge out of some social matrix and that women "take on faith" their truths. The cross-cultural similarities of cognitive representations of the divine point to another possibility: that religiosity emerges from natural human psychology, and in particular gods are simply agents which humans intuitively sense "must be there" because of their agency detection biases. So to male fvs. emale differences, why? I believe women have, on average, greater social intelligence and are likely to see more agency in the universe around us because of this. Men are not as religious less because of their innate skepticism, but because a greater proportion lack a powerful intuition of divine agency in the universe around us. There are other factors, but I suspect his is a large component. One might test this by studying males and females who are matched on the autism spectrum, I predict that most of the intersex difference in religiosity will disappear.

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