In Sight

Are Women More Religious?

Research shows the religious gender gap is more pronounced in the U.S.

Photo: @iStockPhoto/Kristinajovanovic

by Ana Swanson

Globally, more women than men identify with a religion, pray daily and say that religion is “very important” to them, according to data from the Pew Research Center.

Around the world, 83.4 percent of women say they identify with a religion, compared with 79.9 percent of men, Pew says, meaning there are about 100 million more religiously affiliated women on the planet than men. But why?

This is an old question, one that experts have dubbed a “scientific puzzle.”

Some researchers have argued that the difference is due to biology, some say that it’s a product of social and cultural factors, and some maintain that it’s both.

Trends suggest that men and women’s religious differences stem not just from biology but from culture.

But Pew’s data suggests that, at the very least, biology isn’t the only factor. Men and women’s religious behaviors and beliefs vary significantly by religious group and country, suggesting that the way men and women are raised and socialized does play a role.

The Pew study surveys six religious groups—Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews and the religiously unaffiliated—across 192 countries. It finds that, globally, women are more religious than men, while men make up 55 percent of the world’s religiously unaffiliated people.

This religious gender gap is even more pronounced in the United States, which is much more religious in general than other advanced economies. According to Pew, 64 percent of American women but only 47 percent of American men say they pray daily—compared with 30 percent of women and 28 percent of men in Canada, and 15 percent of women and 9 percent of men in France. In the United States, 68 percent of atheists are men.

In the past, some researchers have argued that biology plays the most important role in this religious gender gap. Other researchers have argued for biological explanations after observing that women with more “feminine” traits—like being affectionate, sympathetic, compassionate, tender and loving to children—are more likely to be religious.

But others insist that nurture—the way women and men are taught to behave and the values that they are taught to hold—is a more important influence on the religious differences between men and women.

Pew’s data observes some big differences in the religious gender gap across different cultures—trends that suggest that men and women’s religious differences stem not just from biology but from culture.

Some other findings from the study:

  • Women’s religiosity varies somewhat depending on whether they work or stay home—a sign that religious beliefs might be affected by the environment men and women are exposed to. Or the causality could be the other way around—religious women could be more likely to stay home because of a belief in more traditional gender roles.
  • Also, Christian countries in which more women work tend to have smaller religious gender gaps between men and women, though the trend doesn’t hold for other religious groups.