Women’s Religiosity Research Paper

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In Western  societies, women are more religious than men on every measure of religiosity. Why this should be has attracted the sporadic  attention of clergy, sociologists and psychologists, but it has never been a major interest of either sociologists of religion or feminists. The sociology of religion has only belatedly included gender on its agenda (Woodhead 2000). Feminists  have been more concerned  with why there are so few women  in the priesthood than  with why there  are so many in the pews. They have also been concerned with documenting the historical anti-women stance of Christianity, the pre-Christian spirituality of women,  and  the  spirituality  of hitherto  ignored  but highly gifted individuals, rather than documenting the ordinary religiosity of millions of churchgoing women. Feminist theories that religion is bad for women need to  come  to  terms  with,  but  in  fact  often  ignore, women’s opting for formal religion in greater numbers than  men.  This  article  reviews  the  possible  explanations  for women’s greater religiosity, focusing particularly  on mainline  churchgoing  in the west in the twentieth   century.   More   detailed   reviews  may  be found  in Beit-Hallahmi  and  Argyle (1996, Chap.  8), Francis  (1997), and Walter and  Davie (1998).

1.    Data

Whether it is a matter  of churchgoing, private prayer, or the content of religious belief, women appear more religious  than  men,  and  have  been  for  at  least  200 years  (Douglas  1978). Within  Western  Christianity, mainline churches demonstrate the greatest fall-off in attendance by men; independent, Pentecostal  and Orthodox churches have been able to resist the trend. The extent  to which secularization is caused by men reducing religious observance more than women varies by country  (Woodhead 2000).

The dimension of religious life where the difference between women and men is biggest is private devotion—prayer and Bible reading. This raises the question  whether  men  engage  in religious  practices when they are publicly  acceptable  or even required, but  tend  not  to bother  with private  devotions  when there  is no  social  pressure.  It  is possible  that  secularization, defined as the decline in the social importance  of religion,  tends  at  the  same  time  to  lead  to religion’s feminization.  Islam and  Judaism,  in which religion is still part  of public life, involve men more than women in public worship.

Independent of degree of belief, what men and women  believe differs. Women,  if they are asked  to describe the God  in whom they believe, concentrate rather   more  on  a  God  of  love,  comfort,   and  forgiveness, while men tend to refer to a God of power, planning,  and  control.  How  can such differences be explained?

1.1    Material And Social Deprivation

Neo-Marxist deprivation / compensation theories  see religion as a way in which oppressed people cope with their  misery  and  suffering.  If,  as  feminists  argue, women are more oppressed than men, we would expect more women than men to turn to religion. There certainly  are examples of this, especially in the early periods  of  industrialization both  historically  in  the West and in currently industrializing societies. In advanced  industrial  societies,  however,  there  is less evidence for this theory  of female religiosity, churchgoing being related  to  parenthood and  employment status  rather  than  to measurable  indices of gendered deprivation.

1.2    Lack Of Status

Women’s systematic exclusion from better  paid jobs, from political office, and from other parts of the public world has reduced their social status. Christianity’s proclamation that God loves every individual equally may be more immediately attractive  to those who are not accorded respect in society. Once inside the church, however, women may find themselves even more deprived of status and power vis-a-vis male members. Yet  women  remain  in  greater  numbers   than  men. Ozorak  (1996) found  that  many women valued their churches  for the social and emotional  support  which existed irrespective of their exclusion from formal power; for those more concerned with connection and relationship than with hierarchy and power, the female fellowship of the church empowered them even though the office-holding men monopolized the glory.

Conservative churches and synagogues that emphasize traditional gender roles within the family appeal to many women: they provide status for the wife and mother,  and  provide  hope that  conversion  may turn their menfolk into responsible  husbands  and fathers. This is no mean attraction for a woman struggling to rear  a family in the slums of a newly industrializing city, whether  she be a  Methodist in Manchester in 1800 or a Pentecostal  in Sao Paolo in 2000.

1.3    Guilt

A number  of psychological  studies show that  women experience more guilt feelings than men. If one of the main purposes of Christianity is to assuage guilt, then we would expect it to attract those who feel a need for forgiveness.  Some churches  actively foster  guilt feelings, which they then offer to resolve. Churches  have often portrayed women as more guilty, more profane, than  men.  Insofar  as Christianity induces  guilt,  we may say that religion not only compensates for a societally   created   deprivation  of  status   and   self-respect, but actually fosters the very deprivation that it then compensates  for. This is perhaps the nearest to a feminist theory of why women should be attracted to a religion that oppresses them. Though there is plenty of historical  evidence  of this  kind  of process,  some recent studies have not found that contemporary churchgoers  have high levels of guilt.

1.4    Birth And Child-Rearing

Christian  faith is supposed to provide comfort against anxiety  and  existential  terror;  psychological  studies point  out that  women generally have higher levels of fear  than  men.  This  could  be related  to  their  more direct involvement  in the inherently  scary businesses of birth and death and their day-to-day responsibility for  child  rearing.  Men  have  comparable familiarity with sickness and death only on active service during wartime—a time when they too are more likely to turn to   religion.   What   motherhood  does   for   women, perhaps  only war can do for men?

There have been very few studies into the spirituality of childbirth,  so it is too early to say whether experiencing the ‘miracle’ of birth accounts in part for female religiosity. Much more research has been done into religiosity in relation to childrearing. The general pattern is that having children to look after raises men to the religious level of women; it is possible that  the vulnerability and dependency of young children raises religious  issues that  men  can  normally  avoid.  It  is therefore  parenthood, not  motherhood, that  raises questions of existential anxiety and a desire to involve children in religion.

1.5    Workforce  Participation

A major thread in theories of secularization is that the more people are immersed in the institutions of modernity, notably by working for bureaucratic and/or capitalist  organizations, the more secular they are likely  to  become.  Women   who  stay  at  home  are therefore  protected  from the secularizing influence of the modern  marketplace. This hypothesis  (classically formulated by  Luckmann) has  led to  a  number  of empirical surveys aiming to determine whether, and if so why, women who go out to work are less religious than those who stay at home.

The  findings  of  these  studies  vary  by  country. Taking  a paid  job in, for  example,  Australia  where there  is a secular ethos  in the workplace  is likely to have a more secularizing effect than taking a job in the American  bible belt. Since both  data  and hypotheses remain inconclusive, a constructive  avenue of research might  be to  look  at  the  type of paid  work  done  by women.  Women’s paid  work  is far more  likely than men’s to be of a caring nature,  involving skill in interpersonal relations  and ‘emotional labor.’ If what protects women (and some men) from the secularity of modernity  is not  family  life but  interpersonal care, then those employees engaged in caring work should be compared  with  those  engaged  in other  kinds  of work. If research were to confirm that women paid to care are more  religious than  those  paid  to do other things  we would  still be left with a puzzle: are they more religious because the caring nature  of the work protects  them from secularity, or do they enter caring work because they were more religious to start with?

1.6    An Ethic Of Connection

Gilligan  (1982)  considers  that   women  operate   according  to  a  flexible ethic  of  compassion  and  connection rather than abstract justice. Woodhead (2000) has  used  this  insight  to  critique  the  ‘privatization thesis,’ namely  that  in an  alienating,  plural  modern world, people retreat  to the private sphere where they find identity,  meaning,  and … religion.  She suggests that  this thesis makes sense from a male perspective, but women are less involved in the alienating  public sphere. For them, religion has less to do with providing meaning  and  more to do with articulating the social relationships that are so important to their lives. Traditional  churches   do   this  by  encouraging   the family, but they can also encourage other kinds of relationships. A religion  whose founder  emphasized love and compassion  is more likely to appeal to Gilligan’s women. Indeed, male clergy have often struggled to make Jesus appeal to macho men. Their concern  finds an echo in Thompson’s  (1991) finding that what is correlated  with Christian  religiosity is not census-bureau gender but a ‘feminine’ worldview, that is, one that is affectionate, sympathetic, sensitive to the needs of others, eager to soothe another’s feelings, tender,  and loving toward  children.

1.7    Death

The  extent  to  which  religion  is  a  way  of  helping humans deal with death has been extensively debated. What  is clear is that  women encounter  death  disproportionately as carers,  and  also as mourners.  In the times of high infant mortality, women may have been more  affected  than  their  husbands  by the  deaths  of their  children,  though   men  were  more  likely  than women to lose a spouse—as nineteenth  century gravestones bear ample witness. Today,  with women living longer  than  men  and  marrying  younger  than  them, wives are very likely to outlive their husbands. Spousal bereavement is now a much more common experience for women than for men. Whether or not this helps to explain women’s greater religiosity, it seems very likely to lie at the root of the most common form of afterlife belief in the modern  West, namely a belief in reunion with loved family members. Women who place a high value  on  personal  relationships are  unlikely  to  give them up when death intervenes, and this may possibly account  for  women  being  more  likely than  men  to experience the presence of one who is dead.

Insofar  as St Paul is correct  that  life after death  is central  to Christianity, and insofar  as women have a greater interest in there being life after death, we may postulate that some women’s religiosity may be rooted in their experience of death and bereavement.  On the other  hand,  it may  be the  other  way around—that more  women  than  men  believe  in  life  after  death simply because of their general religiosity.


  1. Beit-Hallahmi B, Argyle M 1996 The Psychology  of Religious Behaviour, Belief and Experience. Routledge, London
  2. Douglas A 1978 The Feminization of American Religion. Alfred Knopf,  New York
  3. Francis L 1997 The psychology of gender differences in religion: A review of empirical research. Religion 27: 81–96
  4. Gilligan C 1982 In A Different Voice. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA
  5. Ozorak E  1996 The  power  but  not  the  glory:  How  women empower  themselves through religion. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 35: 17–29
  6. Thompson E 1991 Beneath the  status  characteristics:  Gender variations  in religiousness. Journal for the Scientific Study  of Religion 30: 381–94
  7. Walter T, Davie G 1998 The religiosity of women in the modern West. British Journal of Sociology 49: 640–60
  8. Woodhead L 2000 Feminism and the sociology of religion: From gender-blindness to gendered difference. In: Fenn R (ed.) The Blackwell Companion to the Sociology of Religion. Blackwell, Oxford,  UK
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