Why women are more religious. Part 4: Personality, power, control (and the take-home for humanists)

Why women are more religious. Part 4: Personality, power, control (and the take-home for humanists) March 19, 2009

Donald Sullins, a sociologist at the Catholic University of America, has shown that (in the USA at least) a lot of the gender difference in religiosity can be explained by social and personality factors (see previous post).

But there are a few niggling doubts. How sure can we be that the differences in personality factors (being tender feeling and soft-hearted) aren’t also sociologically driven? And what about the remaining, unexplained difference in gender?


To deal with the personality issue first. Back in 2002 Vassilis Saroglou, at the Université catholique de Louvain in Belgium, analysed data from 13 studies looking at the relationship between religion and the so-called ‘Five Factor Model’ of personality. Of these studies 10 were done in North America and 2 in Europe, so this is not exactly a cross-cultural analysis (the remaining study was done in Taiwan).

Saroglou did show, however, that people with certain personality factors were more likely to be religious, although the effect was pretty small. Of the five factors, it turned out that agreeableness and conscientiousness were the most consistent predictors.

He didn’t look directly at the gender effect, but there is a big study that has examined gender differences in personality. And this is where it gets interesting.

The leading expert on this topic is David Schmitt, Director of the International Sexuality Description Project. He’s found that the gender differences in personality are real, but also that they shrink and disappear once you move out of the wealthy Europeanised nations (see figure).

This is a really bizarre result, but it does show clearly that what we often fondly imagine to be fundamental Mars-Venus differences are, in fact a product of our culture.

In the case of personality, what is happening is that men change and becomes more ‘masculine’ (less agreeable, less conscientious) in Europe and the Americas.

Perhaps this is because women are fulfilling many of the roles that were once a male preserve. It’s almost as if, as institutional gender stereotypes become eroded, so men reinvent themselves to increase the gender differentials.

This is important because, as Sullins showed, the gender differences in religiosity are biggest in regions of the world where religion is less important. And these are exactly the regions where personality differences appear.

So perhaps gender, religion and personality are tightly bound together. Perhaps, in the Western World, these are the means whereby the individual defines his or herself in the absence of clear gender roles.

Power and Control

None of this, however, explains why women are also more superstitious than men (see the second post in this series for some strong, cross-cultural evidence for that). The causes of superstition are as complex as the causes of religion, but there are probably some overlaps, given that paranormal thinking is a common feature of both.

One important driver of superstitious beliefs is the feeling that you are not in control of events around you (I blogged about this in a couple of earlier posts one two).

There’s some very new data (it’ll be published later this year) shedding a fascinating light on the relationship of power to the religion gender gap.

Jessica Collett and Omar Lizardo, from the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, have shown that a mother’s socioeconomic status has a strong effect on the religiosity of their daughters, but not their sons. The graphic shows the essence of what they found (they analysed data from the US General Social Survey).

You can see that, as a mother gains higher status, so the religiosity of her daughter drops. The most powerful driver of this is the mothers earnings. There’s not much effect on the son’s religiosity. A wealthy dad, on the other hand, makes both boys and girls less religious in equal measure.

Why should this be? Collett and Lizardo frame it in terms of attitude to risk, but as I described earlier there really isn’t any relationship between attitudes to risk and gender differences in religiosity.

What there is, however, is a link between power and the feeling that you are in control. Just earlier this month, for example, a study came out which demonstrated that people made to feel powerful were more likely to feel they were in control of events, even when those events were happening at random.

Could the relative lower status of mothers be the final missing link in the puzzle of the religion-gender gap? As women become more economically independent, the effect would be to reduce the gender gap. As such, this factor would tend to oppose other factors, which are perhaps pushing in the direction of an increasing gap in wealthy countries.

And the take home for humanists

Over these four posts, I’ve taken a swift overview of some of the most important trends and thinking about the gender gap in religion. To sum them up:

  • The gender gap isn’t caused by risk aversion in women, and certainly not because men are unmotivated by the idea of heaven (if anything, the opposite is probably true).
  • The gender gap varies from culture to culture (bigger in wealthy countries), and depending on how you define religion (bigger for personal beliefs than in religious attendance).
  • A large part of the gender gap seems to be culturally driven.

I guess it shouldn’t be too surprising that social factors are so important. Religion is, after all, a social construct, and a complicated one at that. Because religion is multifaceted, there won’t be any simple link between psychology and religiosity. In its many guises, religion fulfils many personal and social needs, and people will reinvent religion to meet those needs as they see fit.

The concern for humanists must surely be that, in the West at least, religion seems increasingly to be a tool for gender differentiation. Religiosity is becoming one way that men and women forge their different identities – and religion is becoming stereotyped as essentially feminine. It’s something we need to actively counteract.


ResearchBlogging.orgSchmitt, D., Realo, A., Voracek, M., & Allik, J. (2008). Why can’t a man be more like a woman? Sex differences in Big Five personality traits across 55 cultures. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94 (1), 168-182 DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.94.1.168

Collett, Jessica L., & Lizardo, Omar (2009). A Power-Control Theory of Gender and Religiosity. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion

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