Why is skepticism primarily a male thing?

Looking at survey data sociologists present about religion and secularity, I find the gender differences that show up to be rather striking. Among skeptics of religion, men invariably outnumber women. A typical statistic might have that in a given population of people identifying themselves as religious nonbelievers, 60% are men and 40% women.

Interpreting such data is always difficult. On one of the articles I just read, I ran into a comment tying this gender imbalance to males being more likely to challenge social authority. Maybe so, but that just pushes the question back a stage. And I have my doubts as well. The same sort of gender difference also shows up in surveys of paranormal beliefs not associated with mainstream religion—but only in paranormal beliefs that are overtly “spiritual” in character. UFOs as alien spacecraft, for example, seems to be more of a male belief.

So what’s going on? What are the causes behind this reliable (it seems) result that women are more spiritual/religious, and men overrepresented among skeptics?

I can speculate easily enough. I expect, for example, that the more domestic orientation of traditional women’s roles has something to do with it, generating more female support for religion as an institution bolstering family and social stability. The more relevant variable is perhaps not gender but relative social privilege. After all, socioeconomically more disadvantaged populations tend to be more religious.

But I don’t know of any substantial research proposing a detailed causal explanation. (Please tell me about it if you know.)

The association of nonbelief with relative privilege raises some interesting questions in any case. Moral critics of religion make much of how religion is correlated with social conservatism (another reliable survey result, by the way), hoping that a decline in the social power of supernatural beliefs will have emancipatory effects. Yet groups that are disadvantaged also tend to be more religious, perhaps because they have a greater need to rely on networks of social solidarity, and religion often seems to be central to human social cohesion.

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About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06394155516712665665 CyberKitten

    It would be interesting to see not just the gender breakdown but also age, socio-economic status & marital status too. I’m sure there’s more going on here than levels of testosterone…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09219501247530064405 Andrea Weisberger

    Maybe females are just more skeptical of taking such surveys

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09891160904748206385 AYDIN ÖRSTAN

    But I wouldn’t consider belief in UFOs a “skeptical” attitude. So, if religious skepticism & belief in UFOs are both more common in males, the underlying characteristic may not be skepticism per se, but something else.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06298275783374042653 Havermayer

    Maybe there’s a biological explanation? A minor, minor difference in the brains of women that biases some of them towards religion? Perhaps the same difference that biases people in general towards religion.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13241942988224302789 Psyks

    My first guess would be logic and reasoning which are more developed in the male brain due to various evolutional reasons (not very PC but it is true). But this is only a hunch, I think this sort of question would make a very good source for a research paper.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06717655823537805266 Catt

    From what I’ve heard and read, religion seems to remain steady for women, espcially those in lower status groups as it provides an important social underpining. Many forget that women are excluded from the greater stations of power in organized religion. So their religion is often guided in defference to other males, or themselves. Something that is called domestic religion often arises in such situations, and is often much mroe difficult to shrug off.(Something that happens particularly in the Jewish faith) I don’t like the idea of the biological undercurrents, since we have overcome many other such biological limits to reasoning as to have many female scientist. :P Just my take on it

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14271127522458529063 Reinis Ivanovs

    Because males happen to be generally smarter, duh.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03059219753706596678 Will

    My data extracted from app. 1000 Brights on Facebook indicate an 8:2 male/female ratio!

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