Bryan Caplan  

A Kuranian Take on the Religious Gender Gap

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Last week I stumbled upon a little gem outside of Larry Iannaccone's office: a chapter by Rodney Stark and Alan Miller on the religious gender gap. Long story short: Women are more religious than men by virtually every measure in virtually every culture.

But the fun doesn't stop there. 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.

If socialization is wrong, what's right? Here Stark and Miller lose me. They attribute the gap to men's greater taste for risk. In a nutshell, men are more willing to throw the dice on Pascal's wager than women are. Unfortunately, this story has two obvious problems:

1. Greater risk preference could explain why men engage in less religious activity, but not why they are less likely to have religious beliefs in the first place.

2. The risk-preference story doesn't explain why the gender gap gets bigger as societies become less traditional.

Can I do better? I think so. My story has two building blocks:

1. 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.

2. As the great Timur Kuran persuasively argues, social pressure leads to "preference falsification." If other people hassle you for lacking piety - as they do in traditional societies - people will pretend to be pious even if they aren't. The weaker the social pressure, the more sincere people become.

In traditional societies, then, men keep their irreligion to themselves and pretend to be as religious as women. (As Kuran emphasizes, preference falsication also inhibits communication, so men who would be open to irreligious arguments are less likely to ever hear and adopt them).

As traditional mores break down, however, men feel freer to be themselves - and share their doubts with others. In contrast, since their piety was relatively sincere from the start, women don't respond much to the fall in social pressure.

If you find my position offensive, you're probably not alone. The Kuranian upshot, however, is that even if I seem to be the only adherent of my theory of the religious gender gap, I'm probably not alone either. As long as social pressure exists to disbelieve what I've said, a lot of people who agree with me are going to pretend to be as offended as you are.

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The author at De Gustibus Non Est Disputandum in a related article titled Quotas para homens writes:
    Eis uma interessante discussão sobre um interessante achado empírico: o hiato de religiosidade entre gêneros. E as mulheres são mais religiosas do que homens, de forma geral. Ou seja: quotas para homens, já! Claudio... [Tracked on December 11, 2006 3:31 AM]
The author at in a related article titled He prayed, she prayed writes:
    If there's a religious gender gap, what's behind it? Bryan Caplan takes a stab at it: 1. Men and women have different cognitive orientations — a difference that is in large part genetic. As the Myers-Briggs personality test powerfully confirms,... [Tracked on December 12, 2006 7:34 AM]
COMMENTS (38 to date)
Agent00yak writes:

Your argument is persuasive, but I think the risk averse argument explains more than you give it credit for. If you accept that there is a god and some type of heaven, then ambition isn't needed for a good end result. This is the type of world a risk averse person would prefer.

Religion also tends to be highly correlated with community, so even if an equal number of men and women would believe that there is no god the cost of expressing that belief is to be isolated from that community. Being part of the community lessens risk, leaving entails taking on risk. It doesn't take feeling vs thinking for women rather than men to chose community over what they might otherwise believe is the truth.

That action leads to belief is something that seems to be well supported by psychological literature. I'd recomend reading Cialdini's book Influence on this topic. It is light but very informative reading. The need to for consistency leads to the women who need religion for community thinking "Why do I go to religious services? I must be a religious person."

Patri Friedman writes:

My wife suggests sort of a unification of the risk/critical theory, which is to view doubting religion as a risk-seeking behavior. Hence in less traditional societies where people are free to doubt religion, more men do it.

Brad Taylor writes:

If you ever have the chance of being president of Harvard, Bryan, I suggest you turn it down.

There does seem to be a bit more to the risk preference hypothesis. Perhaps thikning about your Rational Irrationality in reverse could be helpful.

In this case there is a potential cost to being reflective (i.e. rational). If men are less risk averse, the discounted expected costs of losing Pascal's wager will be lower. Hence they are more willing to expose religious beliefs to sceptical inquiry.

While I think BC is correct that this is down to sex differences in psychology, beyond that I don't find BC's specific idea very plausible, I'm afraid.

I think there are probably two reasons, because we need to separate religion into the social activity of church membership and the psychological activity of spirituality.

The simplest explanation would relate to Simon Baron Cohen's idea of women as empathizers and men as sytematizers (see his book The Essential Difference).

Women being more empathizing leads them to be more sociable than men which leads to church-membership; and also more 'spiritual' than men - which may be unconnected with church-going but instead related more to New Age-type consumption and lifestyle patterns.

The prediction which follows is that men who are more 'empathizers' in psychology should be both more church-going and more spiritual than average. And this just happens to be the subject of a big survey I am currently co-conducting - so I should know the answer in just a few weeks...

Mr. Econotarian writes:

I'd love to see similar research on the gender gap of belief in socialist economics in societies with higher economic freedom and lower economic freedom.

(I think that belief in socialism is often a replacement for belief in the supernatural. Extreme environmentalism may be as well.)

RogerM writes:

Although I'm the resident fundamentalist, I think all of the arguments presented have some truth in them. But they don't go far enough. The reasons people are religious are numerous. Here's mine: the chief attribute of wisdom is humility and women are more humble than men, therefore they have greater wisdom. Women also tend to think more long term than men, who think two weeks is long-term planning.

The book "Jesus in Bejing" by former Time bureau chief David Aikman offers an interesting example of the gender gap. He writes that Christianity is exploding in China, but mostly among the girls at the top universities. He estimates that 80% of Christians are female. One female student at China's top technical school claimed that people in Bejing assume that if you're female and attending a top university you must be a Christian.

Daniel Klein writes:

I like Bryan's theory a lot. I've pondered a similar idea in why you find libertarian women in vital positions in organizations outside academia--e.g., Virginia Postrel, Marty Zupan, Joan Kennedy Taylor, Andrea Rich, Sally Pipes, Traci Sharpe, etc.--but not in academia. They can't hack the acrimony and bitter tension that being vitally libertarian necessarily involves in academe. Libertarianism may not be a male philosophy so much as a disagreeable one in our mainstream cultural institutions. That is why most such libertarians are disproportionately men, even making the suitable adjustments.

Leftists will portray libertarianism as male for its individualism, competitiveness, etc. But the key idea and sentiment of libertarianism is voluntarism, as opposed to coercion. In fact, coercion is more of a guy thing, so in that sense libertarianism is a female philosophy.

On this theory, genetics is not necessary all of it. It could be part culture that being womanly is being pleasant and agreeable.

TGGP writes:

It's true that men are more likely than women to go out and engage in coercion. However, I do not think it is necessarily true that women do not approve of coercion as much as men, especially if it is done by what they view as a proper authority and for a good cause. Most people tend to exempt the government from usual moral rules.

Patrick writes:

I think this points to a needs-oriented solution. Women have children. They feel the need to provide for those children. Collectivization through religious affiliation provides additional help to their children.

But why do they need help? For married women, men are not a constant (mortality, divorce, etc.), so religion is a hedge. Single women compare what they can provide to what a married couple can provide, and feel poorer for the comparison, so they augment by collectivizing.

Half Sigma writes:

Women are less logical than men. Women are also more likely to believe in astrology.

Don't mean to toot my on blog, but I wrote about this before:

RogerM writes:

I think the responses to this issue add credence to what an old literature professor once told me: we are limited only by our imagination when trying to assess the motives of others.

Cathy writes:

It seems to me that Stark and Miller make a pivotal mistake -- they assume Pascal's Wager applies across cultures. It does not. Pascal's Wager is a fundamentally Christian argument -- that you'll burn in hell if you don't believe, so you might as well believe. This argument simply does not apply to those religions and cultures that do not teach eternal punishment. In addition, I find their assumption, that men are risk takers and women are not, to be an offensive and incorrect explanation of why I, a woman, am religious. My spirituality has nothing to do with a desire to avoid the retribution of an angry God and everything to do with a desire to know "what it's all about".

Ross Parker writes:

I've pondered this before. I think it may be socially-teleological reason, but still to do with risk. A religious society is an ordered society where purity is valued. Women are likely to favour this, as they are more risk-averse. In a religious society, women can explain their refusal of men by reference to piety and the morality of the church. The tradeoff is that women will never reach positions of power in religious societies. So religion minimises risk for women, but stunts social advancement. Religion is the low-risk option.

conchis writes:

"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."

Perhaps this is due to an ambiguity in the socialization hypothesis, but I don't think this works. If we imagine a graph of the probability that any given individual is a believer as an increasing function of socialization pressure, then the socialization hypothesis seems to me to imply only that the female curve lies always above the male curve, (i.e. that at any level of socialization pressure, females will be more inclined to be religious) not that it's slope is always greater (i.e. that any increase in socialization pressure will have a greater effect on females). There's nothing to suggest that, over a ceratin range, the difference between the curves couldn't be decreasing. In fact, given given that the probability that any given person is a believer is bounded above (by 1), it seems perfectly reasonable to assume that the female curve rises very sharply to begin with, but then flattens off compared to the male curve, and that cosequently, the gender gap is likely to be decreasing the closer we get to the "traditional society" end of the spectrum, even if the socialization hypothesis is true.

Barkley Rosser writes:

I do not think Kuran's preference falsification argument explains the gap between men in the traditional and advanced societies, which is what is actually going on here (men get less religious in advanced socieities, while women remain religious). My guess is that it has more to do with education, men getting it and it affecting their religiosity in advanced countries, while women do not lose religion with education. It is not that those uneducated men in the traditional societies were really secret doubters who hid their doubts.

invcit writes:

Cathy: Good point about Pascal's Wager. To be fair, though, how many Christians actually believe because of this absolutely silly argument? To see just how silly it is, suppose you have been convinced by it that you should believe in the Christian God. Now I come along and tell you about another God whose hell is ever worse. By the same reasoning, you will now start believing in my God! And so on. So you end up believing in the God with the worst Hell, which doesn't really seem like the type of fellow I want to worship. ;-)

Matt writes:

Men tend to be more independent, therefore they will make more decisions that conflict with the group. To be a religious person means to submit to God. Women are more submissive, therefore are more willing to submit to God. Traditional society forces men to submit anyway, so what's one more thing?

But then again, men in less traditional societies tend to be more submissive in general. Machismo is a traditionalist trait. Maybe if you submit to God, you're not going to submit to anyone else.

Where does the U.S. figure in the model? Is it an outlier once again?

Ted writes:

My guess is that it has more to do with education, men getting it and it affecting their religiosity in advanced countries, while women do not lose religion with education. It is not that those uneducated men in the traditional societies were really secret doubters who hid their doubts.

The next question is: how exactly does education affect religiousity? What is the mechanism?

Eugene writes:

Evolution has created in men a fundamental (even existential) interest in power. In traditional cultures, sectarian and secular power centers are strongly entwined, if not one and the same. As the two unravel in modern societies, men pursuing the latter will necessarily lose interest in the former, as rendering unto Caesar and mammon takes up more and more time and effort (though with bigger and bigger payoffs).

The "gender gap" remains much narrower in places like Utah, where religious devotion still counts strongly towards economic power and political influence. Nor do I think pretense has much to do with it (though appearances do count). Most men just aren't that subtle. It's an "in for a penny, in for a pound" type of thing, also the reason for the First Amendment.

And as stated above, more sectarian communities also give greater social cover to those men who, of their own volition, sincerely wish to spend more time rendering unto God, just as secular pressures give cover to those men who were never interested in religion in the first place. This leaves the happy middle to those of us not particularly captivated by either.

AtheistGirl writes:

Maybe there's a connection between women's religious faith and their tendency (esp. as single women) to vote for left-wing, big-govenrment candidates. Women want to be taken care of -- by the government, by a father or husband, or by a Supreme Being. Men are more self-reliant.

I can get away with saying that; I'm a woman.

Steve Sailer writes:

- Having children (what Tom Wolfe calls "serial immortality") seems to decrease male interest in "personal immortality."

- I've noticed that men tend to find it unlikely that God would be interested in their personal lives, whereas women feel the opposite.

Which sex is more likely to say which?

A. "If I were God, of course I'd pay attention to every individual's personal hopes, fears, and dreams. Who wouldn't?"

B. "If I were God, I'd spend my time in staff meetings with my archangels deciding whether or not to override my presumption against interfering with nature to avert the collision of two galaxies in a billion years that would cause the death of a quadrillion sentient life forms."

Barkley Rosser writes:


Within the US there is a correlation between education and religiosity. However, across the world, higher income countries with higher levels of education tend to have lower levels of religiosity, with the big difference being the men.

Matt writes:

Offended? This is why being a Calvinist makes life so much easier- you don't have to be offended by the possibility genetic determinism (it's easy not to be offended by science when all it does is prove you right).

"As traditional mores break down, however, men feel freer to be themselves..."

There's your answer right there- civilization works precisely because it inhibits men from "being themselves", at least in certain ways. Religious injunction is a primary way in which this is achieved. That women feel a greater stake in the system that prevents men from being themselves should not be too suprising.

Matt writes:

Aside- I'm a different Matt than the one who posted above.

Eugene writes:

Let's keep in mind that most religions were founded by men and are run by men. Religions (even the wackiest of cults) are organizations, and have thus to be run by someone, and men (in general) love running things. The primary reason for religious patriarchy is that the promise of being in charge (someday) gives men a much greater incentive to become and stay involved.

Deiah Haddock writes:

I think that the fact that women tend to aparently be more openly religous than men is related to the risk perception. In our communication styles and gendered indrocination we are taught many ways in which it is appropriate to be and what is not okay to be. Religion tends to be about submission and emotion - at least in the sense of giving oneself over to a higher power. To express this to others could be intreperated as being weak - if they do not understand what you are basing it from - so the risk perception for a male to be openly religous would most likely be more so than a female who is expected from birth to be nurturing and emotional.

Acad Ronin writes:

I would like to see what happens if one looks at religions separately. What happens in religions such as Judaism (where a minyan of ten men is the minimum number of men necessary for prayers) or Islam, which is more demanding of men in terms of ritual prayer than,say, Episcopalianism or the Society of Friends. Is the effect still there, but the fall-off less steep?

blink writes:

I think there is a signaling component here: by fervently espousing nonsensical beliefs, women are signaling their commitment to the society. This explains the traditional society vs. modern society paradox: in a traditional society, women have far fewer options outside of the society and therefore less need to signal commitment. This need not contradict Bryan’s data showing that women are more feeling than men; perhaps they are so because they must truly believe to send a reliable signal.

One riddle remains: why is signaling commitment more important for women? I admit that, at first glance, the man’s commitment appears more suspect.

Monte writes:


Could you please explain what you mean by nonsensical beliefs?

Robert Speirs writes:

Christopher Hitchens had an article today in all the best places about how women are not funny, that is they can't come up with funny jokes and stories as readily as men, nor do they want to, in general. So when looking at Christ with Pilate and the crowd screaming "Give us Barabbas!", they just can't see how essentially comic that is. Mockery is the mortal enemy of religion.

jim writes:

Also related:
Every womans magazine on the planet contains horoscopes. Virtually no mens magazine contains horoscopes.

Carl Shulman writes:

Blink, human fertilization takes place internally, and women have sex when they are not fertile. If a man's partner is impregnated in an infidelity, then the resources he puts into rearing the child are wasted. Men have a bimodal distribution of sexual behavior: short-term dalliances to impregnate young and healthy women, and long-term bonds to raise children with women who are both fertile and faithful. Thus, Madonna/Whore dichotomies.

The innocent 'Madonna' poses less of a threat of being cuckolded. Of course, with modern birth control and paternity tests these attitudes are obsolete, but there hasn't been time for natural selection to adjust them substantially.

Christina writes:

My dad (an atheist) used to say that the reason that Mormons originally practiced polygamy is because Joseph Smith had so many more female followers than male he instituted polygamy to a) take advantage of the ratios, and b) attract more men to the group.

True or not, it would certainly fit in with the generalization that women are more prone to buying into faith-based belief systems.

blink writes:

Monte – ‘Nonsensical’ is perhaps too pejorative; ‘unverifiable’ may have been a better choice on my part, although I think that beliefs that are nonsensical in the sense that they are demonstrably false could send the strongest signals of loyalty.

Carl – Thanks for the insight.

Contrary to Dan Klein's foundationless assertion, I did not pursue an academic career because I did not want to specialize in a discipine, not because my fragile female psyche couldn't hack conflict. Politics had nothing to do with it, one way or the other. A "social scientist" who makes broad claims about specific individuals with not so much as a single anecdote to back him up would never cut it in journalism. But perhaps Dan is more interested in propaganda than empirical reality.

Monte writes:


Thanks for the response. I realize you were commenting from a purely analytical perspective, but I find the term "unverifiable" much more palatable.

...although I think that beliefs that are nonsensical in the sense that they are demonstrably false could send the strongest signals of loyalty.

Agreed. Blind faith is the enemy of reason, but every bit as prevalent in politics as religion. Interestingly enough, statistics appear to confirm that a similar gap exists between men and women when it comes to voting.

Could both be due to an innate sense of obligation, rather than socialization or cognitive orientation as Bryan suggests?

Sudha Shenoy writes:

Women go in for religion, 'horoscopes' (professional astrologers say their clients are overwhelmingly female), & for 'sentiment': birthdays, aniiversaries, family get-togethers, family photos, & the like. Common element: 'feeling' rather than 'analysis'. Didn't a recent study of the brain show something similar? {I'm female, by the way.)

Rafal Smigrodzki writes:

If you are looking for another adherent of your theory, you just found one :)

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