Science or Sexism? October 21, 2009

Science or Sexism?

womanprayingrosaryMike Clawson here… I just wanted to call your attention to an interesting set of articles I recently encountered.

This one by Lauren Sandler cites a few scientific studies (including one highlighted by Richard Dawkins, and another conducted by Michael Shermer) to suggest that women are more religious than men because they are evolutionarily, biologically, or psychologically conditioned to be more emotional or social and therefore less rational than men.

This response by Jessica Glaser at Emerging Women, on the other hand, points out that this hypothesis is exceptionally condescending and not really that much different than the same old sexist arguments that have been used to denigrate and restrict women for centuries. She challenges the notion that women are less rational than men, or that the greater religiosity of women over men is evidence of or explained by such a hypothesis.

What say you?

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  • Perhaps it is true. And perhaps not. I haven’t read the studies, but on the face of it, it doesn’t sound impossible.

    If it does turn out to be true, though, that still won’t mean we’ll be allowed to talk about it. Truth may be defense against libel and slander, but it’s no defense against PC.

  • jemand

    but I think until there either 1) isn’t any more social sexism or 2) isn’t any social discrimination against atheists… women will at least be quieter about their atheism because they will be hit twice by social discrimination, and it’s either cumulative or builds on each other.

    *If* there isn’t any more sexism, there will be no “pc” backlash against any study showing a statistical difference, just as NO ONE cares whether or not blue eyed people and green eyed people score differently on musical ability. So if you want to talk about sexual differences without any pc backlash, than you better get your butt in gear and end sexism first.

  • sp

    Women and men are not equal. By that I mean they are not the same. They must have equal rights, they are all persons after all, but the evolutionary pressures have instilled different attitudes on them. They do not always think alike. For example men are usually more risk takers than women, who by way of their “responsibility” to raise their children, have become more conservative thinking. It just happens that religion is as conservative as you can get and so I think that it may well be that women tend to believe more.

  • Wet Mogwai

    Reality isn’t always comfortable. If it is true that women think differently from men for biological reasons, which seems plausible considering the different functional roles for male and female bodies across all species, why shouldn’t we accept it and embrace our differences? Even if it is true, we can’t expect it to always be the case due to differences in hormonal levels both during development and at any given time, so it would be a good guide for what to expect but not a hard rule.

    Sexual preference is another good example of the thought differences between male and female bodies that probably works the same way. In general, we can expect that males are attracted to females and females to males, but that isn’t always the case. It is usually safe to assume it is true, but it isn’t always so. I expect religiosity, as well as spatial reasoning skills work the same way.

  • Ian

    It doesn’t matter if it is true or false, it doesn’t stop it being unhelpful.

    There may be a time when the general public can sit down and discuss race, gender and sexuality differences without the baggage of discrimination. But until that time it is perhaps better not to promote those kinds of explanations.

    If I were a scientist publishing in this area I’d be genuinely conflicted about the political role my work would be used for.

    Having said all that, I think it is sometimes too easy for evolutionary ethologists to tell just-so stories about how behavior came to be, without due rigour.

  • Andrew Morgan

    There’s nothing condescending about the argument that women might be more prone to be religious for biological or psychological reasons. It’s either factually correct or incorrect.

    What can be condescending or sexist is the response that either sex has to that fact (if it’s true).

    It would be quite surprising if men and women weren’t different from a biologically or psychologically. The ways in which they are different will dictate whether or not religion comes into play.

    Glaser’s “response” doesn’t really address anything and certainly doesn’t address any science; to my eyes, it more or less just says, “I hate it when people talk about women like that! I can too be religious!”

  • Tyro

    Is the “therefore less rational than men” something that you added or did this appear in any of the research papers? Sounds inflammatory.

    However, I think that one can/should support equal rights for women and respect them as a group and as individuals without pretending that there aren’t real differences between the genders. If you argument hinges on biological equality then what happens when evidence comes in to demonstrate that there is a difference?

    We know that humans make decisions through a range of processes, many of which are not strictly rational. We know that group cohesion, social pressures and emotions are factors in all of our decisions, so it isn’t implausible that some groups may weigh these factors differently.

    If these studies are confirmed then we should accept and acknowledge them and try to utilize them to advance our positions. If you care for women’s rights this goes doubly.

    For a start, we should be looking at the actual differences and the variation within the groups. Individual women will be more “rational” than individual men, even if the means are different.

  • …I say that there are biological differences between the sexes, and pointing this out is not sexist.

    It is plainly obvious, that whether from biology, or from conditioning by male-dominated society and phallocentric social expectations, the majority of women are different from the majority of men (and reasonably we can pin this difference down as emotional/aggressive, or whatever).

    If there were no actual difference between men and women, we would not be seeing the difference in religiosity between genders.

  • Amyable Atheist

    Definitely interesting-I haven’t read the studies either but read some of the coverage on Double X. My first impression is that I am aware of WAY more male atheists than female. But of course, being an atheist or even an agnostic in the U.S. is so fraught that it’s difficult to separate the societal repercussions of non-conformity from the actual practices of belief, and standards of societal conformity in most areas of life are more severe for women than for men.

    However, stepping outside my little world, my second thought is that among the 3 major world religions, it is predominantly men and boys whose minds are poisoned powerfully enough by religion to commit murder (of abortion doctors, museum security guards, etc) and blow themselves up with the intent of achieving simultaneous mass murder and sexual/eternal bliss, and woman and girls who are predominantly victimized in countless ways by the allegedly religious motivations of men.

    Women may very well be “evolutionarily, biologically, or psychologically conditioned to be more emotional or social” than men and therefore more likely to preserve traditions, like religion, that are in some ways harmful but in other ways beneficial to preserving the unity and cohesion of the herd. But to leap from this to the assumption that women are “therefore less rational than men” is indeed a logical stretch that does seem to accommodate a fairly evident sexism on the part of the speaker.

  • Tyro

    If it turns out to be factually correct that women as a group are more persuaded by emotional arguments than men, is it more condescending to hide this fact because we fear people couldn’t handle it or to present the facts openly and discuss them like adults?

    The protect-us-from-the-facts crowd sounds both sexist and patronizing.

  • Just to redirect the conversation if I can, I don’t think Glaser’s point was whether or not there are any differences between men and women (that debate is probably a red herring inasmuch as I think few here disagree that there are differences), but rather the implicit value judgment that inevitably comes along with saying that women are more emotional/social and men more rational. “Different” is one thing, “better or worse” is another.

  • Toni

    Speaking for myself, I am indeed an emotional and social woman. And I think those things helped spark my journey to atheism, because so many things about my spiritual life didn’t feel right. George Carlin said a man will always believe what another man tells him…he’s ready ready to buy the “okie-dokie.”

  • David E

    Yes, it could be true.

    The potential sexism, however, lies more in whether this is the hypothesis that most immediately comes to mind for many.

  • Well, religiosity is irrational, so higher religiosity would mean they are on average, less rational. However, to say ‘women are less rational’ is overly blanketing. ‘that religious nut lady is irrational’ is more accurate.

  • ColinSFX

    Religion is more common among oppressed peoples, is it not?

    And women are the largest group of oppressed peoples in the world.

    Seems pretty natural to me, no sexism required.

  • Siamang

    suggest that women are more religious than men because they are evolutionarily, biologically, or psychologically conditioned to be more emotional or social and therefore less rational than men.

    Absolutely true. Which is why the most recognizable leaders of the three monotheistic faiths are women.

    (Sarcasm mode off).

    Anyone taking any kind of comfort in this information shouldn’t… if you believe that religion is irrational, men aren’t exactly immune or blameless.

    If religion were a mostly female phenomenon, it would probably look and act quite differently in society than it does.

  • Tyro

    but rather the implicit value judgment that inevitably comes along with saying that women are more emotional/social and men more rational

    Some women are, some aren’t. The mean of men and women appears to be different but there’s almost certainly a large overlap. If true, this isn’t a value judgement, it would be a fact. If feminism requires physical, biological equality rather than legal, social and moral equality then it’s doomed. It doesn’t and it isn’t, this is just a silly “irrational” overreaction.

    Don’t fight reality, you’ll always lose.

  • cay

    Standing on the ground of common sense and the constitution of the human mind, I deny that anyone knows, or can know, the nature of the two sexes, as long as they have only been seen in their present relation to one another. If men had ever been found in society without women, or women without men, or if there had been a society of men and women in which the women were not under the control of the men, something might have been positively known about the mental and moral differences which may be inherent in the nature of each. What is now called the nature of women is an eminently artificial thing — the result of forced repression in some directions, unnatural stimulation in others. It may be asserted without scruple, that no other class of dependents have had their character so entirely distorted from its natural proportions by their relation with their masters…” -John Stuart Mill

  • jemand

    of course we don’t want to fight reality. But the reality TODAY, is that sexist society shapes the development of boys and girls, and muddies up most results of these types of studies, TODAY.

    WHEN we remove sexism, THEN we can get clean signatures in the data and see what differences, if any, actually are inherently biological. To try to do this now, to latch onto the muddled results confused by today’s inherent social sexism and start jumping to “women are more emotional and less rational” is perpetuating the culture in which you WON’T get good scientific results. You’re poisoning the research by doing that.

    (note, general “you”, I’m not addressing any commenter in particular)

  • As far as arguments against religion go, “It’s what all the rational men are doing” is pretty sucky. In fact, from what I’ve heard, it’s not that men are more rational than women or vice versa, but that men and women tend to gravitate to different kinds of strange beliefs. Creationism, conspiracy theories, and UFOlogy, for instance, are biased towards men. Just imagine if we started arguing against UFOlogy based on the fact that it’s male-dominated. That would be silly and offensive!

    “Religion oppresses women” is a much better argument against religion, though obviously it doesn’t apply to the Emergent church.

  • Polly

    Ian said:

    I think it is sometimes too easy for evolutionary ethologists to tell just-so stories about how behavior came to be, without due rigour.

    Couldn’t agree more.

    Let’s ask a different question: What’s the big deal about behaving rationally, anyway? Seems to me the success of both, individuals and the species at large has much more to do with irrationality – envy, vanity, unjustified confidence, and greed – than logic.

  • I say this study is bullshit and NOT science and for a good reason: You can’t distinguish what is cultural conditioning from a true biological difference. We have no way to do that and so until we do any study like this is inherently flawed and the results can’t be trusted.

  • Jeff Satterley

    Being emotional and social does not imply being less rational. Its a non-sequitur; as if being a Vulcan is the pinnacle of rationality.

    Responding to your and others emotions, which are naturally occuring and evolved, is a rational thing to do. Not taking others’ emotions into account when you make a decision doesn’t make you more rational. They occur, and should be factored in to decisions about dealing with people.

  • jemand

    Noadi, it is possible to do a cross national study comparing both measures of women’s equality in a society, and achievement of girls on various tests of skill. The one I saw that did this focused on math scores, and as equality increased, both boys and girls scored better, but the girls scores increased more rapidly, to the point that they were equal to the scores of boys in the most equal countries.

    The fact that most studies looking for different aptitudes between men and women DON’T do this doesn’t just mean bad science, it’s also politically motivated science to maintain the status quo.

  • littlejohn

    This is a bit like the whole nasty and very uncomfortable discussions a few brave souls are willing to have about why some racial groups, on average, score higher on IQ tests. That the differences exist is indisputable. Speculation as to why only gets you into trouble. There’s also the implicit assumption that atheists make that religious belief is the opposite of being rational. I believe it, but most religious people probably would dispute it. Of course, they’re stupid… (I kid! I kid!)

  • J. Allen

    We know that more women are emotional in our society, but I guess the big question is how much is that genes and hormones and how much is that cultural upbringing.

    I’m not opposed to discussing this difference, so long as we understand that this is a general trend. There are many unemotional women and many overly emotional men.

    Maybe if we discover what chemicals in the brain illicit this behavior we can make better deductions about how and why they become present.

  • Chris

    There are psychological and biological differences between the sexes. To pretend otherwise is idiotic. It’s debatable whether certain things are socially constructed or bio/psychological – but even socially constructed things have their roots somewhere in psychology.

    I understand feminists attempting to change the stereotype of women so they can be treated more fairly – sexism is a reality. Maybe, in that narrow goal, this article is negative as people who aren’t smart could read it and enforce those stereotypes even more. But science and reality don’t give a shit about your agenda, nor should they. There was an interesting finding – women, statistically, are more religious than men. Then things were proposed to try and explain it.

    If you replaced women with “horses” in that article (and pretend it still makes sense), it suddenly isn’t offensive. Science SHOULD examine even the uncomfortable truths – but this one shouldn’t even be uncomfortable unless you’re an idiot. No one is saying a woman can’t be more rational than a man. Just that on AVERAGE women think DIFFERENTLY from men, and perhaps this predisposes them to be less rational.

    Women are biologically different from men. This is a plain as day FACT. It shouldn’t be “off the table” as a scientific explanation of a difference between sexes just because it offends someone.

  • Adele

    I’m liable to mistrust any blanket statements about what ‘women’ and ‘men’ are, just on the basis that you can’t have a control group without culture and I assume the authors of the study didn’t measure the religiosity of all women and all men from every religion, culture and time period. Having not read the study, I assume the actual ‘facts’ coming from it are that more women than men out of the sample (predominantly Christian, Western, I assume) studied were religious. Without cross-cultural comparison, we can’t make any statements about innate qualities. They would not be based in the science.

    It only sounds inflammatory when people twist the data to say things that it doesn’t actually say. Before we talk about rationality, emotions and everything else, I’d like to see the data that links them to the findings in this study.

  • If horses had culture that defined much of their behavior then it would still be BS even if we didn’t find it offensive. That study is drawing conclusions from behavior that is culturally influenced with no apparent attempt to mitigate that influence.

    I don’t deny there are biological differences between men and women just that studies like this are so flawed as to be useless. You are making the same flawed judgment that those doing this study did: that our biology completely matches up with our culture. Even a cursory cultural anthropology class would show that such assumptions are incredibly naive.

  • Tizzle

    One of the problems with the generalizations here is that they leave out the individual experience.

    What do I care if “most” women are “more” religious, if I am not? I am very rational, don’t make decisions based on emotions, studying to be an engineer, an atheist, love math, etc… all things supposedly male-oriented. Does the fact that I am gay come in anywhere? Do I simply have more testosterone than the “average” female? How would that relate to my sisters, whom also tend towards male-type activities/proclivities, but are straight?

    So what do these studies mean to society as a whole? Does it mean I’m supposed to conform to what I “should” be as a woman? The studies promoting differences between the sexes, true or not, unbiased or not, have no relevance to my life, and taken the wrong way politically and culturally could do me harm. That has happened to some extent throughout history, or we wouldn’t have sexism. Which is not to say we can’t study the differences, but to what end?

  • Guffey

    Who gets to decide what is “rationality” is? …*generally speaking*… men. So, if men get to decide what is rational, and women don’t make the same decisions, women are irrational.

    Perhaps evolutionarily women have developed to think differently than men due to child protection or whatever, but it doesn’t make that thought process less rational. It might be incredible logical given the input data. If religion appears to give safety and a woman knows that her child needs safety it is perfectly logical and “rational” to be religious. duh.

    The idea that, in general, men/women think differently, big deal… assigning one of them to be rational and the other irrational, BIG problem.

  • Kaylya

    The headlines will say “Women are more religious than men”. Some people will interpret that as something close to “All women are more religious than all men”, when what’s really meant is “On average, women are slightly but significantly more religious than men”.

    There are differences between the sexes. Everyone knows that men tend to be taller than women; at the same time, I’m sure everyone can think of a man they know who is shorter than a woman they know.

    Responding to a study that draws similar conclusions about a more mental aspect by saying that it’s condescending towards women is just plain ignorant. No matter how much you would like to believe that the two sexes are identical in every way except for our sex organs, we just aren’t.

    Female Olympic level runners may be slower than male Olympic level runners, but they’re still faster than 99.9% or more of males.

    The same applies to differences between races.

  • I think women can be as rational and logical as they want to be. There are quite accomplished female mathematicians for example. Perhaps all the study suggests is that there is more to life than being rational and logical and many women (for cultural reasons and possibly genetic reasons as well) tend to show more attention to those other aspects of life than males.

  • My theory on why women tend to believe more often than men has nothing to do with rational versus irrational and more to do with women being people pleasers. Religious education often starts early in the home from parents. Many kids I know learn to “pray” before they can even feed themselves. As they grow older, girls may doubt their religion, but are more inclined to follow it through for the sake of their parents where as boys have a willingness to rebel and step out of the familial norm.

  • muggle


    “women are more religious than men because they are evolutionarily, biologically, or psychologically conditioned to be more emotional or social and therefore less rational than men.”

    Gotta say I’ve got to resent this blanket statement. I’ve also got to say that point A in the above statement does not necessarily lead to point B.

    I’m pretty high strung. I like to spin myself as passionate. I am passionate about life and have an opinion on everything (in case you didn’t notice). Is this because I’m a woman, don’t know. I do know that being someone (and there certainly are men who are too) who is highly emotional, doesn’t mean you can’t think rationally and skeptically. I call bull on that.

    The new breed of male chauvinist pig: declares there are differences between men and women (no, duh!) but all that means is our differing roles should be of equal value. Somehow this seems to imply I should be a good little girl and accept what they mean is my role as a woman. The thing that amazes me most about the new breed of male chauvinist pig is that they are invariably the ones who cry the loudest at preceived inequities in family court towards men in things such as child support and custody.

    I say you can’t have your cake and eat it too. If women are invariably different from you (biologically or whatever spin you want to put on it), then the courts are right to favor them in custody matters. After all, we’re the nurturers and you’re the risk takers? Right? Hmmm?

    We’ve come so far from traditional roles, these blanket assumptions, whether they be about men (I certainly know men who are braver than me and also know men who are bigger cowards than I am) or women.

    BTW, thank you Siamang, for that bit above. It beautifully shoots down that silly notion better than a year’s worth of arguing.

  • Claudia

    OK, I’m going list because otherwise I’ll end up writing a book here:
    1. This can be true. The fact that it may make us uncomfortable or that it is not PC has no bearing on it’s truth. Studies about differential intelligences of different races are similarly loaded.
    2. I would have to see the studies themselves to see methodologies and also conclusions in order to say if I found them credible.
    3. I sincerely doubt that the people conducting the studies said “women are less rational”. Scientific language is a lot less definitive and a hell of a lot more technical than that.
    4. Studies of social phenomena are statistical by their very nature. When you read “women” or “men” you should think (a bell-curve distribution of women vs. a partially overlapping distribution of men). Hence saying “Well I’m a woman and I don’t fit that at all” or “I’m a woman and I fit perfectly” is not particularly relevant.
    5. Women are different in social and emotional ways from men (statistically, remember!). However I think it’s a big leap to say this makes them irrational. What could be true is that they are more driven by social approval and consideration of community. Hence, women could be less likely, at the current time, to leave religion because religion is so tied up in their community and family. One of the reasons I find humanism so important is that we need to offer communities to people for whom the emotional comfort of a religious community makes any consideration of skepticism a non-starter.

    I’d be interested to see whether the proportions of male to female atheists maintains itself in countries with larger proportions of atheists. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if places with more atheists and a greater social acceptance of atheists had a lesser gender disparity in the population.

  • Nancy

    As a woman, I have no problem with that conclusion. As another poster said, reality can be uncomfortable. I think women do tend to be more emotional but that doesn’t mean we can’t be logical as well. I’m more logical and rational than most men I encounter yet I could see how the research still holds up.

  • andrew

    Emotions can be rational…and they can also be irrational. There needs to be studies connecting the two…are there any?

  • Thoughts from a feminazi: How can we know how much of the female religiosity is biological and how much is sociological in a society full of religious misogyny? The answer is, we can’t. The essential problem is that there is no way to completely remove women from their past social influences to study them. We can try to adjust for it, but we must understand that any and all studies are only the best we can do right now. Once we are all born and raised in a society where men and women are respected equally, then we’ll be able to take a deeper look at the hard science.

  • Just to clarify, the DoubleX article by Lauren Sandler mentions several “studies”. The first is one that simply confirms that women tend to be more religious than men. Sandler then asks why this is, and goes on to correlate it with several other studies endorsed by various “New Atheists” that seem to indicate that women are influenced by supposedly “irrational” factors more than men are. Thus it seems to me that Sandler starts with two basic premises, 1) that women are more religious than men, and 2) that to be religious is inherently irrational, which then leads to the conclusion that women must therefore be less rational than men. It seems to me that the studies mentioned are thus a post-hoc attempt to explain this predetermined conclusion.

  • CatBallou

    I would like to second (third? fourth?) the comments about the impossibility of accurately determining the cause of differences between the behavior of men and women in our current social structure. Occam’s razor would suggest that the easiest explanation for women’s greater religiosity—the force that we can see every day in almost every culture—is socialization, not evolution.

    When I read the article by Lauren Sandler, I was struck by the assertion by a Pew researcher that the discrepancy between men and women’s religiosity is found even in “prehistory.” I sincerely doubt that there could be any such conclusive studies. Certainly there aren’t surveys!
    But what really disturbs me about some of the comments here is the glib use of the words “emotional” and “rational.” What scale are we using to measure either? It’s been my experience that men are much more likely to express anger than women are, yet they rarely view that as being emotional. It’s only the “softer” emotions that are denigrated. Unless it’s a woman expressing anger, and then she’s definitely irrational. As long as the behavior of men sets the standard for these terms, any deviation by women will be considered substandard.
    As for rationality, since when have the behaviors of all these male-led religions been rational? Self-serving, maybe, but far from reasonable. I guess that’s an important distinction.

    Also, there is no strong evidence that prehistoric women were more likely to depend on community than men were—that’s strictly a “just-so” story. However, historically, women have faced far harsher penalties for nonconformity, while church attendance has been mandatory for all practical purposes.

  • Miko

    Since we’re talking statistics, even if the result is true, it’s no reason to “denigrate and restrict women” (or men, for that matter).

    Also, there’s a shift in meaning of the word “rational” going on. Without actually reading the studies, I’d imagine that the evolutionary angle is looking at the general tendency of women to forge stronger social relations (as a means of ensuring that their mate doesn’t abandon them), which can be expressed in many ways including passivity and a willingness to accept the dominant social conditions unquestioningly. Thus, the subset of the subset of women described by these conditions wouldn’t be so much irrational as arational, as they are choosing not to question the status quo.

    Compare this to the proposition “Rational people are atheists.” In this case, the arguer is suggesting that the use of rationality leads to atheism (and by contraposition, that theists are irrational). As such, if we assume the truth of this proposition, women of the type described above (assuming that they exist in statistically significant numbers) are not choosing to be theists based on irrationality in the sense of the proposition but rather since they are refusing to engage it and instead accepting the dominant conclusion. Thus, if the majority of people became atheists, the evolutionary argument suggests that these women would become atheists as well, without experiencing any change in the methods they use to evaluate evidence.

    I have no opinion on whether the study is correct or incorrect, and I really don’t care. Group-based studies are almost always worthless since their conclusions are rarely applicable to individual members of those groups. (“Almost always” as it is worthwhile to use genetic groupings to assess a priori risk of certain diseases, so as to better allocate limited testing resources.)

  • totally sexist

  • Like someone upthread said, there is a difference between the sexes being different and one being better than the other. Saying that women are different is either factual or not, but saying that they are less rational is a value judgment. A sexist value judgment. Also, I agree with Siamang, if women were really more religious, then why are all the major religions structured around males?

    Not only that, but a lot of study has gone into biological brain structures of males and females. Most of those studies find no significant difference. Social conditioning is likely more to be the cause behind any real difference between the sexes than innate biological functioning.

  • thilina

    Sexism (as well as racism, etc. ) is about having equal rights. I don’t see how putting forward a theory that women have different thought pattern to men is sexism – it doesn’t take anything away from women, it just suggests that we can be different.

    It’s really no different than saying men are better at physical sports than women. people need to stop cowering behind political correctness and being offended every time someone suggests something they don’t want to agree with.

    And given the total sausage-fest that is atheism, i’m inclined to agree with Dawkins and Shermer regarding most cultures (but not all).

  • Haley

    A main question the article seems to be asking is why do women participate in religion knowing its history of oppression and their biblical roles as submissive? Shermer ‘s opinion attributes this to women simply being less rational than men. But you can extract a larger argument from this article, which is “why do people actively engage in a system that oppresses or subjugates them?” Both women and men throughout history have/do participate in systems (political, societal) which require some loss of autonomy. Therefore, I don’t think this ‘phenomenon’ of self-submission is gender specific.

  • Voodoo Chile

    These were all very good reads. I found the response by Jessica Glaser to be nonsensical and not even close to being on target. I’m sorry if the actual state of the word offends her, but it doesn’t change anything.

    Hemant, similar to any studies on the differences between the sexes when it comes to religion, are you aware of any similar studies when it comes to belief in science?

    I’m 30 years old. I grew up in a generation where women did not have obstacles to pursuing a scientific education. But when I went off into University to study Math, Physics, and Engineering, there were fewer than 10% females in any of my classes. However, my observation is that there were a much higher percentage of women in chemistry and biology.

    So to me it has always been interesting that given absolute freedom to choose their education, that very few women seem to be picking science. And if they do pick science, they pick chemistry and biology far more often than physics or math (if you consider math a science).

    These of course are all based on my own personal experience of course, which is why I’m wondering if there are any official studies that you’re aware of.

  • David

    Seems like a great example showing evidence of the first paper. She automatically and emotionally derides the scientific article, using bad arguments that anyone not emotionally involved would never use. Thank you for proving their case, Jessica. Apparently reality has a sexist bias.

  • sailor

    Women that get oppressed at many levels by the church and stay in it, are nuts. As are those that stay in abusive relationships. There may even be a connection between the two having to do with confidence.

    Having said that, there is not one iota of evidence that there is any genetic reason for this. Our culture treats men and women very differently and this is far more likely to be the reason. This is purely untestable speculation and a waste of time at this point.

  • thatguy

    I am all for not censoring scientific findings based on someone’s feeling but this is not science. This is evolutionary psychology.

  • CybrgnX

    At one point I would have said this is true. But my wife and daughter break the mold. They are both brilliant, can out shoot most men, not religious, and only emotional AFTER the stress situation is cleared up.
    But If you watch lots of TV/movies they mostly portray woman in the way stated in the article. Although I prefer the strong-Kickass type most women are not portrayed that way. I know that movies like religion is not reality but these do program people to be that way.

  • muggle

    Is it really such a sausage fest? I doubt it.

    Look at this blog. It and others I participate on seem to be pretty evenly split between male and female participants.

    Sure Dawkins and Hitchens are getting all the attention now but women have been in the Atheist limelight too. Rand and Murray-O’Hair, to name just a couple, had any less influence? C’mon, get real. They paved the way for Dawkins and Hitchens.

    Hemant you belong to FFRF, don’t you? A woman recently stepped down as president to hand over the reins to her daughter and son-in-law as co-presidents.

    I’m really having trouble believing it isn’t fairly even. Where are they getting these stats?

  • It doesn’t matter if it is true or false, it doesn’t stop it being unhelpful.

    Really? Because I’ve always heard that facts are useful in making informed judgments.

  • AlexMagd

    “I am all for not censoring scientific findings based on someone’s feeling but this is not science. This is evolutionary psychology.”


  • Carlie

    I’ve always thought it was glaringly obvious that women are more religious because society has made them the ones responsible for the religious upbringing of the family. If kids don’t go to church, the mother is blamed (not the dad, he works all week and needs to rest on Sundays!) It’s just like how if the house isn’t clean, the mother is blamed, no matter how many able-bodied adults live in the house.

  • Aj

    A hypothesis can’t be condescending, please look up those words. In translation, I think what she is trying to say is that she wouldn’t want the hypothesis to be true. And even if it was true, she would deny that it was because people use reality to make judgements. Christians have denied reality before, some continue to do so, and they will in the future. Many of those that call themselves post modernists take truth relative stances when they disagree with reality as a disingenuous way to disregard it.

    It’s disturbing that she mentions the colour and sex of people as if it invalidates what they say. That’s certainly not feminism. I’d be interested to know whether people really say to her that she shouldn’t have irrational beliefs because men don’t. I’d be surprised if people actually say to her that she “must be oppressed” because there’s no “liberal religion”.

    All she can say is that they’re “terribly reductionist”, and reminds her of pseudo-science about women because of the consequences it might have. The consequences or whether it reminds you of pseudo-science doesn’t matter, it only matters whether it can be tested, and that there’s evidence to support it. It would be nice for an actual argument why any specific claim made is a too greedy kind of reductionism. Multiple articles including many claims were made, to dismiss them all with two words seems incredible flippant.

    The “emerging” part must be in reference to the shit emerging every time they have something to say.

  • LKL

    There are some rather annoying comments, but I have to say that the general tone isn’t as sexist here as I’ve encountered on some other skeptic/atheist sites. Kudos to Hemant for attracting a more logical audience.

    That said, let’s take the reasoning that the article starts with and apply it to some other groups. African Americans are more religious than whites; does this mean that African Americans are less rational than whites? Personally, I don’t think so; from what I’ve heard, the pressures against coming out atheist are much stronger in African American communities than in white communities. Given that women are likely to be labeled ‘bitches’ for displaying unsocial behavior that men would get a free pass on, maybe social pressures are part of what keep women from leaving the religious communities that they grew up in.

    As someone above said, men are vastly more likely than women to believe in UFOs, bigfoot, and conspiracy theories. Does this mean that men are vastly less rational than women? Or is it somehow more rational to believe that the president of the United States orchestrated the deaths of 3K citizens than it is to believe in human parthenogenesis (of a male offspring, no less)? Is it more rational to believe that the vast majority of climate scientists are in some sort of conspiracy with the environmentalists to fabricate global warming evidence than it is to believe that the Catholic church is, on balance, a force for good?

    Maybe there are some biological differences that make women resort to religion more than men, and men resort to conspiracy theories more than women, but there are a hell of a lot of confounding factors that haven’t been controlled for here.

    Guys, please avoid jumping to the conclusion that you’re intrinsically better (‘more rational’) than half of the human population because of your gender – at least until we get some better evidence.

    Lastly, let’s look at the consequences of this argument: where does the conclusion that women are naturally more religious than men (and naturally ‘less rational’ than men) leave the women here who are atheists? As aberrations of their own gender? Are female atheists supposed to accept second chair to male atheists because, even though they’re both atheists, the male ones are inherently ‘more rational’ than the female ones? Or are female atheists somehow the ‘extra rational’ outliers who have struggled to atheism against longer odds than the male atheists have?

  • Aj

    The word rational appears once in the XX article, and not at all in the “Suicide Girl” article. Religious beliefs are irrational beliefs, and two studies referenced in the article suggest that women are different to men for these specific types of beliefs. One article referenced suggests as a hypothesis that this could be biological in nature, pressure to conform being greater for reproductive success in females. None of the articles goes into which sex is “more rational” over the other. Males might be far more likely to have irrational beliefs that would work against conformity. What people are painting the article as, especially the ignorant “emerging” “Christian” is a damned lie.

  • Hannah

    I just saw this. I have to comment.

    *Sigh. Atheists pride ourselves on being skeptical. But as this discussion shows, we are also prone to accepting uncritically things that fit with our pre-existing beliefs. Disappointing.

    The whole discussion has been so absurd – most people have been saying that, yes, there are differences between the sexes, and to ignore them in the name of being PC is stupid/ patronizing/ whatever. Okay, fine. The same point was made 50 times – with NO discussion of whether *this* particular supposed difference exists. I read the article and was completely unimpressed with the way the write seemed to conclude that, just because slightly more men in the U.S. identify themselves as being unaffiliated with any religion, this must mean that women are more religious. Ummm… why? There could be any number of explanations for the statistical difference. For example, we know that some in the “Nones” group have religious belief but do not like organized religion. As other commenters have pointed out, women are still a socially devalued group, and religion is often a tool for gaining social advantage on the part of devalued groups. They may be more willing to identify with an established group due to their lower social position.

    Also, the article ONLY mentions the U.S. – except to say that women in Europe are not religious, as a side note. Is the U.S. the only place in the world that matters? Ugh. The article also treated the situation far out of proportion to what the numbers suggest. Even if we ONLY look at the U.S., the strong majority of men are religious! How can we start making claims about women’s supposed lack of rationality due to their (unproven) (slightly) greater religiosity when most women AND most men are religious in the U.S.? (And when most people of both sexes are NOT religious in European countries?)

    The bottom line is, people of all stripes, including atheists, are far too eager to latch on to ideas we find appealing, such as that women are less rational than men. I completely agree that women and men are biologically different in evolutionarily predictable ways. But that does not mean that every difference someone suggests fits with reality. This one certainly does not seem to hold water.

    And finally, I’m sorry but, as a strongly atheist woman, I TOTALLY resent the idea that women are more “emotional” somehow (a concept that never seems to be defined) and that this keeps us from thinking logically. If you think that, go join the fundies. Seriously.

  • Melissa D.

    I agree with Hannah and ColinSFX. Namely, that 1) religion is common among oppressed and poor people, and white women are still paid 70 cents to every white man’s dollar today, not to mention the SEXISM that we face in our jobs, at school, etc. 2) People, even “logical rational atheists” are strangely inclined to latch onto easy, broad labels like “Women are more emotional and less rational.”

    As a woman, as a scientist, and an atheist I’m exceedingly disappointed to see, once again, a bunch of guys sitting around saying, “Well SURE there’re biological differences…guess that means women are more emotional!” It sounds no different than the arguments I’ve heard from Christians on why woman should be silent in church and cover their head, and why they’re not allowed to be priests. Seriously? Allow me to offer you the following:

    -A business man is aggressive, a businesswoman is pushy.
    -He’s careful about the details, she’s picky.
    -He follows through, she doesn’t know when to quit.
    -He’s firm, she’s stubborn.
    -He makes judgments, she reveals her prejudices.
    -He’s a man of the world, she’s “been around.”
    -He exercises authority, she’s bossy.
    -He’s discreet, she’s secretive.
    -He says what he thinks, she’s opinionated.

    So who’s more emotional here? Or is it just how we use language to describe men vs. women in the same situation–she’s hysterical, he’s angry. I’ve seen a lot of MACHO, tough, gun-toting, I’m a big-tough-American-man men who were down-right hysterical. But no one every says men are hysterical. WOMEN get hysterical. It’s ’cause of the uterus, ya know?

    I’m not saying we should totally disregard differences between the sexes. For example, I have a uterus, and I invest far more (physically, chronologically) in pregnancy than men. Which means I get a bigger say in how, when and if said pregnancy happens. But said biological differences do not NECESSARILY extend to the brain. In fact, almost every study that I’ve read about the biological differences between the brains of men and the brains of women say it’s either negligible or can be completely attributed to culture. For example, in one study (and I’ll have to go find it because I bookmarked it somewhere) scientists looked at cultures where reading was considered a masculine subject and math was considered a feminine one. Surprise, surprise, men in said culture far outperformed women in reading, and women far outperformed men in math.

    Frankly, I’m tired of having to explain this to every educated male I come across who thinks he’s so well informed about women. Seriously, one article does not equal doing your homework on the subject. In fact, in 2009, I can’t believe I even have to make the point that women are a different sex than men, not a different SPECIES, and differences, if ANY, are NEGLIGIBLE, or can easily be attributed to other sources of influence. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to crying over my contour integrals and my non-Euclidean geometry and try to find my wandering uterus.

  • Melissa D.

    Okay, I was going to leave it with that last sarcastic remark, and then I read Voodoo Chile’s comment on women in science.

    “I’m 30 years old. I grew up in a generation where women did not have obstacles to pursuing a scientific education. But when I went off into University to study Math, Physics, and Engineering, there were fewer than 10% females in any of my classes. However, my observation is that there were a much higher percentage of women in chemistry and biology:

    “So to me it has always been interesting that given absolute freedom to choose their education, that very few women seem to be picking science. And if they do pick science, they pick chemistry and biology far more often than physics or math (if you consider math a science).”-Voodoo Chile

    First I have to ask–how do you know there were no obstacles to women in science when you grew up? What do you base that off? Because I can assure you that such obstacles still exist today. Ask any female physics graduate student, and she will tell you that women are not welcomed when they are hired. I know of one woman who told me that her department was recently informed by the NSF that if they didn’t hire more women, they’d lose their grants. So they hired a woman. And no one respected her, or would talk or collaborate with her, because they believed she wasn’t hired on “merit,” she was hired because another vagina was needed to walk their halls so they could keep their money. She was completely shut out from her colleagues. I would say that’s a definite obstacle.

    Secondly, as outlined in this very interesting, though highly speculative article [], science isn’t a great career. In fact, adjusted for IQ and education requirements, science jobs are some of the lowest paid in the nation. Which begs the question, who’d be dumb enough to take such a career? I’ll let you read the article, but it makes some pretty interesting points about why women don’t pick physics or math as often.

    Lastly, I was both a physics and molecular biology major, and I can tell you why most of the women in my physics classes dropped out. 1) We did our research and knew that jobs in physics were scarce and paid crap. Almost all of my girlfriends who did physics and graduated and went to grad school got done and were completely unable to find jobs–most of them learned chemistry so they could find work, (for example, in wineries). 2) Faculty positions were scarce, and also paid crap. 3) You spend much of your career locked in an office writing code or typing up papers, which is boring. 4) Physicists are generally unfriendly. The only friendly ones I met in all my six years were women. 5) There’s a lot of sexism. I’ve had several friends complain to me about their professors belittling them, then later using their ideas and claiming them as their own. I’ve also had many if not most of my female colleagues in physics tell stories of sexual harassment and blatant staring. One girlfriend of mine walked into her professor’s office to ask a question, and all he did was stare at her, blatantly up and down, for a solid 30 seconds before responding. I would consider such things obstacles, to say the least.

    As for biology, it pays better. I could become a nurse anesthesiologist and make 200k a year easy, or I could work as physics researcher and make 50k, struggling to make tenure. Also, the fields of biology and chemistry are exploding. There’s tons of opportunities and money and research available for the taking. With physics, the best you can hope for is to work for the government (NASA or the Department of Energy) or a few small private companies.

    The so-called “hard” sciences like math and physics aren’t difficult to break into because women don’t have the brains (while women made up about 7% of my class, they were often top-scorers on tests) but because the odds are stacked against us. I ultimately picked a career in molecular biology not because I was any better at biology than I was at math or physics (I rocked them all, I can honestly say), but because the career opportunities were numerous and more reasonable and inviting. It’s not about brains, my friends, it’s about choices.

  • Aj


    The whole discussion has been so absurd – most people have been saying that, yes, there are differences between the sexes, and to ignore them in the name of being PC is stupid/ patronizing/ whatever. Okay, fine. The same point was made 50 times – with NO discussion of whether *this* particular supposed difference exists.

    We were asked to consider a response to the article that was one big appeal to ignoring a hypothesis on the grounds that someone doesn’t like the consequences. Some in the comments also took this approach. I don’t think you understand why or how much this upsets people. Perhaps there is no discussion because no one had objections to the statistics.

    There could be any number of explanations for the statistical difference. For example, we know that some in the “Nones” group have religious belief but do not like organized religion.

    If your explanation for the difference was true then you would expect more males that are religious but unaffiliated with religion. In the pew forum survey referred to in the article the reverse is true, females are less likely to call themselves atheist, agnostic, secular unaffiliated, but more likely to call themselves religious unaffiliated.

    How can we start making claims about women’s supposed lack of rationality due to their (unproven) (slightly) greater religiosity when most women AND most men are religious in the U.S.? (And when most people of both sexes are NOT religious in European countries?)

    The article does not make such claims, and the articles it links to also do not. They’re really not at all as controversial as people are suggesting. Most of the criticism against the article are straight forward lies.

  • Sorry if this has been said….I only had a couple of minutes and not enough time to read all the comments….but in case it hasn’t, I was just going to point out that it seems odd to point out that women are “more likely to be religious” (assuming that’s true) as though the information is really helpful, considering that *most* major religions are run by men, and in a particularly sexist fashion at that (orthodox Christianity/Judaism/Islam, anyone?).

    I mean, even if women are/were more likely to be religious/superstitious, I still don’t think that would change the way I feel about anything when I consider the fact that there are just as many *men* waiting there in positions of priesthood and religious authority to take advantage of that kind of belief — whether it’s coming from a man or a woman.

  • Aj

    Discovery Channel News has an article about supernatural belief and the sexes:

    It may have something to do with hormone exposure in the womb, as the study found that foetuses exposed to different levels of hormones correlated with beliefs in the supernatural. These hormone levels are related to sex, so males exposed to levels typical of females had more, and females exposed to levels typical of males had less, strong beliefs about the supernatural.

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