Are Men More Likely to Be Secular Than Women? September 17, 2014

Are Men More Likely to Be Secular Than Women?

This is a guest post written by Phil Zuckerman. Zuckerman is a professor of sociology and secular studies at Pitzer College. His latest book, Living the Secular Life, will be published this December.

As many of you may be well aware, Sam Harrisrecently quoted comments concerning why most of his fans tend to be male set off some serious criticisms; Greta Christina’s condemnation of Harris was particularly stinging.

The issue of whether or not men tend to be more secular than women is clearly a hot-button issue; people can be easily outraged or offended by related insinuations, declarations, or interpretations when it comes to the proclivities of men and women to be more or less religious or secular. And women within the secular movement (or any movement) have a right to be hyper-vigilant when it comes to sexism, chauvinism, and any other manifestations of patriarchal malfeasance.

But just because this is a thorny and potentially offensive contention — that men may be more secular than women — doesn’t mean that we should avoid it. And it certainly doesn’t mean that it can’t be empirically supported or denied. Furthermore, if the data does indeed show a gender difference when it comes to religiosity/secularity, how do we then interpret or explain that difference? Our “spin” will make all the difference in the world.

Decades of Research

Let’s start with the data. Do countless studies consistently reveal a discernable difference between men and women when it comes to being secular or religious? The short answer is: yes. Now, that doesn’t mean that every study shows such a difference, or that the difference is always significant. Nor does it mean that the difference is discernable on every measure of religiosity/secularity — for example, orthodox Jewish men are more likely to regularly attend synagogue than orthodox Jewish women.

But when we take the existing corpus of sociological, psychological, and anthropological data together — from the past sixty years — there is clear empirical support for the claim that men are more likely to be secular than women. As Marta Trzebiatowska and Steve Bruce note in their book Why Are Women More Religious Than Men? (Oxford University Press, 2012), “since 1945 the Gallup polling organization has consistently found that, on every index used, American women are more religious than men, and not by small margins.”

Consider, for example, that according to the American Religious Identification Survey, men currently make up 58% of Americans who claim “no religion,” 70% of Americans who self-identify as atheist, and 75% of those who self identify as agnostic. Or consider the Pew Forum’s U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, which found that 86% of American women claim to be religiously-affiliated, but only 79% of American men claimed as much; 77% of women believe in God with absolute certainly, but only 65% of men do; 66% of women pray daily, but only 49% of men do; 63% of women say that religion is very important in their lives, but only 49% of men say as much; 44% of women attend religious services on a weekly basis, but only 34% of men do. The differences may or may not be significant — social science gets fuzzy here — but they are consistent. And for one final example, consider the fact that the Freedom From Religion Foundation reports that 79% of its members are men (see Melanie Brewster‘s essay “Atheism, Gender, and Sexuality” in the Oxford Handbook of Atheism, 2013, for further details).

In short, whatever measures one uses to assess religiosity — frequency of prayer, belief in God, church attendance, or self-identification — men in the United States are more likely to be secular-leaning than women, on average.

And the “on average” is key, folks. The above studies do not illustrate that all men are more secular than all women. It is just an average. A percentage.

OK, but are these averages and percentages universal? Do we find similar differences in other countries around the world?

The short answer is, again: yes.

Global Patterns

According to data analyzed by Ariela Keysar and Juhem Navarro-Rivera (see “A World of Atheism: Global Demographics” in the Oxford Handbook of Atheism, 2013), 77% of self-designated atheists in the Ukraine are male, 76% in Portugal, 70% in Uruguay, 67% in Japan, 65% in Israel, 65% in Mexico, 61% in Sweden, 60% in the Netherlands, and so on. True, there are some exceptions — for example, men make up only 47% of self-designated agnostics in Belgium. And only 48% of agnostics in Japan. But these are exceptions; the overall pattern of men being more atheist or agnostic than women the world over is clear and strong, leading these authors to conclude that “atheists, both positive and negative… are predominantly males” and “global comparisons reveal a wide spectrum of male dominance within the positive atheist sub-population.”

I could go on and on, and cite countless other studies and surveys — both national and international — that illustrate the same gendered pattern. But rather than trot these all out, I’ll let the words of professor Tiina Mahlamäki sum them all up:

“Statistics conducted in countries all over the world, for as long as statistics on religion have been collected, confirm that women are more religious than men. This concerns every dimension of religion. Women participate in religious ceremonies more often than men; women pray more often than men; they more likely than men believe in God, a Spirit, or Life Force; they hold matters of faith and religion more important than men do. Women are more committed than men to their religious communities and are less willing to resign from them. Although older women are more religious than young ones, women of all ages are more religious than coeval men are. Women are members of both traditional religious communities and new religious movements more often than men. Young, urban men are the least religious of all groups.”

(See her article “Religion and Atheism From a Gender Perspective” in Approaching Religion, 2012).

Of course, none of the above means that this gendered difference is fated and eternal. In 25 years, we could find different results. But for now, the data is clear and consistent: men are more likely to be secular than women.


But wait — what about that WIN-Gallup poll? True, that massive international survey from 2012 reports that, globally, the gender difference is actually non-existent. Indeed, according to their surprising data, 14% of women worldwide identify as convinced atheists, while only 12% of men worldwide do. And in terms of claiming to be non-religious, both genders are at 23%. Wow. That’s amazing. Fascinating. And it is an utter and complete exception to so many decades of similar research. It may very well be valid. But for now, it is such a major outlier — so much so, that until we have more studies and more data confirming these unique and exceptional findings, we should remain skeptical.


So how do we explain the vast body of research that reports that men, on average, tend to be more secular than women?

Here are some leading possibilities:

  • It could have to do with power and privilege, and the lack thereof. In most societies, men control more wealth than women and tend to have more political and social power than women. As such, women are more easily excluded, exploited, and discriminated against. Perhaps, as a result of this, they are more likely to turn to the consolation of religion.
  • It could have to do with agency, and the lack thereof; men generally have more freedom than women in most societies; they have a greater ability to decide what work to do, where to live, how to get and manage money, etc. In most societies, women are thus more vulnerable than men — financially, legally, domestically, etc. This could make the psychological comfort and institutional support of religion more appealing to women than men.
  • It could have to do with socialization: perhaps boys are socialized to be assertive, independent, and rebellious, while girls are socialized to acquiescent, relational, and obedient, which then manifests itself later in life with women being more open to religion than men.
  • It could have to do with the patterned roles for men and women in society; women tend to be expected to take up roles as caregivers and nurturers, raising children and tending to the sick and elderly, while men tend to be exempt from such roles; this again could make religion more appealing to women than men, for various reasons.
  • It could have to do with who traditionally works inside/outside the home. While men traditionally work outside the home, women the world over are more likely to work within the home, and this might make religious involvement more interesting and appealing to women; indeed, we know that women who work outside the home tend to be less religious than those who work within the home, and those nations with the highest rates of women working outside the home — for example, Scandinavia — tend to be among the most secular.
  • And finally, it could have something to do with innate differences between the sexes, be they genetic, neurological, physiological, or hormonal.

If I had to place a bet, I’d say it is a complex combination of all of the above, in varying degrees. And while, as a sociologist, I tend to emphasize social and cultural forces in explaining human behavior, I’m not going to totally, utterly discount or disregard biology outright. But how big of a role it plays in terms of men and women’s proclivities for religiosity and secularity, I can’t say.

And I’m not sure who can.

(Image via Shutterstock)

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