Religion: is it sexist?

Nicholas C. DiDonato


For many in the West, religion seems to oppress women. Conservative Christians not uncommonly reject the idea of female clergy, educators, and leaders. While this may (all too) roughly characterize Christianity, the question remains as to whether other religions fare any better. Drawing upon world-wide data, covering most of the world’s religions, Stephanie Seguino (University of Vermont) indeed found a correlation between how one views the importance of religion (whichever religion that may be) and one’s attitudes about gender inequality.

More specifically, the higher degree of one’s religiosity, the more probable that one has a sexist attitude. Religion is linked to sexism. That said, Seguino quickly points out the important difference between correlation and causation: “It is important to note that we are not able to precisely identify causality from religiosity to gender attitudes although we can assess correlation.”

Seguino discovered the correlation between religion and gender inequality by analyzing data from the World Values Survey (WVS). The WVS surveyed over 300,000 people, covering over 90% of the world in five waves (1981-1984, 1989-1993, 1994-1999, 1999-2004, and 2005-2008). It asked questions about religion, gender, politics, and many other topics. For Seguino’s purposes, she focused on four particular questions concerning religion: (1) How important is religion in your life?; (2) Do you belong to a religious denomination?; (3) If yes, what religious denomination do you belong to?; and (4) Apart from weddings, funerals, and christenings, about how often do you attend religious services these days? As for questions regarding gender, the WVS posed questions such as: A woman needs children in order to be fulfilled (agree?); A working mother can establish as warm secure a relationship with children as a mother who does not work (agree?); When jobs are scarce, men should have more right to a job than women (agree?); It is a problem if women have more income than husband (agree?); On the whole, men make better political leaders than women do (agree?); and a university education is more important for a boy than for a girl (agree?).

Seguino emphasizes the importance of carefully parsing the WVS. One the one hand, many of the gender questions give men a clear material advantage, and so many men may exhibit sexism out of self-interest rather than other motives (such as religion). On the other hand, women in general tend to exhibit more religiosity than men, and, assuming women do not hold sexist beliefs, religion could hypothetically correlate negatively with sexism.

After controlling for education and household income, Seguino categorized the WVS participants into the following religious groups: Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, “other,” and none. She admits that such categorizing distorts the theological diversity of Muslims and Protestants in particular, and so warns her readers to keep this caveat in mind when interpreting her findings.

Seguino found that for every single gender attitude question, “the importance of religion in the individual’s life is positively associated with gender inequitable attitudes.” She did not find that any one religious group (of the nine she categorized) stood out as having more sexist attitudes than any other. However, Protestants, Buddhists, and Hindus did portray more sexism than the non-religious for four of the nine questions about attitudes toward gender. Still, this result does not lend enough weight to draw any interesting conclusions.

Overall, Seguino concludes that “religiosity is indeed strongly linked to gender inequitable beliefs,” and that she carefully qualified this conclusion as already mentioned: her categorization of the world’s religions, men’s tendency to display sexism out of self-interest, the difference between correlation/causation, and that all the religions fared poorly in terms of gender equality (with the non-religious faring only marginally better). These qualifications matter because the American liberal Protestants who adamantly fought for women’s suffrage would certainly be surprised to learn that their religious belief correlates with sexism. Are these liberal Protestants any less religious than their more conservative counterparts who opposed suffrage for women? If not, then the assertion that “religiosity is indeed strongly linked to gender inequitable beliefs” needs an additional qualification: the ways in which “religiosity” affects gender may vary by the type of religiosity one has in mind.

For more, see “Help or Hindrance? Religion’s Impact on Gender Inequality in Attitudes and Outcomes” in World Development.

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