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Belief in God: The striking gender factor

Did you hear about the agnostic dyslexic insomniac? She lay awake all night wondering if there was a Dog.But she’s a pretty rare bird.

Gwynne Dyer

According to a large survey carried out in the United Kingdom by Prof. David Voas of the University of Essex, more than half of British men who are now in their early 40s (54%) are agnostics or atheists, but only one-third of women of the same age (34%) hold similar views.
The gender difference was even more striking when the 9 000 respondents were asked about their belief in a life after death. Only 35% of the men said they believed that there was some kind of individual survival beyond the grave; 60% of women said they did. That’s a difference of almost two-to-one in the level of belief, among people who otherwise have similar backgrounds. Hmm.
Now, this is obviously a topic on which a wise commentator would be very wary of offering an opinion. Much safer to keep your mouth shut and write about something else. Which may explain why this whole question about gender differences in belief in God came as a surprise to me, because when I looked into the literature it turns out that the social scientists have known about it for ages.

There is a thriving academic industry dedicated to proposing reasons for this huge belief gap. One theory holds that men are just more likely to be risk-takers (except Blaise Pascal, the 17th-century French philosopher whose famous “wager” stated that we should live our live as if God exists in order to escape an eternity of torture in Hell. If He turns out not to exist, we haven’t really lost all that much. It was a breakthrough in probability theory).

Another theory is that men who score relatively high on the autism scale are also more likely to be atheists or agnostics. But that doesn’t really get us very far, since the great majority of men are not autistic, and yet a majority of British men don’t believe in God.
You will note that I am only quoting speculations on male character traits here.

Some of the above-mentioned social scientists also speculate on aspects of “female” socialisation and character in their search for reasons for the great disparity in belief, but that is a minefield I do not plan to enter today.

Let us instead go beyond Voas’s statistics for Britain and see whether the same difference persists across cultures and continents.

Belief in God is much higher in the United States, although it is dropping rapidly. A Harris poll in 2009 found that 82% of Americans had never doubted the existence of God; the same poll in 2014 found that the number had fallen to 74%. This is due almost entirely to a fall in belief among younger Americans: a Pew poll of “millennials” in 2007 found that 83% were believers; the same poll in 2012 found only 68%.

But the gender gap in belief also exists in US, although it is less dramatic: 77% of American women say they have an absolutely certain belief in a God or universal spirit, but only 65% of American men say the same. Indeed, the gap exists in every country of the developed world, although there are intriguing national differences in how wide it is.

In former West Germany, where 48% of the population believe in God, the gap between men and women is eight per cent.

In former East Germany, the cradle of the Protestant Reformation, where four decades of Communist rule eroded the hold of Christianity on the population, only 16% believe in God — but the gap between men and women is less than three per cent.

Fifty-eight per cent of Russians believe in God, but the gender gap is as big as it is in Britain: 25%. Whereas in Turkey, a relatively developed Muslim country where almost 95% of the population believes in God, there is no difference at all between the beliefs of men and of women.

What are we to make of all this? Start with the fact that decisions of this sort are rarely made on an entirely rational basis. Just as the great majority of believers everywhere never chose their original religious beliefs — they were born into them — so any later changes in their beliefs are probably driven more by personal circumstances than by conscious choice. Consider the difference between the two Germanies, for example.

So what are the differences between the personal circumstances of men and women that might lead to different outcomes in terms of belief? That will obviously vary from one country to another, but women still suffer from greater social and economic disadvantages than men almost everywhere.

If you have less control over the course of your own life, then belief in an all-powerful God who is just, and will ultimately put all the injustices right, is a very attractive proposition. In that case, the gender gap in belief is neither intellectual nor emotional. It’s simply pragmatic.

Dyer is a London-based independent journalist.

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