A Kuranian Take on the Religious Gender Gap
By Bryan Caplan
Last week I stumbled upon a little gem outside of Larry Iannaccone‘s office: a chapter by Rodney Stark and Alan Miller on the religious gender gap. Long story short: Women are more religious than men by virtually every measure in virtually every culture.
But the fun doesn’t stop there. Once people admit that this gender gap exists, the most popular explanation is that women are “socialized” to be more religious. Stark and Miller put this theory to the test. If the socialization hypothesis is true, they reason, then the gender gap should be larger in more traditional societies where socialization pressure is more intense. Make sense to me.
Survey says: Dead wrong. In fact, the gender gap is smallest in the most traditional societies, and largest in the least traditional societies! In societies that approve of single motherhood, with a high abortion rate, low fertility, and high female labor force participation, the religiosity gap between women and men is especially large.
If socialization is wrong, what’s right? Here Stark and Miller lose me. They attribute the gap to men’s greater taste for risk. In a nutshell, men are more willing to throw the dice on Pascal’s wager than women are. Unfortunately, this story has two obvious problems:
1. Greater risk preference could explain why men engage in less religious activity, but not why they are less likely to have religious beliefs in the first place.
2. The risk-preference story doesn’t explain why the gender gap gets bigger as societies become less traditional.
Can I do better? I think so. My story has two building blocks:
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).
As traditional mores break down, however, men feel freer to be themselves – and share their doubts with others. In contrast, since their piety was relatively sincere from the start, women don’t respond much to the fall in social pressure.
If you find my position offensive, you’re probably not alone. The Kuranian upshot, however, is that even if I seem to be the only adherent of my theory of the religious gender gap, I’m probably not alone either. As long as social pressure exists to disbelieve what I’ve said, a lot of people who agree with me are going to pretend to be as offended as you are.