Religiosity and Gender: Nature or Nurture?

This topic submitted by Kristin McCartney and Kate Hetrick ( at 11:37 pm on 2/28/01. Additions were last made on Tuesday, May 28, 2002. Section: Myers.

Religiosity and Gender: Nature or Nurture?


It seems that in every place and time, in every human culture religion has played a pivotal role in human life. When speculating on the reasons for the universality of religion, sociobiologists often note the fact that humans are pattern-seeking creatures, who tell ourselves stories to explain our world (Gazzniga 1998). The fact that we are story-telling animals with conceptions of time and consequences means that we may exercise foresight, but also that we may feel deep anxiety and fear (Sapolsky 1998). Religion is one way for us to assuage that fear and come to terms with our own vulnerability. Indeed, several studies have shown that those who are religiously active (attend church regularly, pray often) have lower mortality rates and lower levels of anxiety and depression (Maltby 1998; Hummer, Rogers, and Nam 1999). More specifically, in long term studies it is shown that religiousity is highly protective in depressive disorder to women (Miller, Warren, and Wickramarante 1999; Mirola 1999). Scholars have noted that women are both religious and affected by depressive disorders at rates significantly higher than men (Mirola 1999). As mentioned above they have even noticed the therapeutic nature of religion for women, but few have asked why.

Both men and women experience anxiety because of their vulnerability, but women, physically and often socially, are more vulnerable than men. Biologically, this has to do simply with womenÕs different reproductive role. Until quite recently, a reproductively fertile woman was bearing or burying a child every year. A woman is not completely incapacitated when pregnant, but there is no doubt that her mobility and strength are compromised. And with every birth, there (until recently) always existed the very real chance of death. Even when not pregnant, a woman has the burden of menstration. The woman in the ancestral environment was simply more vulnerable than the man and perhaps even more in need of the social and psychic comfort of religion. This could be extended into the lifecycle; it may be no coincidence that when we are at our most vulnerable (near the beginning and end of life) we are the most religious.

For these reasons we believe that there may be a biological basis for womenÕs greater religiosity; even if women and men come from very similar cultural backgrounds, we believe that women will be significantly more religious. The hypothesis of our research is that sex, not cultural background is the strongest predictor of religiosity.
Furthermore, we believe that this might be because biologically women are more vulnerable and have more reason for anxiety than men. So we will also test levels of anxiety. We believe that even if the women and men are from very similar cultural backgrounds, that women will be significantly more anxious than men.

This research is important, because we donÕt live in the ancestral environment. Even if men and women have evolved to have different reproductive functions, today we hope to create a more egalitarian society and in reality (for many) it is a more egalitarian society. Childbirth has lost much of its danger and women have gained control over their reproductive lives, but their psyches are still shaped by their ancestral vulnerability. If we understand how women may be inherently different, we can begin to build a society that considers sex differences rather than just viewing men as the norm. Religion and anxiety may be one of those places of essential difference; if so we need to take note. To paraphrase many evolutionary psychologists, first we understand our nature and then we understand how we can make our nature work for our agenda (Wright 1994 and Burnham and Phelan 2000).

Literature Review

Gender is often ignored in studies of the sociology of religion, despite the fact that women are found to be more religious than men by every measure (Walter and Davie 1998). One of the best overviews of the work done pertaining to sex and religion is Walter and Davie sociological literature review, "The religiosity of women in the modern West" published in The British Journal of Sociology. Walter and Davie trace the studies of religiosity and sex and put forward the premise that "whether or not religion is or has been a response to socially-induced vulnerability, it is and always has been a response to the physical vulnerability of the body that is the human condition" (646). They extend the argument to say that because womenÕs bodies are more vulnerable women should be more religious. Sadly, they also note the dearth of research in the area. Bloom (1995) and Gazzniga (1998) note religionÕs connection to human anxiety, but fail to wonder if different sexes might experience religion differently because of it. BowkerÕs Is God a Virus? is especially helpful, because he addresses issues of the coevolution of nature and culture and specifically womenÕs relationship to religion. Taken together these sources and their references are the foundation of our connections between sex, religion, and anxiety.

Fortunately, there are several studies focused on measuring religiosity including "The Religious Orientation Scale" (Trimble 1997) and "National Context, Parental Socialization, and Religious Belief: Results from Fifteen Nations" (Kelly and De Graaf 1997). Kelly and De GraafÕs piece is most useful, because it provides us with a scale for measuring parent socialization and religiosity based on concrete measures such as church attendance: " church attendanceÑa clear cut behaviorÑis reliably reported and is generally the key family influence, with strong direct and indirect effects on respondentÕs [religiosity]" (644). BowkerÕs Is God a Virus also outlines and critiques several important tools for measuring religiosity.

We have also looked at studies that address the question of sex, religion , and anxiety or depressive disorders. MaltbyÕs "Church Attendance and Anxiety Change" (1998) suggests that church attendance lowers anxiety levels. Hummer, Rogers, and NamÕs "Religious Involvement and U.S. Adult Mortality" (1999) found that people who attend church weekly to live longer than those who do not attend church at all. Miller, Warner, and WickramaranteÕs "Religiosity as a Protective Factor in Depressive Disorder" (1999) noted that, in women, religiosity had a protective affect against depressive illness. Finally, MirolaÕs "A Refuge for Some: Gender Differences in the Relationship between Religious Involvement and Depression" suggested that "religious involvement measures tend to have a negative impact on depression for women" (419). The fact that church attendance and involvement is vital to all of these studies of religious benefit and Kelly and De GraffÕs article lead us to make church attendance and involvement as our indicators of religiosity.

Finally, there is one more road of investigation and that is into MiamiÕs demographics. It will be invaluable for us to understand the regional, ethnic, and economic backgrounds of our sample. In addition, we will be contacting the collegeÕs religious organizations in hopes of getting the ratio of men to women in their membership rolls. This information will help us frame our assumptions, discussion, and conclusions for further research.

Our question (concerning gender, religiosity, and anxiety) is particularly important, because of the patriarchal nature of so many religions. If women have a greater need for the solace of religion, they should not only have patriarchal religions to turn to. As a society we should try to find ways to fulfill womenÕs unique psychological needs in a society that values women.

Materials and Methods

For our data, we will have 400-500 students fill out a brief survey that asks them about their sex, urban/rural background, religiosity of self and parents (frequency of church attendance), and their level of anxiety. Again and again, studies have found that women are more religious than men, we would go further and say that sex is the strongest predictor of religiosity. What are the possible predictors of religiosity? If we use a sample of people (Miami students) of approximately the same age, same ethnicity, same educational background, and same nationality we can begin to judge the importance of three other variables in determining religiosity: sex, rural or urban background, parental socialization, and anxiety. Economic background may also be a predictor, but measuring that is beyond the scope of our research. Of course, a woman is not only physically more vulnerable than men, but often socially. By choosing a sample group in which the women and men enjoy close to equal social status (though even this is arguable), we hope to zoom in on anxiety as a product of biological vulnerability, not social vulnerability. We will ask the class to fill out surveys and give us qualitative reports of why they are or are not religious.

Draft of Actual Survey

Male____ Female____

Urban ____ Suburban____ Rural ____

Parents| You __|__ Never attend church, or have no religion
__|__ Attend about once a year
__|__ Attend several times a year up to once a month
__|__ Attend several times a month up to almost every week
__|__ Attend every week or more often.
____ Number of religious organizations you are a member of (Examples are religious fraternities/sororities, service organizations, study/support groups, fellowship groups.)

What is the likelihood that you will fall victim to assault in the next five years?
1 2 3 4 5
None Likely Certain

(If sexually active) How much do you worry about unwanted pregnancy?
1 2 3 4 5
Never Sometimes All the time

Time Line

Week Nine: Perfect experimental design/surveys
Week Ten: Hand out surveys
Week Eleven: Statistical analysis and Poster Project


Bloom, H 1995 The Lucifer Principle, New York: Atlantic Monthly P.
Bowker, J.1995 Is God a Virus?, London : SPCK.
Burnham, T. and Phelan, J. 2000 Mean Genes: From Sex to Money to Food: Taming Our Primal Instincts, New York: Perseus.
Gazzniga, M.S. 1998 The MindÕs Past, Berkeley: U of California P.
Hummer R.A., Rogers, R.G., and Nam, C. B. 1999 "Religious Involvement and U.S. Adult Mortality," Demography 36(2): 273-85.
Kelly, J. and De Graaf, N.D. 1997 "National Context, Parental Socialization, and Religious Belief: Results from Fifteen Nations," American Sociological Review 62: 639-59.
Maltby, J. 1998 "Church Attendance and Anxiety Change," The Journal of Social Psychology 138 (4): 537-538.
Miller, L., Warner,V., and Wickramarante, P. 1999 "Religiosity as a Protective Factor in Depressive Disorder," The American Journal of Psychiatry 156(5): 808-809.
Mirola, W. A. 1999 "A Refuge for Some: Gender Differences in the Relationship between Religious Involvement and Depression," Sociology of Religion 60(4): 419-37.
Sapolsky, R.M. 1998 Why Zebras DonÕt Get Ulcers, New York: W.H. Freeman and Co.
Trimble, D.E. 1997 "The Religious Orientation Scale," Educational and Psychological Measurement 57: 970-986.
Walter, T. and Davie G. 1998 "The Religiosity of Women in the Modern West," The British Journal of Sociology 49 (4): 640-660.
Wright, R. 1994 The Moral Animal, New York: Vintage Books.

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