Why women are more religious than men

Date: 13-04-2016
Source: The Economist

WOMEN are in general more likely to believe in and practice a religion than men are. The difference is not vast if you aggregate all creeds and countries (83.4% of women identify with a faith versus 79.9% of men) but for certain countries and faiths the gap is striking. In America, for example, 60% of women see religion as very significant in their lives versus 47% of men, according to Pew Research, a think-tank in Washington, DC. Across the world, female Muslims are only fractionally more devout than their male co-religionists, but Christian women far outstrip men in their levels of piety. What’s going on here?

One factor is that in the practice of long-established religions, women have more staying power, including in times of repression. Under regimes which aim to abolish all external signs of religion, women can discreetly transmit the faith to their progeny. Ask any devout person raised under communism how he or she retained a faith, and a grandmother is usually part of the answer. And whatever the political regime, among religious practices that revolve around the home (say, keeping a shrine or prayer corner with incense and sacred pictures), the job of keeping the flame alight, literally and metaphorically, generally falls to women.

But there’s another consideration. Among certain new forms of faith, women often lead the way in making the religious switch, hoping their families will follow. That is particularly true of the Pentecostal churches which have gained ground in Latin America at the expense of Catholicism. Right from its beginnings in Los Angeles in the early 20th century, Pentecostalism has presented a paradox. Its bureaucratic administration has been a male preserve, at least as much as other faiths. But Pentecostalism also honours spontaneous ecstatic experiences and what it describes as direct revelations from God or prophecy. And women seem at least as likely to have those as men.

In a poor community in El Salvador or Brazil, enduring all the stresses of transition from the countryside to the city, more practical motives may be at work. For a hard-pressed female home-maker, the discipline and strong grass-roots organisation of a Pentecostal church can seem like a way of stabilising the family and steering the menfolk away from narcotics or violence. In Colombia, where female Protestants outnumber male ones by 62% to 38%, women convert to evangelicalism, and urge their husbands to follow, in the hope that less of the family budget will go on intoxicants and other mainly male forms of misbehaviour, writes anthropologist Elizabeth Brusco. One could sum up the situation like this: in situations of stress, ranging from persecution to economic transition to breakdown, religion can be a form of resilience and social capital, and women are the main guardians and transmitters of that capital.

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