December 07, 2006

A Kuranian take on the religious gender gap

Bryan Caplan offers the following explanation for why the religiosity gap between men and women grows as societies modernize:

1. Men and women have different cognitive orientations - a difference that is in large part genetic. As the Myers-Briggs personality test powerfully confirms, men are more Thinking, and women are more Feeling. (Or if you prefer the Five Factor Model, men are less Agreeable).

On a deep level, then, men are more inclined to want some hard proof that religious claims are true, while women are more willing to take religious teachings on faith because they sound nice. Burn me at the stake if you must, but it's true.

2. As the great Timur Kuran persuasively argues, social pressure leads to "preference falsification." If other people hassle you for lacking piety - as they do in traditional societies - people will pretend to be pious even if they aren't. The weaker the social pressure, the more sincere people become.

In traditional societies, then, men keep their irreligion to themselves and pretend to be as religious as women. (As Kuran emphasizes, preference falsication also inhibits communication, so men who would be open to irreligious arguments are less likely to ever hear and adopt them).

I don't necessarily disagree (many factors are obviously involved), but I can think of a simpler explanation. Evolution has created in men a fundamental (even existential) interest in power. In traditional cultures, sectarian and secular power centers are strongly entwined, if not one and the same. As the two unravel in modern societies, men pursuing the latter will necessarily lose interest in the former, as rendering unto Caesar and mammon takes up more and more time and effort (though with bigger and bigger payoffs).

The "gender gap" remains much narrower in places like Utah, where religious devotion still counts strongly towards economic power and political influence. Nor do I think pretense has much to do with it (though appearances count). Most men just aren't that subtle. It's an "in for a penny, in for a pound" type of thing, also the reason for the First Amendment.

And as stated above, more sectarian communities also give greater social cover to those men who, of their own volition, sincerely wish to spend more time rendering unto God, just as secular pressures give cover to those men who were never interested in religion in the first place. This leaves the happy middle to those of us not particularly captivated by either extreme.


My sister points out the most blatant fact overlooked in the preceeding analysis: that most religions are founded by men and are run by men. To which I add that religions (even the wackiest of cults) are organizations, and have thus to be run by someone, and men love running things. It's called "setting the agenda." My own explanation for religious patriarchy is that the promise of being in charge gives men a much greater incentive to become and stay involved. (And drives away men terrified by that same prospect.)

This nexus between power and organization means that the success of a religion in the social and political context can largely be explained in terms of pure utility, a fact missed by those who focus primarily on the rationality of theology, or the gulf between belief and practice. But that is an argument for another day.

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